Choosing your first ereader

Ereading by warzauwynn on Flickr (CC-BY-NC)So you’ve decided that that many people can’t be wrong: it’s time to get an ereader. But which one? The industry of ereaders and other mobile devices is filled with big and small companies promising you the world, and you don’t trust half of it.

The cruel truth is that no one can tell you exactly what’s best for you. Everyone’s preferences are different. You simply have to figure it out for yourself, and this might be an expensive journey. That said, if you’re going to take the plunge, here’s my two cents’ worth. It might help you dodge a few bullets along the way.

An ereader is a device

EreaderFirst, you need to know that an ereader, ereading software, and an ebook are three different things. An ereader is a device designed specifically for reading ebooks. Sometimes they’re called ‘dedicated ereading devices’: they do one thing well, like a proper, dedicated camera versus the camera on your phone. Examples are this kind of Kindle, this Nook, or this Kobo Mini.

In most cases, they have e-ink screens: these look a lot like paper, only show greys, and can’t play video. The screens actually contain thousands of tiny dark-and-light capsules rearranging and settling in the shapes of letters and images. This means the screens don’t shine; so battery life is very long (days or weeks), and you may avoid the eye-strain some people get from the backlit screen on a tablet or smartphone. (I don’t have this problem with my tablet.)

Ereaders are simple, low-cost devices that run only the software they came with (with very few exceptions): a program to buy, download and read ebooks.

Most ereaders make you shop from the retailer that made them: on a Kindle, from Amazon; on a Nook, from Barnes & Noble; on a Kobo Mini, from Kobo. (Don’t get a generic ereader that lets you read ebooks from various retailers: the user experience is so horrible that I hope and expect they’ll disappear.)

Ereaders are not tablets or smartphones or computers. Tablets, smartphones and computers are multipurpose devices. In addition to playing video and games, checking email, and browsing the web, they can act a bit like ereaders, if they have ereading software installed.

Ereading software

eReading Dubliners by cogdog on Flickr (CC-BY)Ereading software is any program that opens an ebook. These programs are often called ‘ereading apps’ or just ‘ereaders’ (that confuses a lot of people). You should never have to pay for ereading software, the best stuff is all free. Ereader devices come with this software installed. And if you have a tablet or smartphone (especially an iPhone or an Android-based phone), you can get any number of ereading apps for it for free; some great and some terrible. The most popular are probably Kindle apps and iBooks (only for iPhones, iPods and iPads). Kobo apps are also very good (and quite beautiful).

The good software usually has an ebook shop built-in. This way, you shop and read all in the same place, seamlessly. When I’m busy reading in a Kindle app, I’m only seven clicks from reading a different book that I’ve not even bought yet. Some people say the downside of this is that you tend not to, or can’t, shop around. I say, even if you could shop around, for most books you’re only saving a dollar or two. Convenience is more important to me.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t try different apps and retailers – you should. But I promise you’ll settle on one based on superior customer experience, not on the average price of their ebooks.

A note on retailer terminology, which sometimes seems designed to overwhelm you:

  • Amazon = Kindle
  • Apple = iBooks
  • Barnes & Noble = Nook
  • Kobo = Kobo
  • Adobe = a mishmash of consumer-unfriendly confusion.

An ebook

Library Word Find Puzzle #2 by herzogbr on Flicker (CC-BY-NC-SA)An ebook, technically, is just a file made of text and images – it can’t do anything without being opened in an ereader. There are three ebook file formats worth knowing about: epub, mobi, and PDF. A given ereader or app will open two of these.

(Why only two, you cry? There is no sensible answer to that. Let’s just say the format wars ended that way.)

  • Amazon only sells mobi. (Geeks will argue this point, but they’ll know what I mean.)
  • Everyone else sells epub.
  • Lots of smaller retailers sell PDF, but Amazon and Apple do not (though their apps will open PDFs from your computer).

Mobi and epub are great for small screens, because the text reflows at whatever font size suits you. PDF is great for books with carefully-designed pages (like magazine spreads or complex arrangements of text boxes and graphics), but only on big screens.

Most importantly: you shouldn’t have to care. So I’ll stop about formats. (If you’re really curious, go here.)

DRM: Dreaded Restrictions Minefield 18 Sep 2010DRM actually stands for ‘digital-rights management’. DRM is any software that limits what you can do with a file: copy-pasting, sharing, printing, moving between devices, and so on. The idea is to stop you pirating, or at least to make piracy a hassle. Sadly, DRM makes buying stuff a hassle, too, so many folk think it’s bad for business.

What you need to know is this: when you buy a DRMed ebook, the retailer is sending you your epub, mobi or PDF in a lockbox. Only very specific software can open the lockbox and show you the ebook. If you don’t have the right software, and have it registered with the correct username and password, you can’t open the lockbox.

There are three kinds of ebook lockboxes: Kindle’s, Apple’s, and Adobe’s. No software will ever, ever be able to unlock more than one kind. You will need different ereaders or apps for each brand of lockbox.

Some apps and retailers do a pretty good job of making the lockbox seem invisible, as long as you always use their software. Kindle is the best example. iBooks isn’t bad. Anything associated with Adobe will, at some stage, give you nightmares. Sadly, everyone who isn’t Amazon or Apple is using Adobe. (If you’re curious or just fascinated with the technically macabre, read more here.)

Thankfully, some publishers and retailers are avoiding DRM. This means ebooks from them don’t come in a lockbox. You can do whatever you like with them – within the law of course: it’s still illegal to give a copy to a friend without paying the publisher for that new copy. The difference is that the publisher is giving you a better experience, in return for your word that you won’t be an asshole. Examples are O’Reilly and Samhain.

Ebooks as apps

Alice for the iPad by Atomic AntelopeJust when you thought you had it figured out. Till now, I’ve explained that – when using tablets or smartphones – you can:

  1. install ereader apps, and
  2. buy ebooks to read in them.

There’s also a hybrid of these to know about: ereading apps that contain only one book (or a specific, small collection of books). Here, instead of installing a free app to buy and read ebooks in, you pay for a single app that comes with a specific book preinstalled. These are only for tablets and smartphones, not dedicated e-ink ereaders.

When a publisher does this – creating an ‘ebook as an app’ – they can do some fancy stuff, because they’re designing software for one particular book. The results can be amazing, like Alice for the iPad (see this video of it in action) and Our Choice from Push Pop Press (here’s the founder demoing it at TED). The effects get pretty wild, to the point that these aren’t really ebooks at all, and are more like games (for examples, see Jamie Oliver’s apps).

What do you want to read?

Great Finds By the twinkling of an eye on Flickr (CC-BY-NC)Most people who buy an ereader want to read for leisure or personal development. It’s no accident that ereaders are great for this, and poor for educational or academic purposes. The ereader industry sells to private individuals who have their own money to spend on their own reading. In education and academia, money moves differently: the person doing the paying is not the person doing the reading. That simple distinction makes the world of difference to the business model. No one has figured out, yet, how best to sell ereaders and ebooks in education and academia.

So, if you’re buying for leisure or personal-development reading, you’re going to be fine. You will easily find most of the ebooks you want through any large brand’s ereader or app. I recommend Kindle – while I don’t like monopolies, the fact is that no one has matched Amazon for convenience or price yet. Kobo is getting close (despite some technical ties to Adobe’s awful DRM legacy). Some swear by Nook. Some with Apple devices like iBooks. I wouldn’t spend money with anyone other than these four for now. (I admire the work others are doing, some of whom have even been my clients; but they’re just not good enough yet.)

After all that, my top picks for your buying decision:

  • an e-ink Kindle device (of several options, I recommend the Kindle Keyboard 3G);
  • an iPad (with 3G if you can afford it, so that you can buy books anywhere, in the queue at the bank or on the tarmac in a plane), briefly trying the free Kindle, Kobo, Nook and iBooks apps to find your preference (you can buy free or very cheap books at first to check each one);
  • a Samsung Galaxy Tab (10″ for a big screen, or 7″ for portability), also briefly trying the free Kindle, Kobo, and Nook apps to find your preference.

If you already have a phone with a large screen (like the Samsung Galaxy SIII or even an iPhone), just use that. You’d be amazed at how readable ebooks are.

If you’re buying mainly for educational or academic use, go with a multipurpose tablet, like an iPad or a Galaxy Tab. (No other tablets impress me as much as these two, though this could change with every new release, and you may choose to sacrifice speed for a lower priced Android tablet.) Your sources of reading material are going to be far wider than any current ebook retailer offers, now or any time soon. So a tablet gives you the most options: a choice of retailers, web-based resources, and various ereading apps, most of which open DRM-free PDFs, too, which are very important in education and academia.

In our house, Michelle has a Kindle Keyboard 3G and loves it. She rarely needs to charge it, can toss it in her bag in its compact leather case, and it never distracts her with email or notifications while reading. I have a 7″ Samsung Galaxy Tab and am very happy. I use my Tab for email and a lot of website reading. And most importantly, with a backlit screen I can read with the lights off, long after Michelle has fallen asleep.


5 thoughts on “Choosing your first ereader

  1. Pingback: Choosing your first ereader « Readersforum's Blog

  2. Great summary, Arthur.

    I’ve been watching developments in e-ink ereaders for some time, and the new Kindle Paperwhite is the first that’s actually tempted me.

    On the other hand, using ereader software on my laptop the other day, I was horrified to find myself looking at an ebook with straight quotes, which just looks SO SO wrong to my typographically sensitive eyes – as does the terrible leading when text is fully justified.

    Do all ebooks have straight quotes and awful typography? This might well keep me tied to paper…

    • Thanks, David. In some ebooks, publishers try with varying levels of skill and success to pre-define nice typography, by including a CSS stylesheet in the ebook file. But the final typography that you see is determined much more by your ereading software than the ebook’s own stylesheet.

      What to do?

      Mine is a contentious position, but I believe it’s up to the big ereader software players to get the typography right, and ignore most publishers’ pre-defined typography/CSS. That way, big companies can put their deep pockets to high-end readability design, and reduce the incidence of typogricide. Readability is a dark art and expensive science, especially in a dynamic, reflowable-ebook environment.

      Unfortunately, most publishers hate that idea. They think they’re great at design and want their stylesheets followed. And software makers think users should have options, too – “Want to read this book is Comic Sans? Sure! Click here.” Erk. Tough love, I say.

  3. Pingback: Digital Minds Network | On choosing an ereader - Digital Minds Network

  4. Excellent article! Personally I prefer reading on my Samsung Galaxy phone & tablet. Not only can I read at night in the dark, without disturbing my husband, but when I fall asleep the device switches the screen off and “closes” itself (by falling onto the bed)! Not to mention how light it is compared to a “real” book… Real books are awkward, bulky things that do their utmost to try to close themselves – read one the other day and not impressed with it’s usability 🙂 I’m a total ebook convert.

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