Are e-readers the way to go?

Remember when we didn’t need an “e” in front of “book” or “magazine” or had to distinguish between “digital” and “hard” copies? Our favourite reading materials didn’t require batteries, software updates and internet access.

However, technology has done more than swap paper and ink for bits of data: it’s opened up new ways to enjoy content. For people who shun the idea of spending more time on a computer or squinting at a smart phone screen, e-book readers (or e-readers, for short) offer a nice compromise. They’re roughly the size of a book — though much slimmer — and they can house hundreds of books, not to mention other digital content like newspapers and magazines. They’re ideal for people who are always on the go, and who have limited storage space.

Better yet, the content is easy to access. You don’t need to venture to the bookstore or wait for your order to arrive: simply shop online and download books either to your computer or directly to the device via a wireless or 3G connection. There’s plenty of free content as well, such as classic books — and ever-growing digital collections offered at libraries.

But look closer: the real advantage e-readers have over other electronic devices is their display — a technology known as “e-Ink”. Instead of reading a standard screen which can cause eyestrain, e-ink screens offer a softer, more natural display that mimics ink on paper, making it more comfortable for extended reading.

However, not everyone raves about e-readers. There’s a lot to love about books — not just the look and feel, but the experience of curling up with them, trading them and browsing the shelves for unexpected gems. Print materials offer a chance to unplug, and you don’t have to worry about malfunctions, updates or batteries running out. Besides, digital rights management (DRM) makes it difficult to loan or exchange electronic content, and you can’t donate books or buy them used.

What about the dangers for publishing companies and “traditional” reading habits? Some critics worry that electronic content will cheapen and eventually replace our beloved print materials, and that publishing companies and authors could lose their audience and their revenue. After all, we’ve already witnessed the ramifications of pirating and file sharing in the music industry.

However, it’s important not to confuse the future of reading with the future of publishing, notes author Margaret Atwood. Speaking at last year’s ideaCity conference in Toronto, Atwood says that e-readers will lead to a “rearrangement of how we consume books” rather than a decline of our reading habits. She sees no danger of people reading less. In fact, like many experts, she argues we’re reading more — just in different ways. E-reader sales certainly speak to their popularity, and tech-savvy generations (including the baby boomers) are finding new ways to engage.

What’s out there

If you’re eager to embrace this technology, the good news is there are more options, more features and more content available than ever before. Another bonus: thanks to increasing competition, prices on e-readers have cooled off significantly.

Unlike a book, e-readers aren’t universal. The devices are tied to the availability of content, which means that many models aren’t available outside of the U.S. and international shoppers can’t take full advantage of their capabilities due to international licensing agreements. Some of the options available in both Canada and the U.S. include:

Aluratek Libre 5″ Ebook Reader Pro ($99.99), which is available at most electronics stores.

Amazon Kindle ($139 USD) and Kindle DX ($379 USD). You won’t find them on the shelves in Canada, but Amazon will ship them our way. If you’re visiting the U.S., Target stores now carry them too.

– Astak has a line of products including the Mentor eBook Reading Device ($199.79)

– The latest generation of the Kobo eReader ($149) is available through the Chapters and Indigo family of stores.

– Sony offers a 5″ eBook Reader Pocket Edition ($199) or 6″ Reader Touch Edition ($249).

– Apple iPad ($549-$879). It’s not an e-reader per se, but e-reading is one of its many functions — plus you can install applications for Kindle and Kobo. While the price is pretty steep, some experts think the iPad (and its forthcoming competitors like Research in Motion’s PlayBook) may eventually overshadow dedicated e-readers because of its multimedia capabilities.

For our stateside audience, there are many more e-reader options, including FoxIt’s eSlick and Barnes and Noble’s Nook line, which now includes colour displays. (Wikipedia has a comparison of e-readers for more details.)

Before you buy…

Determine your needs and wants. There are a lot of options out there, so it often boils down to preference. For instance:

– What is the display like? Devices with more multimedia features (like the iPad) have screens similar to computers rather than e-ink technology. Colour is the latest feature available, though it hasn’t yet become widespread.

– How do you manipulate content? Do you prefer a touch screen or buttons to perform actions like searching for content, turning pages, etc. Most entry-level devices have buttons.

– What do you need it to do? Some devices are strictly for reading, while others include audio, video, web browser and countless software applications. E-readers aren’t meant to replace computers, so heavy word processing and programming are better left to a laptop.

– What applications and files are supported? Digital content comes in many forms such as PDF files and ePub files. If you’re using the device for work, you may also want to access office suite software files as well.

– Does it work with your other devices? For instance, Kindle and Kobo content will work on your computer and mobile devices (including the iPad) as well as on your e-reader. Some e-readers incorporate social media too.

– What other “extras” are you looking for? For instance, Kindle recently announced the ability to “lend” books to a fellow Kindle user for a limited period of time.

Consider content sources. Before you buy, look at how you can purchase and/or download content. Do you need a computer or wireless capabilities? Can you transfer or store the content to other devices? Are you limited to using one “store” for downloads? Different stores often mean different file formats, and they might not all be compatible with your new device.

Don’t worry — you won’t have to pay for everything. Check your store or service for free books, and see what your library has to offer. However, in order to take advantage of these services you may have to some e-book management software applications like Adobe Digital Additions or Calibre.

Read reviews. If you can talk to someone who owns an e-reader — and even have a chance to try it yourself — that’s great. If not, look online: everyone has an opinion, and you’ll find no shortage of product reviews from everyday users and experts alike. What do people like about the devices? More importantly, what were some of the issues that users experienced?

If you want to see the devices in action, check out video websites like or watch the product demonstrations through manufacturers’ websites.

Take a test drive. Which device is the best? It all boils down to personal preference, and specs can only tell you so much. Whenever possible, go to the store and try them out. Consider: is it easy to handle? Do you like the look and feel — especially the screen? Can you navigate the software and operating system without much fuss? Are the buttons/keyboard/touch screens easy to manage?

Factor in all the costs. The device is just one expense. How much will it cost to support your reading habits — like digital editions of magazines, newspapers and books? E-Books are often cheaper than their print equivalents, but don’t expect huge savings because you’re not buying paper. Digital magazines and newspapers may be comparable in price or more expensive than their print cousins.

Also, do you want a data plan to access the internet wherever you are? (If so, you may need to add another $35+ to your monthly budget.) What accessories do you need — like a protective carrying case, book light or DC adaptor? (Accessories can run $20-$80.) What about an extended warranty?

When in doubt, wait it out. Not sure what to buy? There’s no hurry. There will always be more features, more content and new advances. Prices on today’s hottest devices will continue to drop, even if no one is quite sure what the costs will be for digital content.

Will e-readers take over, or will they be a passing fad? As with any technology, it’s difficult to predict the outcomes — but they’re already changing how we read and how publishers provide content.

What do you think of e-readers? Tell us in the comments.

Photo © Rudyanto Wijaya

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