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March 20, 2011

Sunday Book Thread: E-Readers

Every week during the book thread, there are always questions about how good the various E-Readers are and whether it makes sense to buy one. I decided to use today's book thread to discuss the pros and cons of the e-book reader I have (the Amazon Kindle). The same benefits and caveats probably apply to the Barnes and Noble Nook, Apple's iPad, the Sony Digital Reader, and others. And Google Books is now operating, a browser-based reader that works in any browser.

Be aware too that each e-reader has specific benefits and drawbacks that the others do not share. The B&N Nook Color, for example, is a color touchscreen device. (In fact, it can be "rooted" and turned into a generic Android-based tablet computer.) But it also has a significantly shorter battery-life than the non-color Kindle. Apple's iPad is sold as a general-purpose tablet computer, but Apple hosts their own online bookstore and both Amazon's Kindle software and B&N's Nook software can be run on the iPad as well.

In fact, this leads me to my first point: "e-readers" are software programs and network services first and foremost. They can (and do) run on all kinds of hardware devices, from cellphones all the way up to desktop computers. If you buy a book on the service, that book is usually available on whatever device you are running the software on. The book exists "in the cloud" and is pulled to the device in most cases. The Kindle reader, for example, is a special-purpose piece of hardware that runs the Kindle software (underneath, it's basically a Linux and Java-based computer).

So let's move on to the generalized pros and cons of "e-readers" as a class.

1. Convenience. If you read a lot, you probably have several books going at once, and it's inconvenient to carry them all around with you all the time. And big books can be unwieldy if you're standing in line, waiting for the bus, in the doctor's office, etc. E-Readers are small and light, making it easier to take them anywhere you go.

2. Capacity. E-Readers can store literally thousands of books in their local storage, and vastly more "in the cloud". Anyone who has a lot of paper-based books in their homes knows that this comes with drawbacks: the bulk, the dust, the silverfish and moths, and the mildew in damp weather. E-Readers are compact and take up no more room than a trade-paperback book.

3. Readability. Modern e-readers have adopted either "e-ink" screens (like the Kindle and original Nook) that looks like text on a printed page; or color touchscreens like that on the iPad and Nook2. In both cases the screens are of high quality and make reading text for long periods of time very comfortable. (Though I find the Kindle's monochrome "e-ink" technology easier on my eyes, especially when reading outdoors.)

4. Battery life (Kindle). The Kindle device can last for literally weeks on a single battery charge because the "e-ink" technology doesn't draw any power except during page-transitions. (The Nook and iPad have significantly shorter battery life; see in the "Cons".)

5. Instant gratification. Most of these devices allow you to buy books on the spot, from whereever you happen to be, either via 3G or wi-fi connection, and have the book delivered immediately to your device.

6. Other printed matter is available. It's not just books -- e-readers offer subscriptions to magazines, newspapers, blogs, and other kinds of reading material. It's a convenient way to keep up with your "reading life" all in one spot.

7. Self-publishing. E-Books are providing an easy way for many writers to self-publish, which is a boon to writers who work in small, niche, or specialized subjects.

8. There are lots of free books out there. If you like sci-fi, Baen books provides a whole bunch of their back catalog for free, and you can find public-domain books at places like Project Gutenberg.

1. E-readers are expensive. Amazon's base Kindle model comes in at $140 (wi-fi only), while the Nook color starts at $250 and Apple's iPad comes in at a cool $500. If you break or lose one of these units, it's more a more painful hit than losing a paperback.

2. E-Books are (comparatively) expensive. Many e-reader owners have been grousing about the costs from the e-reader vendors about the cost of books, especially new releases: the prices aren't much lower (if at all) than their paper-based variants. This is mainly due to the publishers and not the vendors -- the publishers of books, like those of newspapers, are finding it hard to compete in a low-cost digital environment. (Amazon sells many $0.99 books, and many authors are finding that they are making more money this way because they sell more books.)

3. Many e-books are protected with "Digital Rights Management" software (DRM). This means that when you buy an e-book, it is "locked" to your account. You cannot re-sell the book to someone else, you can't give it away, and you can't donate it to a library. You never "own" an e-book in the same way you "own" a paper book. (Many vendors are working on a way to allow "loaning" of digital books from one user to another, but there still is no standard for this kind of thing.)

4. Battery life (Nook and iPad). The color e-readers have the same battery limitations as other color touchscreen devices: they can only go about 8-10 hours on a charge.

5. Not appropriate for all kinds of books. For novels, biographies, histories, etc., e-readers work fine -- if the book is "read front-to-back", in other words. But for other kinds of books they're not as good: reference books, scholarly works, cookbooks, etc. The software interfaces are still evolving, but they're still very cumbersome for some kinds of written material. Also, the graphics on the Kindle are not good for things like photos and maps. (The iPad is probably the best of the modern devices in this regard, but the software still is lacking.)

6. Bad for web-browsing, music, e-mail. (Except the iPad.) The Kindle and Nook are meant to be used as book-reading devices. They provide interfaces for web-browsing, but the experience is cumbersome and slow. The iPad is a much better general-purpose device if you want to do other things besides read: it can also play movies and music. (The Nook and Kindle can play MP3 files, but this is mainly for audio books, not music.)

7. Immature technology. The e-reader marketplace at the moment is still highly fractured, and there is little interoperability between platforms. Think of it as the "beta vs VHS" period. It may be several years yet (if ever) before a standardized e-reader specification evolves.

So there you have it. Should you buy an e-reader? Many book-lovers see them as vanguards of a movement to kill off paper books, while others just don't feel that e-readers are "book-like" enough. The DRM and "cloud based" aspects of the technology bother a lot of property-rights people.

I've had a Kindle for a few years now (I got one of the very first ones Amazon sold), and I can say that it has transformed my reading habits. I find that I read much more now than I ever have before because it's easy to take my Kindle with me whereever I go. And because I usually have several books going at one time, it's a trivial matter to switch between them without having to cart five or six books with me all the time. But the DRM aspects of the technology do bother me a lot -- there is a lot of potential for censorship and Bowdlerization of books in this fluid electronic environment. (It's even possible for an e-reader vendor to revoke a book that you've already purchased, and without your consent or knowledge.) As the vendors and publishers begin to operate more intensively in international markets, the specter of censorship looms ever larger.

Whether an e-reader is right for you is a question only you can answer. The expense is not trivial, even for the low-end Kindle model, and the cost of books themselves is not all that much lower than their paper-based counterparts. E-Books provide convenience and capacity above all, so you have to decide what those things are worth to you versus the trade-offs you have to make. I'm very pleased with my Kindle and use it all the time, but I still buy many books that I intend to keep long-term in paper editions.

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posted by Monty at 10:24 AM

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