What to look for in an e-reader

Buying an e-reader? Great! Here are some shopping tips and features to keep an eye out for.

Buying an e-reader? Great! Here are some shopping tips and features to keep an eye out for.

(The Reader image by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, public domain; CBSi)

E Ink versus LCD

One of the first things to think about is what you're comfortable reading. Some people are happy with a back-lit LCD screen, such as what you'll find in a tablet, and there are some cheaper ebook readers on the market with LCD screens as well as the pricier tablet computers.

For extended periods of time, though, you may find an E Ink screen infinitely more comfortable. They are not backlit, and most of them are relatively matte, so it does replicate the feel of reading a sheet of paper. They are a little bit slower, but one thing that e-reader owners declare repeatedly is that the E Ink screen is a magnificent substitute for a printed page.

A couple of points to bear in mind are that LCD devices generally have more functions than those with E Ink displays, with tablets able to serve the same functions as a PC — and even the LCD devices marketed as e-readers have quite a few more features — but those with E Ink displays generally have a much better battery life, since the backlight isn't draining power.

Price

How much do you want to spend? These days, you can get E Ink devices relatively cheaply. Amazon's Wi-Fi-only Kindle retails for US$89 (plus shipping) and the upcoming Kobo Glo is punching in at just AU$159. There are more expensive models on the market — Sony's Readers , for example — but prices generally seem to be trending downwards. Overall, you shouldn't be looking at more than AU$200 at the maximum for a 6-inch reader.

If the E Ink e-reader you are looking at is over that, make sure you shop around. Some do have a high recommended retail price (RRP), but some outlets also overcharge quite outrageously, probably rightly assuming that shoppers don't know any better. Take a look at our round-up of e-readers in Australia to gauge what the more popular E Ink devices should cost.

LCD e-readers vary more widely in price; we would recommend that you have a minimum budget of AU$200. Yes, there are cheaper LCD e-readers on the market, but they are poor quality and you won't be getting your money's worth. Tablet computers cost more, but you get a lot more for the money you pay, as well as a much more reliable device. Check out our collection of the best tablets under AU$500 to weigh up your options.

Screen size

At this point, the largest E Ink screen size you can get in Australia is 6 inches. There are larger readers available; the 9.7-inch Kindle DX is available from Amazon, and there are other 9.7-inch readers around the world if you can find a way to import them.

While most of your e-reading needs can be easily and efficiently filled by a 6-inch screen, the benefit of the 9.7-inch size is that it allows you to easily read PDFs — most e-readers only employ fixed zoom (see "PDF handling" below for more information), which doesn't work well on a smaller screen.

If you're reading on a smartphone, check out our favourite smartphone apps for e-reading .

Touchscreen

Not all e-readers have touchscreen capabilities, but those that do will use one of a few different technologies.

Probably the best of these is infrared. This uses infrared sensors placed around the edges of the screen that will detect when something comes into contact with the surface. You can use your finger, a stylus, a carrot, but all infrared E Ink readers we've tested respond smartly to light taps and swipes — and the matte surface doesn't pick up fingerprints or smudges very easily, either.

Resistive touchscreens are those that respond to pressure on the screen. It takes a little more effort than infrared, and can be slightly slower to respond, but overall it works decently. The main issue is that the touch layer has to be laid over the E Ink layer, and it's glossier than E Ink displays, which means more reflective glare when reading. It also tends to collect fingerprint smudges more easily, so you're better off using a stylus.

Some of the cheaper tablets on the market use resistive technology, as well.

Our least favourite is Wacom technology, but luckily manufacturers seem to have dismissed this as too expensive, inefficient or both. Wacom works with a stylus; the stylus has a chip inside that sends an electromagnetic resonant signal to the surface. The Wacom E Ink reader that we tested — the BeBook Neo — responded the slowest of all.

Tablets generally have capacitive touchscreens; that is, touchscreens that respond to the natural electricity in your bare fingers. Bear in mind that if you are using a device with a capacitive touchscreen in cold weather, you will not be able to wear a glove on your navigation hand — something that may be problematic if you are trying to read at the bus stop on a winter's morning.

Lighting

It's previously been unavailable in Australia, but now e-readers can include a front light tucked into the bezel around the screen for reading in the dark. The Kobo Glo will be arriving in November, and the Kindle Paperwhite should also be available here at some point. Although a light naturally has a detrimental effect on battery life, we consider the coming technology to soon be both standard and indispensable.

Dictionary support

Dictionary support in an e-reader means that you can look up words as you read, with the results usually displayed in a pop-up box at the bottom of the screen that you can dismiss when you are done.

Not all e-readers have dictionary support, so make sure you check the specs of your potential e-reader if the dictionary is a feature you particularly want.

One other thing to make sure of: some e-readers say that they have dictionary support, but this might mean that you need to download and install a dictionary yourself. If you don't want to fiddle with the ins and outs of this, then look for e-readers with a built-in dictionary. These include the Kindles, the Kobos, the Sony Readers and the iRiver e-readers.

Expandable memory

We are unconvinced of the necessity for expandable memory, given that most ebook files are relatively small and you can store what you're not reading on your computer, but if you have a huge ebook library and absolutely must keep it on you, you might want to keep an eye out for an e-reader with expandable memory.

This can come in the form of SD or microSD in varying capacities, but you can have as many interchangeable cards as you need to store your books.

PDF handling

There are two ways that e-readers handle PDF zooming: fixed zoom and reflow. Fixed zoom means that the entire page is resized; if you're trying to zoom in on an A4 PDF page on a 6-inch screen and the page doesn't fit the display, you have to scroll back and forth to read the lines, and down to get to the end of the page. It's the worst possible solution, and very annoying.

If you read a lot of PDFs, you should look at e-readers that use reflow. Instead of resizing the entire page, reflow resizes the text, meaning that you can read it just as you would a normal ebook file. The Sony Readers implement this feature particularly well, even managing to keep images in place.

Generally speaking, ebooks aren't sold exclusively as PDFs, so if you're just going to be reading books, this shouldn't be a problem for you. If, however, you want an e-reader for other purposes — reading reports, craft patterns or work or school documents — reflow is definitely something you should investigate.

For tablets and smartphones, of course, you can get apps that read PDFs in reflow.

DRM

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is an encryption applied to ebook files to limit access to it. It can place limits on the number of devices, the type of device or how many times you can download the ebook (better make a backup straight away, just in case it's only once). This is to protect the author's (and the publisher's) rights, to make sure that you don't go around handing out your ebooks willy-nilly, but it really can be a pain in the posterior for the end user.

DRM isn't usually applied at the e-reader level — books are sold with DRM applied. Most ePub files are sold with Adobe's DRM, which means that you need to have Adobe Digital Editions to actually download your ebook, and you need to install it on your e-reader via Adobe Digital Editions as well. It's free, but it is an additional fiddly step. Adobe Digital Editions allows six registered devices; to get rid of one of the old ones to make room for a new one, you need to hold down Ctrl, Shift and D to open the deactivation dialog box. It's easy to follow the prompts from there.

Amazon sells its proprietary AZW file format exclusively through Amazon, and AZW files can only be read on the Kindle or via Kindle apps on smartphones, so you're already locked in to using an Amazon product if you buy ebooks from Amazon. Amazon also limits the number of devices that you can have registered to an account to six. If you want to add another device after you have used up your six allotments, you need to remove content from and deregister an older device.

If you want to buy ebooks from major publishing houses, you are going to encounter some form of DRM, so you had better get used to it. There are ways to avoid DRM:

  • Buy from independent publishers that reject DRM

  • Only download free public domain titles

  • Obtain ebooks through illegal downloads.

It's not exactly ideal, but that's how matters stand. You can find out what booksellers sell which file formats here .

Annotation

If you're the kind of person who loves to scribble notes in your books, or needs to mark sections for study and so on, some e-readers do allow annotations.

Generally speaking, to enable annotations easily an e-reader must have one of two things: a QWERTY keyboard, like the Kindle Keyboard or the iRiver Story HD, or a touchscreen, like the Sony Readers, the new Kobos and the Kindle Touch.

Both are a little on the fiddly side. Text input using a keyboard with an E Ink display is laborious, made even more so by having to navigate to the exact text position where you wish to leave the note.

Touchscreens are a little more intuitive, allowing you to not only tap the exact position and handwrite your notes (although they'll look rather more juvenile than your regular handwriting), but also dragging along the text to highlight and tapping a corner to leave a bookmark.

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi is one of those features that we honestly could take or leave — but many readers enjoy the convenience of being able to shop for, purchase and download ebooks directly on the device, and indeed it does cut out the Adobe Digital Editions step.

It suffers, we have found, from the same laboured input that text suffers from; that is, typing out search terms and waiting for the e-reader to process and display that information can be a process that involves lots of thumb twiddling. It also uses the power a lot faster.

Like anything, it comes down to preference: do you want to fiddle around with the e-reader's slowness or Adobe Digital Editions? We like Digital Editions, because we can get a few books onto the e-reader in one go, and it's quicker and easier to find what you want in a PC's browser.

The Kindle 3G takes the wireless thing one step further, and offers a free 3G service where you don't have to be in a Wi-Fi zone to access online buying, which is a much better option than just Wi-Fi. It means that if you've just finished reading a book on a bus, you don't have to wait until you get to a Wi-Fi zone or a computer to purchase new reading material.

Shopping options

Not all e-readers support all file formats. There are a number of different ebook file types; the most universal one is ePub, the open ebook standard and the official standard of the International Digital Publishing Forum.

The only e-reader available in Australia that does not support ePub is Amazon's Kindle; instead, Amazon has its own file format, which is called AZW. If you're confused, this basically means that the Kindle can't read ePub-format books, and AZW-format books are only available through the Amazon bookstore.

If you're savvy with software and don't mind fiddling around on your computer, don't despair! The Kindle also supports HTML, DOC, PDF and TXT file types. With the right file-conversion software, such as Calibre, you can purchase your ePub files and convert them to a file type that's supported by the Kindle.

To read more about your options and to scope out some online stores to see which one you might like best, check out our guide on where to get ebooks .

Audio support

Audio support is, again, not a necessity, but it's great for two reasons: having some music with you, and listening to audio books for those who like to keep their libraries all in one place. Most e-readers with audio support play MP3 files, although some also have WAV, AAC or OGG support.

A warning, though: like using Wi-Fi, playing audio files drains your battery faster.

E-readers that have audio support include the Sony Reader Touch Edition, the Kindle 3, the iRiver Cover Story and the BeBook Club.

Do you have more questions about ebooks and e-reading? Hop on over to our FAQ or drop us a line in the comments below.

 

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