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Ebook readers: A guide to the world of digital books and how to read them

E-readers are just entering the Australian market, and plenty of people are interested. But what should you know before you start buying digital books and e-readers? We explain the basics.

The is one of the first ebook readers available locally in Australia.(Credit: Eco Reader)

Digital music has been around for ages, and watching digital videos on our iPods, smartphones and laptops is now a part of everyday life. But just entering our digital consciousness is the idea of digital books.

Dedicated devices to read digital books, called e-readers, are finally hitting the Australian market. Book lovers around the country are overjoyed, but just what are we getting into? What are the advantages and what are the pitfalls? Let's clarify a few points and help you get started on the ebook path.

What is an ebook?

An ebook (or electronic book) is a digital version of the traditional printed paper book.

Originally, the only ebooks on the market were generally text books, manuals and other specialty subject books, but recently the humble novel has joined the ranks of the digital age which is music to the ears of bookworms who are running out of shelf space.

E-readers are new on the scene, but you can also read ebooks on a variety of devices including your PC, netbook or smartphone.

What is all the fuss about?

Some of you might be thinking big deal, who cares if I can read a novel on my computer or phone and why would I waste money on a device that can only be used to read books?

The big advantage is the portability that ebooks can offer and the convenience of being able to buy a book when you want it no matter what time it is. They are wonderful if you are going on a long trip and are having trouble fitting books in your bag or deciding which ones to take with you. If you were taking your laptop or you owned an e-reader, you could literally take hundreds of books on a device the size of your passport.

Where can you get ebooks?

Another advantage of ebooks is that you don't need to run out to the store to get your next book fix — all you have to do is jump online and download what you want. Many of the ebook sites you will come across are based in the US, so keep in mind that, with an Australian IP address, you may be restricted from downloading some books if they haven't been released here yet.

Ebook prices vary quite a bit. In many cases, ebooks purchased from online stores are around the same price you would pay for a paperback, so you may not be saving much money by going digital. Currently, an ebook novel can cost anywhere between AU$8.95 to AU$25.00, depending on where you purchase it. If you are shopping on a US site, you'll also have to factor in the exchange rate (which is currently moving in our favour), but expect prices to become more competitive too as the market rapidly expands.

Some popular ebook stores

Free books — and lots of them

The good news it that there are many free titles legally available in the public domain. Public domain books are books that either have no copyright or have expired. That usually means they are quite old, but what a great excuse to revisit the classics! Some e-readers come with out-of-copyright books preloaded. A few libraries are even starting to lend ebooks; however, we are unaware of any in Australia as yet that offer this type of service.

Where to find public domain books

The big problem — all kinds of ebook formats

A big factor holding back the growth of the ebook industry is that there are a variety of formats battling for supremacy. The most common currently are Mobipocket, eReader, Adobe ePub and Microsoft Reader. Not all devices support every available format, so your choice of format is limited to what your device supports (or you must buy a device that reads the formats you most likely will want to read).

Some formats will be protected by DRM (Digital Rights Management), which means locked by publishers and copyright holders to protect the content from being copied or distributed illegally.

In some cases, a DRM-locked ebook can only be read on the device registered at purchase, so for example, you can read the book only on the PC you download it to and one e-reader, but you may not transfer it to a third device. This is similar to the restrictions imposed on iTunes users in the old days.

Why an e-reader instead of a laptop?

Aside from generally being lighter and easier to use, the biggest difference in using a dedicated e-reader is that they use something called eInk, rather than a traditional laptop LCD screen. eInk is a proprietary material that requires very little power to display the content. E-readers only consume power when you turn the page or otherwise use the device. Many quote power consumption as 5000-7000 page turns. It won't drain power when on but not in use, and depending on your reading habits, you could theoretically go weeks between charges.

Currently eInk is not available in colour, so eReader displays are limited to black, white and shades of grey. We understand the technology is being developed, so eventually we'll see devices with coloured eInk, but probably not until late 2010-2011.

What should you consider before you buy an e-reader?

There are more models on the market every week, but what do you need to consider before you buy? Run through our checklist:

What is your budget?
E-readers can be expensive — they can cost anywhere between AU$300 to AU$600 — basically the same price as a netbook. You need to consider if it is worth the investment, how often you actually read books, and whether you need the portability advantage that e-readers offer.

What size would suit you best?
The screen size determines the size of the e-reader, so the smaller the screen, the smaller the device. The most common sizes you will come across are 5-, 6- and 8-inch models. Weight is another big factor — the lighter, the better.

What formats does it support?
Not all readers support every format, so first scan the ebook stores and see what format the books you want to read come in, and don't forget to check if they are DRM locked. Then check out the specifications on the device you want to buy to be sure those formats are listed. Be careful — some will list a format but it might only support it without DRM. There should be a section that specifically lists which DRM-locked formats it supports, so don't forget to double check.

What is its memory capacity?
The internal memory size on an ebook reader can be quite small, which can limit the number of books you can carry at one time. Most e-readers have memory card slots (typically SD as in many compact cameras) so check what type and the maximum capacity of memory card it supports.

What other features are important?

  • Does it come with a wall charger or only USB cable? Not a deal breaker, but plugging it in to charge at a wall socket is sometimes just easier.
  • Where are the page-turning buttons placed? This is a bigger issue than you might anticipate. There is nothing more annoying than spending all that money only to find out that the reader is uncomfortable to use. Think about how you hold a book and what you find comfortable and see if the buttons are in the right place for you.
  • Does it have 3G or Wi-Fi wireless connectivity? Some e-readers can connect to the internet wirelessly to download books. It's not absolutely necessary, but if you don't want to turn on your computer and connect to the internet, it's a great feature to have.
  • Is the battery replaceable or not? This shouldn't be an issue in the early days, but becomes important after the warranty runs out. Better to replace the battery than the whole device.
  • Can you change the font size? This feature is very handy when your eyes are tired, or a book you download is in a font too small or large for your liking. Remember, however, a larger font means more page turns and more battery drain.
  • Is it capable of playing music? Some devices on the market play MP3 music files so you can listen to your music while reading. This does, however, drain the battery much more quickly.

This will get you started, but the landscape is changing quickly. If you've got some advice on e-readers, let us know in the Talkback below. If you have more questions, post them in our ebooks Forum page. Happy reading!