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Don't buy an ebook reader: The sorry state of digital slates

Almost nobody should buy an ebook reader such as Amazon's Kindle or Sony's Readers, despite their excellence as pieces of hardware. We thought we should explain why

3 min read

Here's the book-jacket synopsis: no ebook reader is worth buying yet. No ebook store is adequately equipped to fulfil your needs, and no one product has matured to the point at which we can unquestionably recommend it. These readers are slated to be the future foundation of book-distribution empires, so what's the full story?

Capable body, incapable mind

We recently reviewed three UK ebook readers: the Amazon Kindle, and Sony's Reader Pocket and Reader Touch. All three cost between £180 and £250 -- the cost of between 20 and 30 paperbacks -- with a range of features to suit different needs. Although the physical products themselves received reasonable scores in our reviews, all proved ultimately useless to us.

It's the early adopter complex: you buy into a new medium -- think CD in the 80s, DVD in the 90s -- and you're at the behest of the content providers to deliver material on your unproven media of limited commercial appeal. So you spend time 'making do' until the world catches up and content providers pull their finger out.

Today, unless your pallette is wilfully obscure, all music can be found somewhere on CD, and all movies can be sourced on DVD. With ebook stores, we're at the 'making do' stage, and the early part of it at that. Amazon's Kindle bookstore offers the promise of simplicity, and while it backs up that promise, it does so with a disappointingly shallow puddle of major titles. For example, we couldn't find Malcolm Gladwell's Blink -- a popular-science title we've seen on sale at railway stations. It's not the Atlantic of tomes we were expecting. The same goes for the Waterstone's ebook store, and others we explored.

The perils of a paradigm shift

The transition from tape to CD, or VHS to DVD, is enormously different from the paradigm shift of moving from printed book to digital ebook. It's more akin to the transition from CD to digital download -- a dark, largely unexplored avenue populated by pirates and file-sharers -- so the dipping of the toe in the water stage is a necessity.

This is where we are now. And, just like the music download market before it, the first few steps content distributors take are painful for consumers. They involve digital rights management (DRM), proprietary file formats and convoluted methods of getting what you've paid for on to the device required to enjoy it. Which you also paid for.

Amazon, to its credit, makes its DRM invisible, just like Apple did with its iTunes Store. You download books from Amazon, on to a product from Amazon, wirelessly, and with no need to even touch a computer. It's beautiful. But most of your purchases are not only in a format that will only work on Amazon's Kindle, but are locked up to the point that you cannot convert them into a format that would work on, say, a competing Sony Reader.

Sony, on the other hand, supports more open formats -- such as the standard ePub format, used by most ebook stores -- which work across a range of devices from a range of manufacturers. But the book publishers still demand their content is DRMed, so as to curb piracy. That means you need special software on your PC, and you need to know and understand what DRM is and what type of DRM you're paying to be locked into. It basically rules out all but the early adopters and enthusiasts, and that, in itself, hinders the growth of the entire ebook ecosystem.

The future of ebook readers

It will change, but as Apple proved, it takes years. At the moment we can barely recommend anyone buy an ebook reader, bar perhaps the students and technology enthusiasts who know what they're getting themselves into.

It wouldn't be so bad if the deal of a DRM lock-in was sweetened by a deep well of popular, affordable titles at the touch of a button. But it isn't. At best it's a reasonably clean puddle in a middle-class town, and we don't advise anyone pay £200 for the privilege of drinking from a puddle.