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Ebooks and e-readers: FAQ

E-readers are seeing a real boost in the Australian marketplace; however, many Australians are still wary to adopt this unfamiliar technology. Here we answer some common questions to help demystify the e-reading experience.

E-readers are seeing a real boost in the Australian marketplace; however, many Australians are still wary to adopt this unfamiliar technology. Here we answer some common questions to help demystify the e-reading experience.

Want to check out the e-readers available and make a comparison before you buy? Head on over to our round-up of the best e-readers in Australia.

BeBook Neo
BeBook Neo (Credit: BeBook)

In a few years, ebooks will have taken over from real books and publishers will phase real books out.

There are a lot of people who say this, but it's the rare e-reader owner who completely gives up paper books. Based on this demand alone, publishers would be cutting off their noses if they were to stop printing paper books.

Aside from this, there are some things that ebooks just can't do. A student can't scribble in the margins of an e-textbook. You can't flip back and forth easily between the main text and an appendix. Footnotes are tricky to manage, since the number of words on a page varies due to resizeable text. You can't display an ebook full of glossy art photos on your coffee table; in fact, even coloured plates are an impossibility for E Ink devices at this point in time, although colour E Ink screens are in development. You can't lend an ebook to a friend, or inscribe a message in the front cover of a gift — or have it signed by the author.

Add to that the fact that technology — love it though we do — carries with it a stigma of unreliability. Devices break down. Books don't. There are people who will purchase a paper book in addition to the electronic edition if they love it, just to add it to their library (the author is raising her hand).

Another important point to bear in mind is ebook pricing. At this point in time, ebooks do not cost all that much less than paper books; the reason for this is that they are not really cheaper to produce (printing only accounts for a small slice of what it costs to publish a book), but nevertheless, people view an electronic format as inferior to the physical book.

The best way to think of ebooks is just another format. The paperback format did not kill the hardcover; the ebook is not going to kill the paperback. It's just another way of reading books.

But I read that ebooks were outselling paper books on Amazon!

Ebooks are outselling paper books on Amazon. It's wonderful that so many people are reading, isn't it? What you need to remember here, though, is that while ebook sales have risen on Amazon, so have print book sales. Brick-and-mortar stores are suffering due to the competitive prices offered in the online arena, not because readers are leaving the print format behind.

What I read these days is mostly technical reference. What are the chances that a particular reference work is available electronically, in a format that is usable by the reader I happen to have settled on?

It's hard to answer that question without knowing specifically what sort of technical reference books you're looking for. There are a lot of non-fiction ebooks available; if you're studying at university, chances are your library even has an ebook lending program.

If you're concerned about file support, make sure you get an e-reader that supports either ePub or PDF (most do at least one or the other).

What about the publishers and the whole DRM (Digital Rights Management) thing? Will I actually be permitted to read what I buy, or do I have to wear a GPS ankle-tag and have a camera fitted to the reader to make sure nobody's reading over my shoulder?

Actually, it is more the stores than the publishers who are concerned with DRM. Amazon, for instance, has a proprietary AZW format that is only supported by the Kindle; further, the Kindle does not support the open standard ePub file type. The AutoCAD ARG file type is only supported rarely; and on it goes. Until the file formats become more standardised, the best thing to do is sit down and figure out what you will use your e-reader for and where you are likely to buy your ebooks. Once you figure that out, you will know what file support you will need when you start shopping.

The Kindle DX e-reader
The Kindle DX e-reader (Credit: Amazon)

What formats are available, anyway? Plain text and PDF? Will diagrams be rendered properly, or is it a text-only deal?

The most common file types are the open standard ePub, Adobe PDF, TXT and, simply because the Kindle is so popular, Amazon's proprietary AZW, which can only be read on the Kindle. Black-and-white comic books are saved in the ComicBook Reader CBZ or CBR file formats, and most e-readers will support the image PNG file format for book covers. Some e-readers even play MP3 files.

Images are actually surprisingly well-rendered. E Ink is great at rendering halftones, so what you end up with looks a lot like the old-style black-and-white newsprint, only sharper.

There is free software available, Calibre, which allows you to convert files if the book you want is only available in a file format not supported by your reader.

It can get a bit fiddly if you want to code the text with sizing and chapters. Also note that Calibre cannot convert either to or from Amazon's proprietary AZW file format.

Is the display really like paper or will I wind up squinting at another glowing screen?

Most e-readers use something called E Ink technology in the display. If you purchase an e-reader using this technology, then it looks as much like paper as a screen can. Which is to say, a lot; slightly shinier because of the plastic surface, but definitely not back-lit and comfortable to read even in direct sunlight.

The majority of e-readers also allow you to resize the text of certain file types (although free ebooks downloaded via Project Gutenberg, for example, can't be resized, nor can files converted using Calibre — more on that later).

If you don't want back-lighting, make sure to check the display type; some readers on the market are cheaper but use an LCD screen, which is back-lit. The upside of this is that they can display colours; the downside is that they increase eye strain.

Here's how E Ink works. The display is made up of millions of tiny microcapsules. Inside each of those capsules is an even division of positively charged white and negatively charged black particles. An electromagnetic current is sent through the display telling each capsule whether to send the white particles or black particles to the top, or a distribution of both for half-shades.

1. Upper layer 2. Transparent electrode layer 3. Transparent microcapsules 4. Positively charged white pigments 5. Negatively charged black pigments 6. Transparent oil 7. Electrode pixel layer 8. Bottom supporting layer 9. Light 10. White 11. Black (Electronic paper image by Tosaka, CC3.0)

Will I invest in a reader only to find out that most of the available content actually isn't available to me because I'm in the wrong country?

No matter what sort of content it is, you can guarantee that Australian availability will be lower than availability in the Northern hemisphere. "Most" is probably a bit of a stretch, but buying on overseas websites such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble, you will find that some books are unavailable because they are DRM region-locked.

Our advice is to think about where you will be buying your ebooks from and have a look at what's available. Also check out some Australian websites that sell ebooks and have a look at the range — Angus & Robertson, which claims over 15 million ebooks, and Borders, with over 2 million, are good places to have a look for an idea of what's available. (Borders and Angus & Robertson have entered administration, but their websites remain open for business.)

Remember there are also free ebook resources with free out-of-copyright books. Some good places to start there are Project Gutenberg, ManyBooks, Feedbooks and, for the comic fan, Golden Age Comics.

You can also find a list of free library resources here.

The free software program Adobe Digital Editions allows for easy drag-and-drop e-library management and supports most e-readers, so don't feel that you're restricted to one particular store based on the e-reader you purchase, particularly given the conversions allowed by the Calibre program mentioned above.

This is not related to availability, but you might also want to do a price comparison while you're checking out availability; if more books you want are available for cheaper prices at a certain website, you will probably be better off purchasing an e-reader that supports the file format that website sells.

I have quite a few useful works in text or PDF already, and would cheerfully download the contents of Project Gutenberg if I could load the whole lot into a reader and have it all on hand wherever I am, but will the device permit that? Will it have sufficient storage space and/or can I swap out storage cards?

Most e-readers support the PDF file format, although some handle it better than others. We have yet to see an e-reader that doesn't support PDFs, but check the specs of the reader just to be on the safe side. Devices that support PDF reflow include the Sony Reader Touch Edition and Pocket Edition, the iRiver Story and Cover Story, the BeBook Neo and the Cybook Orizon. Other readers only have whole-page zoom.

Amazon Kindle displaying a PDF
Amazon Kindle displaying a PDF (Kindle 2 image by Yutaka Tsutano, CC2.0)

As for internal memory, capacities range from 512MB up to 4GB; usually, though, the e-reader will also support either microSD, SD or SDHD cards; and, of course, you can have as many of these as you like. Again, check the specs before buying to make sure that you're happy with both the internal memory and the type of card support available.

How easy is it to download books — do I have to install some crazy thing on my computer that will crash Adobe and eat up Word? Or will it only interact with something else that spams me every day saying "update me now!"

It depends where you are buying your books from. Borders has a desktop app that is pretty simple to run, but you can also purchase your ebooks directly from the Borders website.

Some ebook retailers, though, only let you download an .acsm file. This is not an ebook file: rather, it is a sort of key that allows you to download the ebook file using Adobe Digital Editions. All you need to do is open the .acsm file in Digital Editions and your ebook file will download. Then you need to connect your e-reader to Digital Editions to load the book onto it.

To install the books on your reader ... well, it depends on the reader. Adobe Digital Editions runs unobtrusively and allows you to manage your e-library efficiently. If your e-reader won't let you open it as external storage on your computer, you will need a program such as this.

Some e-readers are Wi-Fi enabled, so you can enter a web browser from the device itself and purchase books without needing to route through a PC. Once purchased, the ebook will download directly to your reader.

Can I make notes?

Again, this one depends on the actual e-reader. The Kindle definitely allows note-taking, as do the Sony Reader Touch Edition and Pocket Edition. Apparently so does the BeBook Neo (although we couldn't figure out how to get this feature to work and suspect that by "notes" it actually meant "bookmarks").

If you want to scribble notes, then you'll need to look at an e-reader with a touchscreen, but e-readers with this capacity tend to fall on the expensive side. Your best bet is to do some research into the e-reader that otherwise looks best to you to see if it also allows note-taking. For typing notes, the Kindle uses a full QWERTY keyboard.

What is the user interface like? Will I be pulling my hair out in frustration every time I want to flick back to a page or look up an index?

The first thing to note is that the basic interface and navigation can vary quite wildly from e-reader to e-reader. Some are really quite fiddly, whereas others are intuitive and easy to get around. To read full e-reader reviews, visit our Tablets and E-readers section.

Actually inside an ebook, if you want appendices, footnotes, indices ... you will have a bit of difficulty finding them. In order to flip between items, you will need to open a menu and navigate to what you want; whether this is as simple a process as possible (opening up the contents page, selecting the appendices and finding the entry) or more complicated (bookmarking the page, exiting the book, and so on and so forth), it is not as simple as flicking back and forward through the pages. Some e-readers offer a Go-To page feature, where you enter your desired page number, so it's not impossible; just a bit slow.

Bearing this in mind, e-readers are not the best format for reference reading.

Can I search for a particular word?

Again, it depends on the e-reader. You're more likely to find this feature in readers with a full QWERTY keyboard, as it can be a bit harder to spell a word with only directional navigation buttons.

How heavy are e-readers?

Most e-readers are lighter than the average paperback book, coming in at less than 300g. The Kindle DX is one exception; with a screen size of 9.7 inches, it comes in at 540g, but the extra page size may justify the extra weight if that is what you are looking for. iRex Technologies Digital Reader 1000S also has a larger screen (10.2-inch) and heavier weight (700g), while the Kobo is one of the lighter 6-inch readers on the market, at 221g. If you're going smaller than that, the 5-inch readers are very light indeed: the Sony Reader Pocket Edition weighs just 155g, while the Cybook Opus comes in at a barely-there 150g.

Kobo eReader (Credit: Kobo Books)

How much of an individual page can you see without having to scroll down? Can I hold it and navigate it in one hand?

It depends on the file format of the ebook you are reading. ePub and AZW files won't need to be scrolled; the pages aren't fixed, and e-reader will automatically fill the screen with text. PDFs, on the other hand, have fixed pages; generally, unless you have an e-reader with reflow, to fit on a 6-inch screen, they'll need to be shrunken down so that the text is hard to read, and you'll need to zoom in to see it. As you can imagine, this makes for a rather more fiddly reading experience.

However, directional buttons mean that you can scroll and turn pages one-handed, with most such buttons placed where your thumb will naturally sit anyway.

I'm still a bit confused about the difference between e-readers and laptops. Where are the boundaries between the two devices in terms of usability?

An e-reader is pretty much dedicated to the sole purpose of reading and viewing files. Some can play MP3s, so you can add audio books or music to your library. Some have a web browser, but E Ink technology is not ideal for web browsing; the browser is usually added to expedite buying and downloading ebooks directly to the reader.

We have become very used to multifunction devices, so we don't expect dedicated devices. However, this is what an e-reader is. It's for reading. Anything else an e-reader does is just to make your reading experience better.

Is there anything else I can do with an e-reader?

Just because it's a dedicated device that doesn't mean the e-reader is without possibilities. The Kindle can, for example, display sheet music. You can also load your own documents to an e-reader (file format notwithstanding), which is handy for craft (knitting and crochet) patterns, recipes and technical manuals, such as camera manuals for photographers, or portable PDFs of schematics, for architects or engineers. You can use it to read anything in a file format supported by your reader; how that works best for you is something you can play around with.

Looking for places to buy or download ebooks for free? Visit our handy guide: Where to get ebooks.