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eReader Buyers’ Guide

Amazon isn’t the only name in eBooks. Use these tips to get the right size, features, and content for your needs.


by K.T. Bradford on December 21, 2009

eREADERguide_sh.jpgImagine curling up with a good paperback when an e-mail notification pops up on the page. Or a Facebook update appears in the margin. Many are writing off standalone eReaders as smart phone apps proliferate, along with such programs as Kindle for PC. But there’s something to be said for a dedicated device that lets you focus on that great story instead of the outside world. Plus, the E-Ink screens on these readers better emulate actual paper, and are easier on the eyes than displays found in laptops, smart phones, and tablets.

So how big will this market get? In-Stat estimates that standalone eReader shipments will rise from 2.4 million in 2009 to 28.6 million in the next four years. Though the eReader category has been dominated by Amazon and Sony, the middle of 2009 was a tipping point. No less than seven new or updated devices hit the scene, including an anticipated entry from the country’s biggest brick-and-mortar bookseller: Barnes & Noble.

Whenever you have this many products vying for attention, consumers are bound to feel a bit overwhelmed. Content sources, features, formats, and screen sizes vary from model to model. Here’s what you’ll need to know to find the right eReader for your needs.

1. Screen Size

eREADERguide_sh2.jpgThe standard screen size for eReaders is 6 inches, which allows for about the same amount of text as a mass-market paperback page with medium-sized text. It’s a good size for eBooks, and prices are generally in the $260 to $300 range. In the 5-inch Pocket Edition, Sony offers a smaller version of its Reader devices. The screen comes with a cheaper price tag of $199, but you’ll have to flip pages a bit more often or cope with a smaller font size.

eReaders with larger screens—7 to 10.2-inches—are geared toward better specialty reading experiences: magazines, newspapers, and textbooks. They also come at a higher cost. The 8.1-inch IREX reader ($399; in particular presents newspapers in a format reminiscent of print editions, making the transition from real paper to ePaper a smooth one.

2. Content

Consider not only the content sources your device has access to, but also how many formats it supports. Every major eReader is attached to or partnered with an eBook store or provider—Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google, and Sony are currently the major players. But some devices can’t read books outside of proprietary formats.

Kindle owners can read only titles from Amazon’s store and the few stores that provide books in MOBI format. Other readers, including Barnes & Noble’s nook, can read EPUB books, a format Sony and other companies are hoping becomes standard. The more formats an eReader supports, the better. In addition to legacy text formats, native PDF support is highly desirable, as is the ability to read RTF and Word docs.

The ability to read content that updates on a regular basis—newspapers, magazines, and RSS feeds—adds value to a device. This usually comes paired with wireless connectivity. As of press time, the only eReaders that automatically download RSS feeds wirelessly are the Kindle 2 and DX.

3. Connectivity

Amazon’s Kindle introduced the concept of an always-connected eReader that allows consumers to purchase books directly from the device itself using a built-in 3G connection. There are no monthly fees for these services; instead, the cost is built into the price of books. The Kindle line uses Sprint’s EV-DO network, the Barnes & Nobel nook and Sony Reader Daily Edition use AT&T, and the IREX DR800SG is on Verizon Wireless.

If your main concern is budget, you might want to forego a 3G-enabled reader. Part of why the Sony Reader Pocket Edition is $60 less than the Kindle 2 or nook is that it doesn’t have a wireless radio.

4. PC and Smart Phone Support

Though you’ll get the best reading experience with an eReader display, many consumers enjoy the freedom of accessing their books on multiple devices. A smart phone app is a definite plus, as is the ability to read books on a PC (especially a Tablet equipped with a touchscreen). It’s even better if you purchase an eReader that allows for syncing bookmarks, so you can pick up where you left off on any device.

Consumers can access Kindle books and start from the last page read on the iPhone and Windows PCs (as well as the device itself), but not from other eReaders. Barnes & Noble eBooks are portable to more than a hundred devices beyond the nook, including the IREX DR800SG and the upcoming Plastic Logic QUE. Users can sync their last read page across select BlackBerry and Motorola phones, iPhone and iPod touch apps, and PC and Mac computers with Barnes & Noble’s free software installed. Sony’s Readers don’t currently offer bookmark syncing on PCs or smart phones.

5. Touchscreen options

The reading experience is traditionally a tactile one; people who pick up eReaders for the first time often instinctively want to operate them by touch, instead of dealing with buttons. However, touchscreens cost more to produce, especially those that use E-Ink technology. So ask yourself if touch is really important.
The IREX reader’s touch capability is limited to a pen interface for navigation and note-taking, which is slightly unwieldy. The company opted for brightness and clarity over capacitive touch in its current device, but promised that a true touch reader is forthcoming in 2010. Sony’s Touch and Daily Editions have touchscreens that work similar to smart phone and tablet interfaces. You can tap icons with the tip or pad of a finger to navigate, and swipe left or right across the screen to turn a page. Barnes & Noble’s nook has the most intricate touch interfaces; a small, narrow color touchscreen rests below the main E-Ink display for navigation and content discovery.

6. Bells and Whistles

Beware of feature creep in eReaders. Some extras will enhance the device’s functionality, while others just clutter up the menu. One feature to look for is support for audiobooks and music. Most users won’t give up an MP3 player in favor of an eReader, but the audiobook aspect is appealing. Just be sure that the device you’re considering has sufficient memory for the files.

Memory card slots are another useful extra, especially if you intend to listen to many audiobooks or podcasts. Depending on the length of the recording, you can fit three to four unabridged books on a 1GB drive or card, but not much else. If you’re sticking to text, 1GB to 2GB of internal memory will hold a vast library.

The ability to take notes or make annotations is especially useful for students. We like that the Sony Readers and the nook will sync notes appended to books and documents across devices. However, extras such as games, photo viewing, and Web browsing don’t add much to the reading experience.

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