Seven Points About Ereaders You Should Know Before Buying

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Aug 16, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Last week, I finally got around to buying an ereader. I might have bought before, except for a vague feeling that I should wait for the technology to improve, but the whim hadn't struck me before. Nothing I might read has ever been published exclusively as an ebook, and the price of ebooks isn't usually compelling, especially since I frequent used bookstores. But the stars aligned (or, more exactly, a sale and my available cash), and I bought at last.

I chose a Kobo, based partly on in-store trials, and the fact that Kobo has limited support for Debian and carries some DRM-free books. This record could be improved, but it is better than any rival ereader boasts.

Still, there are some things about ereaders that you can only learn by using one for several hours. I'm still settling in with my Kobo, but here are some of my observations after fifteen hours of use that might have informed my decision to buy:

The technology matters less than you think

Between the technophiles slavering over every micro-improvement and the nostalgic paeans to the paper book, you might think that what matters is the ereader itself. But the thrill lasts of all of the first ten minutes. At first, you keep thinking, "Wow! I'm reading electronically!" Then you get caught up with what you're reading, and forget the medium.

The same is true of all the controls. Yes, I can appreciate the ability to change fonts, since I'm typographically-minded enough that a book set in Times Roman irritates me. But, like the wallpaper on your laptop, most people probably change features like line spacing and alignment once, then forget about them. As for features like bookmarks, they are not much more advanced than their physical analogs.

In short, just as church-goers are fond of saying that the church is the people, not the building, so a book is the structure of the words, not the medium. A boring paperback is still going to make for a boring ebook -- the only difference is you probably don't want to throw your ereader across the room.

The state of the technology is exaggerated

As pundits ponder the fate of the physical book at each milestone in sales that ebooks pass, one point that gets overlooked is that the technology is still developing. Right now, it's no more than adequate. No matter what size font you use, the resolution should be increased, so that ebooks are as easy to read as the highest-quality printed book. Similarly, you can expect a brief phantom image as the next group of pages is cached every six pages or so.

Most of all, a touch-screen is finicky. Too little pressure, or the wrong angle, and the page won't change or the configuration screen won't open. All that makes this unreliability tolerable is that after twenty pages of so, the finger tap becomes a reflex action that you don't have to think about.

Less directly, ebooks are probably like PDAs: in a few years, their functionality is going to be incorporated into other devices -- most likely tablets, in the case of ebooks. The only reason that they are still a separate hardware category is that they are significantly cheaper than tablets. Two years, three at the most, and the ebook reader you buy today will be replaced by something that offers a better reading experience and that probably isn't an ereader at all.

The startup time isn't what you expect

Before I bought an ereader, I'd heard two conflicting accounts of their boot time. According to one set of rumors, ereaders take up to three minutes to start, and over a minute to open a book. According to the other, they turn on instantly and load a book in milliseconds.

The reality is less spectacular either way. My Kobo takes twelves seconds from the time I slide the on switch to the right to the appearance of the main screen. A book loads in about three and a half seconds. The boot time could be improved, but both startup times are acceptable.

Use calibre to manage your ebooks

Typically, the software that comes with an ereader runs on Windows or OS X, although a Debian version of the Kobo Desktop is also available In whatever format, this software is useful for automating firmware updates, but usually goes directly to a store owned by the ereader's distributors, and is extremely limited in functionality.

Instead of going along with these attempts to limit your experience, download and install calibre. Its comparison-shopping functionality alone makes calibre worth having, but when you consider calibre's viewer, format converter, metadata editor, and general management tools, you'll conclude, as I did, that no other application comes close to matching it. Quite simply, having calibre will improve your ereader use immensely.

More DRM-free material is out there than you imagine

One of the reasons I delayed buying an ereader was my impression that most of the available books were locked down with Digital Rights Management technology (or Digital Restrictions Management technology, to use the Free Software Foundation's more accurate term). Since I view DRM as a restriction of basic consumer-rights, I didn't want to support a technology that's thoroughly encumbered by it.

But if you have similar qualms, I can assure you that DRM is slightly less pervasive that you might expect. No, you are not likely to find the latest best-sellers in DRM-free formats, unless you are downloading a writer like Cory Doctrow who has made a deliberate effort to avoid such restrictions.

However, a sizeable body of DRM-free works does exist. There's the whole of Project Gutenberg, if you are interested in classics. For more contemporary works, you can browse Open Books, a spinoff of the calibre project that serves as a portal to sites like Baen Books where you can download or buy DRM-free works.

Don't get me wrong -- DRM-locked ebooks are by far the norm. But there are still more DRM-free works than any one person can read in a lifetime.

Touch screens need cleaning

The Kobo Touch has been praised in reviews for its touch screen technology. And it's true that the ability to change screens with a tap allows for a more streamlined elegance.

But read a three hundred page book, and that means three hundred taps with a finger -- probably more, if you don't always tap exactly the right way. By the time you've finished a book, if not before, you're going to need to clean the fingerprints from the screen, no matter how clean your hands are or how exactly you manage to tap in the exact same place each time.

In fact, you should probably get in the habit of wiping down the screen each time you put a touch screen ereader away. The sooner you clean, the easier getting rid of the fingerprints will be.

Ereaders exchange one set of conveniences for another

You hear lots about the advantages of ereaders. You can store dozens of books in the space occupied by a single paperback. Since they generally display a single page, rather than a traditional two page spread, they require only one hand, except when you are turning a page.

However, these conveniences come at the loss of other ones. For all the sturdiness of my Kobo, dropping it is still more likely to damage it than dropping a paperback. So, while I'm willing to use it while sitting on transit, I'm unlikely to read it while standing in a crowd that might jostle it.

Nor would I care to drop my ereader into the bath, or risk it falling into the sink while I shave. I'm simply willing to take more chances with a ten dollar paperback than a hundred dollar ereader.

Buying with eyes open

On the whole, I'm a satisfied ereader buyer -- although I suspect that Kobo will be less satisfied with a customer like me who won't buy DRM-locked books. Like many buyers before me, I plan to catch up with some of the classics I never cared to buy in the Penguin editions, such as Thackeray or Trollope. As for more modern fare, there is just enough science fiction and fantasy without DRM that I won't run out of ebooks in a hurry.

Still, I wish that I had known about some of these points. Probably none of them would have changed my choice or kept me from purchasing, but I would have preferred to know more about what I was getting into before I made a medium-sized purchase and change of lifestyle. Ebooks are still a relatively new phenomenon, and enough enthusiasm and rumors surround them that making an informed choice is harder than it should be. Under these circumstance, I figure that a little debunking is in order.

Comments

  • Archos

    Indeed, an Archos 5 is what I use for ebook reading. I like it, but it only runs Android 1.6 and is fairly buggy, and it's very difficult to read outdoors. I'd like to see more options in the 5-7" range.
  • waste

    Having a separate device for reading books is, imho, wasteful of your money and, of course, natural resources.
    You can read ebooks on your desktop, your laptop, and, in many cases, on your phone, or, if you have one, your android or webos tablet.

    I use FBReader (http://www.fbreader.org/) on my laptop, desktop and android phone.
    I purchased an android tablet for my daughter and also installed it on there.

    I suppose if I were to purchase an "ereader", I might consider the Nook, which is really a full-blown android tablet (and B&N stood up to MS patent bullying, so Kudoz to them!).

    When I published a book of my own last year, I released it free (beer) in the free (speech) .djvu format.
  • Really, I need to fill in this line?

    Akk, I have an Archos 7o that I love. It functions primarily as an ereader. I am not a fan of e-ink, having had one display fade on me over a matter of 18 months. Besides, I do most of my reading in bed, where an LCD screen suits me better. By choosing a low-power but pleasing colour scheme, I only charge my Archos once or twice a week...about the same time as I charge my smartphone.

    Yes, I'd like to see a follow-up too. I can't believe I'm the only person who's had to suffer from a bad e-ink display.
  • Advantages over tablets

    Good article -- would love to see a followup after you've used the Kobo for a while.

    Ebook readers still have two advantages over the current crop of tablets:
    1. Daylight-visible screen, for people who actually go outdoors;
    2. Available in paperback-like sizes -- it's tough to find a reasonably priced tablet in the 5-7" range that you can hold in one hand. Most companies seem to think people will only buy a tablet as large and heavy as a netbook.

    I hope eventually there will be general-purpose tablets that can fill this niche.
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