Books written by Ray Sullivan

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Beginner's Guide to E-Readers - Part 2

So, you’ve looked at the range of e-books, free and paid for on the sites you think you’d use and the next stage is choose an e-reader, right?
Well, possibly. There is a potential alternative choice to using dedicated e-readers and, just to make it a little more complicated, it isn’t even a either/or decision.
So before I start to discuss the dedicated e-readers I’d like to discuss the alternatives. Well, for starters there’s your phone, as long as it’s a smart phone such as the Apple iPhone or a HTC/Samsung etc Android phone. Amazon and Kobo, as a minimum (there may be others) provide a free app for these phones so that you can buy and read books on the phones. It’s not an outrageous thing to try and while it isn’t the best reading method around it is used by millions of commuters world-wide. Why not download an app and a couple of free e-books before you write the idea off?
Alternatively there’s your PC or Mac. Similar Apps to those available for smart phones are available for these devices from the same suppliers, again still free. However it’s not necessarily an ideal way to read (especially if your computer is a desktop model) but many people do read e-books in this way quite happily. The opposite is also true. Computer screens aren’t a fixed image but a constantly flickering one, admittedly a flicker that is too fast for many people to discern. However not being able to see the flicker doesn't mean it isn't there and many people find that after a day at work in front of a screen they can't take to sitting down in front of their own for an extended period.

Out of all the devices you can read ebooks on that isn't a dedicated e-reader, though,is the tablet computer.  Leading the pack clearly is the Apple iPad which has it's own bookstore through iTunes and can load Apps from Amazon and Kobo, for example.  Not only do you get a pleasant reading experience (although I know of one user who can't read books on the iPad after a long day in front of his screen because of the flicker) you also get all the other functionality that comes with it, including surfing the web anytime you're near a WiFi hotspot.  And you get to see your book covers in full glorious colour.

There's a host of other tablets out there too and the field is about to get bigger.  Amazon and Kobo are about to launch tablets in the US over the next few weeks in time for the Christmas rush.  It remains to be seen if these will bring enhanced ebook functionality to the table compared to Apple but they will be looking to steal a chunk of market share.  Unfortunately there's no forecast for the UK launch of these new tablets and I suspect they will hit Blighty after Christmas.

So, what are the pros and cons?  Well the pros should be fairly easy to work out - by virtue of the fact you are reading this it's likely you have ready access to one or more of these devices, so no capital outlay to start reading ebooks apart from the cost of the books themselves.  Tablets in particular have the form of a book, although the iPad is larger than your average paperback, and they have an intuitive way of turning pages (swipe as though a page and your finger is sticky).  The cons vary from device to device but probably the two largest objections to them are the screen and the battery life.

You see, dedicated e-readers have a screen featuring what is known as e-ink.  Unlike conventional computer (or mobile phone) screens they are not backlit, so cannot be read without some ambient light.  In fact, the way they are designed they don't draw any power once a screen has been 'written' with a page - until you change page they won't require any more energy.  That's why their screens look so like real pages - in fact many people assume the page they see at first is a screen protector with an image of words on waiting to be peeled off.  Not so, what you are seeing there is the real thing.  One of the benefits of this type of screen is that it can be read in bright sunshine (try that with your iPad and see how far you get).  Critically, there's no flicker.  Another consequence of the way the screen is managed in dedicated e-readers is the power consumption - it is minimal compared to the devices discussed above and some e-readers can last up to a month between charges. 

So the two largest objections to non dedicated e-readers turns out to be two of the dedicated variety's strengths.  While we're on dedicated e-reader strengths we should consider any others.

Well, they tend to be compact and light - they're not all the same size but in general they are fairly compact and thin.  Also they are designed specifically as reading devices and  are fairly well optimised to that activity.

The cons?  Well I guess you need to buy one, where you've probably always  had access to one of the alternatives.  Also, ultimately they are one-trick ponies - OK, they do that trick particularily well but so far attempts to extend their capabilty has tended to leave me, for one, cold. 

Another element that I feel will be a limiting element for e-readers in the long run is the predominantly monochrome screen.  Sure, when you're head down in a book, turning page after page as you approach the heart thumping climax the monochrome appearance won't bother you, in the same way as it doesn't in a conventional book, but the abilty to view book covers in colour isn't an unreasonable aspiration.  At least some e-readers are starting to show the covers, admittedly in monochrome, as icons now but colour screens has to be an aspiration for the near future.  I'm aware of at least one colour model, the Nook, but I'm not convinced without seeing one in the flesh that it shares the daylight viewing capability and so far I haven't seen any claims about battery life.

None of these cons are show-stoppers for me.  e-readers do their primary task well and I wouldn't be without one - however I firmly believe there will be more functionality in e-readers in the next couple of years, including viable and affordable colour e-ink.  I also believe there will continue to be convergence between tablets and e-readers in the sense that the former will get around the limitations they currently exhibit with ebooks (particularily the daylight reading, however the batterly life probably won't ever be improved to e-reader levels due to the multitudinous tasks asked of tablets, leading to a general acceptance that they need charging daily).  Conversely, I expext e-readers to start doing tasks other than let you read ebooks better than they do at present - anyone who's tried surfing the new on a Kindle will tell you that it's a painful experience right now.

But those changes are a generation away (probably 12 - 18 months) and as always new developments add cost initially.  So, if you're in the market for ebooks and you've decided against the non dedicated route, then you need to choose a device.  That will be explored in the next part.
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