Books written by Ray Sullivan

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Which e-Ink eReader to Buy?

A couple of days ago I posted an article about choosing a mini tablet.  Clearly tablet computing is going to be the future for some time, so where does that leave dedicated eReading devices?

Well, dedicated eReading devices, using e-Ink, are essentially one trick ponies that happen to do their trick particularly well.  Unlike tablets, these devices can be read in strong sunlight easily.  Probably a big deal in California, not so important in north Wales.  They also have superb battery lives, needing charging once a month or every two months for some models.  This can actually be a weakness as well as a strength as the time between charges is so infrequent you can forget to charge up before an extended journey.  Although the tablet devices really need to be charged up daily or every other day, at least you get in the habit of ensuring they have a full charge before embarking on a train journey.

However they are superb at the trick they do and I feel that there is a place for these devices for years to come.  I suspect I will be using my 2 year old Kindle for years, despite having a Nexus 7 as my go-to tablet.  This December will almost certainly see these devices reach an all time high in sales and my personal take is that this will be the peak of those sales.  I think there will always be a place for them, but many people will choose to buy a tablet computer to use as their eReader in future and will not see a need for a dedicated device as well.  Probably a poor decision, but one people will inevitably make.

Anyway, if you are in the market for a dedicated eReading device, for yourself or as a gift, this is the time to look around.  There are more of these devices on sale now than ever before, but I'm going to concentrate on a small number, namely the Kindle family, the recently launched Nook eReaders, and Kobo eReaders.  All of these have UK based eBookstores you can wirelessly download eBooks from.

Here's some of the features you can expect to find on these machines.

e-Ink screens.  Basically these screens require very little power to display their content, the words on the eBooks you're reading.  They achieve this by only needing power to change the screen; once the screen has been changed the image on there remains indefinitely until power is applied again.  Not only does this mean that the devices only need charging infrequently, they read pretty much like traditional books too.  But as well as looking like books, they share their limitations also - like books they depend on external illumination such as sunlight or artificial light.  Some models are now being marketed utilising built in lights which obviously affect the battery life, but do allow you to read in the dark.  

Models featuring built in lights include the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite, the Kobo Glo and the Nook Simple Touch Glolight.

Verdict:  e-Ink screens are now common technology and all three manufacturers have developed lit screens.  Illuminated screens push the unit price up and affect the frequency of battery charges.  All e-Ink screens are designed to have the font size changed to suit the reader, so are suitable for all readers regardless of eyesight.

eBook formats.  All of the models featured will support multiple eBook formats, but in reality there's only two that we need to consider for most purposes.  Amazon devices read their own propriety format AZW, which is a permutation of the MOBI format and in fact the Kindle will read both of these.  What it won't read is the EPUB format, which is the industry standard and the one used by all of the other eReaders featured in this article which, in turn, will not read the Amazon format.  If it wasn't for the phenomenal success of the Kindle the only format anyone would bother about is the EPUB, however nobody can afford to discount the Amazon standard.

Verdict:  Format choices determine whether you are with Amazon or not.  If you choose Amazon you can still buy many of the books currently listed on Amazon through Smashwords in the MOBI format, however you will have to transfer them across from a PC manually.

Size.  As well as being very thin, eReaders are relatively compact and the screen sizes tend to mirror popular paperback book sizes.  In fact all the eReaders in this article are 6 inch screens apart from one, the Kobo Mini, which is a more compact 5 inches.

Verdict.  Regardless of whether size matters, 6 inches is pretty much standard in this field.  

Weight.  One area that eReaders score significantly over traditional books is weight.  The lightest Kindle is the basic Kindle at 170 grams.  The 3G version, which incorporates a keyboard, weighs in at 274 grams.  The two Paperwhite models, one with 3G, one without, come in at 222 grams and 213 grams respectively.  Over at Kobo, the Mini, unsurprisingly, weighs in at a minimal 134 grams.  Next in weight terms are the Touch and the Glolight models, both at 185 grams.  Finally the Kobo wireless weighs in at 221 grams.  The Nook Simple Touch weighs in at 212 grams while the Simple Touch Glowlight oddly reduces the weight down to 197 grams.  Perhaps the light is dual function!

Verdict.  If weight is a driving parameter then the models to look at, in ascending order of weight, are: Kobo Mini, Basic Kindle, Kobo Touch and Glolight, Nook Simple Touch Glowlight, Nook Simple Touch, Kindle Paperwhite, Kobo Wireless, Kindle Paperwhite 3G and finally the Kindle 3G.

Touch-screen or passive?  Initially eReaders were all very passive in screen terms.  However with the advent of smart phones and their touchy-feely screens expectations have been raised.  Some eReaders are controlled by a five way controller or via a keyboard, others have touchscreens. In fact, all of the eReaders mentioned above have touch-screens apart from the Basic Kindle and the Kindle Keyboard.

Verdict.  Pretty much all the modern devices have touch-screen technology.  The two Kindle devices are pretty much legacy items that probably will bite the dust after the Christmas selling period and this will become a moot discussion point.

Connectivity.  All of the models here can connect to the internet wirelessly.  Two of the Kindle devices can also connect using 3G, you pay a premium for the facility, but it is a one-off cost.  All have USB or micro USB connectivity and allow your to connect your eReader to a computer to transfer eBooks.

Verdict.  3G connectivity sounds useful, but probably isn't that important to most people, however is essential to anyone who wants an eReader but doesn't want or cannot get WiFi.  The 3G variants push the price up so high it becomes a marginal call whether to buy a tablet instead.

Price.  This is a moving feast as the three companies attempt to stay competitive.  Also, there can be variations between different retailers, so shop around.  In ascending price order, here are the prices for the models discussed so far: Kobo Mini - £60; Basic Kindle - £69; Nook Simple Touch - £79;Kobo Touch - £80; Kobo Glolight - £100; Nook Simple Glowlight - £109; Kindle Paperwhite - £109; Kindle 3G - £149; Kindle Paperwhite 3G - £169

Verdict:  The smallest and most lightly loaded model is also the cheapest, so at least that's fair enough.  The two 3G models are the two most expensive by a large margin.  They may suit some buyers, but most people would be better considering a full blown mini tablet instead when considering paying that much.  The rest of the models sit in a £30 band. It looks like Kobo have the edge, financially, for the lit versions and Amazon are leading the fiscal pack for the unlit versions, but don't forget that the basic Kindle isn't touch screen.  For the basic unlit touch screen race there's only £1 between the Nook and the Kobo, so the look and feel of the one you favour has to be worth more than that difference.

Final verdict.  Cheap and cheerful, mid priced and top end costs, the dedicated eReaders have competition at every step of the way.  My advice is to decide on the band you want to go for and then compare the actual models in your hands.  Aesthetics, as with all devices these days, is a personal but critical consideration.  And don't forget to watch out for discounting - the competition over the next few weeks is likely to be fierce.


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