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Ebook reader buying guide


Everything you need to know before buying an e-reader.

woman reads ebook in street

Want a library in the palm of your hand?


So, that big trip is looming and you're asking yourself how many books you can pack while still having space/weight allowance for the essentials. An e-reader could be the answer to all of your problems! You can load it with hundreds of books (and the occasional magazine) to read and free up some space in your suitcase.

Want to know how we get our review results? Check out how we test e-readers.

Why buy a $30 paperback?

If you love reading, an ebook reader (also known as an e-reader) could be your new best friend. Small, thin and lightweight, yet with the capacity to hold hundreds of electronic books, e-readers can put your whole book collection in your pocket, and still have room for a whole library of new titles.

You can find an ebook, download it and be reading it in a matter of minutes with just a couple of clicks, while paying considerably less than the paperback equivalent for the privilege. This convenience has converted many skeptics who may once have scoffed at the idea of giving up the feel of a real book for an electronic device. Yours truly included.

Here are some good reasons to consider getting an e-reader:

  • Generally, ebooks are cheaper than their paper equivalents.
  • New titles are available immediately on their day of publication, often before they hit stores on Australian shores.
  • Ebooks can be bought from online book stores or borrowed from your local e-library using the Overdrive application.
  • An e-reader uses a wireless network, and in some cases a 3G network, to download books.
  • As e-readers have grown in popularity, they've also had to fend off competition from tablets that include e-reader software along with other apps.

E-reader or tablet?

If you're shopping for an e-reader you'll inevitably face this question. Am I better off buying a tablet and getting more bang for my buck, or should I buy a device designed especially for ebooks? There are some good reasons to go with a simple e-reader, not the least of which is that they're generally much cheaper than tablets. Here are some other reasons:

  • E-readers can store thousands of ebooks, either on the device or on a removable storage card.
  • Their low power usage means they have exceptional battery life, so most models can last several thousand page turns per charge. That can give you weeks of uninterrupted reading.
  • An e-reader has limited capacity to do other things, just like a paperback book, so you don't get distracted from your reading.
  • The e-ink screen technology with matte-finish screen is very close to reading real print on paper – it's sharp and easy on the eyes and can be used in full daylight, which can be a problem with the glossy backlit screens in tablets.

When an e-reader becomes a tablet

The popularity of the tablet has not escaped makers of ebook reading devices, and some models are blurring the line between a tablet and an e-reader.

  • Amazon (Kindle) and Kobo attempted to push in on the tablet market with a couple of tablet-style devices to compete with the Apple iPad and other Android tablets. However they didn't last long and are now no longer available.
  • Tablet features, like touchscreens, with swiping and screen lighting, have been incorporated into many dedicated e-reader models to improve ease of navigation and readability in low-light conditions.
  • Some tablets, like the iPad Mini and Samsung Galaxy tab, are smaller and cheaper than full-sized tablets and are seen as more full-featured alternatives to dedicated e-readers. However the issues of reading a backlit glossy screen remain a significant issue for some book lovers.

Buy an e-reader... if you want to read a stack of books on a device that's easy on the eyes.

Buy a tablet... if you primarily want a small computing device so you can email, browse, watch TV and use numerous other apps, with a bit of reading thrown in. 

Five reasons to buy an e-reader

1. You're an avid reader

If you go through a stack of books on a holiday and don't want to carry a mini library in your bag, an e-reader could be your best friend. Toss it in a bag and you'll never be short of something to read. And you won't have to recharge it every day like a tablet.

2. You don't want a bookshelf collection

Let's face it, not every book is deserving of a hardback special edition. If you don't want to keep buying bookshelves, then an e-reader is an easy way to get a massive collection of books that don't need a room of their own in your home.

3. Read under a tree

The e-ink screen of an e-reader is easier to see outdoors than a tablet screen. You can take it to the beach or to the park and still read easily without worrying about glare.

4. Bring your book to life

If you want to add notes to your book, quickly look up words or change the text size, you can do all of this with an e-reader. Try zooming in on a paperback.

5. Environmentally friendly

Electronic devices add to e-waste, but if you hold onto your e-reader long enough and use it regularly, you can rest easy knowing you've saved a truckload of paper and all the associated environmental costs of printing and shipping your books.

Five reasons not to buy an e-reader

1. You want a tablet

If you really, really, really want a tablet, then it's probably worth spending the money rather than facing disappointment. You'll get a computer as well as an e-reader and the smaller, lighter generation of tablets make it more comfortable to hold it in bed and carry in a handbag to pull out and read at your next doctor's appointment.

2. You don't want two devices

If you're short on space and don't like the idea of carrying two devices, or you don't want to decide which one you're going to need on a day out or on holiday, then don't buy two devices. You might be better off choosing one or the other and accepting the limitations inherent in each.

3. Not everything can be read on an e-reader

An e-reader won't be able to read all types of electronic documents. Most will read ePub files and PDFs, but some of these files have built-in copy protection to prevent sharing files unlawfully and they won't open on some e-readers. If you have a tablet, you can also get free books from your public library online too.

4. You don't want to recharge

Unlike a paperback, an e-reader will eventually run out of battery life and there's no more reading if you can't find a power point. This can be inconvenient and ties you in to taking a charger and/or adapter with you on holiday and needing to recharge when battery life gets low.

5. You like real books

So you're a traditionalist and proud of it. No need to apologise for that. The physical feel of a book can't be replicated with an ebook, and there's no point pretending it can. Some people will never accept the idea of an ebook, while others find it liberating to have an almost endless supply of reading material at their fingertips.

Is an e-reader easy on the eyes?

All e-readers use electronic ink (e-ink) and a non-reflective display screen that simulates the appearance of a paper book.

  • E-readers don't require a backlight, unlike other electronic viewing devices, like laptops and tablets. This means less strain on the eyes after prolonged viewing and good readability even in direct sunlight.
  • The e-ink display can keep an image or page of text onscreen without using any power, until the screen is refreshed by turning to the next page. This is especially useful for slow readers.
  • The downside of an e-ink display is that like a paperback, you need an external light source like a bedside lamp or a book light in low-light conditions. However, more and more models are appearing with front lit screens that can be dimmed when not required.

What files do e-readers use?

Most e-readers that don't have Kindle in the name use the ePub (electronic publication) file type. This is a standard format developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum and is one of the most commonly available file types.

  • Ebooks can be copyright-protected and in this case will usually include a DRM (digital rights management) code that controls how digital media files can be used and shared.
  • DRM protection is designed to control the unauthorised duplication and illegal distribution of copyrighted digital media.
  • This makes DRM-protected ebooks difficult to share on another ebook reader.

What to look for

Accessories

  • Does the reader come with an AC adapter (mains socket charger) or only a USB cable (for plugging into a PC)? An AC adapter provides more flexibility for charging as it can be used with a standard power point. This may be an optional extra. Note that Australian chargers may not be included with an e-reader.
  • Some e-readers without a backlit screen have a built-in or optional external book light device to assist with reading in low-light conditions.

Controls

  • Whether you decide on a model that uses a touchscreen or buttons – or a combination of both – you need to be able to work your way through the story in an intuitive manner so there are no distractions to your reading enjoyment.
  • Hold the reader as if you were reading a book and see if the buttons are in the right place for you. You don't want to be fumbling for the control to turn to the next page.
  • Spend some time going through the menus to see how easy it is to access the reader's advanced features.

Connectivity

  • Does it have internet connectivity via Wi-Fi, 3G or both?
  • Kindle e-readers with 3G connectivity contain an internal SIM card that allows you to buy books online. This service is provided free by Amazon, but cannot be used for anything other than basic web browsing and buying books on Amazon.

Cloud access

  • 3G is becoming less of an advantage due to the proliferation of smartphone ownership and reasonable online data plans.
  • If you have a smartphone, you should be able to use your e-reader to access documents online and in the cloud anywhere with a mobile network signal. To do this, enable the personal hotspot feature on your smartphone. This turns it into a mobile internet access point. Then connect the e-reader as you would to your home wireless network. Although mobile network contracts often include an internet data plan, check to see if you have enough data at your disposal before using this feature. Most ebook files are small (usually under 1MB), so you won't need a large plan to download an ebook.

Document file formats

  • Not all readers support every ebook format. Check ebook stores to see what format the books you want come in (the most common form is ePub). Also, check if they're locked with DRM.
  • Compare this with the e-reader's specifications for compatibility. Some may list a format but only support this format without DRM, so look for a listing of which DRM-locked formats it does support.
  • Another popular ebook format is Adobe PDFs, which are good for keeping the look and style consistent, but resizing an ebook font can be difficult or impossible.
  • Access to a large number of file formats is important, as it increases the chances that the book you want is available, either for purchase or free download.

E-libraries

Many local libraries allow patrons to borrow a virtual copy of a book. Simply enter your library card details and download the ebook to your PC or Mac, using an app like Overdrive. You can then transfer the title to your e-reader to enjoy for up to three weeks.

Screen

The e-reader screen should be clear to read in normal lighting conditions so it doesn't cause eyestrain. If you want to read in low-light conditions you'll need some form of lighting, either built-in back- or side-lighting, or external lighting. Some devices come with an external book light built-in or as an attachment (this may be an optional extra).

Storage capacity

Most e-readers have built-in (on-board) memory and some also have microSD memory card slots that allow you to read as many ebooks as the card can store. The on-board memory generally ranges from 512MB to 4GB (1GB will hold about 1000 books).

Cost

E-readers range in price from $100 for an Amazon Kindle or $120 for a Kobo, to $399 for a Kindle Voyage or over $400 for the latest Kindle Oasis. In comparison, an e-reader tablet alternative like the iPad Mini is or $299, or $399 for the high-resolution Retina Display model.

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