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Is an e-reader right for you?

We look at how e-readers work, what the reading experience is like, and reasons why you may want to get one.

woman reads ebook in street

So, that big trip is finally looming and you're asking yourself how many books you can pack while still having space and 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. 

But are e-readers a better option than a tablet? What's the reading experience like? How do you know what makes for a good e-reader? We look into all of this and more.

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How does an e-reader work?

An ebook reader or e-reader is an electronic device that looks similar to a tablet although the display doesn't require back illumination. There's also no power requirement to keep the text or illustration on the 'page' so an e-reader can operate on a single charge much longer than other display devices. 

Generally, e-readers operate by reading a file and presenting the content on the display as electronic ink or 'e-ink'. Each page is presented as a page on the touch screen with each new page presented as a refreshed display by swiping the screen left or right or via a button press on the device. 

While a colour version of e-ink is possible, by far the most popular form of e-reader displays the content in greyscale and at a low resolution. Improvements in e-reader technology in the latest models deliver a faster refresh rate and slightly higher resolution.

Should you get an e-reader or a 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?

There are two good reasons to go with a simple e-reader.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

The popularity of the tablet has not escaped makers of ebook reading devices. Tablet features, such as touchscreens with swiping and screen lighting, have been incorporated into many dedicated e-readers to improve ease of navigation and readability in low-light conditions.

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. Best of all, you won't have to recharge it every day like a tablet. New titles are also available immediately on their day of publication, often before they hit stores in Australia.
  2. You don't want a bookshelf collection: 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. Ebooks are also generally cheaper than their paper equivalents.
  3. You want to read outdoors: 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, and they're also small, thin and lightweight.
  4. You want to 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.
  5. You want a device that's environmentally friendly: All electronic devices, including e-readers, 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. Unlike other smart devices, your e-reader should be your companion for several years.

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 small computer as well as an e-reader.
  2. You don't want two devices: If you're short on space and don't like the idea of carrying around two devices, or you don't want to decide which one you're going to need on a day out or on holiday, don't add an e-reader into the mix. 
  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. The screen quality for colour images will also be better on a tablet device.
  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 locks you in to taking a charger and/or adapter with you on holiday.
  5. You like real books: So you're a traditionalist and proud of it. No need to apologise for that. The physical feel and smell of a book still can't be replicated with an ebook, and there's no point pretending it can.

What's it like reading on an e-reader?

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. However, most e-readers now include a front-lit display so you can read your ebook anywhere, day or night, and dimmed when not required.

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. 

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.

Kindle e-readers from Amazon use Amazon's proprietary file format AZW with digital rights management (DRM). It's only supported on Kindle e-readers, but the Amazon Kindle application is available on PC, Mac (OSX/iOS) and Android devices. The DRM-free version of the file is called MOBI and is also supported on Amazon Kindle devices as well as many other e-reading devices.

Can you share ebooks?

Ebooks can be copyright-protected and in this case will often include a DRM 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 (though of course it's up to you whether you share your sign-in with family members or friends).

What to look for in an e-reader

Accessories

Does the e-reader come with an AC adapter (mains socket charger) or only a USB cable? On one hand, including an AC adapter in the package can be handy, but with the widespread availability of chargers available with smartphones, it could be argued that just including the cable in the box is a better environmental outcome. 

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 e-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, a mobile network connection or both? All e-readers these days support Wi-Fi to transfer your ebooks to the e-reader over your home wireless network. But some Kindle e-readers also include 3G connectivity, with an embedded SIM card that allows you to buy books online without spending any data if you're away from a Wi-Fi connection. 

This was a very handy feature several years ago when mobile data was expensive, but almost any smartphone can now connect an e-reader to the internet using the hotspot feature and it won't cost you anything to download a book or two using your available mobile data.

To do this, enable the personal hotspot feature on your smartphone. This turns the smartphone 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.

Audiobooks

While newer Kindle e-readers may have support for Bluetooth, Australian Amazon customers won't have the same access to Audible books as Amazon users in other countries. However, the Bluetooth feature does offer Kindle users in all countries the VoiceView screen reader feature, providing spoken feedback allowing you to navigate your device and read books with text-to-speech (available in English only).

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).

How much do e-readers cost?

E-readers range in price from $140 for an Amazon Kindle or $150 for a Kobo to more than $400 for the latest Kindle Oasis or $600 for the Kobo Elipsa. In comparison, an e-reader tablet alternative like the iPad can cost upwards of $600.

How to dispose of your e-reader

Given that e-readers can last many years and still perform perfectly well, keeping your device as long as possible would be the best way to act sustainably. So if you feel you need to have the latest and greatest e-reader or are maybe contemplating a colour e-ink e-reader, the first step would be to pass the device down the line to a family member or friend.

Donate it

If your e-reader is still working well and you simply want to upgrade, you may want to donate it to somewhere like Salvos or Vinnies. If the device is a Kobo e-reader you could also gift it to the local library as visitors can enjoy the library's ebook range. While the Red Cross doesn't accept electrical goods, a device like  an e-reader may be an exception. You can also get in touch with smaller charities that serve your community.

Recycle it

E-readers comfortably fit into e-waste (computers, smartphones and accessories) or appliances, so can be readily recycled. You can also check out the Recycling Near You database. It'll show you where to find e-waste services in your area.

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.