So, You're Thinking About Buying A Digital Reading Device.

I have been getting a lot of questions regarding e-reading devices lately. I assume it is because of the upcoming holiday season. People must be deciding what to buy for their loved ones or what to put on the own lists for Santa. I have gotten enough questions that I have decided to take a moment away from NaNo, Thanksgiving prep, and eating M&Ms to provide some answers, at least the best ones that I can.

I hope to provide some answers to the questions that I have been asked recently. However, one question that I can not answer is “Which reader should I buy?” I can not answer this, because it will depend upon a number of different factors and personal preferences. I can tell you which one I purchased and why.

Another thing that I won’t be doing is providing an unbiased opinion either. I absolutely love my own device. I have reasons to prefer it over other devices. I am sure that this will come through.

I am always hesitant about using Wikipedia as an ultimate source of information, but this
entry provides a nice comparison of some of the things we’ll be discussing here.

The first question that you have to examine is, do you actually want an e-reader? Are you the kind of reader who wants a device which is specifically designed for reading? Can you justify the purchase of such a device?

Now before you get all up in arms, remember that I already own one. Two actually.

It is, however, something to consider.

Odds are, you already have a device capable of performing as a reader. There are numerous applications available for iPhones, Androids, Blackberry’s (Blackberries?), and other smart phones which allow them to function as digital readers. There some definite positives associated with this. The most obvious is that you already own the device. The only money you will be shelling out is for the application (which may actually be free). This means you have more money to buy books! Another positive is that if you are like most Americans (my wife excluded) you have your phone on you 90% of the time. If you get stuck in line at the bank or in a waiting room, boom you have your books as well. I have a couple of apps on my phone for exactly this reason.

There are some downsides as well. The one that springs immediately to mind is the size of the screen. Some people balk at the idea of reading an entire book on a screen the size of the palm of their hand. “I could never do

Yeah, but you said you would never send e-mail from your phone either, didn’t you. You would never use your phone as a calendar, to update Twitter...

Wait, that reminds me...

I personally do not find reading on my phone comfortable, not because of any eyestrain caused by the screen size but by the fact that I constantly have to turn the page. There’s just not enough data on the screen at any one time for me. I am sure that I could get used to it, but I would rather not.

My other main reason for not using my phone as a reader is the same reason I do not use it as a music player: I don’t want to run down the battery. Between texting, Twitter, Facebook, and the inevitable game I burn through the battery life quickly enough as it is. I would like to have at least a little juice left should I have to, oh, I don’t know, make a phone call or something.

So, if we are ruling out phones, what other device do you have that you can use as a reader? Perhaps the one I am composing this post on -- the laptop. The laptop is a great device for reading in terms of storage space, availability to read multiple formats (but I am getting a little ahead of myself, here). The major downside to using your laptop as a reader is size. Even the slimmest of the new skinny butt laptops is still pretty clunky compared to a slick e-reader. There is also the form issue. Laptops are designed to sit on your lap. They are generally not made for one-handed use. Reading on a computer is less like reading a book than reading on a reader is. It’s more like...well, like reading on a computer

This is an issue I see mentioned frequently, the “I use a computer all day long and I don’t want to read on my computer when I get home.” To these people I say: an e-reader may not be for you.

Then again, I bet you watch YouTube at home and surf the interwebz after using your computer at work all day.

I do not mean to be flip. There are some real differences between computer screen reading and paper reading. Some of these issues have been addressed by the creation of
E Ink. Many e-readers use E Ink or similar software which is designed to make the reading experience less like words on a monitor and more like actually reading words on a page.

This is not an issue for me. I have been reading things on computers for so long that it would not come close to bothering me. If this is something that may bother you, than this is something to consider.

This would be a good place to segue into a discussion of how reading on a dedicated digital reading device differs from reading on a computer, but there is another type of device we must discuss first. Actually, it is two types of devices but I’ll lump them into the same category as they fulfill many of the same requirements. Personally, I think that they will be what introduces many people into the world of digital reading: tablets and netbooks.

When most people think about “reading” in the context we are discussing, they are thinking about reading for pleasure. The device which they will read on should be portable and easy to use in lots of different situations. It is difficult, although not impossible, to read on a laptop in bed or on a train on the way to work. This is where a smaller device domes in handy.

The other benefit is that like the laptop and smartphone, tablets and netbooks do more than allow you to read your books. This means that like the other devices, you will have other reasons to carry it with you. There are a number of different applications which will allow you to read your digital books on your brand new tablet or netbook.

The downside, of course, is going to be price. You are going to spend a lot more for a multi-tasking device of this sort than you will for a dedicated reader. There are also issues of whether or not you will be reading if you have dozens of other applications available to you on your new device. To be honest, I have very little experience with these gadgets and besides, isn’t this supposed to be about digital readers.

As I mentioned earlier, there are a number of features which one must consider before purchasing (or asking for) your digital reading device. One of these is price, but if you are asking for your reader as a present, you can probably ignore this one.

[This is coming from someone who purchased his device with gift cards he received by trading in his credit card bonus points. Yep, that’s right. It was free.]

All kidding aside, let’s examine the features you may be interested in.

One of the major reasons I selected the Sony is that it supports a huge number of formats. At this point there is no industry standard when it comes to digital publication. I am personally in the “rooting for ePub” camp. This is not to discredit other popular formats like PDF, TXT, RTF, DOC, HTML, Mobi, and a whole slew of others that I have never heard of. A device which reads multiple formats fits well with what I use my reader for. I can read a wide variety of publications. I can also read unpublished material of my own and that written by members of my
writing group. I have also used my reader to review submissions for Ghostlight magazine.

This could also be detrimental. If you want to use your device for nothing but leisure reading but are of the type who may guilt yourself into reading work related projects on it, you may want to look at devices with a more limited range of formats. This is becoming increasingly difficult as many new readers recognize the benefit of having more content available for those who use their devices.

Another important consideration is where you are going to be purchasing (or simply downloading) your material. Most readers have some type of dedicated site. There is a Sony Bookstore which I can access for my Sony reader. Barnes & Noble’s Nook has Barnes & Noble. The Kindle is, as we all know, tied to
Amazon. [Yes, it is one of the most widely recognized websites on the planet. Yes, I still have issues with many of Amazon’s practices. Yes, it is one of the reasons I do not own a Kindle. I’ve already done plenty of ranting about that elsewhere on the site.]

Owners of e-readers are by no means limited to the one website tied to their device (although Kindle owners are pretty close, ahem...sorry). I highly recommend checking out
Project Gutenberg. It is a user supported site which has links to thousands of free e-books. The majority of these are books which are free in the United States because their copyright has expired. This includes most of the classics -- Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Stoker, Kafka, Bronte, Dumas, Melville, Machiavelli, Christie, Wells, Doyle, even the brothers Grimm.

Science Fiction readers will want to check out the
Baen Free Library. Many authors have retained their digital rights (or fought for them) and are making their material available on their own websites.

Hmm, sounds like a topic for another post. I’m getting a little sidetracked here.

Where was I? Ah yes, other things to consider.

Backlight: this is a very popular feature which my reader does not have. This is great if you do a lot of reading in bed with a partner who has trouble sleeping if there are lights on. Fortunately, I am not plagued by this problem. In fact, I find backlighting very tiring on my eyes. I generally have my screens dimmed, whatever the device. [Sidenote: This may be a throwback to the white or green lettering on black screens that I associate with my early forays into computing. I even have my Tweetdeck set up to resemble this old school setting.] Yes, sometimes it may be easier to read without an external light source, but this was not a feature I required.

Touchscreen: This was a feature I deemed necessary. It is why I have the middle priced Sony instead of the less expensive one. I love the fact that I can highlight, edit, and make notes on documents that I have on my reader. Not all devices have touchscreens and not all those that do have the ability to highlight, edit, and make notes. Some devices which do not have touchscreens do (using the built in keyboard). Research the device you are looking at and see if it supports these features if you want them (or if you want to avoid them so you have an excuse to not sully your new gadget with crap downloaded from work).

WiFi: Speaking of downloading (see what I did there? Almost like I planned it or something.) many e-readers feature wifi connectivity. Stuck in an airport and need something to read? Hear about a really cool book while sitting at the coffee shop? Just connect wirelessly and in a few clicks you can be downloading your new book.

I purchased a reader which does
not have this feature for exactly that reason. I know my limitations and my weaknesses. If I had the ability to purchase books on a whim I would certainly do so. I need a device which requires me to link up to my computer in order to make a purchase. As it is I have more books than I can read in five years.

Battery Life: You do not want to be at a gripping point of the story only to have your reader crap out on you. Similarly, how easy it is to recharge your device? Do you have to link it to a computer to do so? This will mean carrying your laptop with you on vacation if you plan to read longer than the life of the battery. I have a rapid charger and a car charger for the Sony.

Accessories: Does the device have chargers available? Covers? Book light attachments? Most of the bigger name devices do, but some of the smaller (or newer) models may not.

Memory: This should probably be much higher on the list. It is one of the selling points for all digital readers. How many times have your heard the announcer voice say “Carry your entire library in your hand” or something like it? Well, it’s a bit of an exaggeration, but your device should have the capacity to carry a large number of titles. How about expansion slots? Many devices have the ability to slap in a memory card and add to the number of titles you can carry. Notably, Kindle does not. If you fill that bad boy up (and it will take a while, don’t get me wrong) you will have to start deleting things in order to put in new material.

Or just wait until Amazon deletes them for you.

Sorry, sorry. I know.

Interesting side note which will explain the beauty of my reader: I was at Convergence this year, recording video of the various panels I was attending. Half way through one of the readings, I realized that the memory card in my camera was full. Fortunately, I had my Sony PRS-650 in my bag as well (which has expansion slots for both Memory Stick Duo and SG cards). It should be no surprise that my Sony camera uses SG cards. I popped the card out of my reader and into my camera and kept on shooting.

If you are looking at a device which has expandable memory, make sure it is a standard format. Having to search dozens of computer stores to find an oddball memory card is a true pain in the butt.

Compatibility: Really, this should not be an issue any more, right? I mean, those of us with Apple products should not be limited to only a few devices. Honestly, it probably will not be an issue unless you are buying something straight out of the far east, but it never hurts to check. That goes for the kind of connections required, too. Everything
should be USB and the cable should come with the device.

Size: How big a device you do want? Do you want something that fits easily into a jacket pocket, just like your favorite paperback? Those devices exist, but you may have to pass on some other things like a full keyboard.

Input: Do you want a keyboard to take notes with? If you are going with a touchscreen, do you want one with a stylus? There are a number of different ways in which readers access the information on their devices. Make sure that the controls on the model you are looking at are comfortable for you. Don’t just look at them, play around with them a little before you buy.

Other functions: Do you want Text to Speech? This was the big flap earlier this year, the Text to Speech vs. Audiobook debate. My Sony does not have a Text to Speech function, but it does support audio files. I can’t get the reader to read to me, but I can listen to audio books.

If you are looking at a device which support audio of some type, how will you listen? Earphone jacks should be standard for devices with audio functions. Make sure the jacks are standard as well. You don’t want those awesome noise canceling headphones to be useless, do you?

What about pictures and video? As the popularity of “additional content” rises, you may want a device which will allow you to watch interviews with the author and other video. If you are going to be reading textbooks or other technical books, make sure that your reader supports popular graphics files (PDF, TIFF, JPEG). You will probably want one which displays these in color (mine does not).

I know that I am forgetting something here, but I can not think of any other considerations at the moment. If something else pops into my head, I will be sure to add it.

Finally, for those who are interested, I have a
link to a panel from Convergence which discussed e-readers and digital publishing. I apologize for the sound quality, it’s not the greatest but I have cleaned it up as best I can.