E-reader roundup: 8 devices compete for the crown

We look at the current state of the market and review 8 of the most popular e-readers

In ancient times, the elite read their sacred writings, histories, philosophical musings and more on materials such as clay tablets, papyrus leaves and vellum scrolls. Somewhere around the first century, the paper-and-ink book appeared, and the invention of the mechanical printing press in the 15th century brought the printed word to the masses. Now, for the first time in centuries, how we read is undergoing a revolutionary transformation.

Welcome to the world of the e-reader.

Join us as we take a look at the current e-reader market -- not an easy task, since it's constantly in flux -- to determine the current state of the technology, and ponder the industry's burning question du jour: Will dedicated e-readers disappear now that tablets are starting to appear?

We also review eight of the most visible e-readers now available -- including Apple's iPad, which has been touted as a more useful alternative to dedicated e-readers.

A constantly changing market

E-readers -- as well as tablets that provide e-reader capabilities -- are among the fastest-growing segments of the electronics industry. For example, during a session on e-readers that the International Digital Publishing Forum conducted at BookExpo America in May, several of the panelists emphasized the smashing success of e-readers during the 2009 holiday season.

It's also changing rapidly. In the six weeks we spent testing units and writing our reviews, the e-book and e-reader industries morphed almost beyond recognition. The two biggest e-reader vendors -- Amazon and Barnes & Noble -- dramatically reduced their prices, and two others -- Plastic Logic and Kno -- canceled or delayed long-announced, highly anticipated products.

Meanwhile, the latest version of Amazon's Kindle proved so wildly popular that it sold out with hours of being introduced -- a full month before it was even scheduled to ship -- while Amazon announced that for the first time, the number of e-books sold was greater than the number of hardcover books sold. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. not only acquired an e-reader manufacturer (Skiff) but declared its intention to publish an all-electronic newspaper that would compete directly with The New York Times and USA Today.

And there's more, much more. For instance, Stieg Larsson's Swedish thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo became the first e-book to sell more than a million downloads. E Ink Corp., the company that manufactures most of the monochrome displays used in e-readers, projects that it will manufacture over 10 million screens this year alone. School boards and textbook publishers everywhere are feverishly planning for the imminent retirement and replacement of high-priced physical textbooks; tomorrow's students will simply have all the books they need for the next semester transmitted directly to their e-readers.

And practically every day, Publishers Weekly, Publishers Lunch, Editor & Publisher and other online industry trade magazines carry multiple news stories about e-books, e-readers, and all the problems and promises the publishing industry is experiencing as it rapidly transitions from paper and ink to all-digital.

Using e-readers

Although they may incorporate a variety of functions, e-readers are designed primarily for a single purpose: reading. Many e-readers are directly associated with one of the major e-bookstores like Amazon or Borders, facilitating simple, one-click purchases and downloads from among hundreds of thousands of books, newspapers and magazines. There is also a vast reservoir (1.5 million-plus) of free public-domain works (primarily books published before 1923 whose American copyrights have expired) available from a variety of sources.

The majority of the devices use display technology from E Ink, resulting in a monochrome, nonbacklit page that looks far more like a printed page than the images on an LCD screen. And, as with a printed book, you can read in just about any light, including bright sunlight, but when there's no light, you must turn on a lamp to read.

A few devices use a thin-film transistor (TFT) type of LCD instead. Tablet-type e-readers incorporate highly reflective color touch screens that, like a computer monitor or digital camera LCD viewfinder, transmit light directly to your eye. That makes them difficult to read in direct sunlight, but easy to read in low-light conditions.

Most e-readers are small and light enough so that you can hold and read them with one hand, just as you would a paperback. Text is usually displayed one page at a time, formatted to look like a traditional book. To turn the page, the reader either pushes a button or swipes a finger across the screen.

Depending on the brand, you can change the size of the font, specify the typeface, select a set of foreign language characters, zoom in on photos and graphics, or rotate the page orientation from portrait to landscape. If you encounter an unfamiliar word, pressing a button or touching an icon will display the built-in dictionary's definition.

E-readers come with either a physical or a virtual keyboard for recording notes or annotations that can be linked with a word, sentence, paragraph or section, or to search for a specific word or reference. If you want to return later to a certain page, you can bookmark it electronically for easy retrieval.

Depending on the device, you can highlight or save selected text, view other readers' highlights of significant passages, surf the Web, send and retrieve e-mail, directly access Wikipedia, lend e-books to a friend, borrow from an e-book library, or transfer an e-book to your PC, smartphone or other device. Many e-readers also allow you to download and play MP3 music while you're reading, have your book read out loud via a speech-to-text capability, view your photo gallery, or join a social network of like-minded readers to rate, recommend or review e-books you love or hate.

All e-readers have the capacity to download and store hundreds or thousands of e-books and can help you organize your e-books into searchable collections and categories. Some enable expansion via optional SD or microSD memory cards, and many allow you to permanently archive your purchased e-books in the cloud so you can retrieve them at anytime, anywhere and on any device.

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