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.

Printed books are still useful

There are some significant differences between reading a printed book and an e-book, however. Printed books are discrete, which means that you can leaf through them randomly, backward or forward, stop wherever something catches your interest, and flip to a specific page in seconds. E-books are serial devices that proceed sequentially, so you can't easily thumb through the text at random.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that, like all other electronic devices, e-readers require power to operate. While you can pick up a centuries-old book, turn a page and begin reading, once your e-reader's battery charge is exhausted, you're stranded. (A couple of models feature user-swappable batteries, while others can provide power via a USB cable or AC adapter.) E-readers with monochrome screens can give readers days or even weeks of service on a single charge. However, tablets with power-hungry touch screens need to be recharged after six to 10 hours of reading.

Buying e-books

The process of buying and downloading e-books varies from device to device. The most convenient e-readers are those that feature both 3G and Wi-Fi, which automatically connect to a linked online bookstore, allowing you to browse among hundreds of thousands of titles, usually organized by what's new, bestsellers, author, category, price and other criteria. When you find a book description you like, you can either download a free sample or purchase the book. Since the e-bookstore already has your credit card number and e-reader address, all it takes is a single click to buy the book and have it automatically delivered to the device.

Less sophisticated devices connect to online bookstores and public-domain e-book Web sites via a USB cable that connects to your computer (and which usually doubles as a charger).

As with Macs and PCs, e-reader file incompatibilities must be considered when purchasing or downloading an e-book, newspaper or document. Most e-readers recognize and use the industry ePub file format, but Amazon's Kindle uses a proprietary format called AMZ. What this means is that B&N's Nook, which does use ePub, and Amazon's Kindle can't directly download e-books from each other's bookstores. This probably isn't a problem for most users, since both vendors essentially offer the same inventory at similar prices. But if you already own, say, a Nook and you want one of the new Kindles -- sorry, but you won't be able to transfer your library from one to the other.

Most public-domain Web sites, such as Project Gutenberg, and some smaller e-bookstores allow users to specify which format they want their e-books in. However, many public-domain e-books are available only in PDF or TXT formats, which not all e-readers can handle. What's more, even if your device can display PDF files, it may not format correctly, forcing you to pan across the page to read everything. Some e-readers can correctly format ("reflow") PDF files for easier reading, and some allow users to zoom in and out to better view details.

Most e-readers also allow users to download their own files (including JPEG photos and MP3 audio), but only a few can display Microsoft Word's DOC/DOCX formats, a disadvantage if you want to carry your departmental report or great American novel manuscript with you. Incidentally, while you can download personal files for free to your USB/Wi-Fi-equipped Kindle, you'll have to pay 99 cents to Amazon if you want that same file transmitted wirelessly via your 3G connection.

Do you own your e-book?

Buy a print book, and it's yours forever, to keep, give away or sell to whomever you wish. Most e-books, however, are saddled with what is known as DRM, or digital rights management. This witch's brew of legalese is heavily slanted toward the publisher rather than the book buyer and essentially says that you own the right to read the book, period. It's not yours to lend, sell or give away.

The exception is Barnes & Noble's loan capability, which lets you loan a specific e-book to a friend with a compatible e-reader device one time only, and for no more than 14 days. While it's out, you can't simultaneously read it on your Nook, and when it's returned at the end of two weeks, you can't loan it out again.

Tablets vs. e-readers vs. print books

Although sales of e-readers are going gangbusters, some industry pundits are already speculating that the iPad and other tablets could kill off e-readers entirely. Tablets incorporate e-reader functionality and connection to electronic bookstores, but they're multipurpose devices that can also be used as computers, personal multimedia centers, Web browsers, communications devices or anything else that tens of thousands of apps can open up. However, other experts say that those who do a lot of reading will stick with the more lightweight, easier-on-the-eyes e-readers.

And printed books? Back in the early 1990s, the first crop of digital cameras debuted to an indifferent public, who were quite unimpressed with their high prices, terrible performance and awful image quality. These days, however, digital cameras are ubiquitous and film cameras virtually extinct. Similarly, most publishing experts predict that paper-and-ink books -- as well as physical newspapers and magazines -- will ultimately go the way of the dodo.

But along the way to book extinction, there will be a continual shakeout in the e-reader industry as overpriced, poorly designed or underpowered devices succumb to buyer apathy, while better, less expensive e-readers continue to flood the market.

It's an exciting era for the publishing industry, and a great time for readers everywhere.

Comparing e-readers

Including privately branded devices and Asian knockoffs, there are probably more than a score of e-readers currently on the American market. For this roundup, we focused on currently shipping, readily available models, most by mainstream vendors. These include the Alex, jetBook Lite, iPad, Kindle, Kobo, Libre eBook Reader Pro, Nook and Pandigital Novel.

Sony's latest e-readers

Sony has recently introduced new versions of its three e-readers: the Reader Pocket Edition, Reader Touch Edition and Reader Daily Edition. While the upcoming models weren't available in time for this article, Computerworld did get a first look at the devices -- check out the article: Sony introduces three light, bright touch-screen e-readers

Because of deadline pressures, we could not include a number of e-readers scheduled or rumored for imminent third- or fourth-quarter release, including devices from Velocity Micro, Asus, Acer, Sharp, Sony and Copia. (Check back for future Computerworld coverage.)

How we tested

To put our collection of e-readers through their paces, we downloaded one of the great works of Western literature that we've somehow never found time to read: Leo Tolstoy's monumental novel War and Peace. Since it is in the public domain, downloads are free (except for the $2.99 we paid to secure a version from Sony's library, which turned out to be Volume II and not the entire work).

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