Choosing An Ebook Reader

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There are many different eBook devices and they all carry their own advantages and disadvantages. No single device is 'best', and your choice will depend on your unique requirements. You can find some excellent advice on the best unit for your needs in the MobileRead Forum titled: Which one should I buy? However, in order to understand the advice you receive there are some basic concepts you need to understand.


[edit] Hardware, Software and Books

You will need to put together three pieces to read an electronic book. The hardware is the physical device, the software is the program that lets you read a book. The book is an electronic file that contains the author's actual manuscript.

As an analogy consider a letter that you might write on your computer. When you write the letter you use a computer (hardware), and software (Word Processor) to write the letter (book file). Technically-savvy readers will notice that this analogy ignores the operating system. In fact, eBook Devices do have both operating systems and software programs. However, the user interfaces often hide the details of the operating system and we can think of the operating system plus the application as simply 'software'.

When you purchase a hardware device it comes with software for reading books. There may be a few sample books included, but you are basically buying an empty device that you will load books onto in the future. When you acquire an actual book, you will get an electronic file that you will transfer to your eBook device. Your book reader probably has room for over one thousand of these book files.

[edit] Book Formats

There are many different eBook formats, and the software on your device will only be able to read some formats. Let's return to our computer analogy again. Your computer probably has many different files on it. If you open a letter that you typed, it will be opened by your word processing program. If you open a music file, it will be opened by your media player. Your word processing program and your media player are types of software. Each software program opens different types of files. If you try to open a program and your computer doesn't have the correct software installed, you will not be able to open the program.

This issue of file formats also exists for the world of eBook devices. Each device comes with its own set of software, and depending on the software there are certain file formats it can read, and certain file formats it can not read. As an example, a file purchased from Amazon for the Kindle reader can not be read on a Sony eBook device. If you are comfortable with technology, it may be possible to convert files (see E-book conversion) from the wrong format to the correct format.

See eBook formats for more information.

[edit] PDF Format

One format that deserves special mention is the PDF format. It is a popular format for articles, especially non-fiction articles from universities. Because of this, many people want to read PDF files on their ebook reader. Unfortunately, it is not always as easy to read PDF as users might hope. Many older PDF files contain pictures of pages instead of actual text. As a result, it may not be possible for your reader to reformat a PDF to fit on a five or six inch screen. When PDF's can be converted to text, there may also be problems if they contain many graphics or complex formulas. Smaller screens may not be able to adequately display the graphic and any accompanying text on the same page. The simplest solution is to consider a large screen reader. Since many people who want PDF capability also want note taking, a tablet computer is also worthy of consideration.

[edit] Digital Rights Management (DRM)

Some book formats also support optional copy protection technology, also called Digital Rights Management (DRM). Many of the tradeoffs in choosing a device depend on DRM, so we will explain this concept.

Physical books, such as paperback books, have an inherent copy protection. Although it may be possible to copy a physical book, the time and cost of printing it makes it fairly infeasible. In general, when you purchase a paperback, you only have one copy of the book. If you are reading the book yourself, you can not loan it to someone else. If you loan it to one friend, you can not loan it to another friend until it is returned by the first friend.

However, electronic files do not normally have these limitations. You can take an electronic file and send it to 50 friends. Not only do all of these friends now have access to that file, but you also still have the file. If this file is a book, this would mean that all of these people would be able to read the book without paying for it.

In theory, DRM is designed to control the free copying of creative works, such as books. Each consumer would have to legally acquire a copy of the book before they could read it.

[edit] Consumer Concerns with Digital Rights Management (DRM)

DRM copy protection can pose limitations on book use that frustrates some consumers. In some cases, these limitations may be unintended consequences that result from the goal of book suppliers to limit the illegal free distribution of their creative works. In other cases, DRM works as it is intended, but consumers may feel that the limitations are too intrusive. Following are some activities that may be restricted by DRM.

Upgrading Hardware Many consumers have found themselves on their second or third ebook reader. It is not uncommon for a consumer to have hundreds of electronic books. If the books are protected by DRM, it may not be possible to bring their old books to their new reader.

Supplier Longevity Some suppliers do try to help consumers when they upgrade devices, or help consumers recover lost files. However, this support requires the supplier stay in business. In comparison, you can buy a paperback book and keep it for twenty years. However, your ability to retain access to a copy-protected file may change if the supplier goes out of business or changes their software over the next twenty years. As an illustration of this concern, consider the history of two large eBook suppliers. At one point in time, Amazon offered eBooks that could be read on computers. However, they withdrew support for these books, and shut down that portion of their business. Similarly, Sony used to offer another type of creative work, music, in a copy-protected format. They changed business direction and shut down their music store. As a result, all past customers lost access to sound tracks that they had purchased.

Book Sharing Although DRM can stop widespread copying of books, it also eliminates sharing books. For example, you might buy a book and then loan it out to your son, daughter, spouse, or parent. Some types of DRM can make it difficult to share books -- even between family members. This is an extremely controversial issue because some suppliers feel that every reader should purchase their own copy of the book while some consumers feel that purchasing a book should allow you to share that book as long as it isn't actually copied.

Multi-Device Use Many users consume books on multiple devices. They may read on their desktop at work. At home they may use a dedicated book reader. On the road they may use a smartphone device. Some DRM approaches may not support multi-device reading. Similarly, the Kindle supports text reading, but it will also read books aloud using a computer Text-To-Speech (TTS) program. Some ebook providers have chosen to dis-allow the TTS capability. These suppliers believe that consumers should pay for each device and/or format through which the book is accessed.

[edit] DRM and the Market Value of Creative Works

The supply-side of the book industry includes many stakeholders. Some of these include writers, publishers, printers, and retailers (both bricks & mortar and online retailers). Some supply-side stakeholders believe that DRM protects their market. For example, an author who spends a year writing a book may be upset if thousands of people read their book without paying for it.

In addition to eliminating book copying, DRM also influences consumer buying behavior. When a consumer purchases a device, their purchases of books may be influenced by the file types and DRM formats that the device will read. As a result, the consumer may buy most of their books from a provider that is affiliated with the device. Eventually, the user will have a large sum invested in books from that provider. When the consumer upgrades their hardware they will loose all of their old books unless they buy their new book reader from the same source as their previous reader. As a result, DRM can act as a 'lock-in' that ties consumers to a single book provider and a single hardware provider. Although this lock-in scenario has not been directly suggested by suppliers, it is an effect that has been reported by consumers.

However, despite these issues, some believe that DRM hurts the market more than it protects suppliers properties. According to this viewpoint, DRM makes it difficult for consumers to use the books they purchase. As a result, they feel that many consumers will choose not to purchase books with DRM.

Furthermore, DRM-free proponents feel that unintended copying will not reduce book sales. If books are easy to use, and are priced reasonably, then consumers who find the book through a store will purchase the book when they find it. Any copies would go to people who would not have found the book on their own. As a result, these copies serve as free samples that can hook readers into buying future books by the author. Two of the most vocal proponents of this approach include Baen, a publisher and Cory Doctorow, an author. They make their works available without DRM, and each purchaser gets access to the book in multiple formats so that it can be read on multiple devices. They also provide older books for free in order to encourage purchase of newer works.

[edit] Special Technology Issues

There are many choices for reading books. Any general purpose computer can be used to read books. Many people are quite happy reading books on desktop computers, laptop computers, and even Web Tablets or tablet computers. Smartphones, such as the iPhone, are especially popular devices because consumers can access them wherever they go. Dedicated E-book devices are also popular choices. There are some unique technology tradeoffs in these devices.

[edit] Eink also known as E-paper

E Ink is the most popular display provider for dedicated book readers as of May of 2009. E-ink displays have special features that allow them to be optimized for reading books. Once an eInk screen displays an image, the image stays in place -- no power is needed to keep the image on the screen.

In contrast, consider how a traditional display operates. When a traditional display 'paints' an image on the screen, the image doesn't last for more than a split second. Even for still images, the screen must be repainted many times a second -- typically at least 60 times in a second. Since the image is redrawn so quickly it appears as if the image is continuous. However, if the power is shut down the image will disappear since it will no longer be repainted (refreshed). Some users are sensitive to the screen flicker and they report eyestrain. However, it should be noted that others do not notice the flicker. With Eink, there is no flicker -- once an image is put on the display it stays on the display. This reduces eyestrain.

Another issue with the refresh process in traditional displays is that it takes continuous energy usage just to display a still image. As a result, batteries on devices with traditional displays can be drained after a couple of hours of use. Users may find the devices running out of battery power in the middle of the book. Since Eink displays do not need to be refreshed they do not require power to display still images (such as book pages). Eink displays can show thousands of book pages on a single battery charge. As a result, Eink deivces can easily hold a charge from start to finish of a book.

The Eink display capability works well for displaying text pages -- images that only change when the page is turned. However, the display does not work well for motion, such as video. Eink can not support the rapid screen changes that are required. Because of this, Eink readers have problems with interactive user interfaces and with video-heavy applications.

Another characteristic of an Eink display is that it can't be backlit. The Eink display technology creates a solid barrier that will not let light pass through the display. Eink readers must be lit from ambient lighting or book lights, and if the room is dark, the Eink screen will be dark. Many users consider this a benefit. These folks think that reading on a backlit display, such as a laptop computer, causes the same strain on your eyes as staring into a flashlight.

As a result, of these characteristics Eink is well suited to reading books. It has a long battery life, no refresh requirements and no backlight. Eink is also only available in black and white (grayscale) as of May, 2009. The lack of color is not a problem when reading books that are primarily text. However, these strengths mean that Eink devices do not make good solutions for general purpose computing. They can't support the motion and color of modern user interfaces and applications.

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