Monday, February 7, 2011

The Lowdown on the e-Reader Hoedown

As some of you already know, Monique and I have been working diligently to catch up with the world of dedicated e-Readers and e-Books. (I've been reading e-books via assorted PDAs for years, including my iPod Touch, but had never before owned a dedicated e-Reader.) I held off posting on this until I had enough to report out on, and I reckon this is a good time for an update on the devices, our reading experience, and checking out e-books from the library.

The e-Readers Themselves

Let's start with a quick review of the devices that we looked at, in order of increasing sophistication, and our quick opinions of each. Most of them come in a cheaper wi-fi version, or a slightly more expensive model with 3G network capability that lets you buy books just about anywhere that you can get a cell-phone signal:

Borders Kobo 2 - A very simple little black & white e-Reader. Pros: the wi-fi version can now be found for $99; EPUB compatible, so can be used for library e-Books; comes pre-loaded with 100 classic books. Con: As near as I can tell, you can't loan books to other Kobo users.

Borders Sony Pocket Edition - Similar to the Kobo, but slightly smaller. This is either an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on what you're looking for.

Barnes & Noble Nook Black & White - Similar to the other two, but perhaps a bit more polished. Pros include EPUB compatibility and the ability to loan books to other Nook readers.

Amazon Kindle 3 - The best of the black & white e-Ink e-Reader devices. Cons: Not EPUB compatible, and until a few weeks ago would not allow you to loan books to other Kindle owners. The number of books that offer this capacity is pretty limited at present, though that may change for the better as Amazon works out rights and permissions with publishers. (I'm not sure how this compares with Nook lending or whether more titles are lendable on the Nook.)

Apple iPod Touch - I mention this because I have one and have been using it as my e-Reader all along. Frankly, it's pretty good. The screen isn't as big as the other e-Readers, and the battery doesn't last as long. But the small size is a nice convenience, as is the fact that I usually have it in my pocket, since it keeps my calendar and contacts. e-Reader apps on my iPod include e-Reader, Stanza, iBooks, and Kindle. I might do a post about just them later.

Nook Color - Living somewhere between a true e-Reader and an iPad. Pricier than a Nook B&W, but a good deal cheaper than an iPad.

Apple iPad - One slick device. It's bigger and heavier than all the rest. Kind of overkill if you just want to read books.

After looking them all over we started with a Kindle with 3G capability, which Monique got me for my birthday. A few weeks later I reciprocated and got her one for Christmas, so we're now a two-Kindle household. We chose the Kindle because it was simply the best device. After a couple of months of usage, I can confirm this opinion. It's light, it reads well, the ergonomics of the buttons are good, and the screen is as comfortable to read as a printed page. Frankly, this is about as close to the convenience of reading a book as I expect to get.

The user interface of the Kindle seemed the easiest and quickest, too. Amazon's really put a lot of effort into making it dangerously easy for you to order book after book on the Kindle, and it shows. We bucked up for the 3G models of the Kindle. The extra connectivity is convenient, especially while traveling. Buying a book while riding in a car was really nice. However, if price is really an issue for you a wi-fi only model would probably be fine as long as you have a wi-fi network at home.

Another bonus with the Kindle is that it synchs with the Kindle app I downloaded for my iPod Touch. This has turned out to be a real bonus. If I'm reading a book on the Kindle but don't have it with me (say I'm stuck in a long line at the market) I can fire up the Kindle App on my iPod Touch and read a few pages. Then -- as long as my iPod has had a chance to connect with the web afterwards -- the next time I pick up my Kindle it will synch forward to the last page I read. That's pretty darn slick, and has already shown itself to be a real convenience.

So far I've read about ten books on the Kindle, plus picked up a daily subscription to the Detroit Free Press, which doesn't offer home delivery most days. I have truly enjoyed my Kindle experience.

The other B&W e-Readers were all nice devices, but they seemed to be a generation behind the Kindle in a lot of little ways that just added up to a better e-Reader experience on the Kindle. I don't think you'd go too far awry with any of them if you decided that you'd prefer an e-Reader with EPUB compatibility so that you can check out library e-Books, and that might very well be a good enough reason to go with one of the others. The black-and-white e-Ink screens of all of them were very good.

The backlit color screens of the iPod Touch, Nook Color, and iPad all seem likely to impose a bit of eye strain after a while. That plus the considerably shorter charge life of the color devices seemed to be a definite downside if what you really want is a text reader. Mind you, I might acquire an iPad one of these days, but I don't think it'll ever be my primary e-Reader.

A few weeks ago I also bought a Kobo from Borders, so that I could try library downloads. Owning it confirmed my initial thoughts at the time I bought the Kindle. The Kobo is perfectly fine to read on, but it's just a bit more awkward in several different little ways. If I had to choose just one device on which to read a book, I would choose the Kindle.

Borrowing e-Books from the Library

As I mentioned above, I also picked up a Kobo from Borders a few weeks ago, so that I could try borrowing e-books from our local library. It's great that the Kindle makes it so easy to buy a huge variety of e-books, magazines, and newspapers. But that can also quickly become a pricy habit!

I won't go into the technical detail of how library downloads work via Adobe Digital Editions, but it does take a wee bit of effort to figure out and install. (A friend who has been through the process and can walk you through the steps would be really helpful here.) Once figured out, however, borrowing library e-Books turns out to be pretty quick and easy, albeit a bit more complicated than just buying books through either the Kindle or Kobo's e-store.

Alas, there is one downside that I didn't anticipate. There just aren't nearly enough books available through our local library to keep up with the demand right now. Currently there are 1,479 EPUB titles available through my local library. All but 272 are checked out. That's an astonishing 82% checkout rate! And many of those 272 "available" titles seemed to be books that would just as easily be found through Project Gutenberg. In fact, quite a few were already *on* my Kobo because they were included with the 100 free classics that were already on my Kobo when I bought it.

I suspect that the big uptick in e-reader ownership over the past few months may have led to quicker-than-expected growth in EPUB borrowing. My guess is that anything in a library that has an 82% checkout rate is going to get more attention in the next year's acquisitions budget. I expect the number of titles and their availability to increase greatly in months and years to come. So I wouldn't let that discourage you too much. But you might want to check your local library's catalog before plunging in.

In the meantime, most of the checked-out titles had a very small wait list, usually somewhere between 0-2 patrons. So most of those books would be available within a month or so if you placed a hold on them. The best tip I can give anybody who truly wants to find an EPUB book to download immediately is to use the "Advanced Search" and be sure to check the "Only show titles with copies available" button. I probably spent more time looking for an available EPUB book than I did sorting out the technical details of downloading, so your ability to navigate the catalog really matters. Once I started using the advanced search, it became much easier to dig up a few books I was interested in reading.

(Commerce Township library belongs to a "Download Destination" coalition hosted by OverDrive Digital Media. I rather suspect it's a standard interface for a lot of libraries. I found the OverDrive interface to be much more useful than the general library catalog because it did a much better job of distinguishing between EPUB books, PDF books, and various audiobook files.)

And that's it for now. However, much more to come on this topic in the future.


  1. I have the Kindle 2 with 3G, and I love it!! If you want a really nice idea for Valentine's for each other, go to, John, and get a beautiful leather cover for the device. I got The is gorgeous!! well worth the money!
    Tammy Ryan-Phipps

  2. John, this is very helpful. Hope you'll keep updating your observations. Also save them on paper. The whole series might be rather interesting reading in 2021. I wish I still had the columns I wrote about my experiences with the Apple II for a mag that, in those days, called itself the Daisywheeler. Thd word daisywheel ring bells?

  3. Nice write-up. I must say, though, that I was expecting to read "I would chose the book," following the sentence starting "If I had to choose just one device on which to read a book.."

    To continued fun... or, research.

    And, Arsen, daisywheel did cause bells to go off in my head.