[TECH] eBook Readers: The Entire Bookcase at Your Fingertips

You may think that ebooks, and their accompanying hardware counterparts ebook readers, are the latest tech geek fad destined to rise and fall quicker than your kids interest in their Zhu Zhu Pet Hamster. But the fact of the matter is, you couldn’t be farther from the truth. In this article, I’ll explain a brief history of the ebook reader, why they are an excellent device to own if you enjoy reading, and some high level features to consider when making your purchase.

In 1971, Michael S. Hart founded Project Gutenberg with the goal of converting public domain works into a digital format, and distributing them (for free) to the masses via what eventually became known today as the Internet. The entirely volunteer run project was a tremendous success, with tens of thousands of digital books available. This was the start of the digital book revolution. Following the inception of Project Gutenberg, other companies started their own forms of digital book distribution, from floppy discs and CD-ROMS to internet websites. Of course at this time, the ebook reader was your Apple or PC computer. Skip ahead 27 years to 1998. Amazon sells their first physical books over the internet, while the first two ebook readers are released: Rocket ebook and SoftBook.

So why would I encourage someone to purchase an ebook reader? They are light, compact, portable, and can hold thousands of books in the memory. You may be wondering how that is much different from your laptop. Couldn’t one just read ebook on their laptop screen and avoid having to buy a new gadget? Yes and No. It is true that a laptop can store and display ebooks quite easily. But there are a couple large distinctions that must be made between a laptop and a dedicated ebook reader, the largest of which is the display technology. Laptops use an LCD for color display. This is great for productivity applications, browsing the internet, and playing solitaire. But have you ever noticed eye fatigue or even headaches from prolonged exposure to your computer screen, especially when reading a lot of text? This is where the display technology of ebook readers stands out. They use a technology called e-ink which was developed by a group of MIT students who founded the E Ink Corporation. Without going into the science behind it, e-ink displays allow representation of text that looks nearly, if not totally, like an actual physical printed page. This eliminates the eye fatigue and strain that can accompany traditional LCD displays.

Second to the revolutionary display technology, ebook readers are generally compact, light, and very portable. You can slip them into a briefcase, backpack, carry-on, or jacket pocket. They have the ability to hold thousands of different books, newspapers, and other articles. So you could be reading the latest Dan Bown fiction, then flip over and read a couple poems or short stories by Edgar Allen Poe, and finish up by “thumbing” through the latest edition of the Wall Street Journal. Many even support PDF and other common document formats. So, for example, if you are a teacher or professor that has several student submitted documents to read through, you would be able to do this without having to print them all out and carry around the pages. Several higher-end ebook readers even allow editing, mark-up, and drawing with use of a stylus, similar to a tablet-pc.

One final piece of technology that needs mentioning is wireless connectivity. Several ebook readers (Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook, just to name a few) have built in Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity (that’s “3G” as in the cellphone data communication technology). With this, you are able to connect instantly to online bookstores to browse, purchase, and download new ebooks without even having to hook up to your computer first.

Today, there are many many different ebook readers.  To choose one can almost be overwhelming. I will not try to provide specific recommendations, but instead share features and specs that must be taken into consideration before making your purchase:

  • Screen Size – 5″ and 6″ are standard, but several companies make larger versions. Make sure you see some in person to determine which size best fits your needs.
  • Format Support – There are several ebook formats (PDF, ePub, LIT, PDB, etc). Make sure the ebook reader you are looking at supports the formats of the books you plan to buy. There are format conversion tools available also.
  • Memory – Internal memory varies between models. Most have expandable memory slots for use with SD cards or other common memory cards. Be sure to factor in the cost of a memory card if necessary.
  • Touchscreen – There are pros and cons to touch screen models. Many people complain about glare on touch screens that is not generally present with others.
  • Grey Levels (how many levels of grey the reader’s display supports) This is mostly important if you will be viewing documents with many pictures, charts, or diagrams. Color ebook model prototypes are just starting to be announced.
  • Battery Life – Most readers last several thousand “page turns,” but if you will be away from a power source for prolonged periods of time, or constantly use battery sapping wireless, this may be a crucial factor.
  • Price – Readers can be had for less than $100 up to $1000. Most lie in the $150-300 range.

Do your research! There are plenty of great resources online, such as www.mobileread.com. Read reviews, ask opinions of current owners, and if at all possible, try the units out before you buy. Like any electronics purchase, it’s important to know what you are getting.

Let me finish by saying that an ebook reader is not for everyone, just like a PDA or netbook is not for everyone. But if you enjoy reading and would love to replace bulky and/or heavy physical books with a compact, light, and highly portable solution, an ebook reader may be for you.

Image credit: goXunuReviews

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One Response to “[TECH] eBook Readers: The Entire Bookcase at Your Fingertips”

  1. Cin
    January 21, 2010 at 3:26 pm #

    How right you are regarding that e-readers are not a passing fad–they’re exploding on the scene now! I have a Kindle and am lovin it. I love the fact that I can carry a wide variety of reading material with me when I travel. There are some really exciting devices poised to hit the market this year and deals being made between publishers, authors and e-book reading services.

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