Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tis the season for ebook readers

Judging by the questions I've been getting, there are a lot of people with ebook readers on their Christmas lists this year. It looks like 2010 may well be the year that digital books hit the mainstream.

That said I don't think that ebooks or ebook readers are for everyone. If you get most of your books from the library, downloadable ebooks are not yet available in Montana libraries. Or if you like to keep your books on display or donate them to others when you're done, ebooks may not be for you. But for those who buy and read a lot of books and/or travel a lot, it can be quite handy to be able to store hundreds of books and magazines on a small portable device.

I have both a Kindle 2 and a Sony Reader Touch edition. I bought the Sony specifically to take advantage of Google public domain books and potential library ebooks. But as I said earlier, MT public libraries don't offer access to downloadable ebooks yet. And I've discovered that the new Kindle firmware update allows one to read Google public domain books more easily than does the Sony.

One of the problems with reading PDF files on either device is that you can't enlarge the type. I found the fonts on PDF books too small to read comfortably on the Sony, small but readable on the Kindle. And navigating PDF books on an ebook reader is really clunky regardless of the type. You pretty much have to click next page repeatedly to get to the page you want. That's not too bad if you're reading a novel but irritating if you're browsing for just the right poem.

I know that a lot of people (including a friend in Billings) are buying Sony ebook readers probably because they're available in stores. I prefer my Kindle 2, however. You have the Amazon Kindle store to shop from. Most hardcover bestsellers are $9.99 in the Kindle store. Most of the titles I was interested in from the Sony eBook Store are more expensive. Some from other online bookstores are close to the hardcover price for electronic editions. My friend claims she's found good prices for Sony ebook titles at other outlets.

The big plus for Kindle 2 is that you can download titles from the Kindle store wirelessly. I haven't found a location in Montana where I was unable to access the wireless connection. Sony ebooks have to be bought on a computer, downloaded to the computer and then transferred to the ebook reader. Wireless availability for Kindle also makes subscribing to newspapers and magazines an attractive option. All I have to do is turn on the wireless and the latest issue is downloaded to my device automatically wherever I am. Kindle wireless coverage map.

Kindle also offers reader apps for iPod Touch, iPhone and PC. The Mac app is supposed to be coming soon. So, I can read a chapter or two of a book on my iPhone and then pick up where I left off later on my Kindle. It's a bit quirky still in actual use but I love the idea.

The only real argument I've heard in favor of Sony ebook readers over Kindles is their use of the epub format. And this gets pretty techie. Suffice it to say that epub is the standard ebook format. Amazon uses it's own azw format. That means that books you buy for the Amazon Kindle can't be read on any other devices (aside from phones, computers, etc. running Kindle software). Epub books can in theory be read on multiple devices. But most bestsellers will come with their own DRM (Digital Rights Management) protection which will limit them to their own devices. For example, Barnes & Noble DRM-protected epub books cannot be read on Sony readers. I learned this the hard way.

On Tuesday, December 22 Sony released their Daily Edition with wireless capability. While I'd thought that the lack of wireless was a real drawback, that now seems to put Sony back in the mix, for most of the country. With its 7 inch screen and $399 price, the Sony Reader Daily Edition seems to be positioning itself somewhere between the 6 inch screen Amazon Kindle 2 at $259 and the 9.7 inch screen Kindle DX at $489.

But not in Montana.
I checked out their wireless coverage map and Montana is blank. That's not surprising to those of us who've been wanting a legal iPhone. AT&T does NOT provide coverage in Montana. So, it looks like the Sony Daily Reader will be like the Amazon Kindle 1 in that Montanans will be asked to pay a premium for second-rate service.

The most talked about new rival to the Kindle is the Barnes & Noble Nook at $259. It offers wireless capability like the Kindle as well as the epub format. You have Barnes & Noble's stores and website to shop from and they promise to offer prices competitive to Amazon's. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get my hands on one to try it out. But most reviewers seem to like it. It runs Google's Android operating system and has reportedly already been hacked to allow web browsing. But web access is not particularly attractive on a slow black & white device. It's always been a feature of the Kindle. Still, there are enticing possibilities with Android for tech geeks. But, since their wireless is also provided by AT&T, I'd be very surprised if this feature worked in Montana. I received confirmation of this in an email from Barnes & Noble. They sent this link to AT&T's coverage information.

If wireless connectivity is important to you and you live in Montana, it looks like Kindle 2 is the only option at present unless you prefer to download to your computer.

We'll be talking about ebook readers at Offline in Billings on February 19-20, 2010. Come and offer your opinions.

In the meantime, here are some additional resources: