Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Looking for an E-Reader for Christmas?

For many of us in Montana library land this may be the Christmas of the E-Reader. There are new models out there and many of our libraries are participating in MontanaLibrary2Go, where their library patrons can download e-books with just their library card number.

So, what's the best choice? Let's look at this from a couple of different categories.

E-Ink Readers - These are the standard black and white or gray scale readers.

Amazon Kindle - This is the best known and probably best selling of the e-ink e-readers. And for good reason, its hardware and software are superior to its rivals. And the Amazon Kindle store is easy to use, has a great selection and good prices. Prices for the Kindle itself are also very competitive - $139 for wifi and $189 for 3G and wifi. They also have a larger model the DX which might be what you're looking for if you want to read textbooks or newspapers or PDFs. It sells for $379. Kindle has e-reader apps for most smart phones, iPad and computers. So you can read your Kindle books just about anywhere. They even sync across devices. The only drawback? It uses a proprietary format and won't work with MontanaLibrary2Go.

Barnes & Noble Nook - The e-ink version of the Nook falls into second place after the Kindle. It has color touch screen navigation in a little ribbon at the bottom of the device. But the navigation is somewhat clunky and not terribly intuitive. It can be a bit frustrating but you're probably going to spend more time reading than navigating if e-books are what you're after. It does work nicely with MontanaLibrary2Go. It would be my choice for those looking for a reader to use with library e-books. It sells for $149 for wifi and $199 for 3G and wifi. Barnes & Noble also has a good bookstore with competitive prices and apps that run across various devices and sync. A perfectly usable second choice. My only caution is that the technology is now a year old. Instead of updating and improving the e-ink Nook, Barnes & Noble chose to go in the direction of the NookColor. I suspect this is where they'll be putting their emphasis in the future.

Sony Readers - Sony has been making e-book readers for some time. Their main advantage seems to have been that they were available in a lot of different stores. So, if you were out shopping for an e-book reader, you probably ran across Sony. And that's the only reason I can see to buy one over Kindle or Nook. At this point, they're seriously under-featured and over-priced. And they haven't come up with anything new in about a year. If you've never used a Kindle or Nook, you might be satisfied with it. They do work with MontanaLibrary2Go books as well as public domain. But I found I couldn't enlarge the text on Google e-books. And navigation was difficult and cumbersome.

Other E-Ink Readers. There are a lot of other choices out there. If you think you might be interested in one of them, I'd suggest looking at reviews. CNET reviews just about all of them so that would be a good place to start. You just might run across the perfect e-book reader for your needs. One caution is to consider where you can get your e-books for this device. If it works with MontanaLibrary2Go and that's where you plan to get all of your reading material that's one thing. If you'd also like to buy books, consider what might be available to you in that area. Most of the booksellers copy protect their current bestsellers to run only on their devices. So Amazon Kindle books work only on Kindles and Kindle reader apps. Barnes & Noble Nook books work only on Nooks and Nook reader apps, etc. Independent online booksellers sometimes sell e-books and many are doing so now under the auspices of the Google e-Bookstore. But you might want to do some price comparisons.

LED Readers

Barnes & Noble NookColor - This is the newest kid on the e-reader block and it's creating quite a stir. You might want to read David Pogue's recent review in the NY Times. I got one about a week ago and haven't had enough time with it to form a strong opinion. As for now, I'm still keeping and using my Kindle 2. But the e-ink Nook may be on its way out if the NookColor proves a worthy replacement. On limited usage the screen seems easier to read than the iPad. Photos are beautiful so a magazine like National Geographic is pleasant to read. I'm not sure yet how it is for prolonged reading. I'll do a review later on after I've had more of a chance to run it through its paces. For now, I'll say that it's a first generation product so be prepared for some bugs and glitches particularly in its interactions with some other products. I think it shows promise and may be great in its second generation and/or with a software upgrade. The latest rumor is that they're going to upgrade its operating system to Android 2.2 so it will be able to use apps from the Marketplace and function as more of a tablet in addition to an e-book reader. NookColor sells for $249 in a wifi only version.


I'm pooling these two categories because right now iPad is really the only tablet in the game but there will probably be more coming out all the time. The iPad is not really an e-book reader even though many hailed its arrival as the Kindle killer. It's much larger and bulkier than dedicated e-book readers making it awkward to hold for long periods of time. The screen resolution is such that I see pixels both in the letters and the background. I find that distracting to say the least. And many people don't like reading on a backlit screen for long. That said, it's got e-reader apps from all the major players - Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Google, Apple iBooks. So you can use it to read books you buy from just about any bookseller. And there are some great children's books being developed just for the iPad. There are a number of interesting newspaper and magazine apps. But they have yet to work out reasonable pricing schemes. It also has a new Overdrive Media Console app which means you can download books from MontanaLibrary2Go directly to your iPad. That should help eliminate some of those Adobe Digital Edition incompatibility issues that create challenges for some of the other e-readers. If you want a tablet computer for video or games or internet and want to be able to read on it occasionally, iPad might be just what you're looking for. If you want something primarily for reading e-books you can find better and cheaper alternatives. The iPad starts at $499 for a 16 GB wifi version and goes up to $829 for a 64 GB 3G and wifi version.

MontanaLibrary2Go's mobile Overdrive Media Console also works with iPhone/iPod Touch and Android smart phones. These phones also have all the e-reader apps available. While I can't imagine anyone wanting to read an entire book on their phone, the option is available. And I find the Kindle app for my Droid to be a wonderful way to kill time when I'm stuck somewhere waiting. I can pick up where I left off reading a book on my Kindle. When I'm done on my phone, it will sync up again with my Kindle at home. Nook promises to do that as well but I haven't tried it. I expect it only works with books purchased from Barnes & Noble, however, not with MontanaLibrary2Go books.

3G or Wifi?

You've probably noticed by now that most of these devices come in two flavors - 3G or wifi. Wifi means you need to be on a wireless internet network to download data. Many people have wireless networks in their homes. All you need is a broadband internet connection and a wireless router. I suggest you secure your home wireless network with password protection. You've probably noticed that there are more and more public wifi hotspots available all the time. Many libraries offer free wifi as do coffee shops and other businesses. 3G means that you can download data from a cellular network. This can be a plus if you don't have wifi at home and/or if you travel a lot and want to be able to download newspapers, magazines and/or buy books without having to worry about finding a wifi hotspot. Unfortunately, AT&T is the cellular service provider chosen by all the big players - Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble. Given that AT&T does not yet provide service in Montana, it's probably not worth the extra cost at this point in time. That might all change in the next couple of months. The other option for getting content onto your device is to download the content onto your computer, attach the device with the provided cable and transfer the books to your e-book reader. That's the way you get MontanaLibrary2Go e-books onto your e-reader. So, if that's your primary aim, go with the cheaper wifi option.

Tech Reader Gadget Comparison Sheet - I created this for the staff at Bozeman Public Library and modified it for workshops at Parmly Billings Library. It may be helpful in comparing prices and features.