Tuesday, November 22, 2011

E-Readers 2011

There's a whole new crop of E-Readers out in time for the holiday season. And there are a number of websites providing reviews that might help you make up your mind on which, if any, is right for you:

If you want to compare specs on various devices, here's an extensive list:
Comparing E-Readers and Tablets

I put together a much less comprehensive version that I wanted to fit on two sides of a page:
Comparison of Devices for Reading E-Books

Now that we've gotten the objective reviews out of the way, I'm presuming that some of you at least are willing to read on for my very subjective opinions.

E-Readers v Tablets

When you're trying to decide which type of device is best for you or the person for whom you want to get a gift, you first need to decide how this device is going to be used. Will it be used primarily for reading books? Will it be used for reading magazines? Is it important that you be able to watch videos on it? Listen to audiobooks or music? Are you expecting to do email and surf the web? Are games important?

Just about everyone agrees that e-ink readers are best for reading e-books. They're light and simple and relatively inexpensive. The pearl e-ink displays that are now common provide a very pleasant reading experience. I've heard some tech journalists say that the longest they can read on an LCD backlit display device is about 45 minutes without eye strain. But you can read comfortably for hours with an e-ink display.

I recently bought one of the new Kindle $79 e-readers with ads. The ads are relatively unobtrusive. They show up as screen savers when you're not reading and as a banner across the bottom of the home page. It's much smaller and lighter than my Kindle 2. They removed the keyboard from the bottom. I read a lot of nonfiction so I find highlighting and note taking to be important features. The new Kindle does highlighting about as easily as my older model using the directional keys. Not surprisingly note taking is a bit more cumbersome without the keyboard but that's really the only time I miss it. Overall, I think it's a perfectly satisfactory e-ink e-reader at an incredible price. One negative that I just discovered is that the ad screen gives you no indication when the battery is low. I tried to turn it on last night and nothing happened. I had no idea what was going on. Finally, I thought, maybe the battery is low and plugged it in. My older Kindle had a message that came up instead of the screen saver telling me to recharge. Another concern is that it feels a bit fragile and I've heard of people breaking theirs fairly quickly. I think an individual who can treat it fairly gently can probably get a reasonable amount of use out of it. But it may be too fragile for library checkouts. I've also heard complaints about an overall Kindle redesign that changes the on-off from a sliding switch to a push button and places both that and the audio jack at the bottom. This hasn't been an issue for me as I have a cover but if you're someone who rests your e-reader on your chest or stomach while you read, you can fairly easily turn it off by accident.

My current favorite e-ink e-reader is the Nook Simple Touch. Barnes & Noble recently lowered its price to $99. This e-reader is also small and light but has a really nice textured and sturdy feel to it. Another feature I like is that you have a choice of touch page turns in addition to forward and back buttons on the side. The only things I don't like are highlighting and inadvertent page turns. You highlight passages by touching the text. Maybe its just my own clumsiness but I have a difficult time getting just the phrases I want. And while the Nook has a nice border around it, I often find that as I'm drifting off to sleep, my thumb moves toward the page and frequently starts turning pages. It's not uncommon for me to open my eyes and find myself at an unfamiliar part of the book. But neither of these are deal killers by any means.

Both the Nook Simple Touch and the basic Amazon Kindle are wifi only devices. You need to be on a wireless Internet connection if you want to shop at the Barnes & Noble or Amazon stores and buy and download books/periodicals directly to your device. Both work with Montana Library 2 Go's OverDrive ebook collection. The Kindle doesn't require Adobe Digital Editions. You just check out the Kindle edition of the book. When you get to the Amazon page, you can choose to download the book to your computer and transfer it manually to your Kindle or take advantage of their whispersync over wifi to transfer library e-books. Barnes & Noble has suggested they'll be adding a similar feature to Nook.

Touch seems to be the big new feature for e-ink e-readers this fall. Kobo has introduced a new Kobo Touch. They've followed Amazon's lead and are offering a $99.99 version with ads and a $129.99 version without ads. Sony has a new Sony Reader Wi-Fi at $149.99. Amazon has several new Kindle Touch editions - $99 wifi w/ads, $139 without, as well as the only new 3G e-readers - $149 w/ads, $189 without. 3G is nice if you think you're going to be doing a lot of e-book shopping while you're away from a wifi connection, e.g., in airports or hotels where the wifi is often not free and/or not usable. 3G can also offer a convenient way to check email or do web searches. But be advised that the Kindle experimental browser is not an optimal web experience. I haven't used any of these new touch editions so I don't really have any insights or opinions to offer on which might be better.

The only e-ink e-reader that I've really disliked recently is the Google iriver Story HD. The only good thing I can say about it is that they've apparently lowered the price to $99.99 at Target. It just came out this summer but the style is at least a generation outdated. It comes with horrible little buttons on a keyboard with an awkward navigation system. The dictionary requires you to physically type in a word to look it up. It made me login to Google repeatedly. It couldn't seem to retain my login information. It is a first generation device entering the market against Amazon which is offering 4th generation Kindles and Barnes & Noble with 2nd generation Nooks. It may get better with time, but I have to ask why bother.

And I have to put in a plug for the old Sony Pocket Reader. It's no longer being sold by Sony and the online prices are often outrageous - $150+? But I've also seen refurbished models available for around $50. While not a big Sony Reader fan initially, I've come around to thinking that the Sony Pocket Reader may well be the best device for library checkout use, particularly for school libraries. That is, if you want a workhorse e-reader. These are easily the sturdiest little e-readers out there. And they don't connect to wifi so you don't have to worry about young people getting on the Internet with their e-reader and getting into trouble. You load the books and all they can do is read them. If you're looking to make e-book content available, particularly public domain books, this strikes me as good device to use to do it.  It won't be so helpful if you're checking out e-readers to familiarize your library patrons with various devices since the Pocket Reader is not a current device.

E-Reader Tablets

This is probably the hottest category this Christmas season. These are in-between devices. They generally offer more features than an e-ink e-reader but fewer than a full-fledged full-priced tablet. They're also half the price of an Apple iPad or most Android tablets. So, I think it's important to have realistic expectations. E-Reader tablets are not going to be as good an e-reader as an e-ink e-reader. They're not going to support as a wide range of apps as a tablet will. Nor will they satisfy someone who's longing for an iPad.

That said, at $199 the Kindle Fire is probably a reasonable e-reader tablet option, particularly for Amazon customers. You can quickly and easily access all of your Amazon purchased content - books, magazines, newspapers, movies, tv shows, music.... In fact, it even comes with your Amazon login pre-loaded as well as listings of all your Amazon-purchased content. So, all you have to do is turn it on and login to a wifi network and you're ready to go. You also have access to Android apps available from the Amazon app store. Even more are available if you change a setting to allow installation of third party apps that aren't from Amazon. One thing you don't have, which has upset some people, is access to many of Google's apps - Gmail, Google books, etc. I did manage to install the Nook and Kobo apps fairly easily as well as OverDrive Media console. But I haven't been able to install a basic e-pub reader app. Many of Google's services are web-based so there are alternatives. But there's no question, that Amazon seeks to exert some control over how the Fire is used. The $199 price is subsidized by Amazon. So, I'm neither surprised nor disappointed that Amazon is apparently seeking to make up that loss through sales of their content.

Another potential concern is its lack of onboard storage. It has only 8 GB available and there's no SD slot to add more. The Kindle Fire is designed as a cloud device. Your Amazon purchased content is stored on their web servers rather than locally on the device. If you want to read a book, you download it from the cloud. If you want to listen to music, you can listen to the songs you've stored on Amazon's music cloud via their streaming music app. If you want to watch a movie, you can stream it from their servers. This is all great if you've got a pretty robust wifi connection available. If not, you can download some content and store it on your device. But with only 8 GB storage, you're not going to be able to download 20 movies to watch during your European vacation.

Barnes & Noble has lowered the price of its Nook Color to $199 and introduced a new Nook Tablet for $249. The reviews I've read give the edge to the Nook Tablet over the Kindle Fire. It has better specs, is more powerful and offers more storage. It's also $50 more. Barnes & Noble products also have the advantage of in-store trials and support. This has been very helpful to at least one friend who bought a Nook Touch upon my advice and has been able to go into Barnes & Noble in Billings to get support and have questions answered. I think that Nook also has the edge at this time when its comes to children's books. They have a number of books with Read to Me and occasional automation as part of their Nook Kids collection.

I think the decision will ultimately come down to which store you choose to provide your content. Amazon customers will probably choose the Kindle Fire. Barnes & Noble customers as well as those who already use a number of third party content suppliers like Netflix and Hulu will probably prefer one of the Nooks. Another consideration if you're looking at one of these as a gift is how comfortable you are with giving a child perhaps full access to your Amazon account. As a cloud device, it needs a consistent connection to a wifi network for you to be able to access your content. But this persistent connection and login also makes it really easy for the user to order new content at will. Barnes & Noble allows you to set a password to purchase additional content.

There are also similar tablet-like devices produced by Kobo - Kobo Vox at $199.99, Aluratek, Pandigital and others. They are competitively priced. Since these are all primarily content consumption devices, like the Kindle Fire and Nook Color and Tablet, I'd base my decision on the pricing and availability of content. For example, it looks like Pandigital has an agreement with Barnes & Noble to be a content supplier. Otherwise how easy is it to find the content you want from other suppliers and transfer it to your device. Will the gift recipient be comfortable with this process?


My goal here is to differentiate tablets from e-readers and e-reader tablets. The foremost representative of the tablet class right now is the Apple iPad. At prices starting at $499 for the 16 GB wifi model and going up to $829 for the 64 GB 3G model, we see a significant price increase. Android tablets are made by numerous manufacturers but are priced comparably. One of the ways to differentiate a full Android tablet from one of the lesser models is by operating system. Most full Android tablets run Android 3.1 (Honeycomb). Honeycomb was the first Android OS designed primarily for tablets. Cheaper, less full featured Android tablets run Android 2.3 which is essentially a cell phone OS. This is the operating system used by Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet and Kobo Vox. But in the case of Kindle and Nook (I'm not sure about Kobo Vox), these Android versions have been highly customized by Amazon and Barnes & Noble. We'll soon be seeing Android 4.0, which promises to bridge the gap between cell phones and tablets. It's doubtful that many of the Android 2.3 tablets will be able to be upgraded to the new OS.

Tablets are all about the software or apps they run. Whether or not a given model can be upgraded to the latest OS will impact how many of the new or updated apps will run on it in a year or so. Does this mean that a Kindle Fire or Nook Tablet will be obsolete in a year or so when it no longer supports the latest apps? Probably not, in the case of these special purpose tablets. At least not while Amazon and Barnes & Noble continue to support them. They'll make sure that you can continue to access their content at least. But, we've already seen HP bow out of the tablet competition, so I wouldn't be surprised to see a number of other tablet orphans out there in the next couple of years.

One of the benefits of tablets is that they can run a multitude of apps. If you're looking for a truly open e-reader platform, a tablet is more likely to give that to you. Everyone wants to make an e-reader app for iPad. Consequently, you can find apps for Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Kobo, Google E-Books as well as a number of open epub apps that will allow you to download and read free public domain books. There are also cloud reader web pages available that perform very much like apps but also connect to the online e-bookstores. Newspapers and magazines are being designed for tablet consumption with beautiful layouts, easy navigation and continual updates. There are multimedia children's book apps that include interactivity, video, music, choice of narration. You have a wide choice of video and audio content, not to mention thousands of games. You can even do work with word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, video editing. In short, tablets are computers that can pretty much do it all given the right app. And if that app isn't currently available, it probably will be soon.

So, if you want a handheld touch device that will do it all for you, you probably want a tablet. If you already have a tablet, you don't need an e-reader tablet. But you might want an e-ink e-reader especially if you read a lot. If you already have an e-ink e-reader, you might want to consider an e-reader tablet as a step up. It will enable you to enjoy more audio and video content. And I have to say, photographs in magazines like National Geographic look stunning on Kindle Fire and Nook Color. Are you going to be able to find the perfect gadget that will satisfy all of your needs now and in the future? Definitely not, but that's the game.

And here's one last piece of advice. If you're buying as a gift, keep in mind the recipient's preferences instead of just your own. Whether or not you like Apple, they do produce some of the most consumer-friendly devices on the market. I think the same can be said for Amazon. These are probably going to be safer bets than some of the lesser known brands. At the same time, if your gift recipient is a book store afficionado, you might want to go with a Barnes & Noble Nook. They can get in-store perqs and assistance.