e-readers

Oct 262010

The Nook Color: not really an e-reader, more like an iPad Lite.

Well, B&N’s big announcement today turned out to be as expected (since it was leaked a few days ago): the Nook Color, a tablet computer with a 7″ LCD touchscreen display. As I’ve said many times before (also here and here), backlit LCD screens just aren’t as good for reading as e-Ink screens: LCD screens cause more eyestrain (for most people), use much more battery power, wash out and are unreadable in sunlight, and even make it harder to fall asleep.

So why use them? Well, LCD screens (like your cell phone, computer monitor, or many TV sets) display color and video, two things the current crop of e-Ink screens can’t do yet. That’s great for surfing the Internet and watching videos, but for reading books, I’d rather stare at a screen that is easy on my eyes and mimics paper, instead of my TV set.

The Nook Color, which is $249 and will be available in B&N stores and online at B&N’s website starting November 19, promises more interactive e-books (such as cookbooks with color photos and videos), a whole new specialty section for children’s interactive e-books, a built-in web browser (using the Wi-Fi wireless connection), and various games and apps, including Sudoku, crossword puzzles, chess, and Pandora Internet radio to start. It will also focus more on color newspapers and magazines. It runs Android 2.1 (to be updated to 2.2), and can view Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, Powerpoint) files. It can also view photos, and play audio and videos. It will supposedly support Flash-based web content in the 2.2 Android update.

But I think it’s more important to look at what the Nook Color, by virtue of choosing to go with an LCD screen, does not have:

  • It costs $249, compared to $149 for the comparable Nook Wi-Fi or $199 for the Nook with Wi-Fi and 3G.
  • It does not include 3G wireless connectivity (which connects to the cell phone network), and can only be connected at Wi-Fi hotspots, like you might find in some homes, offices, and coffee shops.
  • It weighs 15.8 ounces, or just about 1 pound. Compare that to the 12 oz weight of the original Nook, the 10 oz weight of the Kindle 2, the 8.5 oz weight of the Kindle 3, or the Sony Pocket at just 5.6 oz. At almost double the weight of its main competitor, the Kindle 3, it’s closer to the 24 oz weight of the iPad, which I find too heavy for comfortable reading for any length of time.
  • The battery life, already a weak point for the Nook as compared to the Kindle, only lasts 8 hours, even with the wireless off! (So, figure 4-6 hours using Wi-Fi to surf the Internet.) Compare that to the Kindle 3, which lasts for up to a month on a single charge. Do you see why we like e-Ink screens in our e-readers yet?

I’m a bit baffled, to be honest. Compared to the K3, I think it’s a disaster. For $139, you could get a Kindle 3 that’s much less expensive, easier on the eyes, can be read in sunlight, weighs half as much, and has a battery life measured in weeks instead of hours. For $189, you get all that and throw in free-for-life 3G wireless connectivity to browse and download books almost anywhere — still $60 less expensive than the Nook Color.

I think a better comparison is to the iPad. For half the price of the $499 iPad, you get a smaller (7″ screen vs. 9.7″), lighter (15.8 oz vs. 24 oz) tablet computer with less memory (8 GB vs. 16 GB, but the Nook Color does come with a Micro SD card slot, so this is about a wash). I haven’t seen the processor specs of the Nook Color yet, but I’d be surprised if it was as fast as the iPad. It runs the Android operating system instead of Apple’s iOS, and some people might prefer that, although Apple still has a strong lead in the number of apps available for its platform.

I’m still a little baffled by the direction B&N is going — I thought they “got it” and understood what we readers wanted: an inexpensive, light, easy-on-the-eyes non-backlit screen with a battery that lasts forever. Instead, they seem to be chasing the “hype” of color — something non-readers have been clamoring for, claiming the iPad will “kill” the Kindle for some time now — even going so far as to make “Color” a large part of the name. It seems to me like they’ve given up on competing with the K3, and have decided to branch in a different direction instead. Well, time will tell if it’s successful, and I hope they at least keep updating the original Nook line (which is now a generation behind the Kindle 3 and is in desperate need of a refresh), so those of us who have no interest in a Nook Color tablet computer can just ignore it. But I was looking for a Nook 2, a worthy competitor to the K3 that would push the e-reader market forward. Instead, we got the iPad Lite. Color this reader disappointed.

Oct 252010

Borders sale: $30 off e-readers, free e-books, more

Through October 31, Borders is aggressively discounting the e-book readers it sells, offering $30 off, 5 free e-books, discounts on accessories, and other perks.

Of note, the Kobo E-Reader is $30 off, and now costs only $99.99 from Borders.com. That’s quite a deal for an e-Ink based e-book reader. Of note, it’s the older model of Kobo E-Reader, not the new Kobo Wireless E-Reader, which adds Wi-Fi connectivity (the new model is “coming soon” and still $139.99).

The Kobo also comes with 5 free e-books:

A total value of $75, the free eBooks include “Slow Death by Rubber Duck” by Bruce Lourie and Rick Smith; “Soccernomics” by Stefan Szymanski; “Phantom of Pemberley” by Regina Jeffers; “Eye of the Raven: A Mystery of Colonial America” by Eliot Pattison; and “Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America” by John Avlon.

Borders also offers a free cover with built-in light with the purchase of the Sony Touch or Sony Pocket e-readers. They’re also offering 20% off all e-reader accessories (including cases and covers) with the purchase of any device.

More and more brands of e-book readers are showing up in more and more retail stores (such as Wal-Mart and Target) nationwide. This gives people who may be unfamiliar with e-book readers or the benefits of e-ink a chance to see one hands-on and understand what e-readers are all about. I’ve posted before about various e-readers becoming available in retail stores, but with the recent news that the Nook and Kobo E-Readers will soon be available at Wal-Mart, I’ve decided to make a summary post detailing when and where each of the popular e-readers are available. I’ll try to update this post with new info as it becomes available. I hope it’s useful.

(Links go to posts giving more info on that brand of e-reader. E-readers should be currently available at listed stores unless noted otherwise — but calling your particular store to double-check might be a good idea.)

  • Kindle (latest versions are Kindle 3 for $189, Kindle 3 Wi-Fi for $139, and Kindle DX 2 for $379)
  1. Direct from Amazon.com
  2. Target
  3. Best Buy
  4. Staples
  5. UPDATE: Wal-Mart, as of May 5, 2011
  • Nook (latest versions are Nook for $199, Nook Wi-Fi for $149, and Nook Color for $249)
  1. B&N bookstores or direct from Barnes & Noble.com
  2. Wal-Mart
  3. Best Buy
  4. Books-A-Million
  • iPad (latest versions range from $499 for 16 GB Wi-Fi to $829 for 64 GB 3G)
  1. Apple stores or direct from Apple.com
  2. Wal-Mart
  3. Target
  4. Best Buy
  • Sony Reader (latest versions are Pocket for $179, Touch for $229, and Daily for $299)
  1. Sony Style Stores or direct from Sony.com
  2. Wal-Mart
  3. Target
  4. Best Buy
  5. Staples
  6. Office Depot
  1. Direct from Kobo.com
  2. Wal-Mart
  3. Borders bookstores

Of note, you can view and compare Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and Sony Readers at Best Buy, making it a good choice for a one-stop shop if you’re unsure which one you’d prefer. Most e-book readers are now available in most large retail stores: the notable exceptions being no Kindles at Wal-Mart and no Nooks at Target yet. [UPDATE: Kindles are now at Wal-Mart, which makes it an option for comparison shopping.] Please let me know in the comments if I’ve missed any large retail stores where these e-readers are available.

Kindle Apps and Games

Posted by Always Write at 6:17 PM Tagged with: , ,
Oct 182010

Scrabble for the Kindle

While it’s no secret that Apple’s iPad is generally better for games than the Kindle (due to its color LCD screen), Amazon has recently released a number of Kindle Games & Apps and leveled the playing field a bit. The games I’ve tried have been surprisingly good — even limited by the slow refresh rate and black-and-white nature of the Kindle’s e-Ink screen — and have proven fun and surprisingly addictive!

So far, most of the Kindle games are word games or “thinking” games of some sort: Scrabble, Sudoku, and strategy games, for example. These games usually work on the Kindle 2, Kindle 3, or Kindle DX models — sorry, Kindle 1 users, it seems you’re out of luck here. Please do check the requirements before buying one of these games.

Amazon earlier this  year announced an upcoming “App Store,” which would allow programmers and developers to create their own Kindle applications and games (similar to Apple’s App Store). So far, however, we’ve only seen a trickle of games released by Amazon itself or a couple of big names, like Electronic Arts. Presumably, sometime soon the floodgates will open and anyone can write an app for the Kindle — and not just games, but also perhaps productivity apps (calendars, to-do lists, etc.), RSS readers, custom screensavers, weather apps, etc.

The good news so far is that several of the already-released apps are completely free — and I’d recommend you give them a try. I’ve played Shuffled Row and Every Word — both Scrabble-like word games — and both are excellent. After a couple of games, they quickly became pretty addicting, as I tried to beat my high score. Playing them felt more “Kindle-like” than your average game: while they were both fun, they also have a solid educational, vocabulary-building element. And the performance on my K2 is great — there’s obviously no color, but the graphics are well-done and there aren’t any issues with the animation speed. The Kindle’s full physical keyboard comes in very handy here.

There are a few paid apps too, including Solitaire (a compilation of 12 solitaire card games), Scrabble, and Sudoku by Electronic Arts. Each of the Kindle games is highly placed on the Kindle best-seller lists: Solitaire is #1 on the list of paid Kindle books (yes, the apps are mixed in with e-books), and Mine Sweeper is #1 on the free list.

There should be something on this list for everyone:

  • EA Solitaire (12 card games): $3.99, rated 4.5 stars on 11 reviews
  • Triple Town by Spry Fox (a board/strategy game): $2.99, rated 5 stars on 13 reviews
  • Panda Poet by Spry Fox (a word game): $2.99, no reviews yet
  • Scrabble by EA (the word game): $4.99, rated 3.5 stars on 57 reviews
  • EA Sudoku (grid numbers game): $3.99, rated 4 stars on 5 reviews
  • Mine Sweeper (popular computer tile game): FREE, rated 3.5 stars on 7 reviews
  • Every Word (letter-rearranging word game): FREE, rated 4 stars on 114 reviews
  • Shuffled Row (fast-paced word game): FREE, rated 4 stars on 75 reviews

Good luck, I hope you find something on the list you enjoy. Just remember not to let these games distract you too much from reading! 🙂

New Kobo Wireless E-Reader For $139

Posted by Always Write at 6:25 PM Tagged with:
Sep 292010

The new Kobo E-Reader adds wireless connectivity, faster page turns, a better screen, and a dictionary. It sells for $139

Kobo announced today that it has updated its Kobo E-Reader device (should we call it the Kobo 2?) to add Wi-Fi wireless connectivity, a faster processor (which enables faster page turns), a better e-Ink screen, and a built-in dictionary (finally!). It is available from Kobo for pre-order now for $139.

Kobo says the other features / improvements include:

  • Wi-Fi wireless connectivity
  • A faster processor that enables “2.5x faster” page turns (an impressive claim; the original Kobo was chastised for slow page turns)
  • A “new, sharper, 16-greyscale, 6” e-Ink screen,” though not the higher-contrast e-Ink Pearl screen being used in the new Kindle 3
  • A built-in dictionary to look up word definitions — a must-have feature notably missing from Kobo’s original offering
  • 1 GB of built-in memory, with an SD card slot for additional storage
  • Longer battery life

For more info, please see my post about the original Kobo E-Reader. As before, the Kobo 2 is lightweight, at just 7.8 ounces, and has relatively simple controls. On the minus side, it is missing some of the advanced features of the Kindle 3 or Nook — including text-to-speech, 3G wireless connectivity, or a keyboard/keypad for note-taking.

The Kobo reads e-books in ePub format and is compatible with free library e-books, which is a big plus. Kobo is affiliated with Borders, and this new e-reader will be sold in Borders stores. Readers can buy compatible e-books from the Borders or Kobo online stores, and can read e-books not only on the Kobo, but on a variety of reading apps for computers and Apple iOS devices. (UPDATE: The Kobo e-readers still work fine even after the Borders bankruptcy, and Kobo is not affected.)

When the Kindle 2 and Nook were $259, the Kobo came in as an appealing alternative that lacked some features, but was small and light and easy to use and cost only $149. At that price, it made a reasonable entry-level model that might appeal to some readers, even though some reviews chastised it for very slow page turns and its missing features. Now, the page turns appear to be much faster, and the addition of Wi-Fi and a built-in dictionary go a long way to leveling the feature playing field. Unfortunately for Kobo, Amazon drastically improved the Kindle 3, made it smaller and lighter, and slashed the price of the Kindle 3 Wi-Fi to just $139, so Kobo’s pricing advantage is gone. For the same price, I can’t see getting the Kobo 2 over the Kindle 3, considering the Kindle’s extra features and better e-book store and support from Amazon.

On the other hand, readers who are loyal to Borders, or who want to read library e-books can consider the Kobo 2 against the new Sony E-Readers, and the Kobo compares fairly well against the Sonys, considering the Kobo 2’s lower price and Wi-Fi connectivity.

UPDATE: Read my hands-on Kobo Wireless review here.

New Sony E-Readers

Posted by Always Write at 8:59 PM Tagged with:
Sep 012010

The New Sony E-Reader 350

Today, Sony refreshed its line of e-readers, bringing the new e-Ink Pearl screen (used in the Kindle 3) to the Sony line. One could argue that Sony started the modern e-reader revolution (as its first model came out before the Kindle), but it wasn’t until Amazon’s Kindle 2 came out in 2009 that e-reader sales really took off. Since then, Sony has been the forgotten one of the “Big 3” (Amazon, B&N, Sony) — and has even taken a back seat to Apple (which doesn’t even make e-readers) in the eyes of many.

Like with much of their other technology, the Sony hardware is impressive, but somewhat quirky, expensive, and lacking in ease of use.

First, the good news: the new Sony e-readers have the higher-contrast e-Ink Pearl screen we’ve discussed when covering the Kindle 3. They are also very small and light — even smaller and lighter than the K3. They all sport new touchscreens that use infrared sensors built in to the edges of the screen, so it doesn’t impede reading (the old touchscreen layers made the screen harder to read and thus kinda sucked). And they support DRMed ePub files, so you can read library books on them (although it’s a bit of a hassle).

On the down side, they’re considerably more expensive than the Kindles, their entry-level version only has a 5″ e-Ink screen (compared to the 6″ one found on Kindles and Nooks), and only their most expensive model (not yet available) has wireless connectivity — the 2 models available now don’t even have Wi-Fi, let alone 3G. That means you have to use your computer to purchase, download, and transfer books to your device.

There are three models: the 5″ Sony PRS-350 (“Pocket Edition”) for $179, the 6″ PRS-650 (“Touch Edition”) for $229, and the 7″ PRS-950 (“Daily Edition”), due out before the holidays for $299.

All 3 models use the new e-Ink Pearl displays and improved touchscreens. The Touch Edition adds the larger (standard-size) screen and memory slots. The Daily edition adds an even larger screen and Wi-Fi + 3G wireless connectivity.

The 5″ PRS-350 Pocket Edition has 2GB of built-in storage (no memory card slots), weighs only 5.64 oz (the Kindle 3 Wi-Fi weighs 8.5), measures just 5.71 x 4.11 x 0.33 inches, and costs $179. Compared to the Kindle 3 Wi-Fi, you pay $40 more to get a touchscreen, ePub support, and smaller size, but you lose out with a smaller screen, no wireless connection, no Internet, no text-to-speech, worse battery life, less storage, and you don’t get to use Amazon’s Kindle e-book store: Sony’s E-Reader Store is far inferior. For just $10 more, you could even splurge for the Kindle 3 Wi-Fi + 3G, and get unlimited 3G connectivity for life.

The 6″ PRS-650 Touch Edition (does that name make sense when they all have touchscreens now?) costs $229, and brings you the larger screen and expandable memory in a slightly larger but still light (at 7.93 oz) package. For $90 more than the K3, you get the same size (and type) screen, so it’s more of an apples-to-apples comparison. Unfortunately, the library book support (an important feature), touchscreen (which I don’t think adds much to the reading experience), and slightly lighter weight don’t outweigh the $90 cost savings and other advantages of the Kindle.

The 7″ PRS-950 Daily Edition adds wireless (Wi-Fi and 3G) connectivity, along with a larger 7″ screen. At 8.99 ounces, it’s fractionally heavier than the K3, but still light enough for easy one-handed reading; that’s probably a good trade-off to get a larger screen (which means more words per page and fewer page turns when reading, especially if you like to read at larger font sizes). The problem is the $299 price tag, which pushes it almost into the 9.7″ Kindle DX2 territory ($379).

Sony is known for making great hardware, but they tend to drop the ball on customer experience (why are they still forcing us into Memory Sticks instead of letting us use the SD and MicroSD cards we have lying around?). Here, Sony doesn’t offer a way to buy and download e-books wirelessly, whereas the Kindle lets you buy any book you can think of in 30 seconds, without a computer. Even when using your computer, you’ll find the Sony E-Reader store almost an afterthought, with lower selection, worse prices, and an inferior browsing experience to the Kindle store. I’d only recommend the Sonys to someone a bit computer-savvy and who enjoys the hassle of finding e-books from other sources (like Project Gutenberg and libraries).

And, as with most Sony products, the bottom line is that they’re too expensive compared to the competition. I just can’t see paying close to double the price (compared to the $139 K3 Wi-Fi) for the $229 Touch Edition, and not even getting Wi-Fi connectivity.

But, if you really like touchscreens or library books, and are OK with using your computer to find, organize, and download e-books, the new Sony E-Readers are nice devices with great screens. They also offer options, if you prefer a slightly smaller or larger screen. Just don’t look too closely at the prices. =)

Kindle 3 Reviews Roundup

Posted by Always Write at 8:18 PM Tagged with: , ,
Aug 232010

The New Kindle 3 (in charcoal gray): Lighter, Smaller, Faster, and Less Expensive Than The Kindle 2 (white).

Amazon’s new Kindle 3 debuts in a few days, and reviews are starting to roll in. Below are links to some early reviews. The consensus? Most reviewers agree it’s the best e-reading device out there. The average ranking is 8 or 9 points out of 10 (or 4 to 4.5 out of 5). Most agree that it combines a number of evolutionary improvements (as opposed to one or two huge new features) to make it much more refined, and a significant improvement over its predecessor, the Kindle 2 (which was already the most popular and best e-book reader available). Many of the reviewers also expressed the opinion that the Kindle 3 was “ready for prime time” or “the first e-reader they’d recommend to the general public” — not just the most avid readers (who probably already have an e-reader and are yearning to trade up).

The basics: the new Kindle is less expensive, smaller & lighter, faster, has increased contrast on its 6″ e-Ink screen, has longer battery life, more memory, more font choices, better PDF support, and several other improvements. It weighs only 8.5 ounces (Wi-Fi model) or 8.7 ounces (3G + Wi-Fi model). It has 4 MB of internal storage, good for 3,500 books. And the battery lasts a month. Both models come with free 2-day shipping from Amazon and a no-questions-asked 30-day return policy (they’re pretty confident you’ll like it). Your two options are:

One other quote that jumped out at me:

These days, when anyone who enjoys reading tells me he doesn’t want a Kindle, my answer is simple: “That’s only because you haven’t tried one.”

Enjoy the links to the reviews below!

  1. Kindle Nation Daily says “This Kindle 3 is a Triple Wow. Five Stars. Two Thumbs Up.”
  2. Len Edgerly has a 12-minute YouTube video explaining “What’s So Great About The Kindle 3.”
  3. PC World’s Melissa Perenson says the K3 “feels ready to meet the mainstream masses.” (4.5 / 5)
  4. PC Mag’s Dan Costa calls the K3 an “Editor’s Choice” and “the best dedicated ebook reader you can buy.” (4 / 5)
  5. CNET says the K3’s lower price makes it “a solid value for readers looking to make the jump to e-books.” (4 / 5)
  6. Wired calls it “something readers will want to carry around with them, even in the emerging age of tablet computers.” (9 / 10)
  7. Telegraph UK calls it an “excellent device” that “is the first ebook reader that has a credible chance of cracking the mass market.”
Aug 062010

Amazon's Kindle 2 and Barnes & Noble's Nook

I thought I would present this E-Reader Buying Guide for people who may not know much about the different e-book readers out there (like the Kindle and Nook). I’ll try to explain the benefits and drawbacks of e-readers in general, and help you figure out if you’d benefit from owning one or not. Then, I’ll also look at which one might be right for you.

To decide if an e-reader might be right for you, let’s first ask a few questions:

Do you enjoy reading?

The first thing to figure out is whether or not you even like reading. Do you enjoy curling up with a good novel? Do you fondly remember books you’ve read? Do you get sad when you come to the end of a good book, and re-read the last page a couple of times, because you don’t want it to end? (Yeah, I do that.)

If so, odds are that you will enjoy an e-reader — we’ll find out in more detail below. If, however, you just don’t enjoy reading books and never did, then an e-reader isn’t the device for you. It won’t magically make you like reading if you hated it before. You may prefer an iPad (where you can play games and surf the web and watch movies), but it doesn’t make sense to buy a device designed for reading if you don’t enjoy reading at all.

How often do you read?

Are you an avid reader, reading a book (or several books!) a week? Are you an average reader, reading a book or two a month? Or just an occasional reader — maybe you read a couple of hot books a year or read a bit when you’re on a flight or on vacation?

For avid readers, I almost can’t see NOT having an e-book reader. There are many benefits. First, you’ll probably save enough money on less expensive (and free) e-books to pay for the device several times over; e-books typically cost less than printed books, and millions of classic books (anything published before 1923) are free. Second, you’ll probably enjoy the reading experience more, as e-readers offer adjustable text sizes, the ability to search and bookmark and write notes, a built-in dictionary, text-to-speech, and ultimate portability. Third, truly avid readers often have issues with storage space, and run out of bookshelves (and closets, and storage units) to keep all their old books. Imagine carrying thousands of books with you anywhere you go (including on a trip), yet it takes up the space of a single paperback. And you can find any book (or even a favorite passage hidden somewhere in your library) with a quick text search. Nice.

For the average reader, e-book readers are compelling for many of the same reasons listed above. Depending on how many e-books you buy and what types of printed books you used to buy ($25 hardcovers, used books, or the library?), you may or may not save a lot of money by going electronic. On average, e-books cost less: new releases are $10–$13 (instead of $20+ for hardcovers), older titles are $5–$8 (instead of $7–$12 for paperbacks), there are lots of low-cost options (like $0.99 to $2.99 emerging authors), and millions of free classics like Shakespeare, Pride and Prejudice, Sherlock Holmes, etc. And it’s still convenient to throw your entire library into your purse on a trip, to adjust text sizes so every book is easy to read, to have any word definition at your fingertips, and to wirelessly download books in 30 seconds instead of making a trip to a book store or waiting for shipping. For these reasons, people who enjoy reading but don’t read as much as they’d like to, often find that they read more on an e-reader since it’s more convenient and less expensive to buy books, and it’s easier to bring their entire library with them and sneak in more reading time on the subway or at a doctor’s office.

For the occasional readers, it’s a tougher call. You probably won’t save enough money on e-books to pay for the cost of the device, unless you read mostly free classics or very low-cost e-books. You’ll still get the portability and readability benefits I mentioned above, and you can use your e-book reader to do some light Internet browsing, book shopping, or Wikipedia lookups. But if you prefer watching movies or surfing the Internet to reading books, you may prefer a device like the iPad, which is more multifunctional (but more expensive and worse at actually reading books), as that will give you the option to buy an e-book or two through the iBook Store or Kindle for iPad app if you ever get the urge.

Are you attached to paper?

I hear this a lot, even from the biggest reading fanatics, people who I KNOW would really enjoy an e-book reader if they got one. People talk about the “smell” and “feel” of books — which I quickly realized was nonsense when I got my Kindle 2. Look, I’ve always loved reading, but it’s the words on the page that move me, not the smell of paper and ink and glue. I don’t bury my nose in a book — I immerse my mind in the words. And the words are still there — better than ever, since they’re whatever size I want them — on an e-book reader. I literally have not heard of a single person who tried an e-book reader and didn’t like it because they missed the “smell” or “feel” of paper.

But if you’re still not sure, Amazon is very generous: order a Kindle and try it free for 30 days. If you don’t like it, send it back and get a full refund — including shipping — no questions asked. What do you have to lose?

What will happen to my e-books? Will they become obsolete?

Since e-books are digital, like MP3 music files, they can theoretically remain perfect forever — the pages will never turn yellow or fall out. You can back up your e-book files on a DVD or hard drive (just like you might back up other computer files) and retain them forever. And Amazon and B&N store your purchases online for you as well — even if you lose or break your e-reader, you just download them again. You can also read your e-books on PCs, Macs, and smartphones, and none of those are going away anytime soon.

Some e-books (like the free classics, and many inexpensive e-books by independent authors — like mine) do not have copy protection, or “DRM” attached to them. This means you can always convert them from one e-book format to another, and can easily read them on any device made now or in the future. E-books are digital, so they’re not like a VHS tape or LP record that gets replaced by a new physical format (DVDs or CDs). If a new e-book format emerges, there will also be software to convert your books into the new format for you.

On the other hand, most best-selling books by large publishers do have DRM attached, and you can only read them on the family of devices you bought them for: so e-books bought from Amazon will work on any Kindle (or Kindle 2, 3, or 10), and B&N e-books will work on the Nook. I recommend Amazon and B&N partially because I have confidence those two companies will be around and selling e-books and e-book readers for a very long time.

Can you afford an e-reader?

But how practical is it? I’ve talked above about how an e-book reader could pay for itself, or even save money in the long run for avid book readers. Even if that’s the case for you, there’s the initial outlay of $139–$199 to contend with. I don’t have access to your bank account, so I can’t answer the question for you. All I can say is that I am a pretty frugal guy (I don’t even have a TV, let alone cable), and I think the Kindle is a phenomenal value at $139.

Which e-reader is right for me?

This could be a whole separate article (or 3), so I’ll be brief. The bottom line is that my only recommendations for serious readers would be Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes & Noble’s Nook. Both are more similar than different, and both make excellent e-readers. Both are roughly the same price and size, and have similar e-Ink screens (see this post for the difference between e-Ink and LCD screens). But Amazon just came out with the new Kindle 3 (which I review in more detail here), which has a better screen, and is smaller, lighter, and a little cheaper than the Nook. The Nook does have certain advantages: a small color LCD screen in addition to the main e-Ink screen, support for free library e-books through Overdrive, an SD memory card slot, and a user-replaceable battery. On the other hand, the Kindle 3 is faster, has text-to-speech, has generally better software, and the battery lasts longer. Another factor is whether you prefer shopping at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. UPDATE: I cover this topic more thoroughly in this Holiday E-Reader Buying Guide.

Both the Kindle and Nook come in two versions: Wi-Fi only, and Wi-Fi + 3G. The Wi-Fi only versions can connect to wireless networks the same way your laptop can: you may have Wi-Fi access at home (if you have a wireless router), at work, at Starbucks, McDonalds, or some hotels and airports. The Wi-Fi + 3G models can connect through Wi-Fi or through the AT&T 3G cell phone network — so they can connect pretty much anywhere a cell phone gets signal, and they include free lifetime 3G service. Keep in mind you don’t need any sort of connection — you can read books without it, and you can buy books on your computer and transfer them to your e-reader with the included USB cable. But wireless access allows you to shop, buy, and download books on-the-go, connect to the Internet, and sync your place in the book across your e-reader and Kindle for iPhone or B&N eReader apps. The Kindle 3 Wi-Fi costs $139 and the Kindle 3 Wi-Fi + 3G costs $189 (with free 2-day shipping). The Nook Wi-Fi costs $149 and the Nook Wi-Fi + 3G costs $199 with free shipping.

At the end of the day, my bottom-line recommendation is for most people who enjoy reading to purchase the Kindle 3 Wi-Fi for $139. At that price, you’re getting the newest and best e-reader on the market, the device with the best screen, longest battery life, best software, lightest weight, and best e-book store. If you prefer the flexibility of free 3G coverage and can afford another $50, the Kindle 3 Wi-Fi + 3G for $189 is also an excellent value. Finally, if you prefer B&N, or if one of the Nook’s advantages (like library e-books) is a “must-have” feature for you, then I’d recommend one of the two Nook models. People who like to read won’t go wrong with any of those 4 choices.

Aug 042010
The iPad vs. the Kindle 2 in sunlight

While I’ve compared the e-Ink screen of the Kindle and Nook with the LCD screen of the iPad before, I might have glossed over the differences too quickly. Today, I was struck by a conversation with a friend who wasn’t really aware of the differences between the e-Ink screen used in the Kindle and the LCD screen of the iPad; he thought the iPad had a “reading mode” that made it easy on the eyes and as pleasant to read on as e-Ink.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field is in full effect.

Let me start off by saying that I am a HUGE fan of Apple; I’ve had Apples since my Apple IIe, and have always preferred Macs over PCs. Heck, Apple should cut me a check for influencing my wife, mother, father, sister, in-laws, and multiple friends and other relatives to buy Macs instead of PCs over the years. But, in this case, Apple seems to be overhyping the abilities and performance of the iPad as an e-book reader.

Simply put: the iPad is a portable computer. It is closer to a laptop than to an e-book reader. It is smaller and lighter than most laptops, but is also more limited in performance and capabilities. But it can be used to check email, surf the Internet, watch movies, and run a variety of apps — many of which are games. Its defining characteristic is its 9.7″ touchscreen LCD display. An LCD (liquid crystal display) is the same type of screen used on your computer monitor, a laptop screen, cell phone, or even most flat-screen TV sets. It is backlit (meaning it produces its own light and you can read/watch it at night), and displays pictures and video in full color.

All current Kindle versions (including the Kindle 1, Kindle 2, Kindle DX, and the new Kindle 3) use an e-Ink screen. Quite simply, you have to see an e-Ink screen in person to understand it (I recommend going to Barnes & Noble to see a Nook, or to Target to see a Kindle), but I’ll try to describe it. e-Ink screens are black and white, and mimic ink on a printed page. Imagine a series of tiny dots of black ink, suspended in little tubes. The Kindle moves the ink drops around — it moves some to the top to create a black dot on the screen, and moves some to the bottom where you can’t see them (this isn’t perfectly accurate, just a visualization to give you a general idea). There is no backlight — meaning that you can’t read it in the dark. e-Ink screens currently can’t show video — it takes about 1/2 a second to switch what’s showing on the display (like to change pages).

While e-Ink lacks color and video, it has some important advantages when it comes to reading. First, it is much easier on most people’s eyes than LCD screens. Since it’s not backlit, it’s more like reading a newspaper than like staring at a computer screen (which can cause eyestrain). I know when I work in front of a computer monitor all day, the last thing I want to do when I get home is stare at another backlit LCD screen. Reading a Kindle feels like reading a book.

Second, e-Ink screens are easy to read outdoors and in bright sunlight (just compare in the picture above). In fact, the more light, the better for an e-Ink screen. Conversely, have you ever had to shade your cell phone screen to read it at the beach? LCD screens (like on the iPad) are hard to read in bright sunlight.

Finally, e-Ink screens take much less power than LCD screens, so the battery in the Kindle 3 can last for a month, while the iPad’s only lasts for 10 hours. The reason for this is that e-Ink screens take no power at all to display an image — they only take a little power to change an image (for example, to turn a page in a book). In fact, my K2 arrived in the box with a welcome message and graphic on the screen that I first thought was a sticker! But you could literally put something on an e-Ink screen and take the battery out, and the image would remain on the screen.

Here’s a quick chart of LCD vs. e-Ink advantages and disadvantages:

LCD

+ Full color

Harder on the eyes

+ Can display video (movies)

Takes more power (battery doesn’t last as long)

+ Backlit, so you can read in the dark

Hard to read outdoors or in bright sunlight

e-Ink

Black & white

+ Easy on the eyes; like paper

Can’t display full video

+ Takes very little power (battery lasts longer)

Can’t be read in the dark (like a regular book)

+ Easy to read outdoors, the more light the better

+ Very crisp and sharp

You may notice a pattern: e-Ink screens mimic many of the strengths and weaknesses of ink on paper, which isn’t a coincidence, considering it was designed to emulate printed books. On the other hand, LCD has many of the same strengths and weaknesses of your TV set. But which one would you rather read a book on? 😉

There are a couple of other reasons why the Kindle makes a superior e-book reading device than the iPad: it costs a small fraction of the price ($139 vs. $499), it weighs 1/3rd as much (8.5 ounces vs. 24 ounces), and it’s smaller and more portable. But in this post, I wanted to focus on the displays, and hopefully I’ve been able to dispel some misconceptions and describe the differences between e-Ink and LCD screens. I really highly recommend that you try to see an e-Ink screen in person at a Barnes & Noble store, Target, or Best Buy — or find a friend with a Kindle or Nook. Most people are amazed by how “paper-like” and easy to read an e-Ink screen is. (I do have some more photos of e-Ink screens here.)

If you’re still a bit confused by the differences between the Kindle and iPad, I’ve included this handy chart I found, which I thought was pretty clever. =)

Rock, paper, … iPad?
Jul 282010

Kindle 3

Amazon today announced the new Kindle 3, and it’s quite an improvement. The price for the 3G model remains at $189, and the new Wi-Fi only model is only $139 (narrowly edging out B&N’s new $149 Nook Wi-Fi). They should be available August 27, and both include free 2-day shipping.

The $189 3G + Wi-Fi model ads Wi-Fi connectivity to the free, lifetime 3G wireless coverage of the Kindle 1 and 2 models. Both new models have:

  • 50% better screen contrast (darker black and a lighter gray background), with E-Ink’s new “Pearl” display (also used on the graphite Kindle DX 2).
  • A choice of graphite (pictured) or white casing. The graphite may make the screen background seem lighter.
  • Smaller size and lighter weight: with the same 6″ screen, the new Kindle 3 is 21% smaller and 15% lighter — only 8.7 oz (3G) or 8.5 oz (Wi-Fi).
  • 20% faster page turns.
  • Double the internal storage, now 4GB (enough for about 3,500 books).
  • An even longer-lasting battery; Amazon claims a full month with wireless off and 10 days with wireless on.

This is really a killer list of features. What strikes me is that they took what the Kindle was already great at, and made it even better. As the owner of a Kindle 2, I can attest that the device is already small and light enough for easy one-handed reading — it’s as light as most paperbacks. Now, it’s even smaller and lighter: only 1/3rd of an inch thick and about half a pound. And the battery life was already phenomenal — I’d get 2 or 3 weeks out of it — but a full month without recharging is absurd. The page turns were also fast enough (about 1/2 a second) so they weren’t obtrusive, but faster is even better. And the extra storage is also nice, although 2GB is more than enough for most users: not only can you hold thousands of books, but you can always back up extras on your computer and Amazon backs up all your purchases through the “cloud,” so you can delete them to free up space and can always re-download them when necessary.

They’ve also made important improvements in areas that could use them: the contrast of the screen, for example. If I had one gripe about my K2, it’s that the background looks more like the gray, newspaper-like paper of mass-market paperbacks than the clean white paper in higher-quality trade paperbacks. I haven’t seen it myself, but the new “Pearl” display is supposed to be a slightly lighter shade of gray.

Additionally, they changed around the layout and button placement a bit: mainly, they’ve redesigned the 5-way controller, added “home” and “back” buttons, removed the number keys (you now have to hit ALT + the top row buttons), and re-designed the next page and previous page buttons (supposedly making them quieter as well). There will also be three user-selectable fonts (with, of course, the existing 8 font sizes), support for Asian language fonts, and software improvements including a better web browser, text-to-speech on menu items (for better accessibility), and support for notes and the built-in dictionary with PDFs.

I think it’s also a great move to make a lower-cost model: the Kindle Wi-Fi for just $139. This was partially to compete with B&N’s $149 Nook Wi-Fi, and it makes the new Kindle 3 very affordable — it’s several times less expensive than Apple’s $499 iPad. Consider that the original Kindle was $399, and the Kindle 2 was still $259 just a few months ago, and you can see how aggressively they’ve driven the prices down. It makes the value proposition that much better, as anyone who reads more than just occasionally can almost certainly recoup the cost of the device through the fact that e-books are generally less expensive than hardcovers or paperbacks — and many great, classic e-books are free. It doesn’t take very many free and $2.99 e-books (compared to $10 paperbacks, let alone $25 hardcovers) to recoup the initial cost of the device. And the extra $50 for the 3G model seems quite reasonable, considering that it includes free, lifetime, global 3G wireless (compared to $30 a month on the iPad 3G!).

I think Amazon did a great job with this update. I wasn’t expecting so many features — just the graphite casing (ho-hum) and Pearl screen (which is nice). Now I’m a little jealous… 😉

© 2010 David Derrico