2010-11-18 / The Mashup

In my book, top e-readers are all worth having

“Don’t do that.” My daughter looked up at me.

“Don’t do what?”

“Dog-ear a page in that book, please don’t do that. And while we’re on the subject, please don’t lay it open-face on a table to hold your place either, because it can wreck the spine.”

It wasn’t even my book, and I was in danger of looking like a neurotic control freak, but I went on.

“Don’t you know what that is?”

“Um… a book?”

“Yes, a book. It’s a book. And books, Miss Nina, are to be respected. Say what you want about technology, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s books that are magic.” Nice: a smooth shift from psychotic dad to whacked-out hippie dad.

“OK, OK, fine, no problem. I’ll use a bookmark,” she told me. I think she may have rolled her eyes and mumbled “freak” under her breath before heading off to kvetch about me on Facebook.

Amazon Kindle Amazon Kindle I’m actually not quite as obsessive as that story implies. But I have a thing for books, for the physicality of them, for the… analog-ness of them. I like the way they feel in my hands, and how copies of out-ofprint books capture a time and a place, and how they still work just like they did when they were new, without needing some sort of oddball file converter I have to search the Internet for. And I like the way they look on my shelves (once I remove the gaudy jackets used to sell them to consumers that, like packs of credit card-packing kitty cats, increasingly appear to need shiny objects to attract them).

The books I’ve collected since I was a kid fill boxes in my garage and shelves in my house, each a reminder of where or who I was at some point in the past. Just one shelf can remind me of exploring stoicism (“The Discourses,” Epictetus), of traveling to Asia (a Hong Kong travel guide), of playing piano as a youngster (Scott Joplin sheet music), or that I’m not as funny as I wish I was (“Napalm & Silly Putty,” George Carlin). I’m reminded that I actually enjoy reading about history (“1776,” David McCulloch), what it was like to discover a whole new kind of science fiction (“Neuromancer,” William Gibson), how sleazy the Enron boys were (“Conspiracy of Fools,” Kurt Eichenwald), of being a kid in the ’70s (“The Phantom Tollbooth,” Norton Juster) of being a kid just a few years ago (His “Dark Materials” Trilogy, Philip Pullman).

Barnes & Noble Nook Barnes & Noble Nook My children, too, can wander over to the shelves, pull down a random book, and discover new things about the world, themselves, their father. Like I said: magic.

Sony Reader Sony Reader Little of which translates over to one of the hottest holiday gadgets around this year, the e-reader. But that’s o.k. I may never be willing to give up everything that my collection of physical books gives me, but I do own an e-reader and like it for its portability, easy periodical subscriptions, and fast access to books that catch my eye. But if you’re interested in laying your hands on one for yourself or a loved one, there are a few things you might want to know.

First of all, tablet computers like Apple iPads aren’t e-readers. While tablets can render books, magazines and newspapers beautifully, they do have some major disadvantages, like lacking the technology that makes e-readers so good at what they do: e-ink. Try taking your laptop out in the bright sun and see if it’s still easy to read (hint: it won’t be — what it will be is a mirror, so at least you can make sure you look slick). But with e-ink, the more light you get on the screen, the easier it is to read, just like paper. And, also just like paper, there’s far less eyestrain when reading e-ink as opposed to an LCD screen.

There are other issues as well, like portability (the Sony Reader Pocket Edition is a mere 5.5 ounces), battery life (Amazon claims the new Kindle can go a month on a charge) and price (e-readers start at $139, iPads at $499). And over the last year things have been getting even better for e-readers, so it’s time for a round up of the big fellas: the Amazon Kindle, the Barnes & Noble nook, and the Sony Reader.

Before going on, you need to understand Digital Rights Management. The vast majority of e-books released (excepting the hundreds of thousands in public domain) have DRM attached to prevent unauthorized copying and distribution. But DRM from Amazon, Sony, and Barnes & Noble are incompatible with each other. So if you build up a library of purchased e-books from those vendors’ storefronts, they’ll only work on the platform for which they’ve been published.

There’s good news though: The nook and the Reader (but not the Kindle) support open standards that provide far more options. Both units can read DRM-protected books purchased from third-party vendors like ebooks.com and fictionwise.com, and can even can borrow DRM-protected e-books from the library, which the Palm Beach County library system supports (not for every book by a long shot, but a nice selection). Very cool. Here’s

how other issues stack up.

Amazon Kindle

The big kahuna of e-readers comes in three variations: a 6-inch, WiFi-only ($139), a 6-inch WiFi + 3G ($189), and 9-inch WiFi + 3G DX ($289). Navigation is performed using a physical keyboard and navigation buttons, which add size. The Kindle supports folders (called collections), to make e-book management easy. Browsing and purchasing books or periodicals from Amazon. com is fast and easy. The search function bests the nook and the Sony units, providing a contextual list of all instances of your search term. However, the Kindle is the only one of the three major players to not support ePub or DRM-protected PDFs, so books must be bought from Amazon.com or be non-DRM. The Kindle also lacks a memory card slot.

Barnes & Noble Nook

The nook comes in WiFi-only ($149) and WiFI + 3G ($199) versions, both with 6-inch screens (the upcoming NOOKcolor, priced at $249, has an LCD screen, so I’m not including it in this comparison). Navigation is via a full color LCD touch screen beneath the main display. The search function is weak on the nook, displaying results on the page you’re already reading and providing no easy way to get to the search term’s first appearance. Page turns are slower than competing units, and the nook does not support grouping books into folders, though a software update may fix both issues. But there’s good news, too — it’s the only one of the three to allow you to “lend” a book to another nook owner (to only one person, and it’s not available to you while on loan) and if you take your nook to a BN store you can read any book you wish for up to an hour a day, which is neat. It also supports ePub formats and library lending, which is great. The nook has a memory card slot for expansion and a user-replaceable battery.

Sony Reader

One of the first on the market, the Reader is almost an afterthought to many in the market, though it shouldn’t be. Available in a 5-inch Pocket Edition ($179), a 6-inch Touch Edition ($229), and a 7-inch Daily Edition ($299), there’s one big comparative negative: only the Daily Edition supports 3G and WiFi. Both the Pocket and Touch Editions require a computer to load content. The Sony store also appears to have a smaller selection of periodicals. But the good news — all three navigate via touch screen, and page turns (which are very fast) can be executed by swiping your finger across the page. The touch screen also allows you to take notes directly on pages and bookmarks by writing right on the screen in e-ink using the included stylus. Readers are also the lightest and most compact (the Pocket Edition, at 5.7 by 4.1 inches, is smaller than the notebook I always carry in my pocket) and are made out of aluminum. They support more formats that the competitors and, like the nook, support library lending. The two larger units also have memory card slots. While at first blush they seem over priced (and perhaps they are, a bit) they have a ton to offer in features and sexiness; you shouldn’t overlook them.

Summing Up

E-readers have finally gotten to the point that they’re well worth having, even for non-early adopters, and the three major players are all quite good. The lack of open document support on the Kindle disturbs me, but for speed, ease of use, and a great screen, as long as you don’t mind being locked to Amazon.com as your book vendor and are willing to pass up library lending, take a look at it. If you want more options for books, want to keep the spending down, and don’t mind a heavier unit with slightly slower responsiveness (for now), take a look at the nook. And

f you want a great combination of sexiness, portability, and compatibility, and are willing to give up wireless support in

he less expensive units, take a look at the Readers.

None of them can give me the same happiness I get from my collection of physical books, but they’re a lot easier to carry around than those shelves. n

— For The Mashup, Bradford Schmidt writes about meat, technology, music and mashups thereof. He welcomes suggestions, comments, questions and offerings of prime beef.

Return to top