10 things to look for in an e-reader

Finding an e-reader you'll be happy with isn't quite as easy as it might seem. Erik Eckel explains some gotchas to watch out for.

Finding an e-reader you'll be happy with isn't quite as easy as it might seem. Erik Eckel explains some gotchas to watch out for.

Amazon's Kindle has ignited fresh enthusiasm within the e-publishing category. But treat with skepticism any thoughts that e-readers will consume significant market share any time soon. Manufacturers, book publishers, and retailers have tripped over themselves trying to perfect electronic books, electronic readers, and distribution.

Barnes & Noble, for example, abandoned its electronic book retail efforts in late 2003, removing eBooks from its Web site and discarding customers' purchases. In an about face, just last month the retailer re-entered the market. I lost some 25 or 30 eBooks when Barnes & Noble originally threw in the towel. It would have been nice if the files I'd purchased and registered could have remained available on the merchant's Web site, tucked safely into my secure user account. I've likely replaced my PCs, handheld computers, and cell phone/PDAs seven or eight times since then, switching from the Windows platform to Mac OS X in the process. Trying to properly copy and activate DRM-protected eBook files proved too intensive. Frankly, I gave up.

Before you make an investment in an e-reader, be sure you understand the ramifications. Proprietary formats and device incompatibilities are just a few of the potential frustrations awaiting you.

Note: This article is also available as PDF download.

1: Proprietary file formats

Beware of Digital Rights Management controls that lock your books into a specific platform. DRM protections are infamous for tying consumers' investments in copyrighted material to a specific file format (.LIT, .PDF, .AZW, etc.), operating system, or device. When purchasing DRM-protected files, users typically find they are unable to easily migrate the works they've purchased to different PCs, e-readers, or cell-phones/PDAs. As a result, they become beholden to the initial device (platform) they purchase. The more titles you purchase on a restricted e-reader platform, the more difficult it becomes to justify switching to a different device, where previous investments may require starting book collections from scratch.

2: Selection

Browse an e-reader's available title library carefully prior to making a purchase. Amazon's Kindle boasts a wide-ranging list of not only best-selling books, but also popular magazines and newspapers. Sony, meanwhile, partners with Google to make more than one million public domain titles, among others, available free to its users. Be sure the device you select matches well with your needs and personal reading habits.

3: Price

In a perfect world, e-readers would be like razors: essentially free. Just as health and beauty manufacturers earn profits by selling customers razor blades (instead of razors), I wish e-readers were free, with publishers subsidizing the costs of the electronic devices to capitalize upon new technology trends by selling electronic books. But alas, eBook sales are nowhere near sufficient to bolster such hopes. Two-hundred-ninety-nine dollars (the going rate for Amazon's 6" Kindle and Sony's Reader Touch Edition, among others) strikes me as excessive. Unless you're willing to settle for a lesser model or read books on an iPhone (as you can with Amazon's Kindle offerings), that looks to be the price of entry.

4: Display resolution

Young readers may be tolerant when it comes to font size and print clarity, but avid readers, commuters, and middle- and senior-age users will appreciate high quality e-reader displays. In fact, many will find sharp and adjustable resolutions necessary to use the device. Amazon's Kindle DX offers a display that measures 9.7" diagonally, but the corresponding cost rockets to almost five hundred dollars. Most other e-reader displays come in at six inches. If you're among the many whose eyesight was better 20 years ago or who read during bumpy commutes, ensure that the display you select at least supports adjustable font sizes to meet your needs.

5: Size

Most e-readers measure just eight or so inches tall and typically weigh less than 10 or 11 ounces. Don't settle for anything larger and heavier unless you have good reason to justify lugging the extra heft. An e-reader's greatest advantage is its portability. Unless an e-reader is going to replace all your traditional reading, a model with a six-inch display may work best.

6: Backlighting

Don't assume all e-readers are backlit. In fact, most are not and require ambient light to view their displays. That means you can't read them in bed while your significant other sleeps unless you leave a light on. One exception is the Sony Reader 700, which includes built-in illumination.

7: Battery life

Here's one element e-reader manufacturers have gotten right. Battery life on both the leading Amazon and Sony models is impressive. In many cases, even avid readers can use their electronic devices for days before requiring a recharge. Some manufacturers, such as Sony with its PRS-600, actually claim users can perform 7,500 continue page turns (two full weeks of reading) on a single charge.

8: Wireless file transfer

Transferring books, magazine articles, and other content via a USB cable can be troublesome, especially if you want to load material when away from a computer. Consider an e-reader that can transfer all the content you require (both paid and free) wirelessly. An e-reader should be convenient. In addition to enabling you to carry hundreds of titles on a single lightweight device, it should allow you to complete impulse purchases without being tied to a PC via a wired cable connection.

9: Highlighting and note-taking

Bookmarking, highlighting, and recording notes are, for some users, more than mere conveniences. If you require such features in your e-reader -- as do many teachers, students, scholars, pastors, authors, scientists, physicians, and others -- do your homework before buying. Although most e-readers offer such features, subtle but significant differences exist. Whenever possible, work first-hand with the device to confirm that its functionality matches your preferences.

10: Storage capacity

Most users will find contemporary e-readers more than capable of storing all the material they require. The base Kindle can hold 1,500 books, for example, while the sub-$200 Sony PRS-300SC holds 350 eBooks. If you'll need to store more than a unit's default capacity can handle, make sure the model you select supports optional removable memory.

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