I have this funny feeling that e-readers will be a marquee gift this holiday season.
I don’t know why, but it could have something to do with all these new Kindles from Amazon, the new Kobo Vox, and the just-introduced Nook Tablet from Barnes and Noble.
There are so many e-readers on the market these days that deciding which one to buy for whom can be tough.
Luckily there are few general principles you can work with when considering what’s available.
First, though, let’s establish what an e-reader is.
In essence, it’s a replacement for paper.
E-readers exist to make it easier and more efficient to access books, newspapers, magazines, and other formerly printed materials without all the muss and fuss of paper.
If you’re one of those people who still clings to physically printed media, it’s time to grow up. To paraphrase the animated kids who chase around that floppy cereal bunny, “Silly people, books are for kids!” (More on that next week.)
There comes a time in everyone’s life when we must put away the idle pleasures of youth, and physical books now fall solidly in that category.
And before you start up with that nonsensical argument about how you love the feel of paper and that the printed book is the way we were meant to consume words, first bring me a bucket of sand and I’ll sing you the Desert Song (as my mom is inclined to declare whenever I whine about something).
Then consider this: the book is just another form of packaging.
Writers don’t make books, they generate words and sentences and paragraphs, so the book has about as much relevance in the process of enjoying their work as does the cardboard box to enjoying the Big Mac therein (assuming you actually like that form of foodstuff).
Back to what an e-reader is, though.
There are really two categories of e-readers: the traditional e-reader, and the tablet computer.
The traditional e-reader displays text and pictures in high-contrast black and white using what’s commonly called an “e-ink” screen.
This e-ink screen very closely replicates the experience of reading a printed page. It uses available light to display its contents, just like paper.
You’ll generally find e-ink screens on lower cost devices like the basic Kindles and the Kobo Touch.
Tablet computers, on the other hand, offer either an LCD- or LED-based screen.
These things have the advantages of colour and light. Because of that, though, they also have the marked disadvantage of relatively poor battery life.
Whereas an e-ink device’s battery life is measured in weeks and months, a tablet generally counts its battery’s useful lifespan in mere hours and days.
Some tablets go beyond books, too, and let you listen to music, watch movies and TV shows, and plays games.
Common examples of tablets cum e-readers are Apple’s iPad, Amazon’s Kindle Fire, and Kobo’s Vox.
The biggest aspect of deciding between a traditional e-reader and a tablet comes down to the reading experience that the screen offers.
In theory, e-ink is better because of its more passive method of delivering a screen’s contents to your eyes.
I’ve been testing this recently, reading the same two books interchangeably on a couple of e-ink devices, my iPad, and even – gasp! – as paper books.
The height of the reading experience was definitely with the e-ink devices (and paper books bombed miserably). I could easily get lost in the books on my Kindle and Kobo. I spent hours reading without distraction, often whiling away entire sleepless nights.
It wasn’t the same experience on my iPad.
While I could do maybe an hour – two at the most – on my iPad, my eyes would tire after that and I’d be inclined to stop reading.
More often, though, I’d be distracted by an email or calendar event alert that would effectively break the spell of the book; the tablet’s additional feature set can clearly also be a drawback.
So who should get which kind of device?
If you’re a reader who likes to indulge in books for very long periods of time, or if you read a lot of books, don’t even consider a tablet. Purchase a device with an e-ink display, find a comfy chair, and get reading.
If you plan to use the device for reading less than half the time, though, and you want to also be able to do things like email, web browsing, and watch movies, then skip the e-readers and look at the tablets.
Perhaps the biggest question, though, is which brand of e-reader or tablet to buy because, chances are, you’ll get locked in to one book store with your decision.
This decision used to be a no-brainer: buy a Kindle because of Amazon’s lower pricing and better availability. That’s no longer true.
I’ll often now find that even Apple’s iBookstore undercuts Amazon’s pricing – sometimes significantly – and I frequently find books on Kobo that aren’t available for the Kindle.
These days, pigeonholing yourself to one book provider can be a tough call.
So the ability to shop around for price and selection on books is a consideration that might make you go with a higher-end tablet for e-reading.
That’s because the iPad and some Android-based devices enable you to purchase books from whichever store you choose. They offer e-reading apps for Kindle, Kobo and iBooks as well as other book stores and online resources.
Deciding which e-reader to buy is definitely not easy, but like I said way back at the start of this column, there are a few principles to work with.
First: do you want just an e-reader with the best reading experience? Go e-ink.
Second: do you want to do other stuff like watch movies and play games with your device? Consider a colour tablet.
Third: do you want access to a wide variety of book and other media stores? Well, now you’re in iPad territory.
I suppose a fourth principle might be: prepare for debate.
There’s still a surprisingly large quotient of paper-loving book readers out there who will deride whichever e-reader you might find under the tree next month.
But after you’ve opened up your device, you’ll be able to tune them out easily enough by settling into a good book.
Andrew Robulack is a writer and consultant specializing in technology and the internet.
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, November 18, 2011.