How to Buy an eBook Reader

So you’re sick of paper. Sick of trips to the bookstore. Sick of the weight of a fist-thick textbook in a backpack. Sick of working your laser printer to death for a stack of papers you’ll read once and trash (and sick of the guilty feeling you get when you do it).

It’s time for an e-reader. The once unheard-of category has been exploding recently thanks to the introduction of hot models like Amazon’s Kindle, which turned the market upside and whet consumer appetites for a device most of them didn’t even know existed. But what can you expect from an e-book reader, what should you look for in one? Here’s a primer on the advantages of e-readers, how to buy one, and a few specific models you’ll want to check out.

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Flexable e inkWhat is electronic ink?

Prior to ink, there were no books. And prior to electronic ink, there were no e-books. It’s the vital display technology that makes reading off an e-reader different – and better – than simply firing up your laptop.

You can read our comprehensive guide to electronic paper for the lowdown on how it actually works, but here’s the critical difference that sets it off from an LCD screen: electronic ink holds an image without electricity. So while an LCD screen drains away juice every second its on during your 12-hour plane ride, an e-reader only requires a tiny dose of electricity when you flip the page, giving it exponentially longer battery life and taking the sense of urgency out of reading. E-readers even display attractive screensaver images when they’re off, since they require zero energy to maintain.

Almost as importantly, electronic ink looks smoother and strains the eyes less than an LCD screen. The smooth edges of type actually look like printed paper, and since the screen doesn’t refresh 60 times a second as most LCDs do, there’s no imperceptible flicker that gives many people headaches after prolonger reading on an LCD.

Fujitsu Flepia Color EbookUnfortunately, at the moment, almost all electronic ink is monochrome. For instance, the Kindle delivers 16 shades of grey. Color electronic paper is on the way, and Fujitsu already makes a Japanese e-reader that will do 260,000 colors, but it’s extremely slow refresh times present their own problems at the moment. And even monochrome e-readers can’t play video and animations the way an LCD can.

Where do I buy e-books for my e-Reader?

Once you have an e-reader, you’ll need to score some e-books to fill it up. And depending on which reader you have, the options may look totally different.

Amazon’s Kindle became the most popular e-reader on the market today largely because of its exceptionally cozy connection with Amazon’s own library of digital books, which currently hosts 385,000 titles. Because the Kindle comes with a built-in wireless modem and a limited access plan known as Whispernet, owners can download books anywhere they get cell phone coverage: on the bus, at the airport, or just lounging around at home. Unfortunately, Amazon only sells files in its own proprietary AZW format, which only work with the Kindle series of e-readers.

Sony E Book StoreSony offers it own library known as the e-book Store. While the number of for-sale books hovers somewhere above 100,000, Sony has recently supplemented the store with free public domain books supplied by Google, to the tune over 1 million titles. Unlike Amazon, Sony offers all of its titles in the open EPUB format, which will work on multiple devices.

Barnes & Noble’s eBook store is a latecomer to the market, but boasts the most impressive selection: over 1 million titles in the catalog, plus all the same public-domain titles from Google that Sony’s store offers. It caters primarily to the Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader, but others, like the iRex DR800S, also tap into it.

Of course, you don’t need to visit the goliaths to buy e-books. Sites like e-books.com, Fictionwise (partnered with Barnes & Noble), and Mobipocket all offer books for sale as well. And sometimes you don’t even need to spend. Project Gutenberg offers over 30,000 free books in the public domain.

The dirty side of e-books: DRM

Once you own a paper book, it’s yours to do with as you want. You can read it, sell it, and if have it locked up in your house, no one can take it away from you.

The same is not true for e-books. Although e-book stores may give the impression you’ve paid for an electronic copy of a book, you’ve really only paid for the right to read it, and as many folks have found out, those rights aren’t transferable. They’re protected with digital rights management, or DRM. So after you’ve paid $10 for a DRM-protected book – the same price you might have dropped at a bookstore, or even Amazon itself – there’s no way to recoup it later by selling it. And if you wanted to lend it to your friend, you had better hand over the whole reader.

1984 George OrwellDigital books aren’t as permanent as their paper predecessors, either. Only back in July, Amazon accidentally sold electronic copies of George Orwell’s 1984, which it didn’t technically have the rights to distribute. To remedy the error, Amazon deleted the books from users’ devices and refunded them the money, leaving many to return to their Kindles and find one of their books missing. Unless you’re the frequent victim of literary cat burglars, that seldom happens with the paper copy of 1984 on the bookshelf over your bed.

Top e-book Readers

Got the details cleared away? Great. Now check out some of the hottest e-readers on the market today.

Amazon Kindle 2Amazon Kindle 2, $259

After taking the world by storm with the original Kindle, Amazon returned to the drawing board for the Kindle 2, a slimmer, sexier version of the original. It offers a 6-inch screen, 2GB of internal memory (to hold about 1,500 nonillustrated books) and most importantly, Whispernet access to pull down books from the sky when you’re out and about. Text-to-speech capabilities even allow it to read books to, if you don’t mind a little robotic intonation. Sadly, it’s missing a touch screen, and many users bemoan the lack of a backlight for evening reading. It also only handles Amazon’s DRM-protected AZW books, free Mobipocket titles, and plain text files, leaving out the popular EPUB format.

Amazon Kindle DxAmazon Kindle DX, $489

The best just got bigger, or so Amazon would have you believe. In an effort to promote the Kindle as a potential replacement for newspapers and textbooks Amazon bumped the screen size up to 9.7 inches for the DX. It also gets a hefty 4GB of internal memory and a price tag and gigantic as its screen.

Sony Reader Pocket EditionSony Reader Pocket Edition, $200

As the name would imply, the 5-inch screen on Sony’s Pocket Edition reader makes it one of the smallest readers you can buy. Sony also pared memory down to just 512MB (although 350 books should be enough for all but the most voracious readers) and stripped off the keyboard to shrink it down. Unlike the original Kindle, it will handle EPUB, Microsoft Word and PDF files natively, but lacks the dedicated modem and wireless access that allows the Kindle to download books from anywhere. You’ll need to connect it to a PC to load up on fresh titles.

Sony PRS 600Sony Reader Touch Edition, $300

Sony’s largest reader matches the Kindle 2 with its 6-inch screen size, but throws in an extra twist: a touch screen. Rather than controlling it with a variety of side buttons, you can simply swipe your finger across the screen to turn a page or highlight text with the included stylus. It will also play MP3 and AAC files in addition to all the open-standard text formats the smaller Pocket Edition reads.

Irex DR800SiRex DR800S, $400

Somewhere between the Kindle 2 and Kindle DX lies the iRex DR800S, an e-reader with an 8.1-inch screen and a price tag to match. It outdoes both Amazon devices with a touch screen, and matches Amazon’s killer Whispernet feature with its own built-in wireless modem that rides on Verizon’s network, and access to Barne’s & Noble’s eBook store, which is currently stocked with 700,000 titles. It will launch at Best Buy retail locations by the end of October.

Foxit EslickFoxit eSlick, $260

The makers of the popular Foxit Reader PDF software dipped a toe into hardware with eSlick reader, which served as a cheaper Kindle when Amazon still hawked the Kindle 2 for $300, but which has become less competitive with Amazon’s latest price drop. It matches the Kindle 2 in many respects, including 6-inch screen size, but lacks that unit’s built-in keyboard, and more importantly, its built-in modem. It also compares unfavorably in the memory department, with only 512MB of storage onboard compared to the Kindle’s 2GB. Only native support for PDF files and MP3s really redeem it.

Barnes & Noble Nook, $259nook

With the same white plastic rim and screen size as the Kindle 2, you could be forgiven for mistaking the Nook for Amazon’s child, but look closely. The bottom sports a small multi-touch enabled color screen for navigating, rather than the Kindle’s hard keyboard. Also like the Kindle 2, it uses a cellular data network to allow users to download books from the Barnes & Noble eBook store anywhere they get cellular connectivity – but the B&N version rides on AT&T rather than Sprint, and includes Wi-Fi for faster downloads when you’re at home.

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