What do the ebook readers actually do?

It sounds like a daft question if you’ve got one but isn’t quite so daft if you don’t so I thought a potted guide would be in order.

Although in theory there are loads of them out there, in the UK for practical purposes there are basically two makes with a total of four models.

The Sony ones let you read PDFs and a number of other formats of which epub is the main one that they use. They have two ways of enlarging the text though the pocket edition only does the first one. The first way is through enlarging the text but not the images with the pocket edition offering effectively six sizes (three portrait, three landscape) and the touch edition ten (five portrait, five landscape) ie the six of the pocket plus four larger sizes. How this works with PDFs varies depending on how the PDF was prepared but generally you find that the photographs appear but diagrams generally don’t. The second way is a zoom facility only available on the touch edition which lets you magnify the PDF image. This would be perfect but doesn’t let you move to the next page so you’ve to unzoom the image, move to the next page and zoom it up if you want to do that. In practical terms I use the font enlargement method nearly all the time and it’s rare that I use the PDF zoom facility. You can add notes and highlighting on the touch edition which sounds useful but is very hard on the batteries and in practice I’ve never really used that facility. The pocket edition has a 5″ screen, the touch a 6″ one; it makes quite a difference to the reading with the larger screen but you get used to the smaller one and for some reason I find it easier to get through the reading with less words on the page but that might just be me. Price-wise it’s aroud £140 for the pocket edition, around £220 for the touch version.

I gather that the Amazon versions offer similar facilities using Kindle format as default but they also handle PDFs. Big plus points are that they are a lot cheaper (£109 for the basic 6″ version) and that you can buy books direct from Amazon obviously (with the Sonys you buy on your computer and transfer the books to the reader later). On the book buying front, prices are generally around the hard book price level although there are thousands of free ones (eg www.gutenberg.org has over 30,000). There’s also the Kindle DX which is around £250 and gives you a 10″ screen. They both come with a little keyboard for note-taking though as I say I’ve never really used the facility on the Sony so this isn’t a deciding point.

To transfer documents (which can include your own documents in Word and PDF form) you connect the device to your computer where it comes up as another disk drive; just drag and drop from there. In principle you can also use the supplied software (or Calibre which is free and better) but drag and drop works fine. With the Kindle you can email PDFs to your Kindle (but they charge you for that) or buy using the one-click facility. Both can charge up via the USB link but it’s much faster to plug them into the mains (you need to get a Sony PSP charger [about £20] to do that, the cheap Kindle comes with the charger).

One thing to watch is that effectively all the readers are black and white. Colour is available but at around £800 so in reality it’s probably best to wait a couple of years for that. Most of the time you don’t miss that but, depending on what you read, there are times when colour would be really handy. Due to limitations of the technology you can’t run videos. Page turning usually takes a fraction of a second but can be longer on complex pages. It’s difficult to define “complex” in this context as it depends on how the authors have prepared the page so you couldn’t tell by simply looking at a page in a book if it were “complex”.

The other major limitation if you’re buying books is that there is currently no second hand market. Basically you pay close to the full hardback price and can get nothing back if you’ve finished with a book you’ve bought.

If I were starting again I’d go for the cheap Kindle basically because it’s the cheapest.

However, do you really need one of these things? Certainly if you’re only reading the odd paperback the answer is probably not as not only are you looking at hardback prices, you also need to part with at least £109 to begin with. However, if you’re one of those people who need a few dozen paperbacks on holiday it’s a different matter as it is if you have access to a large library of PDFs like many students.

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