To eRead or Not to eRead? The First of Many Questions

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by Clover Carroll

Should you buy an eReader (aka an eBook reader)? If so, which kind? And why would you want one, anyway? The general puzzlement surrounding this latest technology is compounded by the fact that you can’t just go out and hold an eReader in your hands, try it out, and compare its features with other models. Neither Barnes and Noble, nor Radio Shack, nor Staples carry any of them, and Best Buy only carries the Sony. Instead, they are mostly sold online, where you have to take the vendor’s word for their product’s superiority. This may change as consumer demand increases.

Although I am no expert, I do believe that eReaders are an idea whose time has come. An eBook is a digital text or electronic book that can be downloaded and read on a computer screen, smart phone, or PDA. An eReader is an electronic device dedicated to reading and designed to make the experience more pleasant by using the “E Ink” technology that simulates paper and ink to provide a more natural experience. It is easier on the eyes than a computer screen, is non-glare so it can be read in sunlight, and uses battery power only for page turns, resulting in a two-week battery life. eReaders cost anywhere from $200-$500, depending on the make, model, size, color and other features, and they can be read held either vertically or horizontally. Complete books, newspapers, or magazines can be downloaded to your eReader from an online retailer, either wirelessly or from a computer. The price of a typical eBook is slightly less than a print copy, and like a paper book (but unlike the ever-changing Internet), it is yours to keep after you purchase it. The classics are often available free on public domain websites such as Project Gutenberg and Google Books. eBooks should not be confused with audiobooks, in which a book is read aloud on a CD or an iPod, usually by actors or actresses who add a dramatic dimension to the experience.

As one acquaintance put it: but why would you want to do that? (eRead, that is?) Like me, she enjoys the physical experience of reading books—the weight of the tome, the smell of the paper, the whoosh of a turning page, the subtle depression of the ink on paper, the cozy feel of loaded bookcases in the living room. But eReaders do have several advantages, the most notable being the convenience of carrying 300-1500 books (depending on the model) in one slim, lightweight package. As one website advertises, it’s “a whole library in your pocket.”* This could have an enormous impact in education. Students would appreciate not having to lug heavy textbooks around–although since color displays are not expected till 2011, the visual aspect of magazines and textbooks can be lost on an eReader. Other advantages are the ability to adjust font size, the bookmarking feature that holds your place automatically, the search feature for any word or phrase, the ability to highlight or annotate passages (and then search those notes) without permanently marring the text, and even the possibility of embedding animated images or video (not at present, but someday). Then, of course, there is the environmental benefit of saving trees—somewhat counterbalanced by the electricity needed to charge the batteries—and the economic benefit of not having to store an inventory of thousands of print copies of books. Many eReaders will play audiobooks as well, either through headphones or speakers; some will read certain eBooks aloud, but in a computer voice. Let’s hope that these two formats will merge eventually, allowing students to listen to the audiobook even as they read the text on the screen—a significant pedagogical advantage.

Whenever I mention the word eReader to my friends, they almost always say, “Oh, you mean like a Kindle?” While Amazon definitely won the PR contest with its catchy name, Newsweek coverage, and blockbuster advertising of their product since it debuted in late 2007, there have in fact been many other brands on the market since Sony introduced the first eReader in 2006. There is a battle underway for which of many models will dominate the market in the long run—and with millions of potential purchasers, that’s a lot of profit at stake. Wikipedia currently lists over 20 different brands of eReaders, from the Cybook Opus to the BeBook to new brands yet to be released, each with various models, sizes, and colors to choose from. Barnes and Noble, which already offers free eReader software for download to iPhones and other PDAs, is partnering with Plastic Logic to sell books for its new eReader release planned for next year. Amazon recently donated 60 of its new, larger-screen Kindle DX’s to U.Va.’s Darden School of Business for trial use—hoping, no doubt, to gain a foothold in the lucrative academic market.

This fall, Albemarle County Public Schools purchased an eReader for each school library as an experimental pilot. School librarians (myself included) were able to choose between three models: the Amazon Kindle, the Sony Reader Touch, and the COOL-ER (get it? ER=eReader). We read reviews and looked at some comparison charts, but our decisions were to some extent shots in the dark. I chose the Sony model mainly because the Kindle is proprietary, restricting book purchases exclusively to Amazon—which irritated my freedom-loving American spirit. Other librarians chose the Kindle because it reads aloud, which has obvious instructional applications—only to find out when it arrived that it reads in a computer voice that won’t hold a student’s attention for long.

I was skeptical—until it arrived. Please understand that I have had an intimate relationship with paper books my entire life. Although I do have other hobbies, I can without hesitation declare that reading is my #1 favorite thing to do. I collect bookmarks and have one from every place I’ve ever traveled (and then some). So it was with some trepidation that I opened my eReader box. The slim 5” x 7” flat screen, framed in dull silver, with 7 labeled buttons along the bottom, was cleverly hinged into a soft, black faux-leather case so it hangs and turns easily (the case is also available in red or white). Weighing a mere 13 oz., it fits easily in my hand or purse. After plugging it into my computer for its first charge using the USB cable provided, I logged on to the Sony eBookstore and downloaded a couple of books on my library’s wish list. In the future I can download eBooks from any website I wish, including free public domain titles. Then I had to transfer these to the eReader itself, which took only a minute or two using the USB cable. I touched “Start Reading” on the home screen, increased the font size from small to medium (large and extra large are also available), and … fell in. It wasn’t until about an hour later that I realized this wasn’t a “real” book! While I do miss the contrast of black on a white or ivory page, the electronic “paper”—a kind of pale greenish yellow, about the color of cornsilk or the inside of a pea—is indeed very comfortable to look at. There is a handy two-level backlight for reading on a plane or in bed—but with my aging eyes I find it to be a huge help in almost all lighting conditions. You can also purchase a clip-on that casts light on the screen from above. Best of all, I could use the touch screen to choose functions, type notes, and turn pages, either with my finger or with the stylus provided. To my utter amazement, I loved the thing. It was so … easy. And the next time I turned it on, it remembered which page I was on and took me straight there! Anyone interested in a used bookmark collection?

I have also had the opportunity to try out the Kindle and the COOL-ER. Although the Kindle has the distinct advantage of allowing wireless downloading whenever and wherever the mood strikes you (but only from Amazon), you have to pay $30 extra for the case that came free with the Sony. It does have text-to-speech capability and a built-in dictionary, a bright screen (but no backlight), and handles nicely. However, neither the Kindle nor the COOL-ER have touch screen technology, which I find very handy. As Nicholson Baker pointed out in his 8/3/09 New Yorker review, the button-based navigation makes the Kindle a bit clunkier than the Sony. The COOL-ER (motto: “we make reading cool”) is slimmer, lighter, and cheaper than either of the other models. It uses an iPod-like directional pad rather than a touch screen. Although it does not have a backlight (nor a case), its contrast/brightness is better than the Sony’s.

Who knows what the future holds for eReading—where, how, and when it will be embraced by consumers, and how it will affect the availability of our beloved, old-fashioned paper books? I plan to wait until several new models are released before buying one. The technology is improving rapidly, and the prices will probably continue to drop. I think that there is a place—and a need—for both books and eReaders. What we know won’t ever fade is the joy and satisfaction of reading itself, regardless of format. And after all, isn’t change what keeps life interesting?

eReader Sources and comparisons:

Reader Touch www.sonystyle.com
COOL-ER www.coolreaders.com
Kindle www.amazon.com
Cybook Opus www.bookeen.com
BeBook mybebook.com
In most eBooks www.eink.com

*http://ebook-reader-guide.com