Update on Ebook Readers

I blogged about ebook readers quite a while ago. Due to a recent moving experience which included a very unpleasant volume of books, my interest in ebooks has peaked again. I still love paper books but I can see myself buying the casual read only as ebook in the future if only to save space. Also, ebooks obviously scale better if you travel and are more comfortable to use if you are as maniac about preserving your books’ looks as I am. So it is about time I inform myself about the ebook reader market.

Last week Chalmers library hosted an event with staff members bringing their ereaders so interested students and employees could try them out. Since they own the devices they brought they could share their first-hand experiences which was pretty informative. The event was not well-visited so I could take my time testing the invidual readers. I did not memorize precise model identificators, but here is what I remember:

  • Nuuk — I think this one is a far-eastern (and old) version of the Nook
  • iRiver
  • Kindle
  • Sony with touch display
  • iPad
  • Samsung tablet (galaxy?)

First off, I do not know why they brought iPads and derivates. They are no ebook readers but little, castrated computers that incidentally can view ebooks. They take a beating when evaluated for the task of reading books. Really the only advantage the iPad has is that page turns are much faster compared to most dedicated ebook readers. Let me note, though, that if you already own an iPad it is well suited for reading books if you do not mind the display. You should not buy it just for that. And additionally, the Samsung tablet felt really inferior to the iPad although it tries to look identically.

The dedicated ebook readers all have an eInk display. I love this technology and would never buy a reader without it. There is no difference at all between paper and the better ones; quality varies. Among those I tested I liked Nuuk’s display best for it had really strong contrast and turned pages agreeably fast. Most of the readers had too many features, though, and were therefore awkward to handle. Especially the Kindle has buttons everywhere and you risk pressing them by accident. Also, some automatically rotate screen content if you rotate the device — and if you show somebody what you are reading. The only feature besides actual reading and search that I found helpful is Kindle’s dictionary lookup. When you move the cursor on a word Kindle shows its definition at the bottom edge. I can see the use of that.

Kobo eReader [Wikimedia]

Other than that, what featues would my dream reader have? None. I do not nead a library, music player, wireless, touch displays or anything. I want a simple to use, light, robust reading device that can open a book, turn pages, and that’s it. And I do not want to pay significantly more than 100€ for that. Sadly enough, such basic ebook readers are rare if not extinct. Apparently, some readers have been hacked and flashed with fully accessible Linux installations so people can get rid of unnecessary features at least. The product closest to my description is probably the Kobo which has yet to be released in Europe.

Ebook reader technology has improved since early 2009 and will certainly continue to do so. The main reason that keeps me from thinking seriously about buying one is this: where do you get your ebooks? While most online stores sell them nowadays, most (to my knowledge: all) protect their files with DRM measures. I do not want to buy something that is devalued like that; I want to be able to create as many copies on whatever devices I want (backups, flexibility) and I want to be able to lend the books I enjoy to my friends. I want to own the product I pay for. So I will not invest in an ebook reader in the foreseeable future. If you want to I strongly recommend you try out different ones before buying. Quality, usability and performance varies a lot from one model to the other.


  1. I think ebookreaders are a bit like hardware. You just have to wait 5 years and you’ll get the expensive ones to a passable price.

  2. Hmm… I also happened to be on the look out for an ebook reader recently that does just that, display ebooks and lets you flip pages. Wanting something that could get to India without too much hassle slashed down the choices by more than half… and I finally settled on the Bebook Neo, which does have a boatload of extra features, but they don’t get in the way. I also actually find the dictionary lookup useful, and I like tuning into the music while I am reading – although this does take away the battery life :(

    The reader is great for (non-graphic) novels, although I think the touchscreen does cause some glare… although not as bad as the Sony touchscreen reader, which was heavily criticized for an unbearable glare effect – they had a backlit touchscreen that was apparently no good. I actually don’t notice it much, but Dad thinks the contrast is not enough for him… so I guess the bebook one may actually be the better choice (no touchscreen or wifi).

    For papers, I suppose a 6 inch reader just doesn’t cut it :( Unfortunately there aren’t many good larger ebook readers, although I am constantly tempted by the Kindle. But a larger reader doesn’t render the smaller one obsolete – I can’t imagine flopping down on bed and reading a novel on a 9-inch reader.

    One thing that I found super-annoying about major players in the market was the inability to sort files in folders… everything just gets dumped on one flat list – and this is rather unfortunate!

    As for the DRM issues… most of my reading is restricted to things I manage to find outside the stores. {sheepish} So I can’t really comment there, but I know folks who prefer the Bebook (and similar) as opposed to the main players because they deal with the whole DRM issue better, although I am not aware of the details of exactly what the workaround is. When I do buy a book, I’ll let you know!

    Finally, I agree that the only thing the ipad-like things score over eink varieties is the speed of flipping – and perhaps it is easier to make annotations and so on. But if you read for any substantial length of time, the eink screen does make a big difference, and it’s really lovely that it feels so close to reading a real book :)

  3. Thanks for your perspective. It appears you settled on a far from cheap solution with that Bebook, at least for non-far-eastern prices ;)

    I really dislike touch screens on ereaders. Most I tried were sluggish and, as you say, display quality suffers. Plus, they had the buttons anyway and did not even save the space for more display.

    File sorting, well… as I wrote earlier I guess I would not have so many files on it that it would matter, anyway. Can you create folders?

    Papers or even textbooks are another issues entirely and propably not on the requirements list. Viewing PDFs with graphics in general is often bad. Luckily, there seems to be quite some improvements with creating epub from LaTeX. Formulae and and other TeX generated stuff can be compiled to SVG which is part of the newer epub standards. Once I start publishing I will definitely have a deeper look into this and try to offer my work as epub, too. See here and here in the meantime.