How to Choose Your Next eReader or Tablet

Editor's Note: A few days ago we posted a which one should I buy article. Rich had a different opinion on how you should choose an ereader.

5111779335_853a32aaf6_bI’ve been pretty lax recently about writing articles for this blog. I’ve been busy trying to wrap up end-of-the-year work and deal with the holidays. The next week or two will be devoted to getting my holiday thank-you gifts mailed to clients.

However, I have been reading messages and blog posts telling people interested in buying their first ereader device which device to buy. I find most of the advice both wrong and unhelpful, so I thought I would give it a try.

First, let’s separate dedicated from multipurpose devices. If you won’t be satisfied with a dedicated device, then don’t consider a Kindle, Sony, Kobo, or nook or any eInk device. Look at an LCD-screened device such as the iPad and Samsung Galaxy or a laptop computer with an application. Essentially these are regular computers with ebook applications.

Among the dedicated devices — and there are a lot of them — for United States and Canada buyers, four stand out for consideration: nook, Sony, Kindle, and Kobo. Choosing among these four is a safe way to go; the companies are likely to be around for years to come. The real question is how to choose among the four. Each has its pluses and minuses, and contrary to what some bloggers, commentators, geeks, tech reviewers, and posters (hereinafter collectively referred to as bloggers) think, Kindle is not the outstanding or obvious choice. Rather, it all depends on how you will use the device and what is most important to you.

Consequently, the place to begin is by deciding what features are most important to you. Is it price? If price of the device is most important, then none of the Sonys are apt to meet your need because each of the Sonys is more expensive than the nook, Kobo, and Kindle.

Is it wireless connectivity? If yes, then my question is why? Yes, it is nice to be able to download to the device directly from the ebookstore rather than having to download first to your computer and then copy the book from your computer to the device via USB. But how often do you think you will really use this function? I generally buy books once or twice a month, so the wireless on my Sony 950 gets used at most twice a month, which isn’t very often. And even with the wireless, I prefer to first download to my PC because that way I have a copy of the book on my PC as a backup copy; if I download it directly, then the only copy is what exists in the cloud, which means I have to hope that it will always be available for downloading to my device. I haven’t forgotten when Amazon deleted all copies of one edition of 1984 because the copy violated copyright even though customers had paid for it.

Would you prefer touchscreen navigation or arrow navigation? Each of the devices has a dictionary. But how they access the dictionary is different. The Sonys use touchscreen technology, consequently I double-tap on a word and the dictionary definition pops up. On the Kindle, I have to use direction arrows to move to the word I want to lookup, select the word, and then select the dictionary function. For me, the tradeoff between wireless and touchscreen is worthwhile because I access the dictionary regularly, but buy books occasionally.

Some bloggers emphasize that Amazon, on average, has the lowest ebook prices. This is certainly true, but meaningless – just as it is meaningless that B&N’s ebookstore has more than 1 million books (many of which are the free public domain books available from Google) — unless the books you want to read are available at a price you are willing to pay. What does it matter to me if Amazon sells vampire romance novels for $50 less than any other store if I would never buy such a book? If ebook price is the key, then the best thing to do is to check out the pricing at Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and Sony of the last 10 books you read and the next 10 you would like to read. (An easy way to do this is to use Inkmesh, an ebook comparison tool.) In my case, buying the books at Sony would have cost me $3.50 more in total than had I bought them at Amazon, not a significant difference to me. Also, price is not the only factor to consider: regardless of the number of books available at each store, not all books are available at all stores, so you need to make sure that the books that are of interest to you are available.

Screen clarity is another issue. As of this writing, the Kindle and the Sonys have the best screen clarity. Both use the newest version of eInk screen, commonly referred to as the Pearl screen. Eventually nook and Kobo will also adopt this screen. Some bloggers wonder about fingerprints on the Sonys because they are touchscreen and they complain about the visibile fingerprints on the LCD touchscreen of the iPad. My personal experience is that this is not a problem. After a month of constant use (averaging 4 hours every day), I still didn’t observe smudges on my screen except in one corner where I was constantly double-tapping to add a bookmark.

Another issue is device build quality. If this is paramount, then I think there is no choice but to select a Sony. The Sonys are well-built solid devices that do not feel like cheap plastic. This is one of the things I dislike about the nook and the Kindle — both feel cheaply constructed. Note that I said “feel” — I opted to buy a Sony and so have no long-term experience with any of the other devices as regards build quality. The only thing I can say with absolute certainty is that my 3-year-old Sony PRS-505 is still going strong and appears to be brand new; my new Sony PRS-950 is built of the same metal components as the 505 was.

The last issue I’ll mention is local library access. The Sonys allow you to borrow ebooks from your local library (assuming your local library has them to lend). The other devices do not.

There are several other important considerations but not room enough to delve into all of them. Perhaps the most important one left is that of formats. Format is important because the more universal the format, the more bookstores that are available for you to shop at. The nook, Kobo, and Sonys all read ePub format. The nook adds an extra layer of DRM (digital rights management) “protection” to its books so that buying a book at B&N to read on the Kobo or Sony requires an extra step to strip the DRM. However, any book you buy at Sony or Kobo can be read on the Sony, Kobo, or nook device as is; any book bought at B&N can be read on the Sony or Kobo device if the DRM is removed, which is very easy to do, as well as on the nook. Amazon, on the other hand, does not use the ePub format and it is not easy to strip the DRM from an Amazon book. Consequently, for the most part, if you buy a Kindle, you are restricted to the Amazon bookstore and to ebookstores like Smashwords, Feedbooks, and ManyBooks, which provide DRM-free books in formats compatible with all of these devices. Those who are very tech savvy can find ways to strip some of the DRM from Amazon books and convert the books, but not from all of the books that Amazon sells. The widest ebookstore selection is available to devices that read ePub. However, if you only ever plan to buy ebooks from Amazon, then the Kindle is your best bet.

Ultimately, I suggest you look at the information available on MobileRead’s Wiki to learn about each of the devices available. Information about Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s nook, Kobo’s Kobo, and the three Sony devices (PRS-350, PRS-650, and PRS-950) is available by clicking the links. You would also do well to join MobileRead and read what owners of the various devices have to say for and against the devices. But under no circumstance should you simply buy a device without first analyzing your reading habits and getting a device that matches your habits most closely. It is likely that once you buy a dedicated device you will find you are reading more than ever before — this seems to be the one common thread that joins all of the various device owners: ereading devices are so pleasurable to use that the amount of time spent reading for pleasure increases.

Happy Holidays!

reposted with permission from An American Editor

image by Cloned Milkmen

11 Comments on How to Choose Your Next eReader or Tablet

  1. One’s personal example is not a good idea if you want to give a general advice on bying. Internet, for example, can be useful for some (subscribing to newspapers, checking your email, using Google Reader), but others don’t want that, they don’t consider it a priority or have other devices to do these kind of things (e.g. a smartphone).

    I mean, in any case, there is not a clear, 100% winner: a touch screen, wifi+3G, ePUB supporting device at $139.

  2. I think Rich made a few mistakes. He stated the library books can only be used on the Sony, they can also be used on the nook and Kobo. His statement about removing DRM is the exact opposite of my experiences. He’s obviously in love with the Sony…

  3. I used to use my ipaq PDA for most of my reading. When I looked at the eink readers, I went for the Kindle because it was the cheapest and had the best screen. The bookstore is of minimal interest to me.
    I use Calibre to convert my books for the Kindle and to upload them on to the device. It will do both actions in one click.
    So far it’s working very well for me.

    The one thing you forgot to mention was the backlight, or lack of it. The ipaq was backlit, and I found it comfortable to read on, but I wanted a bigger screen and eventually it just wore out. I’m happy with the Kindle and the clip-on light I bought which works better on the Kindle than it would on a paper book.

    I made my own cover (two of them) and put the instructions on my website. I wanted something that was enjoyable to hold, not just functional, so I went for crushed velvet and silk.

  4. Nook isn’t sold in Canada at all.

    Sony doesn’t sell the 950 — so no wireless on any device — in Canada. Plus, its book store shows, but does not sell to Canadians, much of the books in its bookstore.

    Sony is also $249 for the PRS-650; a Kobo WiFi is $149. That’s quite a premium for the touch- screen-lacking-wireless tradeoff for a Sony.

    The Kobo does a great job with library access. Kobo’s customer service is good and the ongoing discounts very attractive. Plus it has localised Canadian content.

    The Kindle WiFi at $139 + shipping is highly competitive and comes attached to the best ebook store there is, period.

    Finally, there is no need to fool around stripping DRM etc if you are already happy with your device — Kindle or Kobo — since the files are easily played back on dozens of other devices through apps. And in Canada, you can buy the original Kobo ($98) and the Kindle WiFi for the same price as the Sony.

    It’s really hard to conclude the Sony is first choice.

  5. Surprised no one has mentioned that some netbooks make acceptable eReaders. I have an acer netbook with adobereader and use it all the time to read books I have borrowed from the library or downloaded from free services.

    What makes this work is that the screen an be rotated 90 degrees. Might be a bit heavy but feels like a real book to me

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