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e-ssentials of e-readers and e-books

e-readers are many!

In this year’s seriously silly shopping season, e-book reader (e-reader) is shaping up as the star. As a technology junkie and writer I try to stay on top of such things, so I thought it might be worthwhile giving you a quick rundown of what to look for, should you be in the market for one of these little gizmos. In case you don’t know, e-readers are electronic devices dedicated to the reading of downloadable books. You ‘turn’ the page by pressing a button or touching the screen, depending on the design.

The majority of current e-readers have black-and-white ‘e-ink’ screens which provide an image which roughly resembles paper. The screens aren’t backlit, which makes them easy on the eyes over long periods but also means that you need an external light source in order to read them – just as you do with a ‘real’ book. One big advantage over a paper book is that e-readers allow you to change the size of the text – you can now read large-print books without looking elderly.

E-readers are designed for text, so they don’t tend to do graphics very well: think the sort of black-and-white image you might see reproduced in a paperback.

Because they use very little power, e-readers can be used for days at a time without recharging. Also, because plain text consumes very little data, e-readers have ample capacity for thousands of books – memory size is essentially a non-issue.

The two most popular e-readers at the moment are Amazon’s Kindle and the Kobo. In an Australian context, the most important factor to consider when choosing an e-reader is the availability of books. The comparative features of the devices are really secondary to this.

Amazon’s Kindle can access e-books only from the Amazon.com store, and then, for Australians, only those books for which there are not international copyright restrictions. That said, the international Kindle range is still quite large (and these restrictions, in varying ways, also apply to other e-book stores in Australia).

The Kobo can access e-books from its own store (Kobo.com) plus various other stores (e.g. bookworld.com.au, formerly Borders Online). It can also be used to read any ‘epub’ book (‘epub’ is to e-books as ‘mp3’ is to digital music) and PDF files – that means access to a wide range of free, out-of-copyright books plus many self-published titles.

To check availability of the sorts of e-book you or your giftee are interested in, go to the websites of these stores, create an account with your Australian address, then search for what’s available. There are also free computer applications for Kindle and Kobo (for both PC and Mac) which you can use to see what books are available.

You do need to test this. You will find some books on Kobo and others on Amazon, some on both and some on neither. It depends on the book’s publisher and what agreements they have in place. Prices also vary so it’s worth shopping around.

The other way to access and read e-books is on a tablet or smartphone, including Apple’s iPad/iPod/iPhone range or ‘Android’ devices such as the Samsung Galaxy range. These devices are not dedicated e-readers, which has its pros and cons.

On the con side: some people don’t like the backlit screens (though I don’t mind them); they only have a day’s battery life); they can be a source of distraction, given all the other things you can do on them; and tablets are generally more expensive e-readers.

On the pro side, they can access all of the Amazon and Kobo books (via dedicated apps), plus their own stores’ (Apple iBookstore and Google Play respectively) and free or independent titles. A good source of Australian titles is booki.sh, which is associated with independent stores such as Readings, Mary Ryans and Gleebooks.

Other pluses for tablets and smartphones include their ability to access e-book libraries, their better presentation of images (in colour), and the ability to sync a book between devices (so if I’m reading a book on, say, my iPad, I can pick up the iPhone later and keep going from where I left off).

Of course, as with all things electronic, all of this is changing by the day. And there is a lot more to it, so. Google around and you’re bound to find more information than you can ever absorb!

Happy reading. (And please share your experiences with e-books with a comment.)