What You Need To Know When Buying An Ebook Reader

Ebook reader options are better than ever for digital bookworms. Here are some favourite choices from the folks at Wired along with the basic things you need to know when buying an ebook reader.

If you want to enjoy a good digital book, newspaper or magazine (yes, even a magazine) an ebook reader is a smart choice. Prices have plunged this year, and the e-ink screens on many of these devices have improved somewhat, which means the options are better than ever for digital bookworms.

Ebook readers don't snatch as many headlines as other gadgets, but the market is flooded with options. Some of these models are superb, while many could be classified as atrocious. We'll focus first on the industry's four frontrunners, then have a look at the options that will colour your buying decision.

Amazon Kindle

The Kindle is the best-selling reader, and is part of a whole ecosystem of Amazon-provided ebooks and software, so you can read the same books on your PC, smartphone or Kindle. Though expensive in its earlier generations, the latest iteration sports a budget price, great connectivity options and a wide selection thanks to Amazon's Kindle store.

Flagship model: Kindle 3 (3G) Supported formats: TXT, AZW, PDF, HTML, Mobipocket Hidden perk: Amazon has a free service that converts HTML pages and Word documents to a Kindle-friendly format. Price: $US190 (with 3G and Wi-Fi)

Barnes & Noble Nook

B&N entered the ereading fray with its Nook. Despite mixed reviews of the Android-powered interface, the colour touchscreen, large ebook selection and cross-promotions with the brick-and-mortar stores are clear high points.

Storefront: Nookbook Store Flagship model: Nook Color Supported file formats: eReader PDB, ePUB, PDF Hidden perk: Connecting the Nook to B&N's in-store WiFi grants you an hour's worth of reading of any e-book title. Price: $US250 (Wi-Fi only)

Sony Reader

Sony's middling ereaders haven't exactly been critical darlings, but they're still solid and dependable. Sturdy, compact chassis and daylight-viewable E-Ink displays are the norm across models.

Storefront: Sony Reader Store Flagship model: Sony Reader: Daily Edition Supported file formats: TXT, PDF, ePUB, BBeB Book, RTF, DOC Hidden perk: Protected PDF and ePUB allows users to check out e-books from participating libraries. Price: $US250

Apple iPad

r Yes, we know the iPad is a tablet, not a dedicated eReader, but it's still a viable option for reading books. On top of launching an iTunes-esque bookstore, Apple has lent the iPad its UI razzle-dazzle, making for one of the most polished ereading interfaces.

Storefront: iBooks Flagship model: iPad 3G (32GB) Supported file formats: ePUB, PDF Hidden perk: iBooks comes with a free copy of Winnie-the-Pooh. Price: $928

Format Wars

Like the rest of the gadget world, ereaders are in the midst of their own format war. Luckily, it's less contentious than most. While some devices support proprietary and DRM-locked file formats (like Amazon's AZW for the Kindle), almost all readers also embrace standards like plain text (TXT), Adobe's portable document format (PDF) and HTML.

Unfortunately, the most ubiquitous e-book format, EPUB, is not supported by the most popular e-book reader, the Kindle. Almost every other e-reader supports this open standard, but Amazon has balked, preferring to push its own format - which, of course, no other e-book reader can utilise.

Before deciding on a reader, it's worth exploring its supported formats and the preferences of its associated storefront. After all, spending an arm and a leg on a virtual library you can't read is pointless.

Extras

Connectivity of the 3G variety is the "power door lock" of ereaders. Adding the feature increases the price, but the no-frills day-to-day convenience makes up for it. Being able to browse and download titles sans computer and without a Wi-Fi hotspot grants you true mobility, and the pairing of high-speed throughput with relatively small file transfers means instant gratification. Even the monthly bill has been erased from the equation, as most 3G-ready readers on today's market include lifetime connectivity in the purchase price.

However, it's worthwhile to consider the reliability of the wireless provider chained to your e-reader of choice. If you're an AT&T subscriber who's experiencing service problems, you're likely to see similar performance in your AT&T 3G-powered Kindle. Remember, wireless connectivity has its share of quirks.

MP3 Playback

MP3 capabilities usually feel extraneous in anything short of an iPod. However, the feature can add a great deal of value to an e-reader. On top of e-versions of your favourite books, an MP3-capable device can also download audiobooks, or offer old-fashioned music playback. Though this is the norm in high-end hybrid devices like the iPad and Nook colour (which also do full-fledged video playback), even much more modest readers from Sony and Amazon sport some kind of support.

Bookmarks and Annotation

Annotation and reference chops are pretty standard on ereaders, but they're worth exploring nevertheless. If your reader is likely to be used in an academic or professional setting, then being able to highlight, save and annotate passages is incredibly useful. The trend of baking in onboard reference materials like dictionaries has caught on, as well (though they're unlikely to make "Jabberwocky" more decipherable). Each reader handles these tasks and tools in a slightly different fashion, so if your goal is critical reading, be sure to do your homework.

E-ink vs LCD

It's not a battle of "peanut butter vs chocolate" proportions, but the ereader community is definitely opinionated about the superiority of one tech over another. Here's a quick rundown:

E-ink: This display tech relies on millions of positively and negatively charged microcapsules. Switching the polarity effectively shifts their positions, producing non-backlit, grayscale images and text (think: Etch-A-Sketch). The lack of backlighting is reported to be easier on the eyes, though problematic for night reading. It's extremely low on power consumption, since it draws power only when changing the screen.

LCD: This tech in ereaders is just like on your smartphone or monitor. It's colour, high-contrast, and typically sports much better resolution than E-Ink. It comes with its share of setbacks too. Powering all that sweetness is incredibly taxing in terms of battery life, and long periods of staring at the (constantly flickering) backlight has been known to cause eye strain.

Though we have our preferences (e-ink for novels, LCD for periodicals), we can't speak for everyone. Our advice is to get your hands (and eyes!) on each type of display, and get a feel for what's most comfortable for you.

Wired.com has been expanding the hive mind with technology, science and geek culture news since 1995.

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