Reader’s choice

A couple of years ago the big argument was about whether ebooks would inevitably replace physical books. Depending on who you believed, print was so past dead the fumes were making our eyes water and physical books would go the way of the buggy whip within a matter of months, or ebooks were pathetic fads that everyone would abandon once the batteries on their Christmas Kindle went dead.

Now that the smoke and rhetoric has cleared, I think it’s safe to say that ebooks are here to stay, but that printed books aren’t going away any time soon. We live in an intersticial time when both forms are popular and both easily available, and as someone who likes both books and ebooks and most of all the text and words and ideas both carry and beam into my brain, this is a good thing. It’s a crazy time when all the old rules are being questioned and the new ones still being written, when we have the opportunity to experiment, to play, and to get into interminable arguments about what format or publishing model or piece of equipment is superior to all others.

Case in point – e-readers. There are a bunch of different ones out there now with different features, and tablets that can be used as e-readers, and smartphones, and emulators for PCs, and they all seem to do different things and it just makes my head hurt. Some people say Kindles are best, some say the Nook is best, someone somewhere probably thinks the Kobo is best, other people think you’re crazy for not just having an iPad, and now the Kindle Fire is coming and to be honest I’m not even sure what that is but it’s very shiny.


For my part, I run a Kindle emulator and Adobe Digital Editions on my PC and little eeePC, and that works pretty well. Well, mostly. The eeePC is great, but it’s not designed for reading ebooks, and thus there are always little problems of readability, of page size, of display and of trying to balance it on my knee as the morning bus goes around a corner. And the other problem for me, as an ebook publisher, is that the display I see in the emulators doesn’t really match the way the book will look in a proper handheld reader.

So I’m thinking of getting an e-reader of some description, preferably a cheap one (unless someone really wants to get us His and Hers iPads for our wedding, and if you do I am prepared to allow it). And the relative merits of each brand and type isn’t as interesting to me as to what it does, why that’s a good thing and what impact it all has on the most important feature, which is that it lets you crack open an ebook and slurp up the juicy words inside.

I guess what I’m asking isn’t ‘which e-reader’ is best, but the more general question of what does an e-reader need to be and do? Forget the technical specs and the display sizes – what functionality do you, as users of these devices, want and need in order to read an e-book to your satisfaction? E-ink? E-paper? E-spines? Web browser? Tags and bookmarks? An actual physical book instead?

This is a call for comments. Forget the brand, forget the model, forget whether you can play Angry Birds between chapters. Tell me what matters to you as a reader of books, and why.

I have no idea what I will do with this information. But it all helps my buggy whip business.

2 replies on “Reader’s choice”

Hrm, well the Device I Use has a collection I features that I couldn’t give a rat’s arse about, like highlighting particular quotes, writing the equivalent of margin notes. Stuff that I wouldn’t do with what I still think of as a ‘real’ book.

Features that I do like are being able to categorise my collection (Science Fiction, Horror, Australian Esoteric Fantasy etc) and sort books in my collection into multiple categories. So for example I think I’ve put ‘Hotel Flamingo’ in several categories – fantasy, horror and possibly weird fantasy. That makes it easy to find later.

In terms of readability, I like e-ink. I can’t read off a backlit screen for long without losing the ability to focus my eyes. Sometimes I will double-tap and scroll down two pages and not notice. E-ink is more like reading a paperback, and my eyes have some serious training in that field.

All I’ll say about the web browser is that it’s dangerous if you’re on a budget. My impulse control goes out the fucking window when I’m high on story-endorphins.

This is going to be a bit of a ramble about My History With eBooks, but maybe you’ll find something useful in it.

I started using ebooks back in 2001, when my boss gave me her old Palm Pilot. I don’t know whether this makes me an early adopter, or simply someone who is pathalogically terrified of being stuck somewhere without a book.

I loved the convenience of always having books with me. If stuck in a queue to buy lunch, whip out the PDA. If travelling overseas, no need to hit the baggage allowance with books – just have a couple for takeoff/landing. If I know I will probably finish the physical book I’m reading on the train in to work, no need to lug a second one along for the ride home. And it’s easy to read with one hand, while standing up on the train and being crowded on all sides by other commuters.

Reading off a small screen is not as good as reading a physical book, so I normally just used it as backup (typically had one or more physical books on the go simultaneously with an ebook), so the books I had on it were mostly those I was familiar enough with that I could drop in and out over a long period (e.g. Jane Austen, Lois McMaster Bujold).

The key exception to this was George R R Martin. I bought Book 3 of Song of Ice and Fire in hardcover, and it was just too big and heavy to read on the train. So I read from the physical book at home and from my phone on the way too and from work. Juggling bookmarks was interesting!

So I stuck with this over a series of PDAs and smartphones (contracting for Optus, I often got hand-me-down devices when employees were upgraded). Of course, a couple of times, when I changed devices I then had to change the format of my ebook library. This was a bit of a performance, but not that much of an issue since most of my books were DRM-free, either converted over from Project Gutenberg, or downloaded from Fictionwise, which made them available in a variety of formats.

In about 2009 I first saw an eInk device – I think it was a Sony Reader. This was finally something which I thought would not be a second-rate reading experience – I could see myself reading from it as comfortably as reading from a real book. At that stage, I wasn’t interested in upgrading – the device was still too expensive, and it would mean re-buying a lot of books.

Then work bought an iPad for the Sydney office, which I’m the main user of. Absolutely superb for reading pdfs – especially pdfs of Cambridge textbooks. Brilliant. In terms of books I read for pleasure, the bigger screen makes for both a better and a worse reading experience than a smartphone. The bigger screen is great, the text is nice and clear, and the cover images look pretty on the ‘bookshelf’. Plus you can ally yourself to a range of different providers via the apps – I mostly just use iBooks, but I also have the Kindle and the Kobo apps on it. But it’s just too big and heavy to easily read in bed, or while standing up on public transport. (I’m avoiding the whole reading-in-the-bath issue, since this is something I have never done.) Also, bright sunlight can cause problems – they do for the phone as well, but because it’s smaller it is a bit easier to shade it.

So this confirmed my opinion that while the iPad is great for some things (better than I had originally anticipated), and I love having access to it, I won’t be spending my own money on one any time soon.

Then my mother asked me to get her an ebook reader last Christmas. It was pretty much a choice between Kindle, Kobo and Sony. I decided against a Kindle – partly because I would have to buy it online, and I wanted to be able to feel it in my hands before making a decision, and partly because I had read conflicting stories about how easy it is to get non-bought-from-Amazon stuff onto it. (My mother would mostly be using it for out of copyright stuff, and pdfs, so needed a straightforward process.) I ended up deciding on a Sony, but it was quite a close call between that and the Kobo: the Sony just felt nicer in the hand. Again, I felt that I could see myself using one of these, but the price/features combination still wasn’t quite right.

During the Borders liquidation, I almost bought a Kobo – when I finally decided the price was right, and went back to the shop, they had sold out.

Then Sony announced their new $150 WiFi reader was going to be released at exactly the time I would be in the USA. So that’s when I made the jump, and am now the possessor of a Sony Reader.

Stuff that I like about it and have actually used:

– eInk display is clean and font size, etc, can be visually adjusted.

– Can sort everything into Collections, and books can be in more than one collection (compared to iBooks, where they can be in one place only – and I’m not sure if the Kobo app has this feature at all, though it probably does). So I have everything referenced by source, type, era, author nationality, genre and audience. And I may add others if I think of them.

– Search function, both for book and for text within book. (Handy when you are trying to remember a quote).

– Being an eInk device, the battery lasts a LONG time.

– Easy to hold and use in one hand.

– Being wifi, it has an inbuilt web browser. eInk display of web pages is not ideal, but it is functional for, say, email or RSS feeds. I would probably use my phone in preference; but I did use this on one occasion when I was in a wifi area, and my phone battery was nearly dead.

Stuff I like the concept of, but haven’t actually used yet and may not ever:

– Built in dictionary – tap on a word and get the definition. I’ve always been more of a figure-it-out-from-context kind of reader, so I don’t know if I’ll use this, but I like the fact that it is there.

– Ability to highlight and add in notes. I very much doubt I will ever use this myself, as I have never been an annotator of books, but I know that some people do this a lot.

– Ability to play audio. The idea is you can listen to audio books, or play ambient music while reading. I only occasionally listen to audio books (in the car) and don’t really use ambient music, so I probably won’t use this. Though having said this, I am planning to copy my (few) audio books to a memory card and put it in the device, just so the option is there.

– Memory card slot. I don’t think I’m in any danger of loading on more books than the internal memory can handle, but it is good to know that it can be expanded if necessary. (And does make the use of audio files a possibility.)

Stuff that I don’t like, but which is not a dealbreaker:

– Currently it sorts books by author’s first name, rather than last name, even though in Calibre (which I am using as my management program) I have them sorted by last name. They say this will be fixed in the next upgrade. And, of course, I could manually adjust the author names to ‘Surname, Firstname’ rather than ‘Firstname Surname’. But I can’t really be bothered, and the search and collection functions are good enough that I don’t really need it for finding books. It just offends my sense of order.

– Sony bookstore not available in Australia (yet). This is not a major issue, as I have had no trouble loading and reading the books I bought from Kobo, and I assume this will apply to any epubs with Adobe DRM. But of course, this is not the one-step process that buying from the Sony Bookstore would be. (Or maybe it can be – I haven’t actually tried buying/downloading books directly from the device yet, so maybe it can be done. But I’m assuming it won’t be that easy.)

– Since it’s eInk, it is not backlit like an iPad. But then, neither is a print book, and I have managed quite well with this all of my life. I did consider buying a cover with an inbuilt light, but in the end decided against it, as it was more expensive, and probably a bit heavier.


Obviously, the Kindle is the dominant device at the moment, and Amazon has really streamlined the purchase (immediate gratification) process. But I am put off by the proprietory nature of the format they use – as I understand it, if you buy a DRM eBook from Amazon, you can only read it on a Kindle, or a Kindle app. Which is fine if you own a Kindle, or a device that can run the Kindle app. But it does mean you are committing yourself entirely to the Amazon ecosystem. Of course, I don’t think they are going to be disappearing any time soon, and they do have a good range of product. But there is still the risk that at some point you may want to move to a non-supported device, and find that this will mean you lose your whole library (unless you are able to strip the DRM). [In a presentation I saw by someone from Kobo, he likened this to saying that it means you are forever committed to storing your books on the bookcase you bought when you were in college – illustrated with a slide of a white Billy bookcase. And even though you can upgrade – slide of a larger, brown Billy bookcase – you can’t put them on something completely different.]

As I mentioned, in the early days of my ebook use, I had to change format whenever I changed devices. Not a real problem … until I wanted to re-read A Song of Ice and Fire in the preparation for Book 5 coming out. I had bought the first three books in Microsoft Reader – a format that my Android phone, and the iPad, don’t support (and Microsoft doesn’t really support it much any more, either). And, moreover, because I had bought them several devices ago, and not re-read them since, I couldn’t initially even get them to open on my computer – had to email them and get my permissions reset. Not overly happy with this.

So I decided to go with epub and Adobe Digital Editions, which seem to be the standard format. Obviously not completely open (don’t know what will happen if Adobe decides to stop supporting this), but there is greater portablility. I hope.


I have now used both an iPad and an eInk device, and I don’t have any problems with reading from an iPad screen, except when in very bright light. I don’t find that it gives me eyestrain, or anything, and I do like that it’s in colour, rather than black and white. However, I am willing to accept the general wisdom that eInk is better for the eyes. And although there are times when it might be nice to have a backlit display, this is not even close to being a dealbreaker for me. I am more than happy with the eInk display on the Sony Reader.

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