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Comparing eBook Readers

2010-07-03 5 min read Electronics Anonymous marco

The local Best Buy has a display with different eBook readers, so I got a chance to hold them all in hand and compare them. Nice way to entice customers, by the way!

Price wars are all the rage right now. The new Nook reader came out, and the price dropped to $149 (no 3G). Amazon followed suit and dropped the price of the Kindle to $189 (with 3G, compared with $199 for the nook 3G). Sony interestingly still sells ebook readers, and those were on display, too.

Admittedly, considering that the device is not the major buying factor for either Barnes & Noble or Amazon, the price of the device is still way too high. At the very least, the companies should offer discounts for buyers of the respective devices to cover their cost, since you are buying something that ties you to a particular vendor (still).

Of the devices on display, the Nook clearly had the upper hand. The Sony readers were quite nice, but the decision to put the touchscreen on top of the e-ink dims the latter considerably, giving the whole reading area a washed out, grey-ish look. The price is right, though, and Sony e-readers are not affected by the usual Sony price inflation.

My favorite thing about the Nook is clearly the color display at the bottom. It’s not an ideal solution – a full touchscreen device would be much more to my liking – but the separate display has a much better response time than e-ink, making it possible to interact with the device in a pace that is not the sluggish, crawling, boring back-and-forth that is typical of the Kindle.

I absolutely hate the Kindle keyboard. It’s cumbersome, it’s unresponsive, and it takes too much space. The Nook’s pop-up on-screen keyboard has the same main issue as the Kindle’s physical keyboard (you cannot type blindly), but at least with the Nook you get the benefit of fast response and multi-use. In the end, I never use the Kindle keyboard because it’s just too bad. Placing notes on the screen is atrociously horrible, with the need to joystick your way to the point of entry and then punching the keys to add the note. With the Nook, at least entering a note is quick, and you get the benefit of using the display for other things.

As far as book choices are concerned, the Kindle loses all the way. Sure, you get the largest selection of ebooks, but the Nook and B&N are not far behind. More importantly, though, the Kindle doesn’t support PDF natively, which severely restricts you in the books you can read. The choice of not supporting PDF is entirely political: the innards of all ebook readers on the market is virtually identical, and adding PDF support is trivial. The fact Amazon won’t let that happens says a lot about the company and its aim.

Why is PDF so important? Mostly because if you want to throw out your book collection and use the reader as your main device for, err… reading, you need to be able to take all main book formats on it. Most things readable on this planet come in one of these forms:

  • ebook – whichever proprietary format. Advantages are that the formatting is designed to flow on your screen and can be modified depending on font choices
  • text – ASCII or Unicode. Advantages are as in ebook, disadvantage is that you are limited to text (and ASCII art)
  • HTML – advantage is mostly that it’s everywhere and that it (theoretically) allows for the embedding of images; the downside is that it’s bloated and that it allows for tons of content that you cannot really display in an ebook reader (like the dreadful Flash animations)
  • PDF – advantage is that it’s universal and precise; disadvantage is that it is designed for one particular device (usually an 8×11 page) and that it can’t be reformatted for a different screen

PDF has the enormous plus of being a target of conversion for all types mentioned. Any file you read can be made into a PDF file – worst case scenario by printing to a PDF file.

Now, the Kindle kinda supports PDF – by sending a PDF file to Amazon, which converts it to its own format and then sends it back to you. That’s not too terrible, and you get the advantage of having a file that re-flows. The downside is that you have to go through the extra step of emailing a file, which is both annoying from a time perspective and worrisome from a content perspective – who knows what Amazon does with the file?

I did like the Nook, as you may have noticed. It comes with a few interesting extras, like free WiFi at B&N stores and the ability to loan a book to a friend – a major downside of the Kindle being that you cannot give your books away.

Well, I loved my Amazon customer service, but I think the device is clearly not the end of the line. Additionally, despite the crappy screen resolution for a device that size, the iPad is making inroads in the ebook market, there is a whole slew of Android tablets that is about to pop into the market, and Pixel Qi just released their brand new dual e-ink/color display to eager users.

It’s going to be an exciting time in the ebook market, and right now Amazon is nowhere near being the winner.

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