Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Rob's Adventures in E-Readerland: Picking an E-Reader

As you can see from my profile information, I'm getting ready to make a move to another state. Because of this, I've had occasion to touch a lot of my books, and do a purge of those titles that I don't think I'll read again (or, in some cases, will ever read period).

Put simply, I've got a lot of books. And moving them is both a pain, an expense, and means we have to live somewhere maybe bigger than we need. I've been spending a lot of time lately on the idea of getting an e-reader. Probably too much time, actually, but I tend to agonize over technology purchases. (Plus, it beats worrying over my Praxis scores.)

So, let's start with what I was thinking going into this:

1) I know that e-readers tend to be protective of data, but I'd like one that reads as many formats as possible.

2) I don't want to pay through the nose, so the cheaper the better.

3) I'd want a wide selection, as I tend to read things that are, being charitable, obscure.

4) Trade paperbacks on a true e-reader are several years away, so this was only for book books.

5) I'd want to hold on to my e-files as long as possible.

Based on this, a few things trended in my mind, most notably that while the Kindle may have a large book selection, its proprietary nature is a huge turnoff.

Then I started reading.

Oh god.

I don't think I've ever seen a gadget genre ever be this hard to nail down. When I went to buy my really nice not-quite-professional-level camera, I read for a few hours, set a price point ($500 or less), and used my desired features to get the camera that fit as many of my needs as possible. The review sites has consistent information and my camera is about 95% like how they described it in the reviews. (I'd actually argue it's a bit better than they gave it credit for.)

Over the multiple hours I've spent reading about e-readers, I don't think I've gotten the same information twice. That's probably a slight exaggeration, but not by much.

Generally speaking, the word was favorable on the Kindle. BUT! Amazon zapped people's books that they'd already paid for, which I suppose any electronic company could do but still is really uncool. The battery requires sending back to the manufacturer, and there's no room for an expansion card. Plus, Kindles don't read anything but Amazon books and those formatted like an Amazon book.

The nook has the advantage of being based on a Google engine and backed by a bookstore. It reads more book types than the Kindle, but still has rights issues. Unfortunately, it has a rather useless split screen IMHO and from all indications there's about 67% chance of getting a lemon. Even on pro-nook boards, I found story after story about how the device didn't work very well. It also was the e-reader of choice on e-bay, meaning people were dumping them left and right. Not a good sign. Only one reviewer seemed to like it, making that perhaps the only thing they could agree on.

The Sony name is a mixed blessing, at least for me. I love my Playstation 2, but I still have nightmares about the various problems I had with my Walkman and Discmans over the years. Sony arguably had the most open e-reader, but their standard model has a glare-prone touch screen and the pocket edition can't expand. Plus, at least half of the sites I went to complained about Sony's software, and I don't think I want to be playing around with alternative interfaces that might not stay around. I'm very technology friendly, but I hate wasting time fiddling.

There are a ton of other e-readers out there, but I am leery of using any product that may not have strong company backing. (I love you Border's, but I'd never buy a Border's only e-reader.) That's why I basically concentrated on the three companies above. Barring major political changes this is a clear case of bigger is better, at least in my opinion. Amazon isn't going anywhere since everyone uses it. Barnes and Noble is extremely stable, and Sony has the longest history in e-readers and the most brick and mortar store presence.

The trouble I'm running into is that there's no clear-cut winner here. I'm a man who lives in shades of gray, and likes to have experts help get him to one point or the other. E-readers don't seem to have that one-is-the-best device, which is either good or bad, depending on how you look at it.

Price doesn't help, either. Thanks to the publishers putting the squeeze on (again, that's good for my friends the writers and bad for me as a consumer), Amazon is no longer cheaper as a rule. I picked out different authors I like, and the prices were either stable or within a dollar or so of each other. With the Sony reader, I'd be using Adobe e-pub, and they were actually higher as a rule.

In fact, one thing that almost threw me out of this entirely is that e-books tend to be priced about the same as a mass market. I've gotten so spoiled by used books that paying more than $5 for anything I want to read is hard for me now.

However, as a result, I never read anything new. I've mentioned before I want to be more on top of the reading curve, so an e-reader would help with this.

The fact of the matter is I was hoping to have something that would enable me to pare down the number of book-books I own, freeing up space. (Someday, I hope to get to do this with comics, too.) But several of the things I collect--as opposed to just reading--aren't available on e-readers. You can't get the "Best American..." series on e-book, at least not that I was able to find. That's a bookshelf right there. Nor are there very many Civil War titles, and certainly not the smaller press editions, at least not yet.

So at least for now, having an e-reader would only cut my book book ownership by about 33%. Tony Hillerman and Stephen King would go digital, but discussing Longstreet's merits as a general would likely still be on a dead tree.

The question is--is that enough to make it worth my while for an e-reader only? I'm honestly not sure but my inclination is to say no.

That thought circled me back around again to what I wanted from my e-reading device.. If the e-reader can't be a 100% non-comic book replacement, then it has to do more. That drops Sony out of the equation, for all intent and purposes. If you want an e-reader only, Sony seems to be the way to go I think. But I can't see paying $200 for something that only reads 30% of the books I want to keep.

Now we circle back to Kindle and nook, our internet-capable readers. While the nook can theoretically get online, it can't do anything but buy books from its parent company, Barnes and Noble. The Kindle can do simple web work, and with its full (if small) keyboard, I could use it to double as a word processor by hopping over to my Gmail and making a draft. (I do this from time to time with my cell phone, but it drains the hell out of my battery.)

So, looks like Kindle might be the way to go, right? Here's my credit card, let's get this angst-fest finished.

But not so fast! The web browsing is probably slow (how slow I don't know, because you can't test one) and I have no idea if the small keyboard is any better than the virtual ones I tried on the nook and Sony. Plus, there's still the small nature of formats, because while you can change the formatting of some ebooks, the legality of doing so appears to be a bit sketchy.

I have no desire to do anything that might run me into trouble later, no matter how ethical it might be. Violating the TOS of the Kindle is going to leave me with one expensive brick.

I could probably deal with the mostly Amazon-only nature of the Kindle except for one big problem--library ebooks. I have no idea how often I'd use them, but I really like the idea that they exist. Sadly for Kindle users, they're mostly unavailable due to their format. While my old library offers no e-books on the main company for doing so, Overdrive, my future library does. I rather like the idea of being able to e-read a best seller without committing to paying for it until I know I like it. (Sony and a lot of the smaller company e-readers can do this, and from what I can tell, so can the nook.)

All of this has led me down a path that probably leads to madness. In the end, it seems like they don't make an e-reader at a price point that makes me comfortable or one that offers as many books as I'd like. Adding other features is nice, but it may not do them very well. I am reminded here of the waffle iron-sandwich maker-grill I just gave away after 3 mediocre tries at using it. I might not end up being very happy with what I get in my extras, so I've spent more than on a basic e-reader getting something that drives me crazy when I try to use it.

So, what should I do? That's the $300 question.

And it could be answered by something that's strangely familiar.

After thinking hard on what I want and what I'd be willing to pay for a device that does many things pretty well, though not perfect, and factoring in the advantage of adding color, I'm actually leaning towards buying a cheap netbook. This is sort of like going the ipad route, but without the expense and with a workable keyboard that comes pre-installed. (Nothing personal against the ipad, but it seems to me to be an expensive, crippled laptop. I like what it can do, but I think I can do it better and cheaper another way.)

Let's go over that list above again and see how a netbook stacks up:

A netbook satisfies the first criteria, because I can download clients for Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Adobe, plus others if I really wanted to, for no cost. That also gives me number 3 and number 5, because it opens up the reader types to all formats and also lets me easily back up to my external hard drive. Number 2, price, is doable if I search, and even a top of the line netbook is roughly the price of a Kindle.

Best of all, it actually puts #4 into play--I could do any color comics that a publisher puts out an app for if they make it run on a PC as well as an ipad, which seems pretty likely to me. (Why alienate the majority of computer users by going mac only?)

I would also have my ability to use the device for multiple things, like writing, checking my e-mail, and even reading all those webcomics I've become so fond of over the past few months. Paying $300 for that would be a damned sight better than paying $300 for an e-reader only. I know a netbook can do these things to my satisfaction, because that's what they're made for.

It won't have e-ink, but I'm rarely in direct sunlight. (I'd never take an e-reader to the beach or in a jacuzzi, that's what $1.00 books and magazines are for. I shudder at the idea of sand near an electronic device, to say nothing if you end up too close to the ocean!) I think the eye strain thing is overrated. I've been at a computer for years, both at work and off work, and if you take breaks, it's fine. Getting color and a reliable word processor (even notepad) would make up for not being able to read 4 hours straight. Besides, who does that anyway? Not me, not even if the book is good!

A netbook would be less portable, certainly. But even the Sony pocket reader is too big for anything but my cargo pocketed shorts, and even if it did fit my jeans, I already have my cell phone there so there's no room. I'd almost certainly end up carrying it in a bag, like I do anytime I'm going out for more than a shopping trip as it is.

For me, the idea of carrying a bag around is a way of life. I've been doing it for my entire adult life. Having a bag with a three pound netbook would be an advantage compared to lugging around 10 pounds now. I can't really imagine that I'd be any more inclined to take an e-reader places I don't already take a bag.

If I don't want to carry a bag, odds are I'm not carrying a book, either. My cell phone and online websites work fine for when I need a quick read and have nothing on me. I imagine whatever phone I get next year in my upgrade will be equipped with a simple e-reader, though a screen smaller than I'd want to use daily.

I also think battery life is overrated. My "big" laptop gets 4 hours if I'm only writing and web browsing on it. While I sometimes am away from an outlet for longer, a netbook these days seems to get 10 hours or more life from a charge. I'm not out camping for weeks on end, and carrying either a spare battery or lugging the AC cord are not hardships for me. I can't see a time when I'm going to want to be reading for over ten hours with no access to a power outlet.

In terms of reading itself, for better or worse, I tend to read with the book pretty far away from my nose anyway. No idea why, I just do. So having a keyboard in the way shouldn't present a problem--after all, it doesn't now. I'd say 50% of my non-comics reading is online now, between newspapers and blogs. Same holds true for the weight. I am a shifty reader at best, and book, e-reader or laptop is going to be moving all over and never crushing me anyway.

The only issue I can see with using a netbook as an e-reader is distraction. Given I would have other options, I might not read enough. But that's really a personal thing, and could just as easily happen with an e-reader or paper book. I'm not distracted if the book is really good!

From reviewing this post, it sure seems like the netbook is the way to go, at least for me. It addresses the needs I set out at the beginning and a few other things I wouldn't mind having. I could always test this theory for a bit on the current laptop as well. Your mileage may vary, but I think the case for using a netbook as an e-reader is pretty strong, the more I think about it. And I've been thinking a LONG time!

Having an e-reader would be cool. There aren't a lot out there, really, and getting one would make me an early adopter. The problem with being an early adopter is that if things change (and like it or not, the ipad and tablet PCs or cheap netbooks are going to have at least some kind of impact), you can easily be the guy holding on to the Sega Dreamcast. It might do a lot of cool things, but if it isn't supported, you're left in the dust. For $100, I'd take a flier on it. For $200 it better be pretty solid. At $300, it better be the Wolverine of e-readers.

So far, from what I can tell, none of those kinds of e-reader exist. But using a smaller PC to do the same thing plus a few other options I'd like to have handy would be just fine. I'd guess I'll be getting one soon, after I confirm I am okay with reading off a screen for an entire book. (Why, hello there Project Gutenberg!) You may want to try this as well, if you're on the fence.

One last thing I want to mention here before I wrap this up. With all of the reading I've done, and again, it was a lot, I feel like I learned more than I ever have before about the march of technology. Reading things on a computer is the future. My generation is probably the first to have spent so much time on a computer, and the price of data storage makes it feasible for just about anything to be primarily electronic.

Photos were first. Then came music. Video and television are headed that way. Newspapers are either going to go online or die. Due to people loving the feel of a book, it might be the last thing to go, but it's going to happen. Depending on who you ask, we'll be primarily e-reading in a generation or so, or perhaps even as early as the not-too-distant future, to borrow a phrase.

Reading about this process and thinking about how *I* read today as compared to say 5 or 10 years ago (hell, even a few years ago) has been fascinating, and I consider it time well spent. In the end, I'm a lover of *reading* more than a lover of books. I didn't know that when I started all this, but it makes sense to me. You might find that's true for yourself as well.

That means it's time for me (and maybe you) to start e-reading, and if they drop the price or make a better multiple-use device, I'll be there (and maybe you'll join me). But even if I use just my laptop or a netbook, I think I'm ready to embrace the future, and slowly start getting more books electronically. The technology, whether it's an e-reader or a laptop, has caught up to the point that I feel comfortable doing so. I have a feeling that's going to start being true for a lot of people. It might even get more folks reading again.

My final advice to anyone who's read this far is that unless you end up captivated by the future of e-reading, don't bother trying to wade through the reviews. They quickly became pointless for picking a device and good for watching minor flame wars and true believers behind each device clash. Try the nook and the Sony e-readers in person, and if you don't like them, get a Kindle or use your laptop, maybe even both. If you have a question about whether or not a device can do something, hit the forums, NOT the review sites. Forums were far more helpful for me.

This was not an easy process or decision for me. I doubt it will be for anyone who reads seriously. Good luck, and just remember how hard the book burners will have it when we're all e-reading!

1 comment:

  1. Rob, good summary. A couple of comments...

    1. One of the things that had soured me on the whole e-book experience, and you touched on it briefly, is the price for content. I too have gotten very used to either cheap used books or free from paperbackswap.com or friends. The thought of having to actually pay of content - and at a through-the-nose price of $10 - is a huge disincentive for me.

    2. I agree with your assessment of sticking with the big three. Amazon has the edge based on their technology and, frankly, first to market with the game-changer (e-ink based). Sony has had readers forever, but has no backing. And, frankly, given a chance Sony will likely force a proprietary solution that ony they support down people's throat. BetaMax? Memory Stick? UMD? While they aren't seeming to do it with their eReader, frankly, it's still a fear in my book (pardon that pun, will ya?) And B&N... well, their next generation I think will be up to Sony's level of technology. Sorry, but the Nook really is "teh suck".

    2a. That said, and given the timing, there is now a new player in the game with the Apple iPad, which has a Kindle app...

    3. One big advantage of a dedicated reader that a netbook doesn't have is minimizing eye strain. The introduction of e-ink with the Kindle was truly a game changer. Microsoft and Adobe have had readers for computers for years but no one used them? Why? Partially because the marketing sucked, and they had no content committment. I'll give you that. But the other part is that staring at a backlit LCD device for long periods of time will strain the eyes and turn into an unpleasant experience. I know that I personally had to go to an eBook with Microsoft Reader to get a particular piece of content, and it was everything I could do just to finish it because of the eye strain. Just something to be aware of...

    4. Things about netbooks in general. Battery life on netbooks, btw, does truly rock. I have plugged mine in twice I think in the month that I've had one. The other thing is that netbooks by their very nature are slower devices with lesser tech (thus the great battery life). They are small. They are truly meant to be an occasional use device. I'll be taking mine with me on vacation to do light web surfing and photo posting, becuase the physical interface is frustratingly small to me for longer use, and frustratingly slow to me.

    Since I'm patient enough to wait, and have the room to store books anyway (or get rid of tehm via PBS), I'm still waiting for the industry to figure out what the smeg they are going to do. But I keep my eye on it, because like you, I realize the future is not going to be put on paper but sent electronically.

    Good luck!