Buying an E-Reader? Some Things You Need to Consider First

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If you are considering buying yourself or someone you love an e-book reader, I'm sure you've seen articles that declare that one e-reader is better than another. The truth is that none of the e-readers that those articles are talking about are bad, it's just that some e-book readers are a better fit for some people. When you set out to purchase an e-reader you need to ask yourself lots of questions so you can figure out what kind of e-book reader you are before you buy. I'm not going to tell you which e-reader you should buy, but I'm going to tell you what you need to think about before you buy it.

How much do you want to spend?

Let's start off with money because in my life, the budget rules all. At the top of the range is the iPad, which I totally covet. It's also totally not in my budget right now, even if I can do way more on it than just read books. Once you drop out of that price range the most popular e-readers are the Kindle, the Nook and the Kobo. All three of these offer versions that are less than $150. Sony e-readers are also popular but they tend to be in the $180-300 range. I own a Sony (it was a gift) and I love it, but if I were buying today I'd probably be going for one of the more less expensive options. For simplicity's sake these are going to be the e-readers I refer to the most often, but know that there are lesser known e-readers such as the Literati and jetbook. These usually cost a bit less than the ones I've mentioned and can work just as well.

Where do you live? Or where does the person you are buying for live?

This may seem like an odd question, but I'm Canadian. Back when I got my Sony Reader there weren't a lot of options for me. The Kindle wasn't even officially available in Canada at the time. You also need to know that the books available in e-book form vary from country to country, and not all e-bookstores work in all countries. Just because an e-book is available in the Kindle store, for example, doesn't mean it's available for everyone. Awhile back I needed a version of a book to write a review, and I needed it asap so an e-book was the best choice. When I searched the Kindle store it came up in the results but when I tried to buy it I couldn't because they had not yet gotten the rights to sell that particular e-book in Canada. I was able get it at another e-book store that did have the rights. There have also been cases where the Kindle store was the only store I could get a specific title. If you are in the United States, it's probably all about equal to you but if you live outside of the US or the person you are buying for lives outside the US, you need to do your homework.

Where do you want to buy books from? Do you just want to buy books from one place or from a bunch of places?

What this is really about is file formats and digital rights management (DRM). You can't always move books from the purchase point to your desired device. Some e-book stores are proprietary. The Kindle store is a good example of this. I can't buy books from the Kindle store and read them on my Sony. It simply doesn't work. I can, however, buy books from the Kindle store and use the Kindle application for my iPhone or on an iPad if I had one. If you want to buy from Amazon, a Kindle or an iPad are your best bet.

Each of the popular readers have an associated preferred bookstore. In addition to the Kindle store there's the Sony Reader Store, Nookbooks, Borders, iTunes and Kobo Books. These aren't the only places you can get e-books. Many publishers sell e-books through their websites. Google just launched Google eBooks (formerly Google Editions) in the United States. There are also places where you can get books that are in the public domain for free such as Project Gutenberg and ManyBooks.net. My personal opinion is that if a book is in the public domain, I see no point in paying for it unless it wasn't originally written in English. A good translation though is always worth paying for (if you've ever read a badly translated book you know what I'm talking about). No matter where you get your books you just have to always, always, always check to see what e-readers are compatible with their file formats and what you are allowed to do with their DRM.

It's usually a bit more work to move the files from these other sources onto your devices and, again, you need to keep your eyes on DRM. I know, I'm saying that a lot, but it sucks when you pay for a book and then realize you can't read it. If I had an iPad, I could get applications that allow me to buy directly from some stores, such as Kobo or Kindle, and they'll appear on the iPad almost instantly. I've actually done this on my iPhone (it's a lifesaver on really long road trips and I've read all my other books). With other e-readers it's not always so easy.

If I want to buy from Kobo, for example, and move that file onto my Sony Reader, it involves first making sure I can move the book to my device before I purchase it (even within the same store it can vary from book to book), downloading the book to my computer, connecting my e-reader, and then hoping it transfers over to my device on the first try. It doesn't always. My first attempt at buying a book at a non-Sony store involved lots and lots of swearing. And some Googling. And then some more swearing. I've gotten much better at it, but I'll be honest, it sometimes still involves lots of swearing. This is probably not the kind of situation you want to thrust onto someone who isn't tech-inclined so if they want to just buy from Nookbooks get them a Nook. It will save everyone's sanity.

Do you borrow e-books from the library?

This ties into the money thing as well as file formats and DRM. Not everyone has a big budget to buy books, even though e-books are often less expensive than physical copies. I both buy and borrow. If a book is coming out that I really want to read and don't want to wait for yet really don't want/need to own it, I buy the e-book. The rest of the books I read on my e-reader are either in the public domain or books that I borrow from the library. Clearly this works with my Sony, as it does the Nook and Kobo but not all e-readers like library e-books. You see, many libraries use Adobe Digital Editions. The Kindle does not like these types of files at all. The iPad is not that fond of them either and even though there are some applications that make it doable, it's not always easy. You know how above I swore when I was trying to move books onto my e-reader? It's happened with library books, too. I do have to say that the Nook has a pretty good set up with for borrowing from libraries, and if you or the person you are buying for is a heavy library borrower it would probably be my first choice.

How techy are you?

See everywhere above where I mentioned swearing? It's more likely to happen if you are trying to pull in items from different sources. If you are someone who just wants the books to appear on your e-reader like magic, you want one that has a a 3-G or a wireless option. The major players all offer at least a wireless option, though not all offer a 3-G one. If you want to buy from a bunch of different places and borrow books from the library, you need to have some technical skills or be willing to learn them.

Do you want to buy from your device?

If so you absolutely need one that has either wifi or 3-G capability and remember that not all bookstores work on all devices. My Sony Reader has neither wireless nor 3-G and I'm okay with that. But refer to the above comments about being technically-inclined and DRM.

Color or black and white?

This is really a matter of preference and budget. I am perfectly happy to read with e-ink, so basically black and white (well, more black and grey), on my e-reader. The majority of physical books I read are in black and white so it doesn't bother me. However, if I wanted to read lots of graphic novels, children's books, cookbooks and textbooks, I'd want color.

Where do you read?

Believe it or not this is actually a really important question to consider. If you are reading outside LCD screens can well, suck. Think about trying to see an LCD laptop screen in bright sunlight -- it just doesn't quite work. E-ink devices, on the other hand, are great in bright light. If you read in bed then you might want an e-reader that has built in lights (using the lights cuts into battery usage though), an LCD screen or want to invest in a good booklight.

Weight can be a big issue depending on where you read. As much as I covet an iPad, weighing in at about 1.6lbs I don't think I'd be crazy about commuting with one. Just about every commute I've done can get pretty squishy and in addition to just schlepping the iPad around, I can't see myself holding it with one hand while hanging on to the subway pole with the other.

Something else to take into consideration if you commute or plan to read on the go is that you are going to want some kind of protective cover to keep the e-reader's screen from being scratched. Some e-readers come with one, some do not. This may play into your budget considerations.

Have you held it?

As with so many things in life sometimes it just comes down to how something feels. Does the device feel heavy in your hands? Do you like where the buttons are? Is it easy to the turn the page with one hand? Do you like how it sets up your library? Go into stores and play with the devices or borrow one from a friend. Sometimes that's really all it takes.

Still not sure?

Both Dear Author and Smart Bitches Love Trashy Books have reviewed pretty much every e-reader on the market. Go look through their archives.

Which e-reader do you think is right for you? Or if you own an e-reader, which one and what do you really like about it?

Contributing Editor Karen Ballum also blogs at Sassymonkey and Sassymonkey Reads.

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