e-Paper: The defining characteristic of all the advanced displays we review is the use of Electronic Paper. With this technology, significant improvement in readability and power usage has been achieved compared to CRT and LCD. Instead of rows of glowing cells, e-Ink® microcapsules actually appear as either black or white pixels according to whether a positive or negative charge has passed across it. All the pixels together create an image of black images or words on a white background - just like a book..
The overall result is a reading experience that’s similar to paper--high contrast high resolution, clear with no glare in direct sunlight and readable at a nearly 180-degree angle, with no power needed to maintain the image. In many ways, we liken it to a very advanced etch-a-sketch--the screen even momentarily flashes when you turn the page as the cells are reset.
In contrast to CRT and LCD displays, Electronic paper holds a stable image which means less eyestrain; however this also means that the refresh rate is too slow for video, so don't expect this technology to be used on mainstream computers. Within the next two to four years, we do expect color to be introduced, as well as flexible version of e-paper. Eventually, as costs come down, an increasing number of people will probably carry around an e-paper display - taking it to work and just updating it with their latest newspaper, using it at home with the latest book etc., and saving the need for felling many a tree.
And of course, using e-paper is environmentally friendly--less trees being felled for their paper. Studies show that in a spine-to-spine lifecycle analysis, a Kindle 2 eReader is responsible for 168 kg of CO2 emission, and this modest amount can be negated by reading 23 ebooks rather than physical copies--after that you're in positive territory actually offsetting carbon you'd otherwise have used.
Advice On Choosing the Right eBook reader
Connection: One of the main criteria will be connectivity. Most readers come blank out of the box, and you need to hook up to the internet to get ebook content from one of the various stores or repositories. The majority of readers have no wireless connectivity, and must connect to a PC via USB cord. Some units have WiFi or Bluetooth for short-range connections, which is much more convenient. The ultimate in convenience is the Kindle 2's 3G Whispernet connection, accessible across most of the US, and as of late 2009, the International Edition works across most of the world.
Price: The costs for most eReaders is fairly similar, so it may be preferable to pay a few extra bucks for a much better service, but it's entirely a matter of personal taste to balance these various factors. If you don't need a feature like a touchscreen or wireless connectivity, then it certainly makes sense to save some money by purchasing a model without this function.
Screen size : This is a major determining factor in which eReader to get. For business applications where you often look at full-size PDFs for instance, you'll want to look at the Kindle DX or iRex's larger models, but for most personal users, small is actually a virtue, so you can easily hold the tablet in one hand. The 6-inch screen that has become the standard for personal use is an excellent pick in this regard.
File formats: All readers support TXT and PDF files, but there are many ebook formats out there, and if you have any old ebooks, be sure your new device will support it. An important one to look for is MOBI, which is used by the Mobipocket reader which is very popular for ebooks (nearly all readers supports it except Sony). Amazon has it own format for Kindle, AZW, and Sony has its own proprietary format for its reader, LRF, so be aware that other devices may not play these titles. Most readers will also play several graphics formats and audio as well.
Audio: Do you want to listen to music or audiobooks on the eReader? If so, be sure to get one with a headphone adapter. Some even have speakers. We find it's very useful to play background music while you read, and though this function won't replace our iPod anytime soon, it is a very useful extra when you are on the go.
Frequently Asked Questions on eBook readers
What formats do eReaders support? Many and varied ones. All support txt and pdf documents files as well as basic image files like gifs and jpgs. Other than these basic formats, compatibility varies.
How long do eReader batteries last? The beauty of an e-ink/electrophoretic display is that they only use significant power when flipping a page, so battery life is usually listed as 7,000 to 8,000 page flips, which could equate to 2 to 3 weeks of heavy reading. Models which have touchscreens or wireless access will usually discharge much faster. Even so, these devices need much less charging than any comparable electronic device.
How do you charge eBook readers? Most devices charge via a USB cord connected to a computer, and many have an option for an AC wall charger and car charger as well. USB devices tend to take around 4 hours to charge, while AC/car chargers will take about half that time.
Are eReaders bad for your eyes? No, on the contrary, their high contrast and lack of flicker reduces eyestrain compared to reading a computer screen.
How many books can an eReader store in memory? This varies. On some models like the Kindle 2, memory is fixed at 2 GB (1,500+ books), but most eReaders start with significantly less, perhaps 256 to 512MB, but are expandable via memory cards.
When will Kindle be released in the UK and Europe? This was one of the most common questions we heard, as its free, always-on, cellular data signal had proved difficult to set up across Europe, requiring multiple deals with various providers. However, the Kindle 2 International edition was finally released in October 2009.
What books can you purchase in ebook form? They vary--new books are available in large numbers--for instance the Kindle 2 has 300,000 titles and 103 of 110 current New York Times bestsellers in Kindle format. Other readers have less--Sony's library is some 100,000 titles, and of course you can get non-copyrighted titles for free at various sites. There are also many titles which are available only as ebooks.
How much do e-books cost? They vary, often new titles cost around $10, often a substantial savings from hardcover print prices. Older titles will often be significantly be less in price, and in many cases free, especially for out-of-copyright titles.
What kind of ebooks are available? All manner of titles, from the latest fiction, to nonfiction, textbooks, etc.
Can you also get audiobooks? Some models support this. The Kindle 2 in particular links directly to 50,000 audiobooks on Audible.com, and even has a text to speech function that can turn any book into a (slightly computery sounding) audiobook.
What eBook readers are considered best? Our ratings attempt to answer this in our opinion at least. Most industry analysts would pick four models--the Amazon Kindle 2, the Sony Daily Edition, Barnes & Noble Nook, and the iRex iLiad. Consumer Reports in November 2009 assessed the Kindle as the clear market leader for value. There are many other readers, most variants on Taiwanese or Chinese models which work well and are often slightly cheaper, but are not used as much in the West.
Can you change the font size for older readers used to large print books? Yes, most readers have a selection of fonts (some use TrueType fonts you can choose and upload) and three to six sizes, depending on the model.
Is there a monthly fee? No, there is no monthly fee for units which have wireless access or for ebook downloads, which are on a per unit basis.
How fragile are eBook readers? This is a subjective question, but we'd say slightly less fragile than laptops. We do recommend using a cover when transporting them, to avoid scratches to the screen. Operating temperatures vary, but most will work from around 32 to 100 or so degrees Fahrenheit, and can be safely stored from around -4 to 150F--see details on specific models.
Do ebooks display in color? No, they display in various shades of grey (older models 4 shades, some 8, and the latest models do 16 greyscales). Color e-ink displays are technologically feasible , and are likely to be 3-5 years away from commercial production. For most book applications, however, the current level of greyscales is perfectly adequate.