The transition to digital books is happening faster than anyone expected. After years of false starts – think Stephen King's novella Riding the Bullet, released way back in 2000 – eBook readers have soared in popularity over the past few years. Amazon's release of the first Kindle in 2007 was a turning point; now people are buying and downloading digital books at a breakneck pace.
Even better: Prices have dropped considerably across the board, to the point where mainstream casual readers can get a quality eBook reader for a lot less than £100. It's no longer an early adopter's game. As a result, you have more choice than ever. But before you settle on a single device, you have some decisions to make. Here's what you should consider when shopping for an eBook reader…
Size and screen type
Basic eBook readers use monochrome, E-Ink screens to display text. E-Ink looks a lot like paper, and it's easy on your eyes when reading for hours and hours. On the least expensive models, it's not backlit, so you'll need light to see the text, just as you would with a printed book. More expensive eBook readers now include edge lighting that lets you see in the dark, like the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite, the Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch GlowLight, and the Kobo Glo. With each model, you can vary the intensity of the brightness from barely-there to flashlight-bright. On the lowest settings, you can read in the dark while your significant other sleeps peacefully next to you.
In all cases, E-Ink is much easier to read in bright sunlight, while colour touchscreens on tablets, like the Amazon Kindle Fire HD tend to wash out, and their glossy displays can show distracting reflections.
The industry seems to have settled on 6in as the optimal display size for E-Ink readers; this is what you'll find on the current-gen, entry-level Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch, for example. There are exceptions, though: Kobo just released the Mini, which features a 5in screen.
Manufacturers are also improving the quality of these E-Ink displays. A few years ago, page refreshes were sluggish, the entire screen flashed black with each page turn, and some early eBook readers had problems with text contrast, which made for difficult reading. That's all history. The latest Kindles and Nooks have crisp, clear text, and both employ caching schemes that only do full page refreshes every six pages or so; the rest of the time, only the letters fade out and back in again. The page refreshes themselves are also quite fast.
Meanwhile, touchscreens have an innate advantage: On-screen keyboards make it easy to take notes or run searches within the text of your books. As eBook readers with hardware QWERTY keyboards have all but disappeared, this is an important distinction for power users. Also, navigating a massive online book store on a device with a touchscreen is a lot easier.
So E-Ink is great for reading books, but colour tablet touchscreens offer a bevy of other benefits. Their colour screens mean you can read much more than books: Magazines and comic books are just two examples. Best of all, even low-cost tablets like the base Amazon Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble Nook HD can browse the web, stream video from Netflix, play music, and run Android apps. If you have more cash, the Apple iPad mini is more of a multi-faceted device, with its 7.9in screen, bevy of apps, and surprisingly light weight.
Wireless connection issues
Most devices now offer Wi-Fi as the base level wireless connection – at a much lower cost – with 3G cellular data either as part of a more expensive model (such as with the Kindle Paperwhite), or not available at all (as with Sony's Reader models).
As long as you don't mind waiting until you're at home or a hotspot to shop for new books, Wi-Fi should work for you. A select few may still prefer to cough up for 3G to buy a new book while, say, on a long train trip, or lounging at the beach. Devices without any wireless connection at all have essentially disappeared. Some eBook readers like the Nook Simple Touch come with memory card slots, so you can sideload digital books or PDFs in addition to buying or downloading media wirelessly.
While we're on the subject, internal storage capacity is no longer a concern. Almost every eBook reader you can buy today can store more than 1,000 books, with some offering room for upwards of 3,000. And if you have more books than that, each of the major vendors offers cloud storage, letting you download books to your device whenever you need them, assuming you're in a Wi-Fi hotspot (or anywhere you have a cell signal, if you have a 3G capable model).
What about the books?
This is where things get a little complex, so bear with us for a moment. There's no single universal eBook format; essentially, when you choose an eBook reader, you're making a decision up front as to which ecosystem you'll support. If you buy a Kindle now, and then want to switch to a Nook later, none of the books you buy through the Kindle store will work on your new Nook.
With free, public domain books, you have some more flexibility, but it's actually more complicated. For example, Google offers over a million free books in the popular, open ePub format. However, Kindles don't support ePub. Amazon has its own Kindle Owners' Lending Library, mind you, which lets you borrow a book a month from a huge selection of titles, but only if you pay £49 a year for Amazon Prime membership (which also gets you quick delivery perks for your online shopping on Amazon).
For an in-depth comparison of supported formats across various eBook readers, check out Wikipedia.
To make things even murkier, the eBook stores themselves aren't all the same. Book selection, size, and pricing varies from store to store. The best way through this thicket of digital underbrush is to spend a little time browsing eBook stores before you commit to a device. You can access both Amazon's and Barnes & Noble's eBook stores online to see which store carries the prevailing majority of the books, magazines, and newspapers you want to read.
What about eBook apps?
One saving grace is that many of the major eBook reader vendors have developed an entire ecosystem of apps around their platform. For example, you can start reading a book on your Kindle Paperwhite at home; then, while waiting in line at the grocery store, you can fire up your iPhone's Kindle app and pick up exactly where you left off in the same book, but on your phone.
The size of the app ecosystem varies by format. The Apple iPad and iPhone both run iBooks, a flexible app that looks great, but doesn't have quite the same book selection as Amazon or Barnes & Noble for digital books. The latter two both make iPad apps, along with versions for the iPhone, Android, and other devices. Amazon also has a Cloud Reader that works on the iPad with a direct link to the Kindle Store, and several vendors also make PC and Mac apps. Apple originally denied Sony access to the Apple App Store, but has since relented.
In short, if you plan to read digital books on multiple gadgets, be sure to read our reviews of these devices (which we’ve linked throughout this article), and note each manufacturer's list of supported devices.
This is one place where there's nothing but good news: Prices have fallen considerably across the board. Amazon's base-model Kindle is just £69, and for most people, it's got all the features they'll need. Barnes & Noble's touch-based Simple Touch costs just £79 now. While tablets are mostly a separate category of consumer electronics – with higher prices – you've got the Kindle Fire, Nook HD, and Google Nexus 7 in the £129 to £159 range for the basic models, all of which are still great for reading. Even these do-it-all devices cost considerably less than the original E-Ink Kindle.
For a more detailed look at some specific models which you might want to buy, check out our top Christmas tablets round-up here. And don’t forget to check out our in-depth reviews of these various eBook readers and tablets (linked throughout this piece, as we’ve already mentioned). And when you’ve picked out the right device and ordered it – happy e-reading!