Digital Reading

I am a tech girl. I love my gadgets and gizmos. I like shiny new things that I have to figure out (to some degree). My SO hands me new tech and says “When you figure it out, teach me how to use it.” Digging into a new techtoy and figuring out what it can really do is like play time for me.

It only stands to reason that because of this fascination, e-readers and other digital reading gizmos would be right up my alley. They are, of course, although before I go any further let me say that no matter how many features it has to mimic or “improve” the book experience, no e-reader will EVER replace a book. Having a book in hand is a unique experience. There’s the sensation of opening pages no one has read yet and stepping into a world no one has entered yet. Even the arthritic crinkle of pages that have been handled by generations of hands has an allure, beckoning you to join the elite explorers who came before you and follow in their footsteps. There’s the smell of the paper (old or new), the weight of the book, the cover (battle-scarred or clean and new), the way pages riffle under your thumb and make that flippy-slapping sound as they fall back into place, the visual sense of progress as the right hand side of the book shrinks and the left swells in direct proportion.

I know that seems a little dramatic but ask any real book lover and you’re likely to find those are things that make the experience of reading a book unique and irreplaceable. Neither the story nor the reader’s experience in the story change when you lift the words off a paper page and put them on some kind of screen or monitor, but what changes is the visceral, tactile experience and that’s something no book lover will ever relinquish. No matter how many bells, whistles and other doo-dads e-readers offer to make it more accessible to a technologically obsessed world, no e-reader will ever replace an actual book.

My tech expansion into digital reading began with the Kindle almost two years ago. I liked the ability to carry a couple hundred books with me at any given time without investing in rolling luggage or a small army of day laborers to carry them for me. The Kindle enables my multi-book reading habit without breaking my bag, my shoulder, or my back. It keeps my place in each book I’m reading and lets me easily bounce between them as my mood, taste and inclination dictate. One of the most exciting points about the Kindle was the screen. I loved that I could read it for hours and not have my eyes burn and go all twitchy from back lighting. The screen is relatively glare-free and feels no different than reading a regular book. One of my favorite things about the Kindle is the ability to sample almost anything to decide whether I want to invest in the book – either in a dead-tree or digital copy. I take my Kindle almost everywhere with me in my purse, so when I go to the bookstore and find a book that seems interesting but not compelling enough to buy right then and there, I download a sample of the book. Doing this, I don’t have to worry about forgetting to check it out later, and if I absolutely hate it, I haven’t wasted money that could be better put to use. The Kindle has also made me change the way I buy books. Once I’ve sampled a book, I can decide whether I want to invest the money and shelf space to a physical book, or if I’d be happy with a digital copy. Chances are, if I know I’m going to read it again, I’ll buy the hard copy. If it’s something that’s a bit of a guilty pleasure, or if it’s intriguing, interesting, but likely to be a one-time only read, I’ll pick up the digital copy. The guilty pleasure concealment is a real bonus….no one has to know when you’re reading something truly horrid and you don’t have to keep it hidden away in your house, either.

Suffice to say I was thrilled with my wonderful gadget and recommended it to anyone who mentioned it, showed any interest or curiosity in it, or would just start talking about something marginally related.

A little more than a year later and my tech habit started picking at me again, but this time, over the iPad. I messed around with it in stores for months, but couldn’t manage to commit $700 to what would be, I assumed, a costly toy. The deciding feature in the purchase of the iPad was the on-screen keyboard. I figured it would be a pain in the arse to try and actually do anything useful on it because I have fat, flighty little fingers and struggle with digital keyboards. I couldn’t imagine trying to type anything lengthy on it without wanting to throw my costly plaything across the room. Again, in the store, I started playing with it, and finally decided that I would make the leap and (after a 2 year extended warranty that would cover my klutzy self), I laid down a heart-stopping pile of money to take it home with me. Now what, you ask, does this have to do with the whole digital reading thing? Patience, my dear reader, and my circumlocutions will return back to the original point.

Roughly around the time I bought the iPad, the Nook Color was promoted HARD by Barnes and Nobles. I had a few people asking me about the Kindle during their comparison shopping and asked me to compare the Nook to the Kindle. I could talk about the Kindle all day long, but I had no idea about any of the other e-readers. I had no intention of running out and buying a Nook, but I decided to download the Nook iPad app and compare.

Once the download completed, a brainstorm struck. What better way to take all the e-reader apps for a spin and see how they stack up against each other? The iPad comes with iBooks installed. For those familiar with the Temple of Steve Jobs, colloquially known as Apple, iBooks is the Apple e-reader available on products like the iPad, iPod touch, and a variety of others, I’m sure. To round out my heavy-hitter collection, I downloaded the Kindle app, the Borders e-book app, and Google Books.

The basic concept behind all of these apps is pretty standard. Each of them allow a customer to download digital copies of books, making entire libraries ultra portable. Most of them have a pretty wide variety of free classic selections thanks to Project Gutenberg, and some even have free books from more current authors to promote new works. Some of the features that are available across the board are the ability to sort titles by list or by cover, the ability to sample books before purchase, some kind of status bar to show you where you are in the book, and the ability to change the size of the text (all except the Kindle app and the Kindle device allow you to change the font style as well). They all have their shining moments, and here’s how they stack up:

iBooks
Things I loved:

  • the nifty page-turning experience (as seen on the somewhat cheesy commercials)
  • the visual bookmark that’s clear and easy to see
  • the menu bars disappear while reading, yet are recalled easily
  • Embedded dictionary, Wikipedia and Google searches from the text of the story.
  • I’m kind of a dork…well, that may be a bit of an understatement, but my point is I prefer to stop reading at the end of a chapter whenever possible. It leaves a “clean” break in the story. With iBooks, the status bar not only shows your progress in the work, but gives you “pages left in chapter” tracking. This helps me make the decision of when to come up for air, and give me an idea of whether or not I have time to make it to the end of a chapter, or if I should just stop where I am.
  • There are pretty intensive reading experience controls: not only is there a contrast control to modify the brightness of the screen, there’s also a “sepia” color set that changes the background to a more mellow color, making it easier to read longer.

Things I didn’t like:

  • Only available through iTunes. While this makes sense, and would probably be less irritating if I had an iPad with 3G, it’s annoying because I can’t browse the web to see what’s available when I either don’t have my device or don’t have a Wi-Fi connection for it. Example: at work on my break. If I want to see what’s new on the fiction scene, I can log in to any number of book selling sites through my work computer. With some, I can send a new book to my iPad without ever turning it on. With this, I can’t even see to compare pricing.
  • In order to back up your purchases, you have to sync your device regularly. If you don’t and that mysterious “something” happens to your iPad, iPhone, etc, the purchases you made directly to your mobile device go ~poof~. Word to the wise: sync often, just in case.

Mixed Blessings:

  • Multi-platform, but only brand-specific platforms (iPod touch, iPhone, iPad, etc)

Borders e-Reader
Things I loved:

  • While reviewing the list view, the app shows the percentage of the book read.
  • “I’m Reading” view shows all books in progress
  • Making a selection in the Table of Contents will jump to the next feature in the book, even on free content.
  • Options for page turning experience which give a more book-like experience, or a simple change of page one would find on a computer.
  • Not only was the bookmark highly visible, it had a few fun options to change the style as well
  • Multi-platform for Apple products, Android-powered smartphones, Blackberry and computer-based reading.
  • e-Books are available in either pub or pdf format. This allows the reader more flexibility when reading on multiple devices.

Things I didn’t like:

  • Shopping from the app is a royal pain in the ass. Every time I downloaded something, I would have to navigate my way back to the list and instead of dropping me right back where I had been, I had to start back at the beginning. While this wouldn’t have been a big deal if it were a short list of books, trying to remember where I was in 25 pages of a list got old pretty quickly.
  • Lack of direct access to dictionary, Google and Wikipedia from the text. May not impact most casual readers, but the lack of this feature is marked in someone who pursues more challenging pieces.

Mixed Blessings:

  • This app does have the ability to change from black text on white background to an option they call “night reading.” The only other format available, however, is white text on black background, which is only marginally better.

Google Books
Things I loved:

  • This is another e-reader with my beloved “pages left in chapter” status bar. See above for the rationale behind the love I give to this gadget.
  • Active Table of Contents that jumps to the first page of the chapter. While this is available in many of the paid content for other applications, this works even on the freebies in Google Books!
  • Google Books allows the reader to customize their reading experience by having the nifty page-turning experience reminiscent of iBooks, or shutting it off completely and just changing the pages quickly and without frills.
  • Each reader’s library is available via digital cloud which means that a reader can access it from any enabled device at any time. This also means that if you have to change your device, your content isn’t lost.
  • Auto-sync across devices. This allows you to start reading on the iPad, then pick it up on your computer at work exactly where you left off without having to look for what you last read.

Things I didn’t like:

  • One of the awesome things about the iPad is the ability to turn the device and use either a portrait or landscape orientation. For all the other e-readers, this means you can read a book with one page at a time, or showing two, as if you were holding a real book. Google Books app only allows for a portrait (vertical) orientation. This is a big dissatisfaction in my point of view.
  • No visual bookmark. I guess this stems from my physical reading habit. Even though Google Books will auto-sync, I would still like to see a bookmark to confirm that yes, this is where I left off.
  • Inability to highlight or annotate the text. While this may not be a big deal to the casual reader, for someone in school or who is making notes for personal development in writing, I’ve found this lack HIGHLY frustrating.
  • Lack of direct access to Google, Wikipedia and an embedded dictionary from the text. Again, for the casual reader, this may not be much of a detraction from the reading experience, but for someone who picks up more challenging works, this is inconvenient and annoying.

Mixed Blessings:

  • Multi-platform is great for the iPad, computer, availability on some e-readers (Sony and Kobo) and Android phones. The crappy thing is that the app isn’t more widely available to other phones, like Blackberry. I may eventually get a Droid phone, but I love my Torch too much to give it up yet.
  • The disappearing menu for options and miscellaneous controls is great – until you try to recall it. There were more than a few times when I was playing with it and trying to recall the menu and ended up turning two or three pages before I got the blasted thing to reappear. I realize this could just be me having a moment, but if it happened to me and made me scowl, I won’t be the only one facing the same thing.

Nook
Things I loved:

  • The ability to rate books on my library home page. This was so cool. I didn’t have to log into an account online to do it or qualify it with comments; this was just for me to remember what I thought of the book.
  • Cloud-based library. Yay recoverability and mobility!
  • Excellent reader control of the page. Not only is there contrast control, there are multiple reading themes (including a create your own option) to allow the reader to change the color of the background, text color, justification and spacing.
  • Free In-Store reading! Having a Nook or Nook app allows the reader to connect to the Barnes and Nobles in-store Wi-Fi and read a book for free for up to one hour per day. “Rent” a spot in the cafe with the purchase of a cuppa and over the course of a week or so, you’ve not only taken some much needed time for yourself, you’ve also read that bestseller that you couldn’t get your hands on at the library.
  • Embedded dictionary, Wikipedia and Google searches from the text of the story.

Things I didn’t like:

  • The bookmark within the work is at the bottom of the page and so tiny it’s very easy to overlook.
  • When setting up my Nook account, I was required to enter my credit card number, even though I wasn’t making a purchase. THAT is incredibly annoying. I felt forced to enable my ability to make a purchase just to get in and play with the app and see what’s out there for free. Dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb. I realize that there is a business reason for this, but as a consumer who is far too easily tempted to buy books in massive quantities, I resent it.

Mixed Blessings:

  • With the other apps I reviewed, the reader had the option of reviewing their library by cover or by list. In the Nook app, the choices to review the library are either by cover, or a page-at-a-time synopsis of the books in your library. Right now, my collection is fairly small so it was kind of neat to review them this way, but with a larger library I can only imagine this would be cumbersome at best.
  • LendMe technology. This is by far the coolest thing about the Nook – until I realized that it’s not available for all books. LendMe allows a Nook user to loan an ebook to another Nook user for two weeks, and then automatically recalls the book to the owner’s library after that time is up. If it were for all Nook books, this would be one of the biggest selling points for the Nook.
  • Multi-platform, but again, a narrow selection. The Nook app is only available for iPad, iPhone and Android phones. Yes, I know that Droid is becoming the next big thing, but damnit, I love my Blackberry and I know I’m not the only one.

Undecided:

  • Self-publishing. I’m so torn on this one, I can’t really call it a love, a hate or a combination of the two. The Nook allows self-publishing and sale of an e-book. As a writer, I find this equally attractive and repelling. Not only is it the freedom to publish what you love and what makes you happy while you earn money doing it, it also opens the door to people to flood the market with crap. So yeah. I’m scratching my head over this one and trying to figure out whether this is a step forward in the world, or if it’s an excuse for the marketing world to take advantage of people.

Kindle (app)
Things I loved:

  • Widely available multi-platform support! Kindle app is available for Apple devices, my beloved Blackberry, Android phones and computer.
  • I don’t have to be on my device (phone or iPad) to make a purchase. I can be online using my Amazon.com account and buy a book, specifying which device I want to receive it. Once I turn on that device and connect it to the network, the item downloads. Enough said.
  • Cloud-based library allows me to read a book on my Kindle, then download and sync it to my phone if I happen to forget my Kindle at home. I can also remove the book from any device at any time, and when I want it back, I can download it again. Anything I’ve purchased is archived so I can do this at any time. Awesomesauce.
  • The Kindle app takes advantage of the portrait or landscape capabilities of the iPad allowing a 1 or 2 page view.
  • Reading controls include contrast control and background/text color change abilities, which are awesome for night reading.
  • The selection of free books is by far superior than I’ve seen of any of the providers yet.
  • Embedded dictionary, Wikipedia and Google searches from the text of the story. All a reader has to do to enable any of these is move through the text to get a definition, or to use any of the automated research tools.

Things I didn’t like:

  • Just the idea of sharing books on Nook has spoiled me and I miss the ability to share books with my Kindle-using buddies.
  • On the Blackberry app, there is no option to allow text and background color changes on the screen. No matter how dark it is, you’ve got one option: black text on white background. Bring your sunglasses for the dark.
  • The Blackberry app does not allow highlighting or annotating the text. Being mobile doesn’t preclude the need to make notes, and I miss this feature.

Mixed Blessings:

  • Bookmarks are available on both the iPad app and the Blackberry app. It’s great on the iPad, but small on the Blackberry. While I realize this is just a constraint of the format, even giving a more dramatic color change to the bookmark on the Blackberry would make it more visible.
  • The Kindle app shows you what other people have highlighted or made notes on within the text. While this is great for students and may help people catch key passages, it can get distracting for someone who’s reading something for fun.

Kindle (device – 2nd gen)
Things I love:

  • The glare-resistant screen and the lack of backlighting are a wonderful thing. I thought it was just one of those “innovations” Amazon wanted to use to set their device apart in the market, but it really makes a difference in the reading experience. I can read the Kindle as long as a book without feeling the eyestrain I can on other devices, like my phone or iPad.
  • Whispersync technology. Love it. 3G is awesome and I can download just about anywhere, any time. No wi-fi necessary and no additional charge.
  • Cloud-based library. I can move things on and off my device quickly and easily and not worry about “losing” a purchase. Plus, I can buy from my computer, and choose which device to send it to. Yay lunch-break surfing!
  • Highlighting and annotating the text works for me. I like being able to make notes when necessary.
  • Embedded dictionary is a big win. I’d like to embed wikipedia or google, but that may be gilding the lily on such a simple device.
  • Lack of distractions. As much as I love my iPad, it’s one distracting gizmo. There are so many temptations poking at my attention, but the Kindle keeps the temptations to a minimum.
  • Easier to pull out and get to reading than the iPad. I keep this in my purse, and while I keep my iPad in my purse, I am more likely to pull out the Kindle when waiting in line than I am the iPad. There’s a more direct connection to what I’m reading with something that is smaller and feels more like a book, and, again – less distraction.

Things I didn’t like:

  • The screen will sometimes “burn” either the text or the screensaver image when the device times out. The image will ghost for a few days before the screen returns to normal.
  • Every once in a while, when I fall asleep reading (and the CLUNK of the Kindle on my face doesn’t happen or doesn’t wake me up), the device will time out and then crash. I can’t wake it from its “sleep” state, and have to mess with the power switch to get it to restore. This usually means I lose my place in the text. Thankfully, I’ve only had this happen a handful of times since I received it, but it can be irritating.

At the end of the day, if I only had one choice, I would go for the Kindle device, seconded by the Kindle app. While Nook, iBooks and Google Books all have the multi-platform support, Kindle is just better at it. For anyone faced with the decision between buying an e-reader or the iPad, though, I’d say go with the iPad and use the Kindle app. In the end, it’s a much more versatile purchase, and the “sepia” background for the Kindle app is about as easy on the eyes as a back-lit device is going to get.

Happy reading!

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  1. January 11, 2011 at 7:43 am

    I love my Kindle. I never thought I’d be into an e-reader but with my favorite author releasing a e-book only novel, I needed to have this device. Using the Kindle App on my latptop isn’t an option. The screen would kill my eyes.

    Amazon does have self-publishing in the way of Create-a-Space and there is a way to make the stuff you’ve written Kindle compatible. You send the PDF to Your_AmazonID@free.kindle.com and they will send you back the file converted for Kindle…Free!

    You can also have up to six Kindles synced to the same account so sharing books is possible. I plan on using the Kindle to buy books only I read.

  2. January 18, 2011 at 7:13 am

    ……Unlikea lot of folks who see e-book readers as a technological death threat made to a beloved old friend Im excited about the continuing evolution of the concept…So when Amazon launched its 399 Kindle e-book reader last month I was both intrigued and skeptical. Based on my experience with the Sony Reader earlier this year I know theres a lot to like about this type of device but there are also many negatives…While the idea of being able to carry a couple hundred books around in your pocket and it would have to be a mighty big pocket in the Kindles case is attractive people have a physical and emotional attachment to books. The Kindle is just one plastic device and while it can do cool things it cannot compete with the aesthetic appeal of a full bookshelf…But just as radio didnt kill print TV didnt kill radio and the Internet wont kill off any other media e-books and real books will co-exist side-by-side in the long run.

    • January 24, 2011 at 9:01 am

      I completely agree. They each have their advantages and disadvantages, but I really don’t see how either one will replace the other. I think digital readers and books will be able to co-exist for quite some time before dead-tree versions are rendered obsolete. Even after such obsolescence, I can’t imagine that books will be completely gone; there are too many romantics to let the medium die completely.

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