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E-books: Reading on a computer vs. reading on a reader

Consumer Reports News: November 13, 2009 12:42 PM

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Amazon Kindle's new computer app

Amazon this week unveiled its Kindle app for PCs, available free for Windows 7, Vista, and XP machines; a Mac version is also promised "soon." Since similar apps are offered at the Barnes and Noble E-Bookstore and Sony's EBook Store, you can now read books from the three leading digital bookstores on a computer or an e-book reader. (These devices include Amazon's Kindle 2, Barnes and Noble's upcoming Nook, the upcoming Irex DR800SG, and Sony's line of Readers, including the upcoming Daily Edition.)

There are also apps for the iPhone and, sometimes, other smart phones, from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, though not from Sony. So this face-off focuses on the respective advantages of dedicated readers and computers:

Advantage e-book readers:

  • Compactness. Compared with portable computers, readers are smaller--and especially thinner--than even a netbook; most measure about 5 by 8 inches and are about as thick as many smart phones.
  • Better ergonomics. Readers are "sit-back" devices that fairly closely duplicate the experience of holding a book. Computers are "lean-forward" devices on which extended reading isn't that natural or comfortable, even on a laptop or netbook. Tablet computers, another flavor of portables, are more booklike in shape, but they cost upwards of $1,200; see this guide at tabletpc2.com.
  • Superior battery life. Where laptops and netbooks run for hours on a charge, e-book readers run for days, thanks to e-ink technology that sips rather than drinks power.
  • More comfortable ergonomics. For extended reading, e-ink screens are easier on the eyes than the backlit screens of computers. And e-book type is easier to read in bright sunlight.

Advantage computers:

  • No hardware costs. Assuming, of course, that you already own a computer.
  • Bigger screens. While the six-inch screens found on most e-book readers care adequate in size, extra real estate can be helpful for some uses. Specifically, for newspapers and magazines, available by wireless subscription with the Kindle and coming on other readers, and for textbooks, which are increasingly available in e-book formats. Readers with bigger screens, including the Kindle DX and upcoming Sony Daily Edition, cost $400 and up.
  • Color capability. E-ink screens are black and white for now; color editions aren't expected until 2011.
  • Cheaper, fresher news. Where online news is generally free, at least for now, you have to pay for e-book newspaper and magazine subscriptions; the Kindle's are $5.99 and up. And where online news sites are continually updated, your Kindle subscription buys you only the morning edition of the paper, frozen in time; there's no updating, despite the Kindle's continuous connection to the Sprint wireless network. (It appears the upcoming readers will provide subscriptions in the same way.) 

One factor is too hard to call: Getting new content. That's fast and simple on computers, as it is on the Kindles, which wirelessly download books in a minute or so. Other upcoming wireless devices look promisingly fast and easy too, but we haven't yet tested their downloading. The Sonys, excepting the upcoming Daily Edition, which will be wireless, require connection to a computer.

The best option, especially if money's no object? Buy an e-reader, download its software to a computer or smart phone, and read on both devices. One plus to the Kindle software is that a book you were last reading on your Kindle will resume at the same page when opened on your computer or smart phone, and vice-versa. The same capability is promised for the Nook's software, but isn't available from Sony. —Paul Reynolds

   

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