Taking a Detour: E-readers A Soap Box

By William Stanek
November 12, 2009 | Comments: 4

William Stanek here, taking a slight detour in our continuing e-reader discussion. When it comes to favorite technologies, call me a zealot because I probably am. I'm not afraid to proclaim that I love technology that works, and I think e-reader devices are a technology that works.

So many people haven't realized there's a revolution going--and electronic paper displays (EPDs) are the apex, the tipping point, the catalysts, behind it. The revolution isn't the traditional kind, it's the digital kind and in the world of changes EPDs are making possible, e-readers have a special place. Why? Because e-readers are helping to drive a more rapid adoption of e-books and they are doing this in ways that aren't necessarily traditional. Normally, a product's sales and marketing would largely be responsible for driving the adoption rate and the market as say the Apple iPod did with MP3 players and digital music.

That said, the MP3 player market is a mature one. There are over 100 million iPODs alone out there, so comparatively, e-readers are in their infancy even through we're already at third generation devices.

With e-readers it's not necessarily sales that are driving adoption rate. Although there are certainly many e-reader devices (around three dozen; yes, 35+), there are no break out leaders in terms of unit sales. Sure, Amazon's Kindle devices have the lead in terms of market share, but no one is selling e-readers by the tens of millions. In fact, the total estimated sales for e-readers this holiday season is expected to be around ten million units and that number is across all manufacturers and devices.

So if e-reader sales are not driving e-book adoption, what is driving adoption? Well, call it the world-wide conversation they're responsible for, the awareness they bring, and the basket of technologies developed or in development as a result of both. The e-readers themselves represent huge investments for their developers. With so many companies betting big on both e-books and e-readers, that in itself is creating a frenzy and driving new approaches, new technologies and more rapid e-book adoption rates. And if there wasn't such a frenzy there might not be software readers for iPhones and other smart phones and there likely would not be so many choices. But the software readers have to try to keep up with the hardware e-readers and this competition drives innovation.

My question for you is:

Have you taken a serious look at e-readers or decided one way or another about the devices? And if you made a decision not to give e-readers a try, I hope you did so for the right reasons because it seems at times there's more wrong information out there about e-readers than there is correct information--and one of the key reasons I decided to write this blog series.

When people ask me about e-readers and which one they should consider, I tell them we are currently at the third generation for these devices. I'm referring not the devices themselves, but to the e-ink technology that enables the devices to work the way they work. The displays themselves have gone through three product generations/evolutions.
The displays are all e ink / e ink vizplex. The display resolution (in terms of pixels per inch) across all devices is similar, and dependent on screen size largely. What sets the displays apart then is largely the gray levels they support.

  • First generation displays support 4 gray levels.
  • Second generation displays support 8 gray levels.
  • Third generation displays support 16 gray levels.

You need at least 8 gray levels to display graphics well and as you can imagine 16 gray levels is even better than 8. The common display example I've used in these entries has 8 gray levels and the clarity and quality as you can see is excellent.

There are several major misconceptions about e-readers. One is that you can't archive your books and documents to your computer. Well, it's true that some e-readers don't support this. For example, Amazon's Kindle downloads e-books wirelessly straight to the device and there isn't an option for archiving to your computer (yet see comments for more). However, with the right e-reader you can archive to your computer. For example, with all Sony Readers you download e-books to your computer where they are archived and then transfer the e-books to your e-reader. You transfer e-books and other files to your e-reader by syncing the reader and the computer, in much the same way you sync media between an MP3 player and your computer. Bottom line: If you want this feature, make sure you choose a device that supports this feature.

Another common misconception about e-readers is the quality of the reading experience. I've heard grumblings about glare and contrast--mostly from those who think the reading experience on a smart phone is the same as what you get with an e-reader device. If you take a look at my favorite sample graphic for readers above, you'll see that both the display quality and the contrast levels are excellent. The vast majority of readers have high-contrast, high-resolution displays. This ensures the text is readable in direct sunlight and at angles up to 180 degrees. Bottom line: If display quality and contrast levels are a game-breaker for you, look for a device with a 3rd generation display (ie one with 16 gray levels).

Okay, time for me to get off my soap box and get back to work. Thank you for reading! Hope you'll take a look at my new book Windows 7: The Definitive Guide.

William R. Stanek
williamstanek at aol dot com

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Actually, Kindle books CAN be downloaded to your PC, using a browser. There is an option on the Manage my Kindle page that lets you resend any book you "bought" (including free books) from Amazon to your Kindle(s) OR to download the books to your PC.

In addition, the new Kindle for PC app (just out in beta) also downloads from your archive to your PC. You cna even have new books go straight to the PC, so it works fine for folks who don't own a Kindle.

Good info otherwise, though! Keep fighting the good fight!

Hi Karen, thank you for the additional information about the Kindle for PC beta software! E-readers are a rapidly changing marketplace and truly what can't be done today likely will be a reality tomorrow. Also gets exactly to my meaning: check the actual products themselves rather than what others have said. You can't say that you've tried and didn't like e-readers if your only experience with them has been with a smart phone or first generation device.

E-readers are changing rapidly. Yesterday, I would have been the first to tell you:

Sony Readers can archive to your PC while Amazon Kindles cannot. On the other hand, Amazon Kindles have wireless built-in while Sony Readers do not yet (but will soon).

Now I know you'll soon have the archive to PC option with Amazon Kindle, just as you'll soon have a Sony Reader with built-in wireless.

No doubt, things are getting even more interesting around in the e-reader world. Now if only Amazon would send me a Kindle 2/DX so I could write more about it. My Kindle 1 needs to be retired... ;-)

Thanks for your co-operation.

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