Buyer's guide to e-readers

iREAD: Amazon's Kindle 2 is one of many e-readers you can now buy.
iREAD: Amazon's Kindle 2 is one of many e-readers you can now buy.

Music and movies have joined the digital revolution and now literature has followed suit. But what are e-books and how do you read them?

E-books are digitised books that can be downloaded, either over the internet or through special kiosks, on to PCs, mobile phones or special e-readers.

E-readers are portable devices designed to store and display e-books. They are not cheap - some are more than $1000 - but have distinct advantages over PCs and mobile phones. Their e-ink screens are ultra-sharp and have minimal reflection. What this amounts to is a reading experience that's much easier on the eyes. E-readers also allow you to store hundreds of books at once - definitely a bonus for an avid reader.

Amazon's recently released Kindle 2 is one of the dominant devices in the e-reader market. The successor to the hugely popular Kindle, it sells for the rather substantial sum of US$359.

The Kindle 2 only uses the battery when you change a page, rather than constantly, which means a battery charge can last for thousands of page turns - easily enough to get through a couple of books on holiday. It also weighs less than 300 grams and is a centimetre thick - making it ultra portable. Amazon estimates it can store about 1500 books.

Kindle owners also have access to Amazon's massive online store and free use of its Whispernet service to download the e-books they buy. But there's a catch. If you're not in the United States, you can't buy e-books through the Kindle. Sony's Portable Reader System 505 (about US$300) is similarly limited. You buy the hardware to gain access to a massive book store, which you can't make use of if you're outside the US.

But don't despair. There are 11 or so e-readers on the market, all of which run on the same e-ink technology. New Zealanders can buy the iRex Iliad through Dymocks Australia's online store and at dadirect.com - which also sells the Cybook Gen3 and the Hanlin V3.

Expect to pay about A$1199 for the second-edition iLiad and A$599 for the Cybook Gen3. Dymocks New Zealand is also expected to announce the arrival of e-books and e-readers in its stores in the next month or so.

E-readers are exciting gadgets but there are still a few kinks that need ironing out. The first thing you'll notice is that turning a page on the book takes about one second. You adapt to it quite quickly, but it's still slightly disconcerting.

The other major issue is that of standardisation. E-books can be bought in more than 50 different formats, and each reader can handle different ones. Both the Kindle 2 and the Sony Reader require you to use their own proprietary, copy- protected file formats. Formats range from common formats (.txt or .html) to the proprietary (Amazon's AZW and Sony's BBeb) to the open format (ePUB and OEB).

It feels like the whole scene is waiting for its iPod - a device to unify the market under great design and standardisation. Until then, you'll have to run your files through converter programs to get it looking how you want on your specific device. In the case of the Kindle, you even have to pay a small fee for changing file types.

Thankfully, there is no shortage of sites to download books from. Apart from Amazon, Sony and Dymocks, there's Fictionwise - which is owned by Barnes and Noble and is probably the largest online retailer at present (selling about 1.5 million e-books last year in a variety of formats).

You can also download classic books for free in plain text (unformatted) from Project Gutenberg. ManyBooks.net has free e-books in multiple formats and major science-fiction publishing house Tor has also released some of their novels free online.

Other sites include ebooks.com and free-ebooks.net. If you're looking for information on what is available and where, dedicated e-book site mobileread.com is invaluable.

E-books and e-readers are yet to become mainstream in New Zealand, but this will change as they become more affordable. The ability to download and carry hundreds of books around in a single device is sure to excite Kiwi book worms and travellers alike.

The Press