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What’s an eReader?

Also known as eBook Readers, but we’ll call them eReaders for convenience.
Simply, a ‘paperback sized’ electronic tablet which accesses, stores and makes available for reading a range of ‘printed’ material, typically but not exclusively ‘books’ – fiction and non fiction, news articles, magazines and so on. Lighter, smaller and simpler than netbooks or laptops, with a fundamentally different screen technology.
Of course, ‘printed’ is an old term. As we move forward, there will be less and less in the form of hard-copy materialization of news, information and other formerly ‘printed’ material. In fact, this could herald a new business model for news services (see Articles).
So, eReaders may be on the cusp of an explosion. It does really depend on how the market perceives the laptop/netbook/eReader convergence, and how big the market is for the dedicated reading device.


Physical Formats
A little smaller and lighter than a netbook, but optimised for reading, and of course saleable to consumers who are not interested in carrying a laptop or netbook (for some people this is a social statement). We will eventually see the convergence of the e-reader and the netbook, but it will be a slow convergence from the e-reader side as more applications are built in. The fundamentally different screen technologies (see below), will pose a challenge, as the eReader screen will not support the requirements of laptop software – the black and white versus colour presentation and graphics processing abilities being the most obvious of these differences. With colour screens starting to appear, it will be interesting to see how these issues are addressed.
Physical size is smaller than a paperback on some models (say 6” x 4”), with that larger models as much as 10” x 7”. Thicknesses are almost all in the region of 0.3-0.5”.
Units typically weigh at 6 ounces (170 gms) and as much as 20 ounces (570 gms). Clearly, light weight is important if they are not to be heavy to hold for long periods whilst reading, compared with, say, a paperback book. Again an issue for convergence from the laptop end.
This is black text on a white background using EInk™ Electronic Paper Display (“EPD”) technology ( It is a thin film structure embodying electrically sensitive ink. EPD is claimed to offer high contrast readability in variable light conditions, a flexible physical lightweight structure and ultra low power consumption, with many other claimed advantages.
Images are grayscale with between 4 and 16 grayscale levels on offer. Colour eReaders are now appearing on the Market (eg Fujitus Flepia, Mirasol, Asus).
Screen sizes (diagonal) range between 5” and more than 10”, with most models being about 6”. Screen resolution is typically 800x600 pixels, but higher quality/cost models may be as high as 1280x1024. Some models offer touch-screen functionality. From my perspective, if newspaper and magazine access was important to me, then I would be looking at the larger screen sizes. It’s less important for reading novels. The Amazon Kindle DX offers address the broadsheet reading requirement.

Again, this is very much a personal preference area, and worth checking before you buy, to see that it suits you. A few models offer touch screen functionality, with others offering scroll wheels, navigation joysticks and hard buttons (eg page-turning buttons are an important feature to smooth the reading process, but on some models can be prone to accidental page-turning which is a real annoyance). For example, the Cybook Gen3 offers “ON/OFF", "Up ", "Down", "Right ", "Left", "Enter ", "Delete", "Menu", "Music” as its function/navigation buttons.

With working memory typically 128Mb (16Mb at the low end) and some offering up to as much as 4Gb of storage with SD or other format memory cards.
Operating System
This may or may not be important depending on your technical perspective, and it may well be the case that many prospective buyers are interested in a simple to use reader, otherwise they would use a laptop or netbook. How many people will want to carry both? Some manufacturers’ marketing majors on the view that operating systems are not relevant, probably seeing techie talk as likely to frighten off the very buyers they want to harness. Linux and Windows CE 5 being prevalent.
Technologies on offer include 3G, Edge/GSM, Bluetooth and Whispernet™ (see below). With so many technologies on offer, this means that careful research is needed before buying, not least to ensure that there is suitable network infrastructure in the area in which you will be using the eReader.
Most models offer a USB connection for PC and Mac connection (also see Batteries and Charging), though some products such as the Amazon Kindle avoid any relationship with a PC or Mac, coming back again to maintaining a low-techie marketing perception.
This internet access technology is unique to the Kindle (Amazon), and runs on the Sprint infrastructure in the US. Check international availability – there has been discussion about it being via the ITT network infrastructure, but launch in Europe has been subject to some delays.
Language Formats
Most popular models offer a range of languages, typically eight. This can of course be a useful feature for language students, though availability of translations, particularly for new books, is something to consider if multi-language is an important aspect for you.
This is the nub of it. One of the challenges to be faced is that of content. Catalogues of material are usually specific to the e-reader model (though not all), so it’s a bit like going to a public library and being told you can only read books published by, say, Simon and Schuster. Many catalogues are digitally protected by copy-protection mechanisms, though there is a lot of free material available via specialised ebook material sites. Some models offer newsprint and magazine connectivity, and connection to blogs.


Content download may be through wireless, 3G, Bluetooth, Whispernet, USB via PC/Mac and via SD card.

Googlebooks and Amazon are likely to be big players in this market. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon has some opinions on the EBook market on - worth a read.

Some units might come with an inbuilt subscription to media (such as newspaper publishing groups). The Amazon Kindle using Whispernet makes it easy to purchase news content and magazines online as a users account details are held by Amazon, so-called ‘cash-register free purchasing’.
Document Formats
This is obviously a critical area for eReaders, and the offerings vary greatly from proprietary AZW (Amazon Kindle, though they offer others), through to eReaders which offer as many as eight or nine formats, including PPT, Mobi, ePub, LIT, DJVU and WOLF.

Image Formats
These vary considerably between models, with some only offering jpeg format handling, whilst top range models may offer jpeg, png, tiff, bmp and gif.
Other Features
MP3 player features are often, though not always, included (but there goes your memory)!
Some models offer text-to-speech conversion.
Interactive screens for taking notes and highlighting document text are available on high end models.
Battery Life and Re-charge Time
These are typically quoted at around 2 weeks with wireless off (lowest 15 hours) and 4 hours with wireless on, though one has to be careful about the usage times on which these are based. Some models recharge through the USB connection from a PC, others have a regular mains charging connection as for a mobile phone.
Carbon Footprint
A recent analysis of the Amazon ‘Kindle’ ereader, concluded that the carbon payback required less than one year. (Source: Cleantech Group ).
The publishing industry is considered to be one of the most polluting industrial sectors, from the upstream logging and paper making, through to ink production and distribution. So, this is good news for the eReader business and ultimately the environment. It will certainly help product marketing.
At current (late 2009) pricing levels, typically $250+ for one with wireless connectivity at the bottom end (and as much as $850 at the top end), you’d have to buy about 20 hardbacks a year for the low cost eReader to be economic (even if they were royalty free books). But, so much about these gadgets revolves around image, style and being an early-adopter (to use marketing-speak). Therein lies the rub – early adoption is perceived as risky because of the standards issue.
There is talk about Apple producing a larger format iPhone™ touch screen tablet PC convergence product; link this back to the issue of content limitations, and we see that emergence of a standard could be critical. The Amazon Kindle product is sure to be widely adopted given Amazon’s market presence in the book market. With the plethora of connectivity offerings mixed in with Amazon’s Whispernet, emergence of a standard is not going to happen overnight. Will other manufacturers seek to adopt the Whispernet standard (one assumes that Amazon would ultimately want it to be an open standard if it would channel users through Amazon’s portals)? On the other hand, with the prevalence of 3G, then a proprietary technology may not be the way to go. The market will decide.
Manufacturers, Brands and Products
It is not the purpose here to compare products in detail – there are plenty of site which do that (such as Top Ten Reviews). Names to look out for though are:
Aiptek ‘MyNote’
Amazon ‘Kindle’ and 'DX'
Astak EZ Reader
Barnes & Noble ‘Nook’
Bookeen 'CyBook Opus'
Endless Ideas ‘BeBook’
Foxit eSlick
Fujitsu Flipia
Hanlin eReader
iRex Digital Reader
Plastic Logic (due 2010)
Sony PRS range
Tianjin Jinke EReader (variously branded by Bookeen, Astak, Endless Ideas and others)
As usual, it’s horses for courses. If you are a laptop or netbook user, would you want to carry another piece of tech with you? The undoubted simplicity of the eReader format is however, very attractive.
How will the convergence of laptop/netbook/mobile phone/eReader pan out? As usual in the tech world, product families and technologies will come and go. I’d love to have an eReader, but it does take some of the magic of the printed book and cover image away. The younger generations might not see it that way though, and that will be the ultimate arbiter of how the market develops.

© 2009 Phil Marks. Respective trademarks and servicemarks of manufacturers and suppliers are acknowleged.