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Good-bye Gutenberg: The Rise and Benefits of E-books

After a long run of 570-plus years, mass-produced printed books based on the Gutenberg press appear to be on the decline, the latest technology in a long string of technologies that have succumbed to digital tools.

New research by the Pew Internet and American Life Project indicates that 21 percent of Americans have read an e-book as of February 2012, up from just 17 percent in pre-holiday December 2011. The appeal of e-books varies by user, but a few key benefits are that e-books are cheaper, easier to tote, save the environment and are easy to acquire – they’re just a download away. Ads promoting e-books say things like “1MM+ e-books in 60 seconds or less.”

Other key findings from the Pew research include:

If you haven’t tried an e-book, give one a try

Although you can read e-books on your computer by installing one or more proprietary e-book reader file formats, the beauty of any book is the ability to curl up with it, or take it with you easily. Tablets and cell phones give you the transportability of a book but aren’t designed to make reading easy on your eyes or to minimize the drain on their battery. If you aren’t sure about whether or not you’ll like reading on an e-format, all of these devices can help you get a better feel for the experience, but if you really want to understand what e-books are like, ask around and see if you can’t look at one a friend has – or ask for a demonstration in a store. 

Consider key e-book features

Deciding on the right e-book reader for you, your child or your teen depends on your needs and your price range.

E-Book readers typically have a fairly low-resolution screen, but they are designed to give low glare and show text crisply. E-books are usually about the size of a thin paperback book, and because of their unique screen display design they usually have an incredibly long battery life allowing you to read for hours without needing to charge.

File format

Like other technology devices, e-book readers typically use one of several proprietary "e-Book" file formats (think of it as being like the difference between Windows PCs and Apple Macs). Understanding the formats an e-book reader can leverage is important as the format dictates the breadth of available content. This is especially true if you want to check e-books out from a library as opposed to purchasing them. Libraries typically use an open standard ePub solution that not all e-book readers accept. Ask your librarian for recommendations on compatible devices if you plan to borrow e-books.

Travel

If you travel abroad extensively or want to purchase the device from another country, consider any compatibility issues. Find out if will you be able to purchase e-books from the country you purchased your device from, and if the power requirements are the same, or if you’ll need a converter.

Multi-purpose capabilities

Another consideration is whether you want a single purpose device, or if you want your e-book to have additional capabilities – like being able to read Word documents or PDF files – some let you take notes as you read, some can synch with other devices and so on. Single use devices are naturally less expensive, but if you need extra capabilities, it may be more expensive to buy two devices than it is to get one with all the features you need.

Memory vs. battery life

You will also want to look at how much memory the reader has as this will limit the number of books you can have stored on the device. Some devices will allow you to increase the memory capacity, while others won’t. Keep in mind that battery life is as important – if not more important – than the amount of memory storage the device has. Check to see what the manufacturer claims the battery life will be, and look online to see actual users' experiences with battery life. Few things are more annoying than sitting down for a good read only to have the device shut down after a short period of time because the battery is drained.

Connectivity

Older e-book readers typically required you to download books using a connection to your computer because they didn’t come with internet connectivity through 3G or Wi-Fi. Most e-book readers have this capability now, but check to be sure the e-book reader you’re considering has connectivity capabilities.

Usability

Try using the e-book reader in a variety of lighting conditions. You want to be able to read indoors or in sunlight without a glare. You need to be able to set the size of the font so the text is easy to read, and you may find that some e-book readers feel more like a “book” to you than others – you want your hands to be comfortable as well as your eyes.

Hand comfort means the overall size of the reader needs to feel good, and it shouldn’t weigh too much (typically the device should weigh less than a paperback version of a book). Play around with the buttons to see if they feel intuitive and naturally placed. You’ll want to scroll back or forward pages, mark pages of interest and more. If you’re going to spend hours and hours with this device, you want to be sure it’s comfortable, intuitive and doesn’t give you headaches or eyestrain. 

Personal preferences

Next, you’ll want to make a choice about where you will use your e-book reader most frequently, and for what types of content to determine whether you want a black-and-white reader, or if you want a reader that displays color. Both options have merits and disadvantages. The black and white only devices are easier on your eyes, and far superior if you read outdoors. But books, magazines, cookbooks, comics, etc. that are designed for full-color viewing just don’t come across as well when viewed in black and white – in the same way that laptops and iPads don’t view well in the sun.

Will the device need to take rough handling? Depending on who uses the device, where they take it, and how careful they are, you may need a device that is particularly robust. When reading device reviews, also look for comments about durability and warranty information.

Once you’ve considered the various features and read the reviews, nothing beats actually testing out the options. You’ll likely have to go to a few different stores to get a feel for what “fits” you best, but taking the time to get the right e-book reader will add to your reading enjoyment.