Ebook readers were once derided as a sort of bastard child of technology. Slow, boring, lacking features; many thought they simply didn't have a place. But the key to the world of ebook readers is content: the books, the bestsellers. People still love reading.
Step on any form of public transport these days and you'll probably see someone with a Kindle. While the Amazon Kindle undoubtedly has the highest profile in this family of devices, it isn't the only option out there. So if you want to know what your ebook reader choices are, and what you need to consider before parting with your cash, then read on.
The Basics: Hardware and files
Let's start at the beginning. An ebook reader is a device that will let you read ebooks, that is, books in electronic form. It isn't a tablet, it isn't a games machine, it's the hardware for reading digital books.
There are a number of bespoke file types for ebooks, the most common is epub. There are others, of course, such as the common document format pdf, but epub is, generally speaking, the file you get if you buy a book from an online bookseller like WHSmith or Waterstones. The big exception is Amazon, which uses its own azm format.
When buying a book you'll encounter DRM, or digital rights management, which is essentially copy protection, stopping one person buying a book and then just sharing it. Publishers want to make money, authors want to get paid, so it's understandable that they'll want to protect their work.
Ebook readers typically come with an E Ink display. This is a screen that works on greyscale, i.e., it's black and white, like a printed novel. The technology is very power efficient, leading to a long battery life, but doesn't have a backlight, so you need external light to read in the dark, as you would with a printed book.
The most recent development is front illumination, or frontlit displays. This sticks to the same E Ink technology on the back-end, but adds illumination in an additional layer from the front. This means you can still read the words on the "page" in the dark, without the need for an external light source. The battery life is still very good and saves you resorting it reading on a tablet.
The Amazon Kindle Paperwhite is an example of such a device, but the Kobo Glo and Nook GlowLight both offer a similar experience.
E Ink also has a fairly slow refresh/update rate, so where your tablet LCD will refresh 60 times a second, an E Ink screen may take a second to completely refresh, meaning things like complex animations aren't as effective.
Does this matter? No. The primary function of an ebook reader is to read books and unless you possess some extraordinary reading skills, you'll only need to refresh the screen every couple of minutes once you've finished the page.
Recently, some manufacturers have produced hybrid devices: cheap tablets sold as reading devices, such as the Android-based Kobo Vox. If reading is what you want to do, then a tablet isn't your best option. The battery life and display can't compete with even a cheap ebook reader with an E Ink display when it comes to reading books.
READ: Kobo Vox review
Of course there are any number of arguments for getting a tablet like the iPad or Nexus 7, but if you're planning to lounge by the pool for seven hours soaking up the naughty thrills of E L James, then it isn't a tablet that you want.
3G, Wi-Fi, touch or not?
Other hardware considerations - no matter which device you choose to buy - include the type of connectivity and the method of control.
With connections, the Kindle 3G Whispersync system is very convenient. Your books are synced, subscription content arrives over the air and you can buy new books whenever you want.
The real question is how much you want to do these things. Do you find yourself needing a new book whilst sitting on a train, unable to wait until you get home or back to your hotel? For us, 3G doesn't offer a huge advantage, but if you spend time reading subscription content, like magazines or newspapers, then you might think differently.
When it comes to touch control, it's nice to have but, unlike a smartphone or tablet, there really isn't the need. The only real advantage is navigating menus or selecting books. However, we've found that button controls are often just as fast, so we'd say that button controls and Wi-Fi only should suffice, and save you a few pounds too.
Amazon or not Amazon?
With the Kindle the device on the tip of everybody's tongue, some people probably don't realise that there is another path. The Amazon Kindle is designed to work with Amazon's Kindle Store, with seamless access using your Amazon account.
With all credit to Amazon, it's not surprising that most people don't look elsewhere. They have both the hardware and the content and you rarely find yourself left wanting.
The selection of content, the pricing and simplicity of buying books, makes the Kindle a dream device. Once linked to your Amazon account, you simply browse and buy, and your book is there on the device.
The downside to the Amazon ecosystem is flexibility. Buy a DRM protected book from another online bookseller and you can't read it on your Kindle, for example. Want to borrow a book from your local library (in the UK)? You can't.
In many cases, other devices are much more flexible. Buy a Sony Reader, for example, and you'll be able to move content on to the device with much more freedom. That then gives you a choice of buying options for books, including free borrowing from many UK county libraries.
The downside is that, in many cases, this involves a computer, so you'd have to connect your device to your PC and move the files over. More recently, some devices have started to provide access to online booksellers, such as WHSmith, using a portal on the device or a basic browser window. In these instances, the approach taken by Kobo, on the Kobo eReader, brings the sort of simplicity in which Kindle has really lead the way.
Outside of the Kindle world, there is the chance that things are a little fragmented and bitty. This is the downside to flexibility - you too have to be flexible and that involves a little more technical know-how and a little more time.
Cross-platform syncing: Read on your phone or tablet
Buying into a system, like Amazon, doesn't mean your content is then limited to one device. Amazon has been savvy enough to launch apps on just about every platform, meaning you can read your Kindle books virtually anywhere: iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry, Android, Windows Phone, PC and Mac.
At present there are two systems that we think are worth exploring if you're interested in an ebook reader. The first is Amazon and the second is Kobo. Both offer device-only operation, cross-platform syncing (using apps) and a similar overall experience. With Nook announcing its arrival in the UK we may have another contender, and we'll update once we've fully explored that system.
The added advantage of these systems is that you can buy from any device and access your content on another, and if you really don't want an ebook reader, you can still buy and read on an existing device, like your phone.
Page syncing is one of the best features, so if you read a little on your phone, you can pick up reading on the page you finished on, so long as both devices get connected and synced.
Kobo's advantage is that its hardware supports public library lending in the UK, something that the UK Kindle currently doesn't, so you can get free books to read so long as you're a library member. Kobo also supports other files types, so it can be more dynamic.
Ebook readers have dropped in price over the past few years and the number of manufacturers has expanded. While everyone has an offering, it's clear that some are better than others and we'd always say that getting the content you want is the most important factor.
The Amazon Kindle remains good quality in terms of construction as well as being good value for money and a pleasure to use. The ecosystem has advantages, like page syncing and computer-free use, meaning that Kindle is incredibly simple to live with and probably the best bet when buying for your mum.
The Kobo Reader doesn't quite have the premium feel in the hand that the Kindles do, but the experience is actually closely comparable with syncing through its apps. The hardware isn't restricted, however, so you could add existing books, you can shop around and you can borrow from libraries.
We've always liked Sony Readers, because they are well built and the screens are impressive - both in terms of response and contrast. Sony doesn't quite have the system established that Amazon or Kobo do, although you can buy books from the majority of online retailers to transfer to your device.
You do have a whole world of other devices to choose from, but, those we've mentioned, we consider to offer the best experience and should make your reading experience a happy one.