What is it?

eBook reader, stands for electronic book reader. These are electronic devices with fairly simple screens for reading eBooks which are effectively just documents in known file formats for the eBook reader, such as pdf, text or other propriety bespoke formats.

These devices are lightweight handhelds that can support multiple books, whilst having an extremely long battery life. A variety of manufacturers already have a decent range of these products, from the likes of Sony and Amazon.

What are the variations of the technology?

The only real variations around today are within the screen sizes, what the device supports in terms of file formats and what books are actually accompanied on the product when they ship.

The screen sizes can vary to almost an A4 form factor, down to just an A5 looking display. The choice of device is all really dependent on what the user is comfortable reading for a length of time.

Getting eBooks on to these readers can be done via the ports they have built in, most of them come with a USB socket as standard. Also commonly seen are memory card slots, for housing additional eBooks, their numbers being well into the hundreds or thousands. These in turn usually support multiple flash card formats, although SD cards are usually favoured.

Most of the current ranges of eBook readers have screens that are only monochrome, primarily due to the reason that colour is unnecessary within these devices.

Why should I care?

For one, many books can be housed within these units using the standard memory onboard – up to 1000s in some cases.

Other benefits of eBook readers are that text or specific words can be searched within seconds, as compared to thumbing through a book for hours for a certain passage or text.

There’s also the advantage that the text size can be increased, catering for all reading abilities like larger print for the poorly eye sighted.

A lot of eBook readers have backlights or feature settings for reading at night, ideal for the electricity-conscious late night reader who doesn't want to use additional lighting.

Book marking passages of text can also be added to an eBook or the reader can even recall the last page read, allowing users to open the eBook next time automatically at where the reader left off.

eBooks can be obtained online from various trusted places, from the likes of Amazon and Waterstones to even purpose-built websites such as Project Gutenberg with many free books on offer.

There’s also the added advantage of using some of these devices as a tablet computer, as it’s also possible to write on some of these screens with their character recognition features to turn entries straight into editable text.

What's a good example in practice?

There are numerous eBook readers on the market today, all from well known established companies most of which have devices that run Linux for its versatility and low cost as a platform.

Sony has a range of devices, with clear and distinct viewable text from their paper like E-Ink technology. It’s capable of holding in its memory by default, over 160 eBooks with a long battery life of 7500 page turns without needing to recharge. The current PRS-505S ships with 100 free books, along with the ability to play music at the same time.

Another known company in the field of eBook readers is iRex Technologies. This company has a number of eBook readers, with the most recent versions going under the moniker of the "Digital Reader" and has Wi-Fi onboard. Besides being able to hold over 1000 eBooks, its 10.2-inch screen can be used to write upon as it has an integrated Wacom tablet.

One of the more popular eBook readers is Amazon’s Kindle, which has now of late reached its second generation. It’s currently predominantly available in the USA, although the demand seems to be high worldwide.

Is there a competing technology that I should be aware of?

Of course, there are the physical books themselves which will always be popular. There is also the software equivalent of eBook readers, with quite a few versions seen around catering for all tastes and devices.

Mobipocket is a popular software eBook reader, with support for many mobile phone operating systems. Most phones can be used to read eBooks, whilst the software also allows webpages and many documents to be turned into an eBook with its publisher add-on.

What is in store for the future?

Several new aspects are hoping to be seen more often in upcoming versions of the eBook readers, from the likes of tie-in publication houses, support for more file formats down to Wi-Fi and better connection options.

There already are devices around with Wi-Fi from companies such as iRex, which offer the likes of browsing online albeit in a monochrome format. Recently we saw one of their devices on an Orange trail with access to their 3G dongles, all ready for mobile viewing of news websites whilst away from a fixed location which could be another path for eBook readers to go down.

Of course there’s the hope that Amazon’s own eBook reader will become available elsewhere in the world.