Sunday, April 19, 2009

How to pick out the right e-book

There was a time when only the elite had books and even then what was in them was strictly controlled. Now they are part of the currency of knowledge and not only can you read just about what you want in them they are cheap enough to be disposable, says a BBC feature.

But technology has to get in on the act. A new breed of books is crawling and blinking into the present. Called, almost inevitably, e-books - they are electronic devices that take digital words and put them on a portable screen. A simple enough idea but one that still has the people developing them scratching their collective heads. To help you out, here are a few things you should consider when deciding whether to go for the new tech.

STORAGE First up a statement of the obvious that may help explain the device: a paper book can store precisely one book, whereas an e-book can potentially store hundreds.
It is hard to think of any single stretch of time where you might need to carry so many books - it would have to be a very long plane trip.

But if you finish a book 10 minutes into a four-hour train journey, all you are left with is a piece of dead tree. With an e-book you can just load up the next novel and keep on reading.

FUNCTIONALITY Then there is accessibility to consider. As anyone who wears glasses knows, the text in a book gets smaller and smaller the older you get. One of the big advantages of an e-book is the text size can be increased or decreased at will, making it an attractive proposition for readers with poor eyesight.

Some of these devices have a backlight to allow you to read when there is not much light - for those that want to read a book under the bed covers perhaps? Obviously it will have an effect on battery life but could be the difference between being able to read something or not.
And for people who like to listen to books, Amazon's Kindle 2 has text-to-speech functionality. It is not as good as an audio book, but it is worth a listen.

Many e-books allow you to mark your favourite passages and mark your place without the need to fold down page corners or insert tatty bits of paper between the pages. A particularly nice function to look out for is the facility to instantly look up unfamiliar words and check them in an on-board dictionary.

Always unwilling to let one tech toy fulfil merely one function, some manufacturers are bringing out e-books as tablet computers with wi-fi access and web browsing. Some also play music while you read. Expect this kind of functionality to be improved and expanded in future generations.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR The main points of comparison between e-books are:
• Battery life - measured in turns of the page, unless if powering a backlight, they only draw on battery power when the display changes.
• Battery access - some allow you to switch batteries if one runs out. Others have the batteries sealed inside, and need to be plugged in to charge.
• Size and weight - this varies a lot, but one fact is clear: all e-books are smaller and lighter than the complete Lord of the Rings in hardback.
• Readability - size and type of screen is a big factor, always see the screen of the device you want before you pay money for it.
• Storage space - many have slots for memory cards, but some do not. So the more books you want at one time, the more storage you need.
• Supported e-book formats - PDF, Word docs, etc. The more the merrier.
If you have ever had trouble swapping a piece of software from one device to another, then expect similar headaches with some e-books.
The Kindle, for instance, only supports its own native format and converts others into its own before showing content.

THE BOTTOM LINE Books never run out of batteries. They are normally light and small, and cheaper than an e-book, which will normally set you back between £169-£203 ($250 and $300), and have pretty pictures on the cover. But a book will not magically morph from a Tolstoy into a Tolkien, and they definitely will not play tunes to you.

As long as the tactile experience of paper is not that important to you, e-books are everything you want from a book and more. But it is still early days. Formats are being sorted out, e-book stores still use proprietary formats and swapping is difficult - it is the early days of MP3 players all over again.

So as always try out your buy. Make sure the screen is readable, and see what formats it uses before you part with money. Or you could end up with little more than an expensive bookend.

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