A reader wrote in asking for an update on how best to read eBooks these days. A Kindle? A Kindle Fire? Some other sort of tablet? A Nook? Or what?
It is true that these days we are blessed with many low-cost and convenient ways of reading eBooks, so perhaps the first answer to the question is that there is no really bad way to read your eBooks. But, of course, some ways are better than others.
A lot depends if you already have a tablet or not. If you do, then it is easy and simple to load Amazon’s Kindle reading app onto the tablet, or, for that matter, you can load and use other eBook apps too.
But maybe it also makes sense to buy a separate eBook reader.
If you don’t yet have a tablet, you should consider whether you want ‘just’ an eBook reader or if you want to spend some more money and get a more broadly useful tablet that will read eBooks and do many other things too.
Tablet, eBook reader, or Both?
Most dedicated eBook readers use a special type of eInk screen. This has the benefit of using very little power, giving the eBook reader a very long battery life, but has the disadvantage of being only black and white (well, it supports some grey colors too) and usually has a lower screen resolution than a tablet screen, which is also more likely to be in color.
Regular eBook readers are smaller and lighter than most tablets. They tend to have a 6″ diagonal screen, and weigh 6 – 7 ounces. An iPad, in comparison, has either a 7.9″ or a 9.7″ screen, and weighs 12 – 16 ounces.
Whereas with a tablet, there is sort of a valid sense that the larger the screen, the better, that is not the case with an eBook reader. You simply need enough to read across a typical ‘page width’ of a typical eBook, and even a 6″ diagonal screen is plenty wide enough for that.
The difference in weight between the units – little more than the weight of a stick of butter – might not seem important, but when you’re holding one of these units for an extended time, it is amazing how heavy they end up. You will definitely appreciate the lighter weight of an eReader over a tablet, and their slimmer/smaller size make them easier to stick in a bag to take with you, wherever you go.
If you mainly read novels, then the black and white screen on an eReader is all you need. But if you enjoy reading books with color photos/illustrations, then a tablet allows these books to come much more to life on its color screen.
We read our eBooks on both tablets and eReaders. Generally we use an eReader when traveling long-distance, due to the longer battery life we get from an eReader. But if we only need half a dozen or so hours of reading, then we’ll use our tablet.
In terms of reading experience, we don’t see a great deal of difference between the two different screen types. Both work perfectly well.
Phone Option Too
There’s another consideration that has increasingly become relevant. As smartphone screen sizes have increased, it has become more and more practical to consider reading eBooks on your phone’s screen. We’ve read an entire lengthy Dan Brown novel on an old 3.5″ iPhone 3 screen, and while we were turning pages a lot, it was a perfectly acceptable experience, and with larger screens holding more than twice as much text, and higher pixel counts making for cleaner clearer text, these days most modern smartphones give an excellent reading experience.
The only appreciable negative factor here is that you might be using up precious battery life that you otherwise need for other phone usage prior to getting to a recharge point. But even that’s not a problem without a convenient solution – simply keep an external rechargeable battery booster pack with you, like either the the $40 or $20 Anker batteries we review here ($40 12,000 mAh model) and here ($20 6,000 mAh model).
Choosing a Tablet
One comment if you are going to buy a tablet to do double duty as both an eBook reader and a regular multi-purpose tablet.
We would suggest you do not consider getting an Amazon Kindle Fire tablet. It uses a restricted subset of Android and does not allow you access to all Android programs, including restricting you from accessing other eBook reading programs.
Instead, you should choose either an iPad model or a regular Android tablet. The two things we suggest you watch out for (as well as price) are pixel density on the screen and battery life. The more pixels per inch the better – look for ideally 250 ppi or greater (some go as high as 350 ppi) and don’t accept anything less than 200 ppi. This ensures you get clean crisp readable fonts.
As for battery life, obviously the longer the better. If you can get 10+ hours out of a charge, then you’re doing well.
If you already have an iPhone, it makes sense to get an iPad; if you already have an Android phone, maybe it is sensible to get an Android tablet, too.
Choosing an eBook Reader
Amazon has three models of Kindle eReader these days. The lowest price model does not have a backlight for the screen, the other two models do. The top of the line Voyage model has a better resolution screen than the middle of the line Paperwhite, and the Paperwhite in turn is better than the standard Kindle. Essentially, you can simply choose between them on price – $79 for entry level, $119 for the Paperwhite and $199 for the Voyage.
We’d advocate spending the $40 extra to go from a regular Kindle to a Paperwhite, spending another $80 to upgrade further to the Voyage doesn’t bring nearly as much extra benefit and improved reading experience as does the upgrade from standard Kindle to Paperwhite, but if the extra $80 isn’t prohibitive, you will notice a slightly nicer screen and reading experience with the Voyage.
In all cases, you pay $20 more if you get a unit ‘without special offers’. The special offers are ads that only appear on the reader’s home screen when it is turned off – they absolutely don’t get in the way of your reading experience, and sometimes they’re interesting good deals you might want to take advantage of. Save the $20 and get a unit with the special offers.
The Paperwhite and Voyage also have a model that supports free wireless data connectivity as well as Wi-Fi. You really don’t need this option, and it costs an extra $70. Stick to the regular Wi-Fi unit.
Backlighting – Yes or No?
The entry level Kindle has no backlighting, the other two do. Do you need backlighting?
The e-Ink screen used by all Kindle eReaders are a bit like original LCD displays – they need ambient light to work, and unlike modern computer screens, the more ambient light, the better they work.
But, the other side of the coin also applies. The weaker the ambient light, the less well that e-Ink screens can be read. In weaker light, some backlighting is a benefit, and in near darkness, it is essential.
The backlighting serves another purpose, too. It increases the contrast on the screen – without the backlighting, the screen shows dark grey type against a light grey background; with the hard white backlight, the type becomes blacker and the background whiter.
For that reason, I always have a small amount of backlighting on, ‘whether I need it or not’. It makes everything more readable.
Note that the backlighting uses up your battery, so set it as low as you’re comfortable with.
To answer the question – we definitely endorse backlighting. It is well worth the extra $40 to upgrade from the regular Kindle to the Paperwhite Kindle.
Other eReading Software and Products
Barnes & Noble mounted a valiant challenge to Amazon’s supremacy in the eBook marketplace, but failed. Its Nook range of eReaders were good, but Amazon’s marketing goliath vanquished B&N.
If you think you might want to buy eBooks from B&N instead of or as well as from Amazon, we suggest you buy a regular tablet and download their free eReading software.
There’s an ‘all you can read’ service – Oyster – that is an interesting product for avid book readers. It can run on most tablets, too, and for $10/month you get to read as many books each month as you can, with over a million titles to choose from. It is a similar concept to Netflix, but for books rather than video.
Amazon has a competing service – Kindle Unlimited – at the same $10/month price and with a slightly smaller library of titles to read.
There’s another service we love – Bookbub. This sends you daily emails with featured eBooks at very reduced prices, sometimes even being given away totally for free. The service is free, and you should sign up for it. We wrote about it (and other ways to get low priced or free eBooks) in this article, a year ago.
When we travel, we have both an Amazon Paperwhite eBook reader and an iPad Air, and we read books variously on the Paperwhite, the iPad, and sometimes also on our iPhone.
We bought the Paperwhite before the Voyage came out. Next time we replace our dedicated eReader, we’ll get a new Voyage, but we’re not in a rush to do so currently, because the Paperwhite is perfectly good too.