Books have been the last medium to get with the digital revolution, but that's changing quickly.
E-books made up about nine per cent of total book sales in the United States for 2010, as of the end of August, according to the latest figures from the Association of American Publishers. A year earlier, they comprised only three per cent, which means they're now in major growth mode.
The big driver of this explosion is the availability of devices on which e-books are read. Online seller Amazon got the ball rolling in 2007 when it launched the Kindle, a book-sized electronic device that featured an "e-ink" display — a high-contrast, low-power screen that simulates the look of a printed page.
The Kindle seems to be a hit, with Amazon consistently touting it as its best-selling product, although the company has yet to disclose how many units it has actually sold.
Other electronics manufacturers, desperate to prevent Amazon running away with the e-book market the same way Apple did with digital music downloads, have recently entered the fray with their own devices and online bookstores.
Apple added a new dimension to the competition earlier this year when it launched the iPad, a multi-use tablet computer that also doubles as an e-reader, but with an LCD screen rather than an e-ink display. A number of companies, including Samsung and BlackBerry maker Research In Motion, are now bringing their own similar tablets to market.
The new front in the battle means e-ink readers are coming down in price. Industry analysts believe such lower-cost, single-use readers can compete against multi-use tablets because their displays are easier on the eyes for extended periods of time, and they provide a more dedicated reading experience. E-ink screens can also be read in bright sunlight, a situation that LCD tablets have difficulty with.
With e-ink readers expected to be a hot gift for this year's holiday season, we've taken a look at and compared the three most popular models available in Canada.
Covering the bases
Connection options: 3G, Wi-Fi, USB
Screen size: 6 inches diagonally
Weight: 241 grams
Battery life: 1 month with wireless off
Capacity: 3,500 e-books
Book library: 1.5 million, plus newspapers and magazines
Originally released three years ago, the Kindle is the venerable old man of the current e-reader set. As such, Amazon has a sizeable head start on competitors in experience, which is why the Kindle covers most of the bases.
The newest version of the device, released in July, is about the size of a paperback, with a six-inch screen. It automatically connects to Amazon's e-book store through its built-in "WhisperNet," which runs on the same cellular network as mobile phones. Amazon has worked out deals with cell providers in about 100 countries, so Kindle users don't actually pay anything for downloading e-books wirelessly.
The newest Kindle also has Wi-Fi, and indeed there's a Wi-Fi-only version as well that sells for $139. The 3G version is really only necessary for people who simply can't wait to buy their books, or who find themselves in places where Wi-Fi hot-spots aren't common.
Unlike its competitors, Amazon's device also features a keyboard as well as a thumb pad, which makes searching and navigating the e-book store easy.
Amazon has made its Kindle app available across a broad range of platforms and devices, giving it a reach beyond just its own device. The Kindle app is available for PCs, Macs, Apple's iPod, iPhone and iPad, Android and BlackBerry.
The company touts a "buy once, read everywhere" policy, which means that if you purchase an e-book, you can access it through Amazon's app on the above devices. The app also neatly syncs between them, so if you start reading an e-book on a Kindle, you can put it down and pick up where you left off on your BlackBerry, for example.
Kindle's weakness is that it doesn't support ePub, the free e-book standard set by the International Digital Publishing Forum. Just about every other e-reader does accommodate ePub, the chosen format of libraries, which means that the Kindle is good to purchase books on, but not for borrowing them.
Amazon has just announced that a lending feature will be introduced later this year. Kindle owners will be able to "lend" an e-book to another Kindle owner for a two-week period, during which time they'll be unable to access it themselves. It's a welcome step but still very limited.
New and improved
Connection options: Wi-Fi, USB
Screen size: 6 inches diagonally
Weight: 221 grams
Battery life: 10 days
Capacity: 1,000 e-books
Book library: 2.2 million, plus newspapers and magazines
Kobo, owned by a consortium of companies led by Toronto-based Indigo Books & Music, is a relative newcomer to the market, with its first e-reader released in May. The company has adapted quickly to the fierce e-book competition, with its second, improved Kobo e-reader launched a few weeks ago.
The new Kobo is similar in size and weight to Amazon's latest Kindle, although it has a nice quilted backing that makes it a little more comfortable to hold.
The major improvement over the first device is that the Kobo now has Wi-Fi, so users can buy books without having to connect to their computer. The device includes free access to Bell Canada's 800 public Wi-Fi spots around Canada.
The main navigation tool is a thumb pad on the device's lower right corner, which is easy enough to use but clunky for inputting text.
Like Amazon, Kobo has wisely made an app available for a range of devices. If you buy an e-book on the Kobo e-reader, you can also access it on Apple, Android and BlackBerry devices, as well as on a computer.
The Kobo also features an SD slot for additional storage space, just in case you exceed the 1,000-book limit. Of course, the company gets users off to a good start by preloading the device with 100 classic, out-of-copyright books, such as Pride and Prejudice.
Kobo's e-reader does support ePub and the company touts its interoperability with public libraries.
Books you can feel
Sony Reader Touch Edition
Connection options: USB
Screen size: 6 inches diagonally
Weight: 224 grams
Battery life: 2 weeks
Capacity: 1,200 e-books
Book library: 1 million
Sony's entry in the e-reader war is considerably different than its rivals. In some ways, it's more technologically advanced but in others, it seems lacking.
The Reader's natural advantage is its touch screen, an interface that is fast becoming the norm in all electronics. Indeed, when using the Kobo or Kindle 3G, many people often instinctively try to turn pages by swiping them with their fingers. Unfortunately, the expense of touch technology means a higher price tag.
Some of that higher price can be offset by opting for Sony's Pocket Edition Reader, which has many of the same features as the Touch Edition but also a smaller, five-inch screen. The smaller device sells for $199.
The bonus of either device's touch screen extends beyond just navigation, though. While the Kindle also allows you to input notes onto your text with its keyboard, Sony's Reader lets you do so by drawing right on it with a stylus, which is hidden in the spine of the device.
What the Sony Reader gains in interface, it loses in connectivity. It doesn't have Wi-Fi or 3G, which means the user must first install software on their computer to buy e-books. Purchases are then loaded onto the device through its USB connection. Sony says this isn't a big deal because getting books onto the device only takes a few minutes, but in an age of wireless ubiquity this seems to be an outdated and unnecessary process.
Sony does offer a more expensive Daily Edition Reader, with Wi-Fi and 3G, in the United States for $299 US, but not in Canada.
Like the Kobo, the Reader also has an SD card slot and it accommodates ePub, so it's compatible with library books.
Sony so far lacks the ubiquitous apps of its competitors, but a spokesperson said these are coming for Apple and Android devices in December.