The iPad, the Kindle, and the Immutable Laws of the Marketplace

A culling of the herd of book e-readers is already under way, as prices plummet

Photo: Randi Silberman Klett

This article was modified on 1 October 2010.

If you've considered buying an e-reader but haven't yet taken the plunge, there's no longer a need to wait. It's only been three years since Amazon jump-started the market with its Kindle [above], but the technology has improved greatly since then. And as this summer's price wars in the United States carry over to the holiday season and the rest of the world, e-readers are finally ready for a mainstream audience.

Back in January, at the annual Consumer Electronics Show, it seemed like every company wanted to ride in the wake of Amazon's success. Although the many e-readers introduced there all shared the same E Ink screen technology, each offered its own combination of trade-offs, and it seemed as if there might be a different ideal e-reader for each user. But after months of wild proliferation, the list of viable e-reader manufacturers is now shrinking, even as the market expands.

It's largely a matter of price. When the Apple's iPad hit the market in an explosion of hype and hysteria for just US $500, it suddenly seemed ludicrous that anyone would pay more for a dedicated reader with a monochrome display. To stay viable, manufacturers needed to slash their e-reader prices. At the end of June, the Barnes & Noble Nook went from $259 to $149 for a Wi-Fi version ($199 for the 3G model). Amazon countered by announcing that the next version of the Kindle would start at $139.

The price drops are partly due to more sophisticated chip sets that integrate the applications processor and the display controller, and partly due to scale: Reportedly, large manufacturers have reached quotas that qualify them for discounts. But both Barnes & Noble and Amazon have the added advantage of being in the book business. Just as Microsoft lost money on Xboxes and made it up in game sales, these two booksellers can survive, and thrive, even if they have to offer their hardware below cost.

In fact, the race to control the biggest slice of the e-book-buying public may bring even greater price cuts. It's not hard to imagine a future where you get an e-reader free with a pledge to buy a book every month.

But now is still the time to buy. The current Kindle and Nook greatly improve on their initial designs. Our recommendation is to stick with one of these major models, if only for their vast, easy-to-use bookstores. The convenience of shopping for books directly on your device only becomes clear when you're forced to try the frustrating alternative. The IEEE Spectrum staff generally prefers the Kindle, finding the Nook's separate navigation screen an inefficient use of space and a little too easy to activate unintentionally.

And what about Sony, the company that pioneered the e-reader? Although many Spectrum readers have vouched their love for the Sony e-readers in online comments, it's hard to recommend them now. Sony has announced a new line of readers but says it doesn't intend to compete on price. In this market, that's a lot like giving up.

To the extent that the price wars remain limited to the United States, there's still room for lesser-known companies. PocketBook's tiny, stripped-down e-reader made a positive impression on Spectrum testers, and the company currently has a commanding hold on the Russian market.

The next big change for e-readers will be the addition of color displays that can be viewed in direct sunlight. But don't let that keep your wallet in your pocket: Mass production of color displays has only recently begun, so there's plenty of time to enjoy a black-and-white e-reader that doesn't break the bank.

A version of this article appeared on IEEE Spectrum Online in August.


Amazon Kindle   Apple iPad   Barnes & Noble Nook
Astak EZ Reader   Bookeen Cybook Opus   Hanvon WISEreader N518
PocketBook 360   PocketBook 301   Spring design Alex


Amazon Kindle 2 (discontinued)
http://www.amazon.com/Kindle-Wireless-Reader-3G-Wifi-Graphite/dp/B002FQJT3Q
Price: US $259
Size: 20 x 13 centimeters (8 x 5.3 inches)
Weight: 290 grams (10 ounces)
Display: E Ink; 6-in., B&W
Major reading formats: AZW, MOBI, PDF, PRC, TXT
Best features: Vast Amazon bookstore; lets you start a book on the Kindle and finish it on the desktop, iPad, or smartphone.
Worst feature: Poor hyphenation; heavy; screen refresh is not instantaneous.
Overall score: 72
Overall rank: 4
Value rank: 2

Comments: I went from "Huh, this is pretty cool," to "I WANT ONE" in about two hours. I seriously do not want to part with this device. —S.A.
As a device that was supposed to be the ultimate e-book reading experience, the Kindle left me underwhelmed. —E.G.
The QWERTY keyboard is a tactile nightmare. And the Kindle store search function is surprisingly awful. —J.J.R.


apple ipadApple iPad
http://store.apple.com/us/browse/home/shop_ipad/family/ipad
Price: $500 and up
Size: 24 x 19 cm (9.5 x 7.5 in.)
Weight: 680 grams (24 oz.)
Display: LED; 9.7 in., color, backlit, touch screen
Major reading formats: DOC, ePub, HTML, PDF, TXT
Best features: Battery life, even while streaming media; easy media download. It’s an iPad.
Worst features: Heavy; can’t be held in one hand; glare in sunlight; other features distracting; screen smears.
Overall Score: 83
Rank: 1
Value rank: 6
Comments: Beautifully designed and a pleasure to use. —E.G.
Love it. —B.P.
I wanted to use it for anything other than an e-reader… mostly watching video or checking out apps. —R.S.K.
Portability sucked! —S.A.


Amazon Kindle   Apple iPad   Barnes & Noble Nook
Astak EZ Reader   Bookeen Cybook Opus   Hanvon WISEreader N518
PocketBook 360   PocketBook 301   Spring design Alex

astak ez readerAstak EZ Reader
http://www.theezreader.com/
Price: $199
Size: 15 x 10 cm (6 x 4.1 in.)
Weight: 170 grams (6 oz.)
Display: E Ink; 5 in., B&W
Major reading formats: DOC, ePub, FB2, HTML, PDB, PDF, PRC/MOBI, TXT
Best feature: The only silent page-turning button of all the devices tested.
Worst features: Navigation relies on numbered menus; controls not self-explanatory; user manual long and convoluted.
Overall Score: 28
Rank: 8
Value rank: 8
Comments: There’s nothing as effortless as the toggle on the Astak EZ Reader. —J.K.
Hated it. My first impression was bad and it never improved. —T.S.P.
It wasn’t a dream, but I still got sucked into my book and enjoyed using it. —S.U.


B&N nookBarnes & Noble Nook
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/nook/index.asp
Price:
$149 and up
Size: 20 x 13 cm (7.7 x 5 in.)
Weight: 330 grams (11.6 oz.)
Display: Primary—E Ink; 6 in., B&W. Secondary—LCD; 3.5 in., color, touch screen
Major reading formats: ePUB, PDB, PDF
Best features: Double screen control, loads on the go; access to Barnes & Noble library, but supports ePub and other free e-book formats; easy to hold with one hand.
Worst features: Touch screen often accidentally activated during reading; search function clumsy; data transfer slow.
Overall Score: 75
Rank: 2
Value rank: 1
Comments: Sleek and easy to hold, intuitive even for a first-time e-reader user. My favorite of all the devices I tried. —A.M.C.
Starting this thing up is so incredibly slow it made me want to put it back in the box and return it. —E.G.
The screen-saver artwork of famous writers was kind of creepy when staring up at you from the coffee table. —R.S.K.


bookeen cybook opusBookeen Cybook Opus
http://www.bookeen.com/en/cybook/?id=1
Price:
$199
Size: 11 x 15 cm (4.2 x 6 in.)
Weight: 150 grams (5.3 oz.)
Display: E Ink; 5 in., B&W
Major reading formats: ePub, FB2, HTML, PDF, TXT
Best features: Lightweight; easy to carry.
Worst features: Can’t download on the go; orientation changes spotty.
Overall Score: 44
Rank: 5
Value rank: 3
Comments: Finally, an e-reader that really is the size of a paperback. —S.A.
Great, tiny form factor; would take everywhere, but limited support for formats. —J.J.R.
The accelerometer wasn’t particularly good at adjusting to orientation changes, but then again, neither is the iPhone’s. —S.U.


hanvon wise reader n518Hanvon WISEreader N518
http://www.hanvon.com/en/products/ebook/products-N518.html
Price:
$269
Size: 15 x 11 cm (6 x 4.3 in.)
Weight: 190 grams (6.7 oz.)
Display: E Ink; 5 in., B&W, touch screen
Major reading formats: DOC, ePUB, HTML, PDF, TXT
Best features: Stylus allows handwritten annotations; memory card slot.
Worst features: Too many buttons; navigation is by numbered menus; authors aren’t displayed with titles; needs a reset button.
Overall Score: 20
Rank: 9
Value rank: 9
Comments: 22 buttons? Really?! And the stylus pen only makes it more annoying trying to navigate. —E.G.
Too many buttons + touch screen = disaster. Input overkill. —J.J.R.
The way the library is organized is counterintuitive. —S.U.


Amazon Kindle   Apple iPad   Barnes & Noble Nook
Astak EZ Reader   Bookeen Cybook Opus   Hanvon WISEreader N518
PocketBook 360   PocketBook 301   Spring design Alex

pocketbook 360PocketBook 360
http://www.pocketbookreader.com/PocketBook_360.html
Price:
$200
Size: 12 x 14 cm (4.6 x 5.5 in.)
Weight: 150 grams (5.3 oz.)
Display: E Ink; 5 in., B&W
Major reading formats: DOC, ePub, FB2, HTML, PDF, PRC, RTF, TXT
Best features: Five-direction joystick works well with onscreen menus; supports nearly every e-book format available; lots of text display and navigation options; small, light.
Worst features: Removable plastic cover easy to lose; page-turn buttons stiff and loud; software buggy; looks like a chintzy accessory for a tween.
Overall Score: 30
Rank: 7
Value rank: 4
Comments: Surprisingly easy to use, can hold it in either hand, in any direction, and control everything with your thumb. Great for long reading sessions. It would sell like hotcakes at $100. —J.J.R.
Glorified throwaway toy at best. Product is not marketable except perhaps as a happy meal giveaway. —M.M.
I ended up really liking this device after I spent some time with it; it really grew on me. —T.S.P.


pocketbook 301PocketBook 301
http://www.pocketbookreader.com/PocketBook_301.html
Price:
$220
Size: 12 x 19 cm (4.7 x 7.4 in.)
Weight: 173 grams (6.1 oz.)
Display: E Ink; 6 in., B&W
Major reading formats: DOC, ePub, FB2, HTML, PDF, PRC, RTF, TXT
Best features: Can choose orientation, horizontal or vertical; can read books in English or Russian.
Worst features: Hard to read PDFs and laid-out magazine pages
Overall Score: 32
Rank: 6
Value rank: 5
Comments: I liked the larger screen and the five-button navigation. And it was easy to move back and forth between menu and book. —A.M.C.
Reading a PDF was hopeless. —E.G.
Often seems to freeze up. —P.E.R.
The manual had many grammatical mistakes. —R.A.


spring design alexSpring Design Alex
www.springdesign.com/us/index.action
Price:
$400
Size: 23 x 12 cm (9 x 4.7 in.)
Weight: 312 grams (11 oz.)
Display: Primary—E Ink; 6 in., B&W display. Secondary—LCD; 3.5 in., color, touch screen
Major reading formats: ePUB, HTML, PDF
Best features: Based on Google Android platform; tall, thin design is easy to hold; LCD touch screen allows easy navigation while still having the page open on the E Ink screen; can sync to E Ink screen; YouTube and Web browser available
Worst features: Needs a better bookstore (deal with Borders reportedly coming soon); long time to power on
Overall Score: 75
Rank: 2
Value rank: 7
Comments: The Alex has a lot of promise as a multidevice that’s primarily an e-reader. But I felt like I was reviewing the Alex before it was ready for me! —R.S.K.
Feels less like a book and more like an Android smartphone. —A.M.C.


The Testers
Sally Adee
Ruchika Anand
Steven Cherry
Anne-Marie Corley
Erico Guizzo
Harry Goldstein
Randi Silberman Klett
Michele Kogon
Jean Kumagai
Mark Montgomery
Brandon Palacio
Tekla S. Perry
Joshua J. Romeo
Philip E. Ross
Sandra Upson


Amazon Kindle   Apple iPad   Barnes & Noble Nook
Astak EZ Reader   Bookeen Cybook Opus   Hanvon WISEreader N518
PocketBook 360   PocketBook 301   Spring design Alex

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