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|