What Kind of Digital Paper?

Last week, we discussed whether you should let children read ebooks (short answer: yes). If you decide to get an e-reader, either for a child or for yourself, there is a daunting selection available. I am going to break down what I think are the key items to keep in mind.

Full disclosure: I own and love my Amazon Kindle. Keep that bias in mind and take everything I say with the appropriate amount of salt.

Screen type

The first thing to consider is your screen, of which there are two kinds: LCD and E-ink. 90% of all screens you see are LCD. Your laptop, your tv, your phone. These are back-lit, bright, colorful and beautiful screens with high refresh rates. They also more easily cause eye strain and fatigue and require massive battery power.

E-ink are the opposite in almost all ways: primary b&w, low refresh, no self illumination. Their advantage is two fold: low power consumption and limited to no eye strain.

This comes down to what you want out of the device. For children, based on screen alone, I would lean toward something with E-ink. The longer battery life allows the device to go a lot longer without charging. The static nature of the screen reduces eye strain, making it easier to read for long periods of time. E-ink is much closer to the page of a paper book.

Content

The next option to explore is content. What is available for your device and how easy is it to add new things.

For example:
B&N has around 26,000 titles
Sony has about 60,000.
Apple iBook contains 150,000.
The Kindle store has over 800,00 titles .

Of course, this is just the overall. You will want to take a close look at the kinds of books you read, and how much of that is available. In the Kindle store, there are 37,000 labeled as children ebooks. Different stores have different distributions of genres.

On a similar note, you can generally add your own content to devices. The ease of that depends on the device. The Kindle connects via USB and appears as a flash drive on your computer. The iPad/iPhone iBook app is loaded just like music is from iTunes. Most readers can read your own text files, pdfs, certain DRM-free ebook formats, etc. Checking your own flexibility to add books can greatly expand your content. There is lots of free public domain content out there to keep you reading for years without paying a cent. Make sure you can access it before committing.

Where can I read?

You also must consider how and where you can view the content. If you buy an eBook, what places can you read it? The general answer for most readers is simple: only on that device. If the device breaks, you have to replace it to access your content. But that is changing.

Kindle books can be read on the Kindle itself, any iOS device, Android phones, Blackberries, PC, and Mac. The Nook covers a similar list, but no Blackberry. iBook is limited to just iOS devices. So you have different options of continuing your reading from device to device. The importance of this feature is tied to how many of these devices you have.

Syncing abilities are also variable. Kindle apps sync to the cloud and will remember where I am in the book, and push that to my other devices. No matter where I open it up, I will be at the same page. Definitely a feature to look for if you plan on using multiple devices.

A few odds and ends:

Pictures. Good pictures are a key part of children’s books. All devices can show pictures, but a color LCD has much more vibrant photos. E-ink does do them; but they are BW and low resolution. This is not to say they don’t work: I have actually read part of a Curious George book with a three year old, low-res photos and all. But they are definitely not as nice.

Cost. E-readers have a whole range of costs. The beautiful iPad is a great way to read books, combined with a huge array of other features. But the cheapest version is $499. Compare that to the $139 Kindle, and maybe those color photos aren’t as nice. Also, when it gets dropped (and kids will drop it) how much will it cost to replace?

Easy of use. Each device has its own methods of input: buttons, stylus, touch screen, etc. Especially with children, but true for everyone, how easy it is to use the device will affect the amount read. Take in to account size too. A device that is too big or heavy will be hard for small people to handle.

Other purposes. For all I love my Kindle, it has one major drawback: it only reads ebooks. On the opposite end is the Apple iPad. It does music, video, surfs the web, plays games, etc. Hauling around several single purpose devices might make less sense than one device to replace them all.

Longevity. Be careful who you hitch your wagon to. You do not want to pick a device where all support for it vanishes tomorrow. Look at who is making it, what their past track record has been, and what their future prospects are. For example, despite its low price, I would not buy the Borders backed Kobo e-reader. Borders as a company is simply too unstable, and support for elaborate tech devices be first on the cutting block.

In Closing

One last piece of advice: get your hands on whatever reader you want to buy and try it out. If you can, borrow one from a friend for an hour, an afternoon, a week, whatever and see how it works for you. Being with the device in person, and watching your child interact with it, will tell you more than anything I have said here. But if you have any questions, feel free to leave them below, and I will try to get you answers.

Good luck and keep reading.

-That is all.

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