E-reader roundup: 8 devices compete for the crown

We look at the current state of the market and review 8 of the most popular e-readers

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Do you own your e-book?

Buy a print book, and it's yours forever, to keep, give away or sell to whomever you wish. Most e-books, however, are saddled with what is known as DRM, or digital rights management. This witch's brew of legalese is heavily slanted toward the publisher rather than the book buyer and essentially says that you own the right to read the book, period. It's not yours to lend, sell or give away.

The exception is Barnes & Noble's loan capability, which lets you loan a specific e-book to a friend with a compatible e-reader device one time only, and for no more than 14 days. While it's out, you can't simultaneously read it on your Nook, and when it's returned at the end of two weeks, you can't loan it out again.

Tablets vs. e-readers vs. print books

Although sales of e-readers are going gangbusters, some industry pundits are already speculating that the iPad and other tablets could kill off e-readers entirely. Tablets incorporate e-reader functionality and connection to electronic bookstores, but they're multipurpose devices that can also be used as computers, personal multimedia centers, Web browsers, communications devices or anything else that tens of thousands of apps can open up. However, other experts say that those who do a lot of reading will stick with the more lightweight, easier-on-the-eyes e-readers.

And printed books? Back in the early 1990s, the first crop of digital cameras debuted to an indifferent public, who were quite unimpressed with their high prices, terrible performance and awful image quality. These days, however, digital cameras are ubiquitous and film cameras virtually extinct. Similarly, most publishing experts predict that paper-and-ink books -- as well as physical newspapers and magazines -- will ultimately go the way of the dodo.

But along the way to book extinction, there will be a continual shakeout in the e-reader industry as overpriced, poorly designed or underpowered devices succumb to buyer apathy, while better, less expensive e-readers continue to flood the market.

It's an exciting era for the publishing industry, and a great time for readers everywhere.

Comparing e-readers

Including privately branded devices and Asian knockoffs, there are probably more than a score of e-readers currently on the American market. For this roundup, we focused on currently shipping, readily available models, most by mainstream vendors. These include the Alex, jetBook Lite, iPad, Kindle, Kobo, Libre eBook Reader Pro, Nook and Pandigital Novel.

Because of deadline pressures, we could not include a number of e-readers scheduled or rumored for imminent third- or fourth-quarter release, including devices from Velocity Micro, Asus, Acer, Sharp, Sony and Copia. (Check back for future Computerworld coverage.)

How we tested

To put our collection of e-readers through their paces, we downloaded one of the great works of Western literature that we've somehow never found time to read: Leo Tolstoy's monumental novel War and Peace. Since it is in the public domain, downloads are free (except for the $2.99 we paid to secure a version from Sony's library, which turned out to be Volume II and not the entire work).

For 3G or Wi-Fi-equipped devices, we downloaded the book directly from each e-reader's linked bookstore in each device's native format. For e-readers that were directly associated with online bookstores, we first downloaded the novel to a PC (in ePub format) from a third-party Web site like Project Gutenberg or epubBooks, then transferred it to the device via a USB cable. In some instances, we also purchased and downloaded a few best-sellers and other for-sale works. We took note of how painless or tedious the purchase and download process was for each device.

Then, we read. We noted how we enjoyed or disliked the reading experience, checking and comparing variables such as weight, balance and control, layout, how well the unit fit in our hands, bootup speed, how simple it was to navigate around the library, the ease in turning pages or skipping to the next chapter, using the keyboard to input notes or surf the Web, looking up words in its dictionary, changing settings, and other features such as text-to-speed, MP3, free books provided and so on. We also evaluated the quality of each display and how legible the text was.

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