Not so long ago, anyone reaching for an e-book reader on the Prague metro would feel themselves the uncomfortable focus of attention of their fellow passengers. Now all that is changing, as a gadget that used to excite mild curiosity has become almost as common a travelling-companion as a mobile phone. And although an e-reader may not offer the comfortable dog-eared companionship of a well-worn paperback, there’s no doubting the advantage of being able to carry hundreds of your favourite books with you everywhere in one slim unit.
Most e-readers are linked wirelessly to a proprietary bookstore, where you can download new titles for a price similar to what you would pay for the print edition. A word of warning, however. With the exception of the Kindle and the iPad, purchases of new books direct from an e-reader are frequently limited or impossible in Europe, owing to copyright legislation. If you are using your reader as a repository for existing purchases, this is not a problem, of course; moreover, free e-books (often classics in the universal ePUB format) can be uploaded from a PC or Mac for use on most readers.
Books appear on a high-contrast screen, which can easily be read in daylight; and most importantly of all, e-readers offer much longer battery life than a phone or tablet computer, so you can use them for one to two months without re-charging them – even with the screen and WiFi left on. However, there are so many different makes and types of e-readers now available that it’s increasingly hard to know which one is best for you. In this review, we take a look at the latest versions available in the Czech and international marketplace and offer our suggestions for a best buy. Prices quoted are the cheapest current online buys, and include tax.
1) Amazon Kindle family
The granddaddy of them all, the Kindle has been through multiple iterations, each smaller and more handbaggable as well as quicker and simpler to use. There are three current models of this standalone reader. The Kindle 3 (4649 CZK from Alza) has a full physical keyboard directly below the 6-inch screen, enabling users to type notes, perform text-based searches, or browse the internet (though an e-reader is not the ideal gadget on which to do so). It has 3G connectivity, which makes free use of the mobile phone networks when WiFi is unavailable, and a two-month battery life. Both of these features make this a good buy for business users on the move; however, given that it is based on an earlier design, the Kindle 3 is still surprisingly pricey.
In its immediate successor, the much lighter, slimmer and cheaper Kindle 4 (2887 CZK from Alza) the physical keyboard is replaced by an onscreen version, controlled with a D-pad multidirectional button. Page turns are achieved, as in the Kindle 3, by clicking side-mounted back and forward buttons. Like its predecessor, the Kindle 4 has a power-saving 6-inch e-ink screen, but much improved: it is more responsive and tends not to ‘flash’ between page-turns. Although less expensive by far than its siblings, buyers should be aware of three potential drawbacks: there is no 3G, which makes it far less adaptable when on the move; there is no audio out, so those hoping to listen to audiobooks or MP3s on this version will be disappointed; and the battery life is considerably shorter at only one month.
The Kindle Touch (3485 CZK from Alza) is more expensive than the Kindle 4, but currently retails for less than the Kindle 3. The most advanced of Amazon’s offerings, all physical buttons are replaced with a touch interface of the kind we are used to seeing on tablets and smartphones, though it is a little less responsive than those devices. Pages are turned by swiping a finger to left or right rather than pressing a physical button. Like the Kindle 3, the Touch comes in WiFi and 3G versions, and also reinstates the audio jack which is missing on the budget Kindle 4.
For those who prefer a larger reading area, possibly for newspaper formats or for web-browsing, the Kindle DX (10,389 CZK from Datart) boasts a large-format 9.7 inch e-ink screen (the same dimensions as that of the iPad). While this has to be weighed against a much shorter battery life and a high price-tag, it’s very much the Kindle of choice for professional users.
Finally, although not yet available in the Czech Republic, the Kindle Fire (geddit?) has emerged as one of the frontrunners in the battle to take over the mantle of the iPad. With a seven-inch color screen and the ability to run mobile apps as well as streaming film, video, and music, this is more a full-blown tablet than a simple e-reader, and is gaining a big market share because of its comparatively low price (under $200 in the US). Like the Kindle 4, there is no 3G version, so users must have WiFi in order to be able to access bookstores and apps.
The Kindle Bookstore has 750,000 titles, including popular and classic titles, newspapers and magazines, all of which are available at the press of a button. Free 3G downloads are available across most of Europe, including Prague; in rural areas of the Czech Republic, however, readers must expect slower downloads on the inferior Edge network.
2) Apple iPad
Unlike the Amazon Kindle, the iPad 2 (from 11,500 CZK from Alza or Datart) is a fully-equipped tablet device which sits somewhere between the functionality of a smartphone and a laptop. With its impressive screen and touch abilities, it presents a very different reading experience than does its e-ink equivalent. Firstly, the screen is backlit, making it much easier to read in low-light conditions. Secondly, advancing through the book is highly intuitive, with animated page-flips and ultra-smooth scrolling at all times. While changing font size is a fiddly business on most standalone e-readers, the iPad does so with ease using its famous pinch-and-zoom gesturing system. This makes it a particularly good buy for those (like your reviewer) whose vision is not what it was.
The Apple iBookstore has hundreds of thousands of titles for sale through its iTunes store, where content has been available since September 2011. About 30,000 of them are free classics from Project Gutenberg: more than enough to be going on with, you would think. However, if a title is not available, there are ways to share books with alternative devices. For example. Kindle-bought books can be viewed on an iPad via a free app, and some iBookstore titles can be transferred to the Kindle, as long as they are not ‘locked’ with a DRM (Digital Rights Management) code.
Purchasing books on the iBookstore is a very simple process, and as of last September, the marketplace has opened up to include the Czech Republic. Better buy soon, though, before the ongoing EU anti-trust investigation into Apple’s pricing policy gains any more traction and the prices go up or the stores are closed!
3) Sony Reader
In many ways a step-up in design terms, the Sony Reader, whose latest version retails under the name PRS-T1 (4790 CZK from Alza) is a tremendous option if you have already uploaded books in an appropriate format from a parallel device such as your home computer. Designed principally to read titles in ePUB format (of which there are now over two million worldwide) and Sony’s own LRF format, it’s possible to upload classic texts from multiple sites inexpensively and quickly. Claiming to be the word’s lightest device of its type, the Sony Reader provides an excellent reading experience on a 6-inch e-ink screen, just like that found on the two smaller Kindles.
Despite its good looks and solid build, however, the Sony Reader’s usefulness is limited by the absence of a proprietary bookstore outside the USA and Canada. Although Sony has partnerships with major retailers in some countries (for example Waterstones in the UK), this is by no means the case elsewhere, so if you want a reader that offers downloads of the latest bestseller, this is not the place to be. If, on the other hand, you already have a number of ePUBs, PDFs and other documents, you will find that uploading them is a painless process.
4) Barnes and Noble Nook
The slimline Nook – one of a family of Android-based products including the Nook Color and the Nook Tablet – is a proprietary reader from American publishing giant Barnes and Noble. But despite their claim to be the ‘World’s Biggest Bookshop’, sales of new titles are restricted – like those for the Sony Reader – to the US and Canada. Even free classic titles such as ‘Wuthering Heights’ require you to log in with a US address – and that’s whether you’re ordering online or on the Nook itself. Of course, it’s still possible to transfer ePUBs and other formats onto a Nook reader, but overall this is one of the least useful e-book readers for those in the Czech Republic. A pity, since both battery life and screen clarity are among the best on the market. At press time, the Nook was no longer available from Alza.
In the absence of purpose-built Czech language e-readers, Martin Lipert has developed an e-ink device (3493 CZK from Kasa) customized to work in conjunction with his newly-launched Czech e-bookstore. This offers hundreds of titles, both original and translated, at an affordable price (most titles retail for under 200 CZK) With a full physical keyboard including diacritics and fully-localized for Czech speakers, the device fills a definite niche if there are Czech speakers in your family. It’s worth noting that e-books purchased from the ereading.cz store can also be read on the iPad and Android devices, via the Bluefire Reader app; and that it is also possible to port some purchased titles to the Kindle.
The Android 2.3-based ‘Wooky 2’ mini-tablet/e-reader (3950 CZK from Bux) is in fact a re-badged Archos tablet, designed to be used in conjunction with the e-bookstores at ebux.cz and rajknih.cz. There is also an app which enables Vodafone users to make use of the Wooky interface on their phones. It has an 8” color screen, and supports all the usual additions we are used to finding in tablet devices. If you’re after something that’s more than just a reader, but is cheaper than an iPad, it might be worth looking at this, at least until the very similar Kindle Fire breaks into the Czech market.
The Kobo reader is very much the new kid on the block. Similar in appearance to the Nook or the Kindle Touch, this good-looking Canadian e-ink-based device is now making waves in Europe, particularly since the opening of their 80,000-strong German language bookstore. Technically allied with the now defunct Borders bookshops, Kobo seems not to be hobbled by being tied to major book retailers any more, and some see this as a sign for likely future expansion into the major Central and Eastern European markets. Although Kobo readers are not yet available from stores in the Czech Republic, watch this space – you may not have long to wait.
8) Reading on your phone
Although not specifically designed for the purpose, smartphones manufactured by the likes of HTC and Samsung now have screens which are perfectly suited for reading on the move. Numerous phone reader apps are available, including ones from the major e-reader manufacturers above. In addition, for those with Windows phones, we strongly recommend the excellent Freda which is free, easy to set up and has one of the best interfaces we have seen for navigating your favourite novel. For those readers with iPhones, we recommend Stanza, the best in an increasingly wide field.
As usual, we recommend having a look at the second-hand market, and on auction sites such as pocitace.aukro.cz. Although US prices are often much cheaper, we have checked these including shipping charges from major suppliers, and it still works out cheaper to buy here. Remember as well that units bought abroad will require plug adapters (though they generally work on European power supplies, so it’s unlikely you would need a specific power adapter).
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