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Amazon Kindle Paperwhite electronic book (e-book) reader

Electronic books

by Chris Woodford. Last updated: April 7, 2013.

Back in the 19th century English author, Martin Tupper wrote: "A good book is the best of friends, the same today and for ever." It's true: books are friendly, familiar, and loveable and that probably explains why it's taking us so long to get used to the idea of portable electronic books. But with the arrival of a new generation of electronic book readers, such as the Sony Reader, and Amazon Kindle, the days of the printed word just might be numbered. Let's take a closer look at electronic books (e-books) and find out how they work!

Photo: Left: Amazon Kindle Paperwhite electronic book reader. Right: The rival Sony Reader PRS-350 is considerably smaller and designed to carry around in your pocket. Both are smaller than the first generation of Kindles, because their touch-sensitive screens do away with the need for a separate keyboard.

Sony PRS 350 ebook reader

Two in one: books... and the information they contain

Think of a book and you think of a single object, but the books we read are actually two things in one: there's the information (the words and pictures and their meaning) and there's the physical object (the paper, cardboard, and ink) that contains them. Sometimes the physical part of a book is as important as the information it carries: it's really true that we judge books by their covers—at least when we're standing in shops deciding which ones to buy—and that's why publishers devote so much attention to making their books look attractive. But, a lot of the time, the information is much more important to us and we don't really care how it's delivered. That's why many of us now turn to the Web when we want to find things out instead of visiting the local library.

In short, we've learned to split off the information we need from the way it's delivered. E-books take this idea a step further. When we talk about an e-book, we really mean a digital version of a printed text that we can read on a handheld electronic device like a miniature laptop computer— two quite separate things, once again.

How do you store a book in electronic form?

An e-book is really just a computer file full of words (and sometimes images). In theory, you could make an e-book just by typing information into a word processor. The file you save has all the elements of an electronic book: you can read the information on a computer, search it for keywords, or share it easily with someone else.

The first attempt to create a worldwide library of e-books was called Project Gutenberg and it's still running today. Long before the World Wide Web came along, a bunch of dedicated Gutenberg volunteers took printed books and scanned or typed them into their computers to make electronic files they could share. For legal reasons, these books were (and still are) mostly classic old volumes that had fallen out of copyright. The electronic versions of these printed books are very basic, text-only computer files stored in a format called ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange)—a way of representing letters, numbers, and symbols with the numbers 0-255 that virtually every computer can understand.

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite electronic book (e-book) reader side by side with Sony Reader

Photo: The Amazon Kindle Paperwhite electronic book reader (left) alongside a rival, the Sony eReader (right). This Kindle has a fairly unobtrusive set of LED lights built around the screen to make reading easier in the dim evening light. Although it's hard to see in this photo, the Paperwhite does indeed have a whiter, crisper screen than the Sony.

The problem with ASCII is that the text contains very little formatting information: you can't distinguish headings from text, there's only one basic font, and there's no bold or italics. That's why people developed much more sophisticated electronic files like PDF (Portable Document Format). The basic idea of PDF was to store an almost exact replica of a printed document in an electronic file that people could easily read on screens or print out, if they preferred. The HTML files people use to create web pages are another kind of electronic information. Every HTML page on a website is a bit like a separate page in a book, but the links on web pages mean you can easily hop around until you find exactly the information you want. The links on websites give you powerfully interconnected information that is often much quicker to use than a library of printed books.

The greatest strength of ASCII, PDF, and HTML files (you can read them on any computer) is also their greatest weakness: who wants to sit staring at a computer screen, reading thousands of words? Most screens are much less sharp than the type in a printed book and it quickly tires your eyes reading in this way. Even if you can store lots of books on your computer, you can't really take it to bed with you or read it on the beach or in the bath-tub! Now, there's nothing to stop you downloading simple text files onto something like an iPod or a cellphone and reading them, very slowly and painfully, from the small LCD display—but it's not most people's idea of curling up with a good book. What we really need is something with the power of a computer, the portability of a cellphone, and the friendliness and readability of a printed book. And that's exactly where electronic book readers come in.

How do you read an electronic book file?

An electronic book reader is a small, portable computer designed for reading books stored in a digital format such as ASCII, PDF, HTML, or another similar format. (Currently the two most popular ebook formats are EPUB, a worldwide, open standard that evolved from an earlier standard called OEB (Open e-book) and widely used by Sony Readers and most other ebook readers, and AZW, a proprietary format developed by Amazon and currently readable only on its Kindle reader.) Books take up very little space when you store them in electronic format: you could easily fit 10,000 electronic copies of the Bible onto a single DVD. Most ebook readers can store hundreds or even thousands of titles at a time and some have Wi-Fi Internet connections so you can download more books whenever you wish.

Screenshot of Caliber ebook.

The most important part of an e-book reader is the screen. The first e-books used small versions of LCD laptop screens which have a resolution (sharpness) of about 35 pixels per cm (90 pixels per inch). You could easily see the dots making up the letters and it was quite tiring to read for more than a few minutes at a time. The latest e-books use an entirely different technology called electronic ink. Instead of using LCD displays, they show words and letters using tiny, black and white plastic granules that move about inside microscopic, spherical capsules under precise electronic control. Displays like this have about twice the resolution of ordinary computer screens, are clearly visible in sunlight, and use much less power. In fact, they're almost as sharp and easy to read as printed paper.

The lack of books in electronic format is one of the things that puts people off using e-book readers—and that's what made Amazon.com's Kindle reader both an exciting development and an instant success. Amazon already worked with virtually all the world's publishers as a bookseller, so it was able to make huge numbers of titles available for Kindle in electronic format—over 88,000 books were available on the launch date. That's certainly what people want and expect from an e-book reader, but whether it will finally make electronic books as popular as iPods remains to be seen.

Photo: You can read electronic books right now, even if you don't have a handheld ebook reader. There's free electronic book software available for all the popular operating systems. You can also download versions of the Amazon Kindle that work on a PC, Mac, iPad, or cellphone. Here's an electronic book reader running on a normal computer screen, showing the first page of F.Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and Damned.

Which electronic book reader should I buy?

A Sony Reader laid on a hardback book to show the difference in page size

With two hugely popular, rival ebook readers (the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader) jockeying for the lead, and a whole range of other products from manufacturers such as iRiver and Elonex not far behind, your next question is probably "Which one should I buy?"

How does one ebook reader differ from another?

All these products are broadly similar: they're all light, portable, and handheld and they all have large internal flash memories that hold hundreds of books. Some have touchscreens; others (like the Kindles) have miniature keyboards. Some have wireless connections for downloading more books; others (such as the Sony Readers) have to be connected to a computer with a USB cable. If you connect with a cable, running an ebook reader is rather like running an iPod or MP3 player: typically you maintain a library on your PC with a piece of software similar to iTunes, to which you add and remove books and other documents. When you plug in your reader, it synchronizes its internal memory with the library on your PC, adding any new books and deleting any unwanted ones. If you have a wireless reader, you maintain your library on the reader itself or in the cloud (stored on a remote computer somewhere and accessed online), adding and removing books directly. So... wireless or cable? It's not a big issue, I don't think.

Photo: Horses for courses: Portable versions of the Sony Reader have a much smaller page size than a typical hardbook book. That's great if you want to carry your reader in your jacket pocket or your handbag so you can read while you're travelling. It's much less attractive if you do most of your reading at home: the smaller the screen, the more often you'll need to turn the pages. This is one example of why it pays to think about how you're going to use an ebook reader before you buy it.

Displays and batteries

The best and most expensive readers use extremely high-resolution E Ink screens that work better in daylight than at night (you'll need good indoor lighting or a clip-on light if you're planning to do most of your e-reading in the evenings); LCD-screen readers (such as the Elonex) have backlit screens that favor indoor use and (like computer screens) can be tricky to read in bright sunlight. Amazon's current state-of-the-art reader, the Kindle Paperwhite, has discreet little LED lights built around the edge of the screen that make a noticeable difference when you're reading indoors in the dim evening light.

E Ink apparently uses energy only when you turn the pages, so the Sony Reader can happily survive for about two weeks of very heavy use on a single charge of the batteries, while the Kindle Paperwhite claims up to eight weeks of battery time. That means it's also very environmentally friendly to read books or documents from a handheld ebook reader compared to reading them on a computer screen.

Some ebook readers can cope with ebooks in all kinds of different formats. The Sony Reader, for example, lets you read Microsoft Word and PDF files, as well as standard formats such as EPUB. The PDF viewer is really neat, allowing you to rotate the screen or scroll documents column-by-column for easy reading. The Amazon Kindle doesn't currently support the EPUB format, but it does allow you to view other file formats such as PDF.

A Sony Reader turned into landscape format to read a PDF file

Photo: You can use the Sony Reader in "landscape" orientation if you find that easier, though you have to switch it over manually from the keyboard (unlike with a smartphone, the display doesn't rotate itself). Here I'm reading a PDF file of Sustainable Energy—Without the hot air by physicist David MacKay. If environmental issues matter to you, reading documents on an ebook reader like this might appeal, because it uses a fraction as much energy as a laptop. The text is much more legible than it appears in this photograph.

Where can you get ebooks from?

Most books currently produced by publishers are copyrighted, which means you can expect to pay a fair price if you want to use them. Relatively few publishers have embraced ebooks so far, though there are some notable exceptions (including Penguin). Generally, it's relatively easy to find mass-market bestsellers in ebook format but much harder to find more specialized books and quality, literary fiction. Public domain classics are the easiest books to find in ebook format, largely thanks to the sterling and visionary work of Project Gutenberg. If you enjoy reading classic novels, buying an ebook reader is probably a no-brainer; if you're more a fan of 20th century literary fiction, you'll have a much harder time finding what you want in digital form.

If you buy copyright ebooks from either Amazon or another outlet, you'll find they're protected by what's called DRM (digital rights management)—effectively a kind of encryption that prevents people from distributing pirate copies of books illegally. Amazon uses its own DRM system, while Sony (and others) use a system developed by Adobe called Adobe Digital Editions, which requires you to register your reader the first time you use it. DRM protection restricts what you can do with books you've bought, but it's not necessarily the drawback it seems. First, it's very much a necessity from a publisher's point of view: it's only because ebook readers like the Kindle have DRM protection built in that publishers are starting to take what they see as a major risk in making their books available in digital formats. Another advantage of DRM is that it allows libraries to lend people ebooks for limited periods of time. I'm delighted to find I can log in to my local library and download, for free, for periods of up to 14 days, a fair selection of a few hundred popular ebooks. Once the borrowing time has expired, the books delete themselves automatically from my reader!

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Text copyright © Chris Woodford 2008, 2011. All rights reserved. Full copyright notice and terms of use.

E Ink is a registered trademark of E Ink Corporation.

Kindle and Paperwhite are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc or its associated companies.

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Woodford, Chris. (2008/2011) Ebooks. Retrieved from http://www.explainthatstuff.com/ebooks.html. [Accessed (Insert date here)]

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