I’ve always been a highly reluctant adopter of new technology: Happy with my PS2 and wanting to take advantage of the price collapse that inevitably happens a few years after a console’s release, I waited a full three years to get an Xbox and a Wii. Patience, though, is a virtue and smilarly waiting until now to swap my shelves full of dusty, tattered paperbacks for an ebook reader appears to have been a wise choice. E-books have been round since the launch of Amazon’s Kindle in 2007, but it wasn’t until it was made available internationally at the end of 2009 that they started to become a mainstream technology.
Amazon’s third generation Kindle – released last summer and one of this Christmas’ best selling gifts – marks the e-book’s coming-of-age; its transformation from a spotty, gawky teenager to a slick, elegant adult. What marks out the new incarnation of the Kindle from its predecessors is that it is the closest we are ever realistically going to get to reading a real book. The first Kindle was horribly clunky; looking and feeling like a mid-90’s Palm Pilot and with a limited 250 MB memory (about 200 books), was never going to be a replacement for a book collection. The Kindle 3, however, is now the right shape, size and weight and with the latest e-ink technology, very closely resembles reading printed text. The absence of back-lighting means that you can read it in the brightest of sunlight and prolonged reading won’t result in the eye strain that develops from hours of reading a standard screen.
Either via your home Wi-Fi or the in-built 3G connection (£41 more but absolutely worth it because – along with the snappy web browser it provides you with free wireless internet for as long as you continue to use the device), you connect to the Amazon store, find your book, download it and begin to read it in less than a minute. Considering many of its cheaper rivals are only slightly cheaper and come with a whole range of drawbacks, the Kindle is unusual in that it is a market leader but also offers the best value for money at £111, or £152 for the 3G version.
Binatone’s offering comes in at just under £100 but can only read .txt files and because copyright limits the conversion of e-books between different formats, there is very little you can actually read on it. E-books tend to be at least 30% cheaper than the paper version and most titles out of copyright can be downloaded for free: The average reader is therefore likely to recoop the price of a Kindle within a year or so.
The Kindle’s main rival is the Sony Reader. As you would expect with Sony, their device is slick and well-designed but also much pricier, at £220. It works in much the same way as the Kindle, with the exception that the touch screen means that navigating the menus and using the web browser is far easier.
The slightly worrying thing about the Kindle is that you can only buy e-books from Amazon. How serious a problem you think this is depends on how much you trust Amazon not to inflate prices, knowing that its customers have nowhere else to go. No manufacturer would produce a DVD player that only played its own DVDs as to do so would be commerical suicide. However, Amazon has had such a head start that it can do this – very cynically – with immunity.
Will e-books and e-readers kill off the printed book? Considering that digitization has been one of the few certitudes of the past 20 years, the answer is probably yes, but not yet. E-readers do display images reasonably well, but very few manufacturers have got round to producing colour versions, nor have they found a way of giving them a bigger storage capacity while keeping them small and light, and so image-heavy books are likely to elude the e-book revolution until the technology catches up. At the end of the day, the current generation of e-readers have been designed with only text-heavy fiction and non-fiction books in mind and so it may well be some time before we no longer have to make the pre-deadline dash over to George Square for our course books.