13 Ebook hardware and software

Liam Borgstrom (ed.)

If someone points at a Kindle and asks: “Is that an ebook?”, your response would be: “No, that’s an ereader. You read ebooks on them.” You have most probably not heard anyone refer to a computer as “the program”. A computer is certainly not a program, but rather the device on which programs run. In the same manner, an ebook is a program. Hence, ebooks (and all e-publications) are read on some manner of device.

Generally, an “ebook device” is the hardware on which the ebook is stored. Such a device could be a personal computer (PC), a mobile device (ereaders, media tablets, netbooks, mobile phones, etc.) – even a Playstation Portable! However, in this chapter we focus on ereaders (dedicated to reading) and media tablets (implying a range of media).

Study component

Ereaders and media tablets usher in mobile computing

Ereaders and media tablets ushered in a time where you needn’t sit in front of a desktop computer to consume media. You will learn, though, that these devices are the result of decades of research into mobile computing. Up until the mid-2000s, companies experimenting with ebooks didn’t get very far.

Issues that challenged these companies – and that still do, to some extents! –include readability, portability, content, cost, format and other non-technical issues. These issues are expanded on later – first, a clarification of the difference between an ereader and a media tablet[1].

The Slideshare introduction to ebooks provides a comparison between ereaders and media tablets (slides 8-22).

Ereaders

An ereader is a single-purpose device; that is, a device dedicated to reading. While Amazon’s release of the Kindle 1 in 2007 caused the initial surge in interest, vendors have been experimenting with ereaders since the early 90’s. For instance, the Rocket eBook Reader was released in 1998 and featured, among other things:

  • The ability to store up to 10 novels (that is, 4 megabytes of working memory),
  • A monochrome LCD display (like the ones on alarm clocks, not the ones your computer/TV monitor uses),
  • A weight of 600 grams (22 ounces).

Compare these characteristics with the latest Kindle (i.e. the Kindle 4, released in 2011):

  • The ability to store up to 1280 large novels,
  • A monochrome e-ink display (learn more about e-ink),
  • A weight of 170 grams.
Another significant difference between the Rocket eBook Reader and Amazon’s latest Kindle is price. Starting at US$400 in 2007, the latest Kindle now costs US$80 (for US citizens). Like flash disks, portable CD, then MP3 players and other commercial electronics before it, it is a matter of time before ereaders will become even more affordable. Indeed, some analysts predict that Amazon may start giving away Kindles on a subscription basis, much like cellular phone companies do with their handsets.

Exercise: ereaders

Ereaderlookup.com is a growing database and comparison tool for a variety of ereaders. It is a useful tool to compare ereaders based on a variety of criteria. Explore this site in order to get an idea of the range of ereader types out there.

Media tablets

When Apple released the iPad in 2010, it caused another surge in interest from publishers and readers: this so-called “media tablet” had everything the Kindle didn’t have (or so people thought). Other technology companies followed (Samsung, Motorola, Google, etc.) and, in 2011, Amazon released its own media tablet: the Kindle Fire. Priced at US$200, it was the first price competitor with Apple and shipped 6 million units over the Christmas season.

Media tablets, with their high-colour displays, ability to handle video and run  applications, are quite different from ereaders. Despite these differences, remember that both are purchased to read ebooks (among other things).

Typical reading device characteristics

Should you consider purchasing a reading device, or at least speak authoritatively on the subject, these are the main characteristics of ebook readers you should be aware of. They are sourced from the Mobileread community’s lists of ereaders and media tablets:

  • Battery life. Most ereaders have a battery life measured in weeks. [2] Media tablets have a battery life measured in hours – most of the battery being used for the back-lighting of the LCD display.
  • Content partners. The person, company or organization that owns the rights to content and provides the content along with content rights to distribute the content.
  • Dimensions. The height, width and thickness of the device, usually denoted as height x width x thickness (e.g. 6.9″ x 4.8″ x 0.3″.6 or 175 x 122 x 8mm). The dimensions of a device aren’t as critical as its display size, however.
  • Expansion slots. For more storage capability (digital cameras also have expansion slots). Typical expansion slot types are SD and MMC.
  • Manufacturer. The company that produces the device.
  • Memory. The amount of storage the device has. The more memory your device has, the more content it can store. Ereaders have storage spaces varying between 2 and 4 GB, media tablets between 16 and 64 GB.
  • Model. As with mobile phones, ereaders and media tablets come in various models as companies try to fit their market’s needs. Consider the many types of HTC phone models as an example.
  • Note-taking, highlighting and underlining. Being able to annotate is an important characteristic of paper. These activities are arguably easier on media tablets due to their faster response time and touch interfaces (though touch ereaders are being sold now, their e-ink displays are still slower).
  • Other interfaces. A variety of options is possible here. Devices may have headphones, 3G modems, speakers, Bluetooth interfaces, among others. Each additional interface (or hardware features) increases the cost of the device. This is an important distinction between Amazon’s Kindle Fire media tablet and Apple’s iPad: the Fire costs half as much as the iPad because it doesn’t have the same hardware features such as a camera.
  • Price. One of the defining characteristics. Ereaders start from US$100 whereas media tablets start from US$200 (however, the average is US$400).
  • Refresh rate. In general, the speed at which a display redraws whatever it displays. This rate varies greatly, being as low as 0.03 seconds to refresh a page on LCD devices to one second in e-Ink devices.
  • Screen technology. Two technologies are noteworthy here: LCD displays and e-ink. Ereaders have e-ink displays and media tablets have LCD displays.
  • Services. Various device manufacturers provide extra services built into their ebook readers, most often a delivery mechanism. For instance,  Amazon’s Whispernet allows you to download books over a wireless connection and to browse the internet over a cellular (3G) connection – as opposed to only using a cable or a wi-fi connection as other companies do.
  • Supported formats. Very important to note. A device that supports many digital formats is preferable from a user’s point of view, but companies often try to lock customers into a format. For instance, Amazon uses its own format (generally referred to as the Kindle format), whereas other vendors (such as Kobo and Barnes & Noble) use the industry standard .epub format (which is the subject of chapter 3.5).
  • Supported DRM formats. Software formats with in-build digital rights management. Digital rights management is covered in workshop 10 and is addressed throughout the module. If an ebook is DRMed, the user is limited in what they can do with the ebook. For instance, most DRM schemes don’t allow you to give the ebook to another person – that is, the ebook you purchased is limited to your account/device only.
  • Touch screen. Media tablets were conceived with touch screens in mind. Ereaders that use touch started appearing after the iPad was released in 2010.
  • Weight. Ereaders are lighter than media tablets – which is often a reason readers prefer them for long-term reading. Nonetheless, media tablets are approaching weights of 700 grams.

Ereader and media tablet adoption is rising at an exponential rate. Shipping numbers are reported in the tens of millions, yet these devices are not the final result of the digital reading revolution. There are still many challenges to overcome before these devices can play a transformative role in everyday life (reminiscent of same challenge the telephone, radio, television had to undergo):

Challenges for ereaders and tablets

Readability. Paper has an effective resolution of 1200 dpi and the latest ereaders can support up to 300 dpi[3]. Technologies such as sub-pixel rendering and software applications such as ClearType (Microsoft) and CoolType (Adobe) and Quartz (Apple) have helped make text less jagged, more legible on colour LCDs.

Portability. Karl de Abrew believes that an ebook device should satisfy the 4B rule: you should be able to use it in the bed, the bath, bus and beach. Ereaders used to be quite heavy and large, but recent devices are about the size of a typical paperback. Remember that ebooks can also be read on smaller devices such as a PDA, but those devices fall outside the scope of this reader.

Content. Even the best ebook device is useless without ebooks to read. Issues facing vendors include how to convert content into a form viewable on ebook device, whether ebooks should be encrypted to a particular machine (no book-lending) and more.

Cost. ebook readers and ebooks are still too costly, as you will read later. De Abrew adds another “b” to his list of ebook device properties: being affordable. Publishers and vendors haven’t been decreasing cost of ebooks – which is worsened by the cost of the device itself.

Non-technical. Various issues arise here. For example, researchers express worry that we’re already carrying too many gadgets around. Consider how many devices you own and consider having another one you need to carry with you. Also, the nature of reading may have changed – many readers have come to expect a networked style of reading that isn’t possible on most ebook readers.

Format. Many ebook device manufacturers specify their own format in which ebooks are stored on the machine. Certain developments may alleviate this problem, and these developments will be addressed in the workshops that address specific file formats (e.g. Kindle, .html, .epub).

It’s not all about ereaders and tablets: other platforms

If you have a computing device such as a mobile phone, laptop or desktop computer, you can read e-publications. Vendors are trying to penetrate as many platforms and devices as possible. Consider three ebook vendors: Amazon, Kobo and Barnes & Noble. These companies release their reading applications on a wide variety of platforms:

  • Amazon provides Kindle reading applications for PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry and Android devices.
  • Kobo provides Kobo reading applications for PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry and Android devices.
  • Barnes & Noble provides Nook reading applications for PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad and Android devices.

Whether you purchase an ereader from these companies or not, you can still purchase and read books from them. This is why you have to think of the ebook landscape in terms of platforms and not only in terms of specific hardware and software combinations. Each application can have specific functions that are tied to the platform. For instance, Amazon’s X-Ray feature bundles general reference information with an ebook; something akin to having a Wikipedia snapshot inside your book. There is also a lot of variation in the quality of ereading applications, which will affect the reader’s experience of the publication. India Amos, a veteran book designer and technologist, demonstrates the inconsistency in ereading application design in two articles for Digital Book World.

1. Amos, I. (2011). E-Reading Application Showdown, Part 1 – Annotations. Digital Book World. Available online: http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2011/e-reading-application-showdown-part-1-annotations/

2. Amos, I. (2011). E-Reading Application Showdown, Part 2 : Typography. Digital Book World. Available online: http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2011/e-reading-application-showdown-part-2-typography/

3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X-Ray_(Amazon_Kindle). Wikipedia. Available online: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X-Ray_(Amazon_Kindle)

 


  1. You will learn that it's more useful to focus on the platforms these devices represent, rather than the devices themselves.
  2. Because e-ink is different from LCD, ereader battery life is also measured in the amount of page turns required before the battery runs empty.
  3. http://goodereader.com/blog/e-reader/eink-and-epson-roll-out-300-dpi-screen-technology/

License

Publishing in the Digital Environment Copyright © 2013 by Liam Borgstrom (ed.). All Rights Reserved.