Amazon's Kindle has been at the top of the bestsellers list for over a year, but with a clutch of new stores and devices weighing in, can it hold onto the top spot? We test ten readers and their ebook stores to find out
Reviews in this Group Test
Why has the Kindle been so incredibly successful? Two words: integration and content. The Kindle made buying books so easy, and reading them so comfortable and simple, that no other eReader could possibly compete.
However, that situation is changing. Rival manufacturers are beginning to come up with their own stores and other ways of acquiring ebooks, and if this Labs is anything to go by, the hardware is also catching up.
Content is king
And so to the perennial question: how do you know which is the ebook reader for you? The first thing to consider is content. If you want convenience, then look for a reader with a built-in store. Several in this test, in addition to the Kindle, offer this type of integration, although it doesn’t look like we’ll have features like book loaning in the near future.
But don’t ignore the rest. It may not be as simple to get books on and off these devices, but that doesn’t mean you should rule them out entirely. Independent ebook stores such as Kobo, Borders and Google’s ebookstore will cover most of your needs, and books can be transferred from your PC.
It’s also worth considering how your reader will cope with different types of content, aside from store-purchased ebooks. We’ve provided a list of the formats that each eReader will read on the feature table below, but it isn’t enough to just offer compatibility.
More complicated documents in formats such as PDF, for instance, are impossible to read on some of the devices here, because they’re not powerful enough to render pages onscreen quickly. Even if they were, complicated, multicolumn layouts can be awkward to read on the small screen of an eReader without the help of specialist tools.
|The Contenders: click to enlarge for specs|
There isn’t only a greater choice of ebook stores, but more variation in hardware too. If the hardware still matters to you, there’s more variation than ever. Until recently, only one manufacturer – E Ink – dominated the manufacture of electronic paper screens. In this month’s Labs, there’s a new player – LG. Its 768 x 1024 screen features in the iriver Story HD and offers a higher resolution than any 6in reader.
Another aspect to consider is the speed at which a page turn can be executed. The best readers will refresh the screen in one second or less; the worst can take up to two seconds. That might not seem like much, but it’s noticeable.
And, finally, the number of greyscale levels a screen can represent also varies. Most readers are capable of producing 16 levels, which is what is needed to produce clean, jaggy-free characters, but some are still limited to eight or four.
How We Test
Screen quality and page-turn speed are critical to how comfortable an eReader is to read, so our tests focus on these aspects.
First, we measure the contrast of each screen: we capture a page of text using a DSLR camera; then we bring the photo into Photoshop and measure the black levels of the characters and page using the Color Sampler tool. Contrast is calculated from these values.
To measure screen refresh speed, we use an EPUB file and record a series of page turns using a video camera. The footage is then brought into a video-editing application, where we measure the time taken between clicking the page-turn button (or swiping the screen) and the new page appearing.
Those measurements make up the Performance score, along with a subjective appreciation of how each eReader handles PDFs. Features such as Wi-Fi and 3G, the availability of an integrated store for book downloads, and file format support, are factored into the Features & Design score.
Ebook stores compared
Despite the fact it has been five years since Sony launched the first eReader, few will question that it has been Amazon’s deft combination of hardware and ebook store that thrust eReaders into mainstream consciousness.
Amazon is still the heavyweight in the ebook world, but this year things have begun to change. Other manufacturers are taking charge and realising that an eReader lives and dies by the ease at which content lands on the device.
Visit the websites of booksellers such as Collins, Borders and Angus and Robertson and you’ll see eReaders are now displayed front and centre, with Kobo especially making inroads into these traditional retailers.
While that is the case, the big disruptive force in the Australian eBook market is undoubtedly the local opening of Google’s ebookstore. While it doesn’t have the same breadth of content that Amazon does with its Kindle store, it does do some pretty nifty things when it comes to shopping for titles.
Search for a book that is in the database but isn’t available as an ebook and you get a button to register your interest in the book, giving Google a good idea of which ebooks to prioritise. But more than that, you are also then able to search other online bookstores by selecting from a dropdown list. Not only is this a fantastic feature, it makes Google’s ebookstore a very tempting first stop when looking to buy a title for compatible devices (basically everything other than the Kindle).
This search function works most of the time, but we did notice that it worked better with older than newer titles. A search for Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash resulted in an entry (though no local ebook availability), while his latest book, Reamde, didn’t seem to exist in the database. Search for it on the Kindle store, however, and it pops straight up with a $US 8.82 pricetag.
Here is where the issue still lies. Despite the fact that more and more titles are being made available locally in ebook form, there are many more titles available in the US.
Thankfully this no longer just means Amazon. One of the most curious things we’ve encountered is the inbuilt store on Kobo devices, which is clearly US based due to the number of ebooks on it that were unavailable in Australian stores.
Using the same example search, we were unable to find Reamde on the Kobo store, but we were able to find Snow Crash in both English and German. Title availability is obviously still lagging behind Amazon but it is clearly ahead of what we see from local ebook sellers.
This doesn’t mean you should discount non-Kindle devices. One clearly emerging trend is that Adobe DRM locked ePub files are becoming the defacto alternative to Kindle’s proprietary format. This means that while you may have to search around for the titles you want, you can draw from a much wider pool of storefronts than you can with the Kindle’s Amazon integration.
Given the rough ride that Australian book retailers have had over the past year, we’d love to be able to recommend that you stick with local ebook vendors. But the sad truth is that there are cheaper prices and much, much more variety to be had purchasing from offshore ebook stores.
Given that Amazon has penetrated the Australian consciousness from half a world away, it is clear that ebooks are on the cusp of the shifting nature of retail. When distribution involves the download of tiny amounts of data, it becomes really hard to recommend that you keep your purchases local. Even with locally purchased hardware, you are much better off making your book purchases offshore .
The Amazon Kindle’s screen used to be way out in front in terms of readability, but the rest of the pack is catching up. As you can see from the contrast ratio graph, there isn’t a huge difference between the eReaders on a technical level. But there are other factors that come into play – thickness of characters, anti-aliasing and resolution – which makes some devices more readable than others. Look at the close-up photos below and you’ll see there’s considerable variation in how black text appears, with the iriver’s superior resolution winning through.
View From The Labs
It’s been an exciting year for the ebook industry, and for that we have Amazon to thank. Before the Kindle Store was launched in August 2010, and the third-generation Kindle with it, eReaders sold in small numbers to literary technophiles.
Now it seems it’s everywhere. Commuter trains up and down the land are crammed with Kindle enthusiasts, and air travellers looking to keep their luggage weight down have snapped them up. The Kindle has done for “e-reading” what the first iPhone did for smartphones, and what Hoover did for vacuum cleaners: made it mainstream. It’s been the default choice ever since.
This Labs shows that’s changing. On the store front, Amazon now has two major new rivals in Australia – Google and Kobo. On the hardware side, there are several eReaders that rival the Kindle for readability. We’ve a soft spot for the Kobo Touch – a lovely piece of hardware with top-notch store integration.
Sony’s new touch-based reader is also a marvel, weighing less than a novella, and dealing with complex PDFs and technical documents with much more panache than the Kindle. We’re slightly less keen on the iriver Story HD, but its high-resolution 768 x 1024 screen does prove that there’s scope for improvement on the traditional 600 x 800, 16 grey-level display. Colour E Ink could be the next big thing: Chinese firm Hanvon has already shown a reader featuring a 1200 x 1600 colour E Ink Triton panel.
And yet, for all the competition’s best efforts, the Kindle remains the ebook reader of choice. Why? Because Amazon continues to get the blend right, combining great hardware with a store that’s packed with low-cost content, and a price that no other manufacturer can match. Amazon has not only defined our expectations of what a reader should be, but it continues to lead the charge.