By Elena Morgan 

The e-reader market has spent more than a decade undergoing a fitful and sporadic development into something of major scope, and this process didn’t really start to take off until the end of the first decade of the 2000’s. Today, however, e-readers have finally become practical, easy to use, and also finally have access to a major marketplace of digital books which can be downloaded to them.

However, the e-reader itself as a distinct piece of technology is slowly disappearing to the simultaneous proliferation of the tablet market. Tablet computers are outfitted with almost all of the same features as their purely e-book-displaying cousins, but also come with so many more features, making them the much more popular choice amongst most college students. Essentially, tablet computers are computers with e-reading capacity and thus also qualify as e-readers. Let’s take a look at how both have impacted university students and the campuses where they study.

The Impact of Classical E-Readers

The classic e-reader that has been on sale since 2010 under brands such as the Amazon Kindle, Kobo and Sony Reader has had what could be called a mixed impact on college campuses across the United States and other developed countries. Its limited capabilities are one of the device’s key limitations. Students engage in a process that is much more dynamic than simply reading textbooks and picking up information; this complexity includes information sharing, Google-searching, and communicating (with friends, other students and professors) on a regular basis.

What students generally seem to prefer—according to recent studies conducted by University of Washington researchers—are devices that can give them the ability to read digitized books portably while at the same time allowing open access to the entire Internet and all its social networks and search systems. This is where classic e-readers have failed quite badly, because all they’ve really been—until very recently—are portable e-book-carrying machines.

This basic function is something e-readers still do better than tablets, since their lack of video, audio and other interactive capabilities gives them a much longer battery life, and their specialized “electronic paper” reading format creates much clearer text visibility under bright conditions. For students, however, that doesn’t make up for all the additional features that tablets with e-book capability possess.

Limitations on Copying and Sharing

There is one additional problem with some e-readers: They don’t accept unrecognized formats or digital books that don’t have full copy protection or distribution licenses. Although this is designed to protect publishers’ intellectual rights, the reality is that students who don’t like paying $60 for a digital version of their paper textbooks—especially when they can find cheaper copies online—simply won’t bother with an e-reader that prevents them from uploading or downloading pirated books.

The fact that many of these devices also prevent text copying and sharing is another point against them amongst a a student body that loves to engage with its friends—and friendly websites—across the social networks and the Internet in general.

The Arrival of the Tablet PC as an E-Reader

This is where tablets come into the student picture: The technology author Michael J. Saylor, in his book The Mobile Wave: How Mobile Intelligence Will Change Everything, says that e-readers will become pointless once the technology they possess is absorbed by the much more versatile and powerful tablet computer. So far, this is proving to be a very astute prediction. Although simple e-readers of all types sold at a rate of nearly 13 million units in 2011, this figure pales in comparison to sales of tablet computers, which were estimated at more than 60 million in the same year, and expected to more than double by the end of 2012.

Tablets are far more widespread amongst students simply because they give them access to everything they’ve already become accustomed to with their PCs, laptops and smartphones. College students get their hands on a tablet computer, and they can use it to read books in almost any format they’d like. They can copy the books, annotate them, and share them with all their friends on social networks and websites.

These are big advantages. And beyond just these e-reading bonuses, there’s everything else a tablet computer allows college students to do: web surfing, photo taking, video capturing, info sharing, and communicating through a whole array of downloadable mobile apps. Best of all (as far as students are concerned), tablets are getting cheaper by the year, and already don’t cost much more than an e-reader with limited abilities.

No normal e-reader that only displays digital books can compete with this kind of technology, even if it costs anywhere from one hundred to a few hundred dollars less. Carrying an e-reader around as a separate item becomes a burden.


Having become the much more popular choice, tablets as e-readers are becoming widespread, and giving college students access to much more portable sources of valuable study information, research tools and communication power. This has led to some problems with students cheating on exams or getting overly distracted during class time, but the overall effect has been beneficial with all the expanded computing portability tablets give to young people.

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About the Author: A former educator, Elena Morgan spends most of her time consulting schools and teachers on how to best utilize technology in the classroom. In her free time, she enjoys interior design and writes for Unison.