Is this the time to take the plunge? New reading devices appear

images.jpgWithin the last 60 days there has been a bevy of announcements of new ereading devices. Amazon announced what is popularly called the Kindle 3 and Sony has announced 3 new models — the 350, 650, and 950. How far behind other makers will be is hard to tell, but the upcoming holiday season should be a good one for device buyers. So the question is this: Is this the time to take the plunge and buy a dedicated ereading device if you don’t already own one? The companion question, of course, is if you own one that is more than a year or two old, is now the time to “upgrade”? I’ve made it clear any number of times that I am not a fan of Amazon. But that doesn’t mean the Kindle isn’t a good device — it is. For me, the Kindle continues to suffer from the same design flaws as always – (1) it reminds me of my laptop with its physical keyboard and (2) it doesn’t accept DRMed (digital rights managed) ePub files that let me shop at, for example, Barnes & Noble unless I strip the DRM from the B&N file and convert the DRM-stripped file to a format the Kindle likes. But if you shop for books exclusively at Amazon (a practice I think has bad ramifications for all consumers), the Kindle is a good device, especially the new K3 with the enhanced eInk screen called Pearl. Amazon’s new Kindle has several things going for it. First, the greatly improved Pearl screen. Second, the device has been made thinner and lighter and smaller, although the screen size (6 inches) remains the same. Third, is Amazon’s great customer service, the envy of the industry and something B&N and Sony should be emulating. Fourth, ease of use. And, finally, great new pricing — top-of-the-line (covers both WiFi and 3G forms of wireless) comes in at $189 and the WiFi-only version comes it at $139.


Sony’s three new devices — the 350, 650, and 950 — are greatly improved versions of current models (the 300, 600, and 900) and are also known as the Pocket, Touch, and Daily Editions, respectively. Each also represents a different screen size: the 350′s screen is 5 inches, the 650′s is 6 inches, and the 950′s is 7.1 inches. Like the new Kindle, these are the new Pearl screens.

Unlike the Kindle, which is menu and button driven, the Sony’s use a new touch screen technology on which you can use either your finger or an included stylus. If you love your touch screen cellphone or iPod-type device, you are likely to love Sony’s touchscreen technology as well. For those of us who aren’t acquainted with the technology, there may be a short learning curve.

Sony also has its flaws. Perhaps the most significant flaw is the failure to include a firmware upgrade that would expand the DRMed ePub capability to include the B&N flavor of DRM. This is significant because there are now 3 major places where one cannot buy ebooks for their Sony without stripping the DRM from the files: B&N, Amazon, and the iBookstore.

The inability to buy DRMed books from Amazon is an industrywide problem; Amazon has chosen to limit access to Kindlers and those willing to strip and knowledgable about stripping DRM and converting file formats. But B&N and the iBookstore sell flavors of ePub and Sony should have made at least the B&N flavor available. I think what Sony is missing is the point that there is a format war (think Betamax vs. VHS or Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD) and that winning the format war ultimately is more important than keeping customers from visiting other bookstores. (In this regard, the iBookstore doesn’t even amount to a blip on the radar screen. Steve Jobs and Apple would rather go down in flames than give up any control.)

The second flaw is in pricing. The Sony devices are more expensive than its competitors, although I think better built. The 350 is $179, the 650 is $229, and the 950 is $299. However, unlike the Kindle and the Nook (B&N’s entry), the 350 and 650 are not wireless. In this regard, I think Sony is right that most people really don’t care about wireless, not when they think it through. But it is the one point on which every reviewer downgrades Sony and upgrades Amazon. I think for a small (relatively speaking) group of readers, wireless is the decider, but if my experience is any guide, the lack of wireless isn’t even noticed. The Sonys are smaller and lighter than the Kindle but seem to be better quality in terms of build and components — and this is what Sony is banking on. The ultimate question will be whether consumers will think it is worth $40 more for a touchscreen and no wireless or $40 less for wireless but no touchscreen.

As I have said before, I own and love using a Sony 505 that soon will be 3 years old. My 505 works today as if it were fresh out of the box. It is solidly built and has several more years of life in it. But I think the time has come for me to upgrade. I thought about breaking down and going for a Kindle, but it isn’t going to happen. Instead, I’m likely to buy the new Sony 950 with its larger screen. It costs what my 505 cost 3 years ago and if it serves me as long and as well as my 505, it will have been worth every penny. My 505 won’t be going into retirement; my wife has claimed it.

How will I justify the price of the 950? One way is that I will be canceling my print subscription to the New York Times. Instead, I will subscribe to an electronic version of the print edition that I will receive on the 950 every morning when I’m ready to read the paper, not when my carrier gets around to delivering it. That will save me at least $25 a month, which means that in 1 year I will have earned back the cost of the 950.

But I began the article with the question whether now was the time to take the plunge. With the new improvements to the Kindle and Sony devices, I think the answer is yes — if you want a dedicated reading device. There are a lot of good, free and inexpensive ebooks available for all of these devices. If your reading interests extend beyond the bestseller lists, you can get a rapid return on your investment as well as be exposed to new authors.

I do suggest, however, that before deciding on any device that you compare features side by side. Kindles will soon be available in Staples and Target stores and Sonys are available at Best Buy, Office Depot, and Target. Don’t let reviewer hype of one feature sway you — check for yourself and think about how important a particular feature is or is likely to be to you. I don’t buy ebooks every day and when I do buy them, I tend to buy them in bunches of 3 to 5 books. To plug my 505 into my PC via USB simply is not much of a hassle, so wireless doesn’t count much in my decision-making process; other things are more important. You need to view these devices with your own priorities in mind.

Now is the time to think about the holidays and if an ebook reader is on your wishlist, to place your holiday order. For the Sony devices, see the Sony Style Store (350, 650, and 950), and for the Kindle, see Amazon (Kindle 3 and Kindle 3G). If past holiday seasons are any indicator, as soon as you decide which you want, preorder it. These readers have tended to sell out fast.

Via Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog.

18 Comments on Is this the time to take the plunge? New reading devices appear

  1. I’m not sure why you think most people don’t care about wireless. Wireless is a huge part of what makes the Kindle an easy to use experience. It’s true that I don’t spend much time browsing for books with my Kindle, preferring the computer for that, but when I’m browsing, I just click “download sample” to my Kindle. Now I have a set of samples of books I’m interested in reading on my Kindle, and whenever I want to read one of them, I buy it right then and download it. Sure, I can sideload, and it’s fine, but Whispersync created a qualitatively different experience which I’d argue is a big deal once you’ve used it.

  2. Agree with Sherri that wireless is a critical component. For many of us, the PC is so important a part of life that it’s hard to imagine it as anything but central…with the reader being a sort of peripheral. But for many, the PC is an inconvenience, or simply not available. Then there’s the convenience factor of being able to buy a book when your on the train and just finished what you were reading.

    I’ve also used the Kindle’s browser (which is not a great browser but it’s there) to stay in touch when I’m out for a weekend. It’s a lot easier than lugging around the laptop, not to mention the benefit of not having to hunt up a wi-fi hotspot (last time I did this with the laptop, I found four straight shops that advertised wifi but that ‘happened’ to be down ‘right then.’

    Rob Preece
    Publisher

  3. You say that wireless is not a big deal. You also say that you plan to get a daily newspaper on your device. If you plan to get a newspaper every day why is wireless not important?

  4. Kindle works the best. For people without computers, for whatever reason, disadvantaged, elderly, etc. the Kindle works for them if they are readers. You can buy and read whenever. This is a big plus. And, let us not forget, Amazon does have the best selection, the lowest price and really the best format for reading of all that’s now available. Simple and sweet to use. Enough said.

  5. Now’s a good time to buy if you are fully satisfied with what the 6in Kindles offer and want a reader *now*.
    However, I’m thinking that if your needs require extra features, a larger screen, or simply the lowest possible price, waiting a month or so will bring in a few toys to consider.
    The industry is still trying to recover from the double whammy of the Pearl screens and Kindle WiFi. The full ramifications of those development will start to show in products in the final quarter as competitors assess their product lines and supply chain and decide how serious they are about competing with Amazon and B&N and how they’re going to go about it.
    Plus, October looks to be the time frame when the *real* Android webpads hit the market; not the crippled chinese rush-jobs but rather the first post-iPad designs. The Samsung Galaxy Tab shows exactly what a well-designed Android webpad can offer and it’s a lot. Archos has a full family ranging from what amounts to an Android PDA at US$100 to a true iPad rival at $300. And other vendors are taking their own crack at the webpad market.
    The serious competitors are the ones who look at Kindle and realize that there is still a lot of room to compete if you aim at something other than Kindle.
    Interesting products I’ve seen lately range from the Archos family to the upcoming Jetbook Mini, from the iRiver story (the iRex control bar lives!) to the Pocketbook 902/903.
    And, to top it off, let’s not assume Amazon is done making moves for the year; at a minimum, I expect KDXG is going to see a price cut before the holidays.

  6. I have regular discussions with my extended family and friends as I am quite a gadget guy and they come to me for advice.
    I have told them all to wait until well into 2011 because we are only in the very very early phase of eReaders and formats and pricing. Only early adopter geeky people like us are suited to buying these devices right now.
    I say to them to wait for a 50$, 60$ or 70$ reader; for easy transfer of books between gadgets and for prices of eBooks to become realistic. I don’t see these three things happening until late 2011 myself.

  7. I’m with Rich in that I highly prefer the touchscreen to wireless. To express it another way, the wireless functionality is used twice tops per book–once to browse for it, once to buy it. But touchscreen functionality is used continually–for accessing the book, switching back and forth in your library, turning pages, and accessing menu items.

    The last few years’ explosion of smart phone users indicates a preference for touchscreens over hard buttons. And I’m sure hundreds of thousands of people who connect their MP3 player to sync are similarly not challenged by the notion to do so with a reading device.

  8. touchscreen’s nice — i like it on my ipod touch. but i have the anti-glare thingy on the screen. that screen protector from power support that prevents fingerprints. i’d want to be sure i wouldn’t be schmutzing the thing up.

    in principle i personally wouldn’t necessarily mind not having the 3g. in fact, i’ve become so used to it that i would mind it a lot.

    i’ve heard that sony’s firmware and file-transfer software is pretty fiddly to set up — possibly excessively so for the significant number of computer owners who don’t really understand computers all that well. and it does require that one own a computer. also, there’s no ‘cloud’ storage of one’s sony e-books. or am i wrong about that. but i’d like a sony for downloading material from international online booksellers. if i could know up front which books i would be able to buy. (i hate geographic restrictions more than i hate drm. which is a lot.)

    so far, amazon has the potential to gain 100% of the non computer-owning market, because the kindle is the only device that doesn’t require a computer. anyone know how large that potential market is? i have no idea, myself.

  9. Kindle’s wireless has saved me a lot of trouble once or twice. Lost in a strange city, go to Mapquest, enter address I just passed in the car (I was a passenger–I wouldn’t do this while driving), enter address we’re seeking: presto! Directions.

    And on the way home when the driver particularly wanted an Outback (restaurant) I found that too; same way.

    Plus the whole “mail a .doc file to your kindle address and it will be uploaded wirelessly” made for an easy way for my husband to stay in touch when I was out of town.

    If you’ve got an internet capable cell phone, of course, this function may interest you less. But I was *very* happy to have it, and wouldn’t trade it for any amount of touchscreen.

  10. I still like the aesthetic of my Nook’s color touch-screen (which is off when you’re reading) where the Kindle’s physical keyboard is. It makes it seem less like a computer.

  11. Wireless is very useful also when reading to connect to Wikipedia to find out more about something in the book, to browse newspaper web sites, and other sites when taking a break from reading. My only complaint is that I wish the Kindle were 8″ screen — 6 is too small and the DX 10″ too large.

  12. Wireless is great if:
    1. You live in the US where connectivity is easily obtained. Many other countries don’t have great wireless access or the fees associated with wireless are quite a bit higher.
    2. You are quite happily dependant on one provider of services, in this case, Amazon for ebooks. While it is possible to buy DRM mobi books from elsewhere, it is not as easy as Amazon’s process and most don’t bother.
    There are many of us who are not happy to depend on one provider for ebooks. We choose to shop around for the best price (easy via inkmesh, etc) and for formats we know we can switch devices on. Thus, the wireless aspect is not as useful for us “sideloaders”.

    Personally, I like to control my library better than Amazon does. This means Calibre and whatever device I want to read off of. This is because I have used many different devices and formats to read ebooks off of since 1997 (peanut press and a palm vx) and where I can still read those books today if I so choose. This really means that I have to micromanage and sideload my books onto a device, but for me, this is a very small effort. Plus, I actually save money over those individuals who just click the buy button impulsively on their kindle.

    My points all aside, I realize that I am really in the minority here. For my not so technologically thinking friends, family, and coworkers, I have recommended a Kindle. Why, because it is such an easy system for them to use.

  13. Wifi was definitely the deciding factor for me in switching to a Kindle.  Lack of wifi was’t an issue when the Sony was the only device on which I was reading.  But now I’m also reading on my iPod Touch and Android phone, which I use when away from home. So for me, syncing reading locations between my devices is more desirable than Sony’s touchscreen technology.

    I currently have last year’s Touch and Pocket editions and also find the Sony’s touch technology lacking compared to the way my mobile devices’s reading apps work. For example, I prefer a tap motion to advance pages and dislike the swiping motion the Sony reader uses for page turns.

    The second point in the Kindle’s favor was the ability to change font styles.  I prefer reading in a sans serif font style, which doesn’t appear to be an option on the new Sony readers. 

  14. Mark, I’m one of the technically unchallenged but I make enormous use of the free 3G, as Cat does as well, but I wanted to add that

    =======
    re: “other countries don’t have great wireless access or the fees associated with wireless are quite a bit higher.”
    =======

    There are no fees associated with wireless Kindle use in other countries for web look-ups. Any costs are built into books ordered from Amazon U.S. (about $2 more) or in 15c/megabyte fees to send a personal document straight to your Kindle unless you just send it to the ‘free’ place at Amazon and they give you a link to download the Kindle version at no cost so you can move it yourself to the Kindle.

  15. You are way off saying that most people don’t care about wireless. It’s so much easier not having to plug into a pc for internet access. Plus with included web browser on Kindle it can have some limited use. You are right that alot of people will be buying there first ebook reader (me included). Also I didn’t even get a ship date from Amazon yet because of the great demand.

  16. Agree with Philo regarding the touch screen on the Nook — and also like that I am able to check out material from the public library on the Nook.

  17. @Andrys: $2 more is a significant cost to those of us not in the USA – on the “9.99” books, this is 20% extra cost. Plus, sending your books to the “free” email requires you to have wifi access, again, not nearly as inexpensive, or ubiquitously available as in the USA. This means wireless is not as important for some of us.

  18. Well, wise or not, I got my K3 the other day. It’s a nice adjunct to my Ectaco jetBook (which actually reads more stuff). I do like the convenience of wireless buying, and the Pearl screen is finally an EPD as good as the jetBook’s reflective LCD. The two devices are even laid out similarly.

    I don’t plan on getting rid of the jetBook. The K3 doesn’t work with library books (which the jetBook does), and only works with two formats (.mobi and .azw) compared to the jetBook’s long list of supported formats.

    Right now, a two-device solution seems to be the best. It’s still cheaper than an iWhatever.

    Regards,
    Jack Tingle

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