How to buy an electronic book reader?

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Why an electronic book reader?

While some people still prefer the smell of freshly printed book pages, e-ink based electronic book readers are very useful and difficult to ignore. They not only provide the same visual quality of  printed paper, but they also reduce the bulk and weight of conventional books, and provide us versatility at many fronts. 

There are many benefits that come with e-ink e-book readers:
  1. You can load many books in the same device and carry them with you wherever you go.
  2. You can customize the typeface, character size, line  and margins to suit your needs.
  3. You can easily buy/borrow/download current books, including a complete set of classics (most for free).
  4. You can  load web based news sources  on your device with easy to read newspaper like formatting. 
  5. You can use the built-in subtle night light with minimum disturbance to other people around you.
  6. They feature very long battery life, easily weeks between charges.
This is not an all inclusive list of benefits, one can add many more, but overall these are the first practical issues that come to mind. While most e-book readers provide similar benefits, each reader aim at creating their own ecosystem and come with unique features and capabilities that can make them favorable for you. The major devices one can mention are Amazon's Kindle, Kobo, Barnes&Noble's Nook, and some other niche manufacturers such as Onyx, Cybook, Libre, and discontinued but excellent products from Sony.
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Electronic ink display - the enabling technology

E-ink is a digital display technology that mimics paper and ink. It was invented at MIT in mid 1990s, with the electronic books in mind.  It has come a long way since its debut, increasing contrast and response time with each iteration. For more information visit the  e-ink wikipedia page

E-ink is an electro-phoretic display technology which requires energy only for the changes on the screen. Once the target image is displayed, it can stay on without any energy input, just like ink on paper. The display can be refreshed to display new images for unlimited times. Since the display creates images with the arrangement of micro capsules in black and white colors, it can be seen under bright sunlight, a difficult thing for LCD technology. Due to lack of refresh the images displayed on e-ink screens have a static character, which avoids the strain on eyes. Normally e-ink displays cannot have backlight, but a new frontlight technology based on laser etched nano patterns on transparent substrate has solved this problem with minimum impact on display contrast. These benefits make e-ink the ultimate candidate for electronic book readers. Most tablet computers (i.e., Apple iPad, Android Tablets, Amazon Kindle Fire) conventional backlit LCD screens. These are not appropriate for long-term reading since they strain the eyes due to glare, screen refresh, and unnatural texture from the grid structure of LCD's red, green, and blue pixels. Electronic ink displays have a random layout of ink particles which mimic the natural ink on paper.
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How to choose the right e-book reader?

While your decision is based on your budget and familiar ecosystem, there are some untold features that can unlock new feature sets, which can make a certain brand/model attractive for you. The ecosystem is a very important part of the business model that a manufacturer presents. A good example for that is the case of Sony, the first manufacturer of e-book readers, which left the market in 2014. Sony created beautifully designed, sturdy and compact readers with an online bookstore serving their devices. Sony devices also supported the open e-book format called epub, which could be used for library loans or out-of print classics. Amazon and Barnes&Noble entered the market after Sony, however since selling books are their main business they were able to lock customers in with competitive prices and subsidized devices. They also used closed formats and didn't condone using devices to read open format documents. Long story short,  Sony lost, Amazon and Barnes&Noble won.  

I shouldn't sound like I have a preference for one vendor over another. Each device group or individual models come with PROs and CONs. There are ways to overcome shortcomings. Below I will mention default and after-added features/capabilities and what they do; then it is up to you on deciding to go for one or not. The list below is not in the order of importance or value, so treat it as it is.
  • Physical specifications: Not all readers are built the same. They vary in size, weight, material, and texture. While we human beings are easy to adapt, changing physical qualities may become an issue in adoption of the technology or not. Sony has the discontinued PRS-350device with a tiny shell in beautiful aluminum finish, featuring a small 5" screen. Or you can go for a Kobo mini, albeit with plastic finish and slightly fatter shell. 
  • Wireless connectivity: The earlier devices only had USB connectivity for loading the books. First Amazon came up with 3G connected Kindle, which had its own network called Whispernet for the delivery of books and very limited web browsing capability. This global service was a hit and became a major selling point for Kindle devices. Following that, Amazon introduced Wi-Fi connectivity, which other manufacturers followed. My earlier devices were without Wi-Fi connectivity which I never thought necessary. However, Amazon's ecosystem changed my mind, and now I think wireless connectivity is a major feature for ease of use, and opens doors for many other features that I never thought about earlier. 
  • Screen size: While 6" has become de facto industry standard, one should keep in mind that there are 5" or 8-10" devices too. Larger devices tend to sell for more and they target niche markets (i.e., legal offices, academic papers, document management, etc.) 
  • Screen resolution: Earlier e-book readers had 800x600 pixel resolution, which was OK for 6" screens, albeit some evident pixellation. These were followed by 1024x758 screens, and the newest high-end readers have  1440x1080 (300ppi) resolution. To me, the difference between the earlier screens and the latest hi-res screens is day and night. Amazon Kindle Voyage and Paperwhite 3 (2015), Onyx Boox T68, Kobo Auro H2O, and Kobo Glo HD has this hi-res screen.
  • Screen illumination: This feature was first included by Sony in one of the earliest readers, but it took many more years to finess the technology to be used by mainstream vendors. This is basically a front-lit screen technology where a thin transparent sheet in front of the device screen directs light onto the e-ink display via nano etched patterns within the sheet. It provides a good range of lighting which can be adjusted to cover the needs in pitch-dark conditions to bright rooms. This is a very useful feature included in high-end e-book readers.
  • Device controls: While the earlier e-book readers relied solely on tactile buttons, Sony first introduced a resistive touch-screen (which introduced glare and reduced contrast), followed by a much better infrared based touch-screen control. These devices still retained the physical buttons. Amazon and other manufacturers followed the suit, finally abandoning tactile buttons altogether. Amazon currently offers tactile page turning capability only in its flagship reader (aptly named Kindle Voyage) via a pressure sensitive button "area". This may be a deal breaker for you, so it is an issue to consider. Page turns via swiping action becomes a sore-chore, particularly when only a single hand is available to hold and control the e-reader.
  • Operating system and interface: This is something that one gets used to easily. However, in combination the ecosystem capabilities, it has a major impact on the usability of devices. When interfaces receive major facelifts with updates, users complain vigorously. Built in dictionaries are a very useful add-on. Some devices come with experimental browsers, but these are not that useful due to limited processor capacity and slow page refresh rate due to inherent e-ink technology.
  • External memory and battery life: Some devices provide the ability to increase memory via memory cards. I think this is not an issue. Unless you plan to land at a deserted island, you cannot fill the device memory with enough books to read whole your life. Most devices offer battery lives extending several weeks. However one should keep in mind that Wi-Fi usage and built in screen light may reduce this dramatically. Still, most readers come with micro USB charge ports that allows a quick charge in less than an hour.
  • The ecosystem: This dictates where you buy the books and other features that expand the capabilities. Some devices come with no book-store support at all. You pay the full price for the device and load DRM locked books or open format (epub) books from any vendor or public library you like. Discontinued Sony devices were like that. While Amazon Kindle ecosystem locks you in their book store, it has some useful features that expand the usability. For instance you can install Kindle application in your other mobile devices and continue reading your books across different internet connected devices with updated page positions. Or, you can setup external software to email books or documents to your Kindle account (each account comes with an email address), which automatizes the process of delivery (more on that below). While some ecosystems (such as Kindle) tries to lock you in, there are ways to get around that (more on that below). Therefore, it is a good idea to think out of the box when one evaluates different vendors.
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How to expand the capabilities of your e-book reader?

There are many third party software solutions for managing your e-book library. Firstly, it is possible to acquire thousands of copyright-expired books from many web sources ( i.e., Project Gutenberg). You can also create book-like compilations of free websites ( i.e., news portals, magazines, blogs, etc.) for ease of read via e-book readers. You can also transfer personal documents ( i.e., reports, articles) to your digital libraries. 

Calibre is a digital library that transforms the e-book readers into multi-purpose devices with the provision of expanded sources. It not only allows the management of your digital book library, but also allows you to compile new documents from freely available websites via community maintained phyton recipes. This way, for instance, one can download a weeks worth of articles from New Scientist in a clean and reader friendly format, and upload it to a pre-defined Kindle email account. This whole process can be automatized and such subscriptions can arrive at your device periodically with no further effort. This management tool can also convert different book formats across each other. 

There are other digital services that can distill web sources to be displayed on your e-book reader, such as the official Send to Kindle browser extension from Amazon. Readability is another browser extension that has similar capabilities. Instapaper application and Instachrome extension,Klip me , and Fivefilters org also do similar things. 

Most of the tools mentioned above are condoned or supported by the device manufacturers. However, they all expand the capabilities provided by e-book readers. It is a very good idea to investigate and match the official features of readers and see how they can be expanded via these tools.  Before investing in the high-end models, one should consider buying the cheaper and second-hand devices to get a hang of it. Most Amazon Kindle devices have similar interfaces and capabilities, therefore following an upgrade route might be a sensible option. 

I hope this guide helps you. If you like it, please give it a thumbs up! I will try to update and improve it since I myself also continue to explore the field.
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