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SCIENCE AND TECH

5 MIN

Are E-readers Pointless?

They're actually useful – but the Kindle Oasis is still way too expensive

In the flavour-of-the-month hype cycle of our tech-obsessed culture, it’s amazing how fast devices seem to come and go. Digital cameras, netbooks and mp3 players have all given up their place in the limelight to wearables, VR, and streaming media, which may in turn give way to other new technologies before long.

But just because your favourite media outlet has chosen to chase the latest shiny gadget, doesn’t mean that older device types have gone extinct. (Well, except for netbooks. They deservedly died and hopefully won’t return.)

Take the humble e-reader. With the release of the Kindle Oasis, Amazon has doubled down on a technology that many have frankly dismissed as pointless, given the existence of tablets. At $400 in Canada (and US$290 in the United States) for the Wi-Fi only model, the Kindle Oasis isn’t only the most expensive e-reader on the planet, it’s also more expensive than the best seven-inch tablet on the market – the $330 (US$270) Apple iPad mini 2.

Amazon is especially invested in e-readers as a technology. The online retailer didn’t invent the e-reader, but it brought the technology into the mainstream. After its initial introduction by in 2007, there was a flurry of coverage and competition. New models were appearing almost daily it seemed, with brands like Sony, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Aluratek all vying for a piece of the e-reading pie, which promised to become enormous over time. After all, with thousands of books contained in a device that weighed less than a paperback, and was easy on the eyes thanks to its use of e-ink technology, how could it fail?

But fast-forward eight years and the marketplace for e-readers is a much smaller one. What happened? In a word: tablets. The year 2010 marked the birth of the iPad and the beginning of a new must-have category of gadget that could offer e-reading and so much more. No wonder its father, the late tech prophet Steve Jobs, held it aloft like a holy object. Today, tablets have displaced all e-readers but the Kobo and Kindle in Canada, while the Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook remain the only other choices in the U.S. market.

You might think that it’s the end of the line for a single-purpose gadget like the e-reader, especially if you give any credit to reports from the big publishers that readers are abandoning e-books in favour of dead-tree books (also: no, they aren’t). Indeed, both Amazon and Kobo must have a lot of confidence in the e-reading community because they haven’t stopped producing new models.

The latest Kindle, the Kindle Oasis, is svelte interpretation of the classic e-reader with a gorgeous 300 ppi screen (which looks as good or better than a typical laser-printed page), detachable magnetic leather cover with its own battery, and a choice of navigation options, including dedicated page-forward and page-back buttons on the bezel. It sports a unique tapered body style that makes it easier to grip, and unlike other Kindles and Kobos, it feels rock-solid and not plasticky at all, despite its all-plastic construction.

Kindle Oasis/Courtesy Amazon

"Hi, I'm an e-reader. Give me all your money!"

But then there’s the price. I’m sure there must be method to Amazon’s pricing madness, but what could it be? There are three major factors that affect an e-reading experience in the real-world: resolution, user interface and lighting. When you compare the Kindle Oasis to its slightly larger $140 (US$120) sibling, the Kindle Paperwhite, the Oasis improves only one of these criteria – it has more than twice the number of LEDs comprising its built-in light. Now, to be fair, the Oasis does have those two physical page turn buttons, which I admit are pretty sweet, especially if you detest touching your screen to turn pages. But are they $260 worth of sweet? No, no they are not. Perhaps if the Oasis had a feature befitting its name, such as being waterproof and dustproof (like the $200 Kobo Aura H20), it might help with the sticker shock. No such luck. Instead, $400 buys you a very well built e-reader with a clever, magnetically latching leather cover and extra battery life.

In the United States, the Kindle family is compatible with public library books, making these devices an even better value. In Canada, we’re still waiting for this feature to show up.

"I can’t really tell you that $400 is a reasonable price to pay for a Kindle"

If you happen to be one of those stalwarts who won’t give up their paper books (and according to Pew Research, shockingly it’s 63% of you!) let me quickly remind you of all the fantastic things you’re missing by not joining the e-reading community…

1. No more bulky books. Whether it’s a Coles Notes on Shakespeare or War And Peace, all books are now easy to hold, read and take with you.

2. All of your books, not just one or two. Imagine never having to think about the books you’ll take on vacation. With an e-reader, you take as many as you like.

3. Reading glasses optional. You may enjoy wearing reading glasses, but thanks to the adjustable font sizes on e-readers, you can choose to magnify the text, not your vision.

4. Never be at a loss for words. We all like to think our vocabulary is second-to-none, but sooner or later you’ll come across a word that stumps you. With their built-in dictionaries, learning a new word is as easy as clicking on it.

5. Bookmarks and notes. With an e-reader, bookmarks are unnecessary – they always remember where you left off. But if bookmarks are your thing, you can add as many as you want and they’ll never fall out. Ditto for notes and highlights – say goodbye to folded page corners and sticky notes. Oh, did I mention they’re searchable too?

6. Not just books. Amazon’s Kindle service lets you upload almost any text document to your e-reader – perfect for reviewing that lengthy whitepaper or PhD thesis.

While we’re on the subject, it’s worth pointing out that it still makes sense to own a dedicated e-reader, even if you’re a tablet or smartphone user. First, a dedicated e-reader is just like reading a paper book in the sense that there are no distractions. No notifications, reminders, or other annoyances. Just you and your book.

Second, e-ink is easier on the eyes than a backlit LCD screen. Instead of projecting light directly into your eyes, the technology relies on reflected light – just like a printed page. The two big benefits are: One, the brighter your surroundings, the easier it is to read e-ink (hello beach chair!) and two, especially when reading at night, there’s no blue light from a screen to interrupt your melatonin production and keep you from getting a good night’s sleep.

Third, with a battery that lasts weeks rather than days, you won’t be constantly on the prowl for somewhere to plug in. You’ll also preserve your smartphone battery for something really important. You know, like Instagram.

Finally, you can keep your e-reader in sync with a companion app on a tablet or smartphone, so you can always gobble a quick chapter while at the doctor’s office on your phone, and continue on your e-reader when you get back home.

I can’t really tell you that $400/US$290 is a reasonable price to pay for a Kindle, even one as well-built and enjoyable to use as the Kindle Oasis. But there’s no doubt in my mind that Amazon’s less pricey but still highly capable models are well worth the investment. Don’t forget about Kobo either – especially if you’d like an e-reader that can handle the elements.

Published Wednesday, June 15th 2016

Header image credit: Courtesy Amazon

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