March 4, 2010

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We want cheaper e-readers
And we want them to be downright awesome
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com.

There’s no question that eBooks are finally becoming mainstream. Why else would two giant bookstores, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, be so heavily pushing their respective eBook readers, the Kindle and the nook?

So where’s the competition?

With both the leading readers at $259, it’s tough to get excited about stripped-down, off-brand readers at a $199 price point — especially if you have to pay for shipping. The alternatives that exist have a slightly smaller display, five inches diagonally instead of six, but they also lack the killer feature of the big boys: wireless access to a vast catalog of content.

Most of the other readers don’t provide an easy way to buy content at all, weirdly enough. iTunes sealed the dominance of the iPod in the portable media player market, and the effortless way you can download a new book on the Kindle and nook makes them veritable cash cows long after the initial hardware sale. New display technology later this year might spice up the fight, but for now, the choices are limited.

Sony’s $199 entry, the Reader Pocket Edition, continues to shock me by being the best value in the (barely) sub-$200 group. It comes with Reader Library software for not only buying books, but simple access to thousands upon thousands of free public domain works.

Once you’re past Sony, you’re in the weeds of brands you’ve probably never heard of. Astak mostly makes security cameras, but introduced its EZ Reader line last year. The five-inch Pocket PRO model comes in at $199, and while there’s no ready-made bookstore, the reader itself has a few compelling features. For one, you can add a Secure Digital memory card for up to 16GB more storage. That’s a ton of books, but it’s also decent space for an MP3 collection, which the Pocket PRO can also play through headphones. It can also read your books to you, albeit in a roboty voice.

Another $199 entry is the BeBook Mini. It’s identical to Astak’s reader, right down to the control layout, but it only claims to support SD cards up to 4GB. But hey, it also comes with a screwdriver so you can install the battery. So that’s nice.

It would be a shame not to mention the Bookeen Cybook Opus and ViewSonic VEB612. They’re both available from Buy.com for about $220, but since their shipping is free, they’re on pretty equal footing with the two clones above, and they actually have different designs you might like better.

Perhaps you’ve come across a suspiciously less costly reader going by the name Aluratek Libre or ECTACO jetBook. They’re the same hardware, just with a slightly different hardware bundle and wildly divergent theories about proper capitalization. Both sell for $179 or a little less. There’s also a jetBook Lite that runs on four AA batteries instead of an internal rechargeable battery and goes for just $149.

It’s very important to note that these cheaper readers do not use any kind of electronic ink displays. Instead, you’re reading a high-contrast, high-resolution LCD screen that requires a tiny trickle of power to keep on. Some people prefer the LCD because it flips pages much more quickly and without the black “flash” of E-Ink. There’s not as much glare as, say, a computer monitor, but you can still tell you’re not looking at printed text.

Even cheaper devices like the Franklin eBookMan populate some online store shelves. Yes, it looks like an old Palm device. No, the operating system is actually a knockoff. It’s $79. That’s pretty much all you need to know.