What makes a good ereader?

Have the Kindle 2 and the Sony Reader Touch Edition sitting side by side in front of me and can’t help wondering -

What really matters? What are the core factors that determine whether an eReader is good?

Well, let’s take a shot at answering that question.

the Indispensable eReader functions

There are two absolutely indispensable ereader functions -

Being able to get books

Two main aspects to this -

  1. Good range of content. Kindle Store still needs a lot of improvement, and Sony even more. 
  2. Ease of getting content. Whispernet has set the expectation of instant wireless downloads.

One huge problem with Sony’s approach is they still haven’t matched Amazon on range of content and ease of getting content.

Being able to read books 

The minimum bar here for a good reading experience –  

  1. Good readable screen.
  2. Long battery life so you don’t run out in the middle of a book.
  3. Easy and convenient to turn pages.
  4. The eReader itself disappears once you start reading.

Some of the features that make for an excellent reading experience fall into the ‘Important’ category and we’ll discuss them below.

the hugely important eReader functions

The two qualities described above are the key ones. Here are the features that are hugely important -

Screen Quality and Size 

While 8 to 16 shades of grayscale and 6″ size seems to be the current default, there are a lot of improvements possible -

  1. Better Contrast.  The more the contrast the better.
  2. Not affected by bright light and glare. This is one drawback of touch screens.
  3. Higher pixel density. eInk screens still don’t have pixel densities that can recreate hardcover book pages. 
  4. Wider Variety of Sizes. Sony is already addressing this by delivering 5″, 6″ and 7″ screens. There’s also room for a screen bigger than the Kindle DX’s.

Ease of Use

The factors here include -

  1. Good design of the user interface – making everything dead simple and intuitive.
  2. Easy to use Keyboard, whether its physical or on-sreen.
  3. Touch, as it greatly improves usability. Sony has a clear advantage here.
  4. Easy to use and well placed buttons. 
  5. Folders to be able to arrange books.
  6. Keeping your place in the book.

There is always a struggle between adding new features and keeping usability simple. Designers adding any new feature should keep ease of use, and preserving the existing ease of use, in mind.

Portability

This is very, very important for ereaders -

  1. Overall Dimensions – Different screen sizes see different use cases. However, optimizing size in general and increasing screen to size ratio is good.
  2. Weight – Lighter the better. 
  3. Thinness – Thinner the better, although thick enough to hold comfortably.
  4. Battery Life – While this falls under the book reading experience, an exceptionally long battery life is a feature in itself.
  5. Sufficient Memory Size – To be able to carry a ton of books.

There are three sizes that seem to make sense i.e. in your pocket, 6/7″ and a larger 10″/11″. For each, minimizing size and weight relative to the screen size is important.

Reference

Reference features are important as they actually let eReaders improve on the traditional reading experience.

  1. In-line dictionary definitions and included dictionary.
  2. Being able to search through related books. 
  3. Wikipedia and Internet Access.
  4. It would be good to have a Thesaurus and a Book of Quotes added. Perhaps even a few books on grammar.

Here Kindle does a better job.

Search

eReaders give us the ability to search through our entire library, online and through reference works.

My understanding of what advances we can see here is limited. However, its definitely a very important area.

Content Rights and Content Portability

Like the supposed 85% of people who don’t care about format, the format is irrelevant to me. What does matter is -

  1. Life-long access to our books. 
  2. Readable across all our devices (or most of them). 
  3. Nothing that restricts us too much (as opposed to totally free of restrictions). 
  4. Price that is in accordance with the amount of utility i.e. $9.99 is ok if the hardcover is $15 – $20.  Not if there’s a $5 paperback.

The reason format advocates (whether its standard format or drm free format) don’t get much support is that they couch their arguments in terms that confuse users. If they were to speak in terms of ‘reading books across devices’ and ‘use without unreasonable restrictions’ they would see more support.

Annotations

The ability to add and bring up easily -

  1. Highlights. 
  2. Notes. 
  3. Scribbles. 
  4. Bookmarks.

Changeable Font Sizes

Changeable Font sizes are very important for -

  1. Low vision readers. 
  2. Times when lighting is lower. 
  3. When your eyes are tired.
  4. Books that are suited to different font sizes.

Kindle did a great job of having a variety of font sizes, and Sony Touch does a great job of having the sliding scale feature for font sizes.

It’d be good to have a dedicated button for this on the Kindle, and have it affect the Home Page and Menu too.

AudioBooks

Text to Speech and Background Music are in the Nice to Have section. However, the ability to play audiobooks is important as audiobooks are a completely different, and good, experience. Audiobooks are also good for -

  1. When you’re driving. 
  2. When your eyes are tired. 
  3. Bed time.

Easy to Use Store

This is super important. There are a lot of features needed here -

  1. Good recommendation engine. 
  2. Good classification by genre. 
  3. Usable through the eReader.

Kindle Store is easier to use than Sony’s (which requires you to download an application and buy through the application).

One Handed Use

This is on the borderline between nice to have and important. However, one handed reading is great for reading in bed, reading while exercising or cooking and for when you’re feeling lazy ;) .

Time and Date

This becomes a rather important feature and it wouldn’t hurt to have a dedicated button or Menu Item. Having time show up with the Menu is a somewhat reasonable compromise.

Language Support

For obvious reasons. Sony have added a Font Engine to the Touch that allows for a lot of cool things like support for Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.

the Nice to Have eReader features

Looks

This is on the line between important and nice to have -

  1. Its always good to have an ereader that’s easy on the eyes.  
  2. This can be done without messing up the ‘disappears in the background’ aspect.
  3. An eReader is something you carry everywhere so looks are important.  

After some more time with Sony will know whether good looks affect readability.

General Internet Access

It just adds a lot to reading to be able to go online and search through a bunch of reference sites. Its good even for non-reference purposes.

Color Screen

This isn’t exactly essential for reading – However, its an important feature and perhaps should be in the previous section.

Text to Speech, and Speech to Text

These features are really good features and on the borderline between Important and Nice to Have.

Journal Feature

It would be super cool to have a journal feature -

  1. Sony Touch is ideally suited to this.
  2. Amazon ought to incorporate it into Kindle 3 (along with Touch, of course).
  3. It would instantly expand the appeal of eReaders.
  4. It would make eReaders an even more vital part of most owners’ experience.
  5. Perhaps the ability to instantly upload entries to your blog.

It makes sense for an ereader to also double up as a journal. Perhaps down the line this gives birth to a notebooks feature.

Extensions and Utilities

Extensions to functionality are good -

  1. Calculators. 
  2. Address Book
  3. Calendar.
  4. Notepad.

By the way, there’s a free calendar and free weekly planner on the Kindle 3 Lab page (link at the very top of the page – above the kindle and pencil image). 

Games & Diversions

A few limited games for short breaks would be good. As would be vocabulary building and reading related stuff like crosswords.

Background Music

A very useful feature in some cases. It also adds a lot to be able to find and play music in the background that goes well with a book.

Device Lock and Lost+Found Feature

Sony Touch has a device lock which is useful. The aspects that would be good are -

  1. Device Lock. 
  2. Account Purchases Lock. 
  3. Lost Screen Screensaver option. 
  4. Lost & Found information feature with link on the home page.

Personalization and Customizability

There just isn’t enough being done to let uses take possession of an eReader and make it theirs. We ought to have -

  1. Design and Etching options from Amazon itself (like Flip have for their camcorders). 
  2. Lots of Designs in skins and covers, and customizability with your own art work or photos.
  3. Custom Screensavers.
  4. Custom Themes.
  5. Changeable Fonts and the option to select bold fonts throughout.  

Closing Thoughts

It’s interesting to look at the list and see that both the Kindle and the Sony Reader hit quite a few of these points, while still having a lot of room to grow.

Kindle has done a better job with content delivery and range of content and that’s the secret to its success.

As eInk technology evolves, economies of scale kick-in, and the eReader landscape becomes more competitive, we ought to see some exceptional eReaders.

That was a rather lengthy list of features that make for a good eReader – what’s yours?

11 Responses

  1. thanks for really interesting and comprehensive thoughts

  2. Edit. Note: This is wrong information. Both Kindle and Sony allow sharing the same book between different Kindles (or in the case of the Kindle iPhones etc.). See Next Comment for more details.

    You missed one important part in making a good ereader… the ability to share a book…

    Sony ereader already allowed for this option where four ereader devices can be connected to one library account… allowing a family of four to share in one purchased ebook… Kindle currently requires that each buy their own… Any book reader knows that it is much nicer to be able to lend a book or have it in a family library where all family members can have access to… Sony ereader addresses this … a buying feature for me, if only they could improve on the others…

  3. actually 6 kindles can be connected to one account and can share books. So your information is out of date.

  4. […] This Kindle 2 review is based on the ‘What makes a good eReader’ review guide. […]

  5. I read alot at night in bed when my husband is sleeping and would like a “Kiindle” that has a built in light, either within or attached to the unit at the top which can be pulled up to use. I’m surprised that this hasn’t been addressed in any of the book readers. This is good for low light places as well as in very dark areas. Is this being looked into seriously? I would wait for one of these. I would pay more for an option like this.

    • Michi, eReaders are moving away from having in-built lights (the PRS-700 from Sony had one, buy later models don’t).
      You can buy a $5 reading light or a $20 higher end reading light that clips on to the eReader and that works well enough.

  6. […] written in the past about the two indispensable eReader functions […]

  7. I agree with the review and comments. Has anyone compared the Kindle 3 to the Nook? I’m eager to get my first ereader, but it seems that no one brand has it “nailed”. The iPad (just out now) appears to have great features and all the pluses you could ever think of – but a huge downside (show stopper for me I think) as an ereader just for books – it weighs 2.5 times as much as the Kindle! I can’t believe people will happily use an ereader that weighs 1.5 pounds.

  8. […] What makes a good eReader? post is the one my eReader reviews are usually based on. Looking at the criteria of this post […]

  9. […] of the Kindle DX’s strengths and weaknesses as an eReader. This Kindle DX review will use the What makes a good eReader? post as a skeleton and try some new […]

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