E-book readers have been particularly visible in recent months: the number of available devices has risen, prices have fallen, and Amazon has pulled out all the stops to advertise its latest Kindle product.
Here we're rounding up four of the latest e-book readers. The Kindle has to feature, of course. We also examine Sony's most recent models, the Reader Touch PRS-650 and the Pocket PRS-350, plus Samsung's E60.
Sony Reader Pocket Edition PRS-350
This is a small-format e-book reader with a screen measuring just 5in. across the diagonal. It weighs 155g and measures 104mm wide by 145mm deep by 8.5mm thick, making it smaller than the average paperback book. An aluminium chassis gives the PRS-350 a touch of class.
According to Sony, the PRS-350's li-ion battery is good for two full weeks of reading, although we're not sure how that pans out in practice. We prefer to see battery life quoted in the number of page turns.
The PRS-350's 5in. E-ink screen has a resolution of 600 by 800 pixels and supports 16 greyscales, making it more readable than previous-generation E-ink displays. The display is both touch-sensitive and responsive, making it easy to navigate through e-books and menus.
If you don't want to use a fingertip, there's also a stylus. Beneath the screen, a row of five thin and narrow buttons duplicate the page-turning function, while also accessing the Home screen, a quick text-zooming feature and a complete set of options. The stylus is useful for things like adding notes to text and searching for text, although you can a finger for these functions if you wish.
The PRS-350 has 2GB of internal memory, and there's no facility for expanding this with MicroSD cards. Sony says this is enough storage for approximately 1,200 e-books. There is no music playback facility on the PRS-350.
Formats supported include EPUB, PDF, Microsoft Word, TXT, RTF and BBeB as far as non-DRM content is concerned. Take the DRM route, and you get support for EPUB and BBeB. You can view JPEG, GIF, PNG and BMP images.
Extras include a drawing application that lets you go freehand onto a blank screen, and the superb Oxford English Dictionary. This pops up short definitions when you double tap a word. The short definitions open out into full OED detail that includes word origins if you tap them. There's usually so much text in a definition that you have to sweep horizontally to see it all. Readers may find this a superbly browsable resource in its own right. You can also switch out of the OED into one of 12 translating dictionaries.
There's little by way of flashy extras on the PRS-350, but it's small enough to fit into a pocket and the finger-touch interface is well implemented.
The Sony Reader Pocket Edition PRS-350 costs £159 (inc. VAT) direct from Sony.
Sony Reader Touch Edition PRS-650
Compared to the pocket-sized PRS-350, the PRS-650 has a bigger (6in.) screen and an expanded feature set. It shares the PRS-350's general design as far as the aluminium chassis, touch control and front buttons are concerned. You can scroll through an e-book by sweeping the screen or using buttons beneath the screen. The finger-touch controls also extend to functions like changing font size and tapping a word to uaccess the built-in Oxford English Dictionary or translating dictionaries.
The PRS-650's 6in. E-Ink display offers the same 600-by-800 pixel resolution and 16 greyscales as its sibling, but the larger screen makes for a slightly bigger device measuring 118.8mm by 168mm by 9.6mm. It's heavier too, at 215g.
Sony suggests the battery is capable of supporting two full weeks of reading, and again we'd prefer to see this expressed in page turns.
The range of document formats support is also identical to that of the PRS-350: non-DRM EPUB, PDF, Microsoft Word, TXT, RTF and BBeB; DRM EPUB and BBeB; plus JPEG, GIF, PNG and BMP image files. The PRS-650 adds support for MP3 and non-DRM AAC file formats, which it plays through headphones only.
Another feature not present in the PRS-350 is support for storage expansion. There is 2GB of internal storage, which you can augment with both SD and Memory Stick Duo cards. Slots for both media are on the top edge of the chassis.
If you're a fan of Sony approach to e-book readers, the key difference between the Touch and the Pocket editions are overall size, support for storage expansion and the ability to play sound files.
The Sony Reader Touch Edition PRS-650 costs £199 (inc. VAT) direct from Sony.
Samsung's E60 has a 6in. 600-by-800-pixel E-Ink display with eight greyscale levels. It's relatively heavy at 315g and measures 119.5mm wide by 171mm deep by 16.3mm thick. It uses a Mini-USB (rather than Micro-USB) connector for recharging.
The E60's somewhat bulky design is due to the presence of a slide-down control panel. This houses a five-way navigation pad, four buttons and a pair of speakers.
The four buttons provide Home, Menu and Back functions as well as what Samsung calls 'EmoLink' — a facility for sharing files between E60 devices. The E60 has built in Wi-Fi, which you can use to purchase content without needing to connect to a PC.
You can write notes onto the screen, using a stylus rather than a fingertip. The stylus is housed on the top edge of the chassis. You need to use the stylus or the five-way pad to navigate around menus and choose books to read, although there are Previous and Next buttons on the front for moving between pages of text.
The white shiny plastic fascia turns into a stippled matte backplate. The look feels old fashioned in comparison to the sleekness of the Sony readers in particular.
You can remove the backplate to swap in a new battery. Also under the backplate is the microSD card slot, which you use to boost the 2GB of internal memory. Book formats supported include text, EPUB and PDF. If you want to read e-books from a microSD card, they must be placed in a folder called Books.
To listen to music, you can navigate the file structure of a microSD card, so files can be located wherever you like. This means it should be easy to store audio books, podcasts and music in conveniently labelled folders.
Music volume doesn't suffer too much if you don't extend the slide-out portion, and audio quality is tinny in either mode. A decent set of headphones doesn't deliver much improvement.
There's a notes app, so you can write to the screen, and a calendar that synchronises with Outlook. You also get a utility called Virtual Printer, which can convert PC-based documents to a format suitable for the Samsung E60.
The Samsung E60 delivers a reasonable e-book reading experience, but its physical design leaves us a little bemused. Competitors are releasing ever-thinner, ever-lighter devices that put usability centre stage, so the extra thickness required for the slide-out portion, and the need to slide it out at all, feels rather clunky. The E60 also seemed less responsive than competing e-book readers.
The Samsung E60 is available from W H Smith for £199 (inc. VAT).
Amazon Kindle (third edition)
Amazon has set the ebook world alight with its new Kindle, not so much because of the hardware as for the connected services it offers. The latest incarnation of Amazon's Kindle is the third, and it comes in two versions: with Wi-Fi and 3G it costs £149 (inc. VAT); with Wi-Fi only the price is £109.
The device measures 123mm wide by 190mm deep by 8.5mm thick; this is much smaller than its predecessor, and close to Sony's Reader Touch Edition PRS-650. It weighs 241g with Wi-Fi only, or 247g with Wi-Fi and 3G. The screen is a 6in. 600-by-800-pixel E Ink display with 16 greyscales. The Kindle's rather tall profile is due to a QWERTY keyboard that sits beneath the screen.
Buttons for navigating pages are neatly duplicated on both sides of the chassis, so they can be used comfortably with either hand. A headset jack on the bottom of the chassis lets you listen to audio files — there are no speakers, so you'll need to use headphones. Audio format support is limited to MP3; supported text formats include DRM-free Microsoft Word, PDF, HTML, TXT, RTF, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, PRF and MOBI.
There's an experimental text-to-speech engine that is, frankly, pretty poor; there's also a web browser that, while restricted in capability, could be handy. You get 4GB of internal storage, which Amazon says is enough for 3,500 books, but there's no scope for external storage expansion. Amazon claims one month's battery life with wireless connectivity turned off, three weeks with it activated.
These features make the Kindle a competent e-book reader. However, as noted above, it's the connected services that really make it stand out.
You can download content from the Amazon book store directly to the Kindle via Wi-Fi or 3G. You are tied to Amazon's store, but this offers more than 45,000 e-books plus newspapers and magazines. You also have access to an extensive range free e-books, including out-of-copyright classics.
Books can be considerably cheaper than the high-street price. For example, Tony Blair's A Journey costs £6.99 on the Kindle compared to the £12.50 printed edition at Amazon.co.uk and a high-street cover price of £25.
The Kindle also has its own email address, so you can send documents to it for reading. Document transfer over Wi-Fi this is free, but costs 20p per megabyte over a 3G connection. You can also use a USB cable to transfer documents from a computer. The charge for document transfer over 3G is an exception: for web browsing and book downloading anywhere in the world, 3G is free.
Your purchased content is backed up using Amazon's Whispersync service. Cleverly, this also remembers your last reading position and you can sync purchased content and your last reading position to the free Kindle software for various devices such as PC, Mac, iPad, Android smartphones, iPhone and BlackBerry. This makes the whole process of reading device-agnostic and incredibly flexible.
We'd like the Kindle to have a touch-screen, but that's a fairly minor issue. The Kindle's biggest problem is that it's tied to Amazon's book store: if Amazon doesn't stock what you want, it's a fiddle to get it onto the device. The Calibre free e-book management software can help here, and you'll need it to convert non-supported EPUB files.
For all the panache of Sony's offerings, it's the Kindle that has driven the maturity of the e-book reader market. The ease with which you can download content, the competitive cost of many e-books over their printed counterparts, and the superb way you can synchronise purchases across different devices are all very impressive features. All this allows the Kindle to add value to the process of obtaining books and reading them in ways that unconnected readers don't.
What the book pricing structures mean in the longer term for authors, publishers and retailers, and where the Kindle's tie-in with a single retailer leaves the publishing world, are entirely different debates.