Tuesday, 13 April 2010

E-books on the Cheap

I don't know about you, but I always find it pleasing if I can come up with a cheap alternative to something modish and expensive. Especially if it's actually better in some ways. We're not talking about clipping a bubblegum card into your bike's back wheel and pretending you're on a motorbike, here.

One of the problems with e-book readers is that the "Digital Rights Management" is so rigid that you can't even use more than one format on the same reader. Even those which can, in theory, read two formats (say, Adobe e-Pub and Mobipocket on the Bookeen CyBook) will insist that you choose one or the other. This wouldn't matter, if everything was available in all formats. But this is very far from the case. Not even everything available as an e-book by the same author is available in the same format.

What many people don't realise is that all the major e-book readers are available as free downloads. Kindle ("Kindle for PC"), Mobipocket and Adobe Digital Editions can all be downloaded onto a Windows PC and used perfectly happily together. In fact, the e-book reading experience is better using the PC version: you get more flexible layout, colour, adjustable brightness and contrast, instant page turns, and better display and navigation of contents using familiar scrollbars, tabs and icons.

If you want to go one step further, and free yourself from your desktop or bulky laptop, a nice little Windows netbook can be bought for about the same price as the cheaper dedicated e-book readers. Turn off the wireless connection when reading (it saves battery), and you may be looking at nine or more hours of battery life; not in the same league as the typical e-book reader, but plenty.

To take another step into e-book-reading nirvana, you can download all the software onto all the computers you use, and download all the same books. Kindle, in particular, positively encourages this, allowing you to name your various versions of the reader and nominate which one to use for downloading your current purchase. It will then synchronise all the other versions when they are next used, so that all your Kindle purchases become available to all your nominated Kindle readers. It's rather good. And free!

One tip, if you want to try this. If, like me, you're an habitual Amazon user, you'll probably be quite excited by the simplicity and instantaneity of buying Kindle books. You may not be interested in the alternatives (say, Mobipocket and Adobe). Although the differences in coverage are real, the overlap is large. But if you are, you will discover that Kindle actually uses the same file format as Mobipocket.

This will cause dire confusion as Kindle will try to be the default software for all downloaded files with extensions .mbp and .prc, whether or not they have been bought from Amazon. The only solution is to break the connection by un-nominating Kindle as the "opens with" application in "Tools/Folder options/File types". You then just have to choose which application is relevant to your current download.

However, there is no conflict at all with the files used by Adobe Digital Editions, and -- as there do seem to be more e-Pub items available than Mobipocket -- perhaps the simplest solution is just to use Kindle for PC and Adobe Digital Editions together. I have an investment in Mobipocket e-books because I own a Bookeen Cybook, but sensible owners of the newer versions will probably have opted for the e-Pub version anyway.

So forget about "you can read e-paper in direct sunlight". Sit in the shade and use your netbook instead.


Martin H. said...

Do you know if this works for Project Gutenberg downloads?

Jon said...

Great article. I was writing the same in my head a few days ago. Dedicated e-readers are too proprietary to last too long in the marketplace, I think. Here is a company that may be useful for reading ebooks
Uses rechargeable batteries instead of proprietary internal batteries. Clever motherboard design that does not need a fan.

Mike C. said...

Sorry, people, I've been away for a week --

As far as I know, Martin, Gutenberg files can be read on pretty much anything, as they're not DRM'ed files.

Jon, that does look interesting. For a while I was a fan of the AlphaSmart "classroom computers" -- I'm about to sell my Dana, which I thought I'd use more than I actually have.