How to Perfect Your eReading Experience

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I have to admit, when I was given an eReader as a gift, I knew very little about what I had received or what to do with it. Fortunately, it was an early version of Amazon's Kindle, and outside of purchasing and downloading books through the Amazon site, there really wasn't much that I needed to know (or could do).

Today though, there are numerous tablets on the market that allow users to read digital books and various stores that are selling digital titles. Because of this, there is even more to consider when working toward the perfect eReading experience than your tablet's operating system, screen size or resolution.

Following are some tips for getting the most out of your tablet if you are an avid reader.

Formatting Matters

It goes without saying that eBooks come in a variety of formats, and it is important to know which ones are compatible with popular tablets. Following are three popular formats for today's eBooks that should play into your decision-making process when shopping for a tablet for eReading.

  • ePub: The ePub format is an open source format that is supported by the largest number of e-Readers, including devices from Apple, Sony, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble. That said, Amazon's Kindle doesn't support this format, and if you want to read an ePub book on this device, you will have to take the additional step of using Calibre, an eBook management tool, to port it over.
  • Kindle Format 8: With the release of its Kindle Fire device, Amazon released Kindle Format 8 (KF8), to replace its AZW format (a copy-protected version of .mobi), which was used for earlier Kindle devices. It is intended for use on Amazon's line of devices, and it provides a superior reading experience to its predecessor.
  • PDF: Portable Document Format ... the name says it all. PDF is an Acrobat format that is ubiquitous across platforms. Keep in mind that when used on an eReader or tablet, it may pose challenges given that it is normally scaled for A4 or letter size.

Remember Apple's catchphrase, "There's an app for that"? It seems to become truer by the day. While it is good to understand the various formats supported by the popular devices on the market, the big players in the eBook marketplace – like Kindle - provide apps that allow you to access their formats on a range of tablets. Additionally, there are often ways to side-load books and other media onto your tablet.

There is also software that will let you convert books from their original format to one that your eReader can access. The aforementioned Calibre, an open source e-book library management application, is the most popular of these. As the website denotes, it can "convert from a huge number of formats to a huge number of formats," and it also offers functionality to make reading easier, such as rescaling font sizes.

Tablets

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Content Counts

When I first turned on my older Kindle eReader, I expected to be able to access any book that I wanted to read. It only took two turns of a digital page to learn that this wasn't the case. While not all books are available in digital format, the availability of eBooks does vary from store to store. Following is an overview of the popular stores and their content.

  • Amazon Kindle Store: Amazon's Kindle Store stands tall as the most expansive library with millions of eBooks for purchase, and over a million available for free download. The library is vast and over 60 percent of the books that are available come in digital format versus paper.
  • Apple's iBooks Store: Readers who have an Apple device can access over two million digital books, a number of which are free, quickly and easily using the free iBooks app or iTunes. While not as extensive as Amazon's library, it is impressive.
  • Barnes & Noble Nook Store: With over one million eBooks advertised, Barnes & Noble may not have as large a library as Amazon, but it is geared toward readers, in particular. This, and the fact that over 50 percent of its titles are in digital format versus paper, make it an attractive place to purchase eBooks.
  • Sony Reader Store: The popular Sony Reader Store boasts a vast collection, and also offers over a million free public domain titles. While not as big a name as Amazon or Barnes & Noble, it does a great job at providing top-notch content.

Pick the Perfect Price

One of my favorite aspects of eBooks is price. Not only are new releases available at lower prices than their paper counterparts, but most sites offer deeply discounted older books.

While Amazon is the stand-out when it comes to content, its prices are fairly average. Most new releases are available starting at $9.99, although, due to its size, Amazon is able to offer deep discounts on the most popular titles. Keep in mind that you can also access a very substantial library of free titles here, too. Similarly, Apple sells its iBooks at competitive prices to that of Amazon, although it is occasionally trumped by its competitor's ability to offer extensive discounts.

Barnes & Noble sells its eBook titles at approximately half the cost of hardbacks. Although this isn't as reasonable as Amazon's store, it is competitive. Classics can be downloaded for free, and there are often newer books available for $5 or less. The Sony Reader Store is more expensive, and books are approximately 70 percent the cost of their paperback counterparts. Keep in mind that Sony only sells books digitally.

If you are looking for newer releases, the costs tend to be similar. I recently conducted a price comparison for Bill O'Reilly's Killing Jesus: A History, and I found it was available for $10.91 from Sony's Reader Store, $10.99 from iBooks Store, $10.91 from Amazon, and $10.91 from Barnes & Noble. You can find deals depending on the seller and title, though. One example is John Grisham's best-selling Sycamore Row. When I conducted my shopping, I found it for $6.99 from both Amazon and the iBook Store, while the Nook version was $10.49 and Sony listed the eBook version for $10.41.

Engage the Equipment

While reading may be your focus, it is worth considering the equipment itself. You may not need a great deal of functionality to enjoy your favorite eBook, but features can enhance the experience. Following are top tablets, their features, and most importantly, their price.

  • iPad: Apple's iPad devices come in two screen sizes. Its iPad 2 and iPad Air models boast 9.7-inch screens, while its iPad Minis come with 7.9-inch screens. Apple's hot product these days is the recently-released Air with its 2048 X 1536 screen. Not only does Apple offer a vast app store, but other features – full-screen zoom magnification and LED-backlit Multi-Touch display – make it ideal for reading. The new iPad Mini with Retina Display boasts advanced specifications more in line with the Air, but with a smaller screen, of course. iPads can be a bit pricey, though, with the two newest models ranging from $399 to $929, depending on connectivity and storage. That said, there are lower cost models, and you can purchase an iPad mini for $299 if you want the user experience of an Apple product on a budget.

Keep in mind that iPads are intended for far more than reading, so their focus isn't necessarily on the ultimate eReading experience. Users will also find issue with iPad models when reading in direct sunlight. Quite simply, you can't, due to the nature of the screen. Reading at night or in the dark is another story, and a positive one, too. Why? iPad models are backlit. All told, these are innovative, user-friendly machines made by the best in the business.

  • Kindle Fire: Kindle's Fire HD and Fire HDX can be purchased with 7-inch or 8.9 inch screens, and boast resolutions beginning at 1280 x 800 with its smaller Fire HD and maxing out at 2560 x 1600 with the larger Fire HDX. You will find features similar to those provided by Apple, including a screen magnifier, anti-glare technology and adjustable font sizes and color.

The new HDX models are the hottest on the market today and for good reason. They provide a big punch at lower cost than iPads, and you can purchase an 8.9-inch Fire HDX with 64 GB of memory and Wi-Fi/wireless connectivity for less than $600. For reading purposes, you can't do better than the Fire. Unlike iPads, you can even read in direct light. If you are purchasing a device solely for reading, have no use for extended functionality, and are on a budget, consider one of Kindle's eReaders. They are small, compact, and are available in four different models ranging in price from $69 for the standard Kindle model to $239 for the Kindle DX. eReading is the Kindle's sweet spot, books are easy on the eyes and the library is extensive.

  • Nook: Barnes & Noble is pushing its Nook HD and Nook HD+ devices this holiday season. Both offer similar features, including fully laminated HD screens, but in different sizes. The former is available with a 7-inch screen and the latter with a 9-inch screen. The smaller version comes with a screen resolution of 1440 x 900 compared to the 1920 x 1280 resolution of its counterpart. The pricing is much more pocket-book friendly, too, and Nook's top of the line costs a mere $170. Keep in mind that Barnes & Noble does offer even smaller, less costly models, like the Nook GlowLight (6-inches and $119). It is worth noting that, after a financially tumultuous 2013, Barnes & Noble has indicated that, while it will continue designing its devices, it is getting out of the hardware business and will discontinue manufacturing them, opting instead to use third-party partners. That said, this is a real steal if you are looking for a superb reading experience on a shoestring. Its functionality isn't as robust as a tablet, but it certainly serves its purpose.

Before jumping into the tablet game, consider these additional tips:

  • Weigh your options: The weight of tablets is important, and while they all seem technically "light" (the iPad mini is a mere seven-tenths of a pound), this really comes into play while using them. Why? Because they can place unnecessary strain on your wrist when reading for long periods of time. Larger tablets can weigh a pound or more, increasing the strain, intensifying the pain and ultimately harming your reading experience.
  • Consider the light source: Make sure you fully assess when and where you will be reading when purchasing a tablet. As mentioned, some are easier to use in direct light (Kindles) while others aren't (iPads). In contrast, devices that aren't backlit will prevent you from reading in dim light or the dark, although you can purchase additional equipment or specific models (Nook Glowlight and Kindle Paperwhite both include built-in reading lights), that will enable you to continue reading sans light.

Amazon has long been a stand-out among its peers due to its selection and price, as well as the stellar readability of its Kindle products. If eReading is your predominant focus, a device from the Kindle line is certainly worth considering. That said, don't rule out other tablets. Remember that these days "there's an app for that," and you may be able to simply add the Amazon experience to the tablet of your choice.

Jamie Lee is an avid technophile who writes about the latest gadgets and new consumer technology for eBay.com.

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