Ebook readers

There are four types of devices people commonly use to read ebooks. We look at how they compare in terms of features and reading experience.

The boom in e-readers

Kindle on the Beach

The explosion of mobile devices is behind the boom in ebook reading. They represent the start of a new wave of computing, taking on many tasks that were previously done by PCs and making new ones possible.

There are four main ways that people read ebooks:

  • Dedicated ebook readers
  • Tablets
  • Smartphones
  • Computers

Dedicated ebook readers

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite
(Click to enlarge)

These devices are purpose-built for reading ebooks, but have only limited functionality in other areas such as web browsing. They started the ebook boom but their sales have begun to decline.

Popular examples are the Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, and Kobo Reader.

They’re light and portable, relatively inexpensive, and use a paper-like screen technology called E Ink. This works well in bright light and uses very little power enabling ebooks to be read for long periods without needing to recharge the battery.

But they have limitations. The current generation of E Ink screens only displays in black and white and, while they work well with ebooks that are mostly text, they’re less suitable for highly designed books.

In addition, the screen refresh rate — the time it takes to redraw the screen with a new page — is too slow to support video and fairly cumbersome when browsing the web.

Watch a video demonstrating the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite

Tablets and smartphones

Tablet computers and smartphones, like Apple’s iPhone and iPad,  can now display ebooks — once the owner has installed an e-reader app. An ‘app’ is a small piece of software that runs on a smartphone or tablet computer.

iBooks on iPad

Apple’s iBooks e-reading app for the iPad tablet (click to enlarge)

These e-reading apps have brought ebooks to hundreds of millions of smartphone and tablet users. These devices are really general-purpose mobile computers so they can be used for surfing the web, email, games, calendars — and reading.

Most major ebookstores, such as Amazon and Kobo, provide free apps closely tied to their stores so users can read and buy ebooks from them.

So do several independent app developers such as Bluefire and Aldiko. These apps can be used to read ebooks purchased from most ebookstores. Two notable exceptions are Amazon and Apple which restrict access to ebooks bought from their stores by using proprietary formats or copy-protection systems.


Watch a video showing the iBooks e-reading app

Kindle Fire

Amazon Kindle Fire (click to enlarge)

This video shows an example of tablet — in this case, the Kindle Fire — that’s been optimised for reading out of the box.

Watch this Amazon video showing the features of the Kindle Fire

Personal computers as e-readers

Nook for PC

A laptop with the Nook e-reading application (click to enlarge)

Personal computers and notebooks are still widely used to read ebooks. They’re most useful for research and study, or for complex works such as technical books; they’re less suitable for reading fiction and general non-fiction ebooks — the parts of the market that have grown strongly.

The most common way to read ebooks on computers is with free Adobe Reader software, and ebooks formatted as PDF documents. This system remains a staple of educational publishing and many non-fiction categories.

However, free applications from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble and Adobe among others make it possible to buy and read the same ebooks that are made for dedicated e-readers and mobile apps.



Find out more about this topic on our Digital Publishing 101 useful resources site.


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