THE KINDLE AND ITS RIVALS

The Sceptical Shopper: are e-readers the saviour of reading, or the death of the bookstore? Our undercover expert gives chapter and verse

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2013

Last year Amazon UK sold more Kindle e-books than hardbacks and paperbacks combined. Although Amazon won't disclose figures for digital book sales, the Publishers Association says the digital slice of the pie has more than doubled, to 12%, since 2010. And Amazon says that customers who bought a Kindle e-reader typically went on to buy four times as many titles as they had before, a trend it proclaimed as "a renaissance of reading".

Whether you want to curl up with a Kindle depends on how you feel about getting into bed with Amazon, the wrecking ball of the high street. The brand is so proprietary that a Kindle e-reader will only read Kindle-edition e-books, whose format can't be read by other e-readers such as Nook (from the American bookseller Barnes & Noble) or Kobo (from Canada). But Kindle's closed platform has two baggy loopholes. First, there are ways, found on techie websites, of converting EPUB files—the publishing industry's standard format for e-books—and "sideloading" them onto a Kindle. Second, the Kindle app is free to download to any computer, tablet or smartphone, so you don't need a Kindle to read Kindle content.

When it's so easy to add an e-reading app to any device, you might wonder why anyone would want an e-reader as well. As if to pre-empt that question, Kindle, Nook and Kobo have produced book-centric android tablets, yet they all continue to develop dedicated e-readers too. To analyse their appeal, I tested six e-readers—Kindle Basic and Paperwhite, Kobo Glo and Aura, Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, and a Sony Reader—and two tablets, Kindle Fire HD and Kobo Arc.

At first sight the e-readers' monochrome screens and fiddly keyboards seemed quaintly low-tech. It took a while to get my eye in—and then my eyes were grateful. Much the best thing about e-readers is their matte "e-ink" screens, which mimic the printed page without any of the backlit, glassy glare you get with tablets and smartphones. Many come with a light for reading in the dark. Other pluses: e-readers are lighter than the average paperback, not that expensive (from £69), long on battery life (up to two months), big on storage (1,000 books or more), and most can download books via Wi-Fi. If you've always meant to take "War and Peace" on holiday but never quite fitted it into your luggage, an e-reader could be the ticket.

I downloaded "NW" (£4.99) by Zadie Smith from the Amazon, Kobo and Nook stores. Within seconds, the e-book arrived. On each e-reader, I could then change the font, point size, line spacing, screen brightness and even, on the Kobos, the weight and sharpness of the e-ink. Page turns were either a tap on the screen or a physical click (Nook lets you do both). Other features allow you to highlight passages, make notes, look up words or search the text.

The Kobo Glo and Aura, Nook SimpleTouch and Kindle Paperwhite are all great for reading novels or non-fiction. They are especially good for the classics as you can cart around a shelfload in your bag and get titles free if they're out of copyright. But illustrated books? Forget it. I downloaded "Topsy and Tim Visit London", a favourite in our household. The pictures looked lifeless in greyscale, so until a colour e-ink screen comes along, I would only want to look at illustrated books on a tablet. And while the Kindle Fire and Kobo Arc reproduced the colour, only iBooks on iPad made Topsy and Tim look like the real thing. For reading plain text, however, e-readers beat tablets: no app can get past glass.

Which one should you buy? With reading features much of a muchness, and touchscreens and lights becoming standard, the deciding factors seem to be ergonomic. Choose one that feels comfortable in your hand—for me this was the slim Kindle Paperwhite (£109)—and the screen that's easiest to stare at for hours. I liked the Kobo Aura (£139.99) for its pin-sharp text on a very white ground. With the former in my bag and the latter in the kitchen I read more in a month than I have in the past year. A renaissance indeed.

Illustration Richard Rockwood