NEW YORK — It's a big year for e-book reading, not just because Apple Inc. just announced a tablet computer, the iPad, that comes with a new iBookstore. Other manufacturers have been flooding the field to capitalize on the success of the Kindle. The iPad will be out in two months, starting at $499. Until then, book lovers who want a cheaper device specifically for reading would do well to look at the Sony Reader Daily Edition ($400) and the Aluratek Libre ($180). Both outdo Amazon.com Inc.'s $259 Kindle in some respects.
Sony Reader Daily Edition ($400)
This version fixes some problems seen in the past. It connects to AT&T Inc.'s cellular network and to WiFi hot spots, which means you can buy books on the device and start reading them in minutes. You can get electronic newspapers like The Wall Street Journal and New York Times delivered daily. The Reader is reasonably easy to navigate with a touch-sensitive 7-inch screen. This is a great help when reading newspapers, in particular, because they have a lot of links to articles, and tapping them is more natural than manipulating a four-way knob as on the Kindle. The touchscreen also means there's no need for a physical keyboard, which allows for a larger screen while being the same size as the Kindle. It's not backlit. Two drawbacks: The price is relatively high and the display, which uses the "electronic ink" technology, is slow and lacks color and crispness. The Reader's battery life is short — less than three days if the wireless is on.
Aluratek Libre ($180)
Instead of e-ink, it uses a monochrome 5-inch liquid-crystal display. The letters are deep black against a gray-green background, presenting a crisper image than e-ink. It can also switch from page to page with the alacrity we expect from modern electronics. This makes the Libre screen very comfortable to read on. But the interface lacks polish and the button layout is somewhat unfriendly The screen isn't touch-sensitive, and has no backlight. It also lacks wireless access, so to put books on it, you have to hook it up to a computer. It makes up for these shortcomings by being cheap. The battery life seems decent, but didn't seem to live up to Aluratek's claim of 24 hours of constant reading.
What about the books?
So what books can you get for these e-readers? Well, there's an interesting feature that unites the Libre and the Reader, and sets them apart from the Kindle.
Sony's store for the Reader is not as comprehensive as the Kindle store or Barnes & Noble's e-book store, but it makes up for that with the ability to read books from a lot of other online stores, plus free ones you can borrow from public libraries. There's no dedicated store for the Libre, but it, too, can use books from a variety of stores and libraries.
The Reader and Libre can do this because they're designed around a system administered by Adobe Systems Inc. It doesn't run a bookstore, but its system helps stores and libraries lock up the books with encryption, so buyers can't pass them around to others. A variety of third-party software is available that links to the Adobe system, so you can read your books on many different devices — just not the Kindle — as long as you have your Adobe ID and password.
This system isn't ideal. In fact, it can be a hassle to deal with different stores and to figure out how to authorize new devices. It feels like a throwback to the way music was sold online five years ago, before the industry started to realize that locking up the files with encryption was turning people to piracy. But a wide array of sources seems like a better idea than Amazon's single-bookstore business model, and I feel somewhat more comfortable that I'll be able to reread the books I buy years from now. Ideally, I'd like to buy books with no encryption, just like we buy MP3s today, but that doesn't seem to be in the cards.
Both the Reader and the Libre advance the state of e-readers. But the iPad will be out in a few months, providing yet another point of reference, and at $400, the Reader seems expensive when we know the Apple iPad will start at $499. The Libre is easier to recommend because it's small and relatively inexpensive. Stuff it with library books, and you've got the e-book revolution on the cheap.