confused by ebooks
November 6, 2010 8:08 AM   Subscribe

bunch of questions/confirmations about getting a reading device., mainly about formats and what is possible on the different devices. Despite reading a number of articles about the different devices, i still can't figure it out.

I'm in school and am principally interested in getting an electronic reader so that i can stop buying and lugging around huge textbooks.

is it generally true that to get an a reading device, you are limited to whatever you can buy from that device's "home" store (ie amazon for kindle) plus whatever you can "find" in pdf format?
Are any of the readers best with pdfs? I guess the standard thing to do is use some software to convert to the native format for that reader?

I guess my real question is where do pdfs of many books on torrent come from? Why/how is it that I can illegally download pdfs of books but can't buy them anywhere in this format? Where do they come from?

Also, nyu (my school) sells "ebooks"(whatever that means) through a company called myscribe, which as far as I can tell will not help me read anything on a device, only on my pc.

Given all this, if i assume pdfs are going to be my format of choice, any advice on which reader? I guess it mainly comes down to kindle vs nook vs maybe the sony one?

Any advice appreciated.
posted by alkupe to Shopping (6 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
is it generally true that to get an a reading device, you are limited to whatever you can buy from that device's "home" store (ie amazon for kindle) plus whatever you can "find" in pdf format?

No, this isn't true — there are a number of e-book formats and there are places that sell books in .mobi (supported by many, including the Kindle) or .epub (supported by most, except for the Kindle) formats. Most of the stuff you buy through the official stores will have DRM that will make it difficult or impossible to read on other devices, but third-party books usually will work on any device supporting that format. For example, ManyBooks has free public-domain books that you can download in PDF, epub, mobi, HTML, and many other formats.

Are any of the readers best with pdfs? I guess the standard thing to do is use some software to convert to the native format for that reader?

Honestly, they all pretty much suck for PDFs, mainly because almost all PDFs are designed with page sizes much larger than the most reader screens, so when the page is scaled down to fit the text is too small. You can zoom in and pan around but this is slow and painful.

If you can convert the PDF to a "real" ebook format like epub or mobi using something like Calibre, it will be much more legible, because these formats are designed to flow the text to fit the screen size. But this doesn't always work for PDFs with a lot of layout; I don't know if that includes your textbooks. For textbook PDFs, if you can afford it, I would get a device with a larger display, like the Kindle DX, which will minimize the degree to which PDF pages have to be scaled down.
posted by enn at 8:25 AM on November 6, 2010

Get an iPad! It's more expensive, but then you have access to Kindle, iBooks, Nook and more! I personally use the Kindle app for reading ebooks just because I've found the selection of books through Amazon to be better. But you can highlight and take notes in kindle and iBooks.

If you will be doing a lot of PDF reading, the iPad is the true winner. iBooks can handle PDFs, but you don't have any annotation features. Goodreader or iAnnotate are both solid programs for annotation PDFs. I use goodreader because its cheaper.

My iPad is serving as a laptop replacement for me while in grad school, and so far I'm loving it. The addition of evernote and dropbox make the iPad worth the extra money, not to mention all the other awesome apps.

There are a ton of educational related iPad resources on the web as well, such as
posted by peripatew at 8:34 AM on November 6, 2010

PDF books that you find on torrent sites are probably either scanned from original textbooks, or digital versions that the publisher puts on a CD that comes included with the textbook. Of course, downloading books from these sources are, FWIW, illegal. Most textbook publishers (with a few exceptions) don't sell electronic versions of textbooks because they're worried about piracy.

In any case, as stated above, most ebook stores don't sell PDF versons of books because they don't render well on ebook readers. I doubt you'll be able to find most (if any) of your textbooks on formats native to the major e-ink readers such as the Kindle, Nook, Sony, etc.

If you want to stick with PDF, see this recent Ask Meta question: What's the best ebook reader for pdfs.

If you're going to be buying books from their MyScribe service, you may want to consider getting a Netbook with Windows, which will allow you to read those documents on the go.
posted by upplepop at 8:48 AM on November 6, 2010

Hm. It seems like I'm always telling people this (so I sound like an old record to myself), but unfortunately you are at a somewhat pivotal point in the evolution of readers + publishers, and publishers are fighting e-readers tooth and nail, so there are all sorts of things that don't make a lot of sense right now — and file sharing is bridging the gap that commercial publishers have failed to address. Of all material, text books are probably the ones most useful to have on e-readers, and the ones publishers are most loathe to distribute that way. So, in rushes file sharing.

Now, obviously, this is not ideal because one doesn't know the provenance of such files, and any joker could just change up a whole lot of information if they felt so inclined. I don't believe that this is common at all, I'm just saying that one would rather buy a textbook for e-reader from the publisher. But the publishers have been incredibly resistant and, in my opinion, stupid, about adapting. When a sufficiently significant number of people are downloading instead of buying their bricks of dead-tree textbooks, they will be forced to adapt; until then they are scrambling to hold on, tooth and nail, to what feels safe, and damn the torpedoes.

E-readers also have a lot of growing to do, which is exactly why you are asking this question. At this point, no e-reader does a great job of handling PDFs, especially if they have graphic material like illustrations, charts, photos, etc. I love my e-reader (Kindle first gen.), and because of my particular situation it's been a lifesaver for an obsessive reader, but honestly, I'd say that if money (plus limited battery life, and greater weight) is not an obstacle, I'd go with an iPad at the moment for PDFs, and particularly PDFs with graphics. The upside is that if the perfect-for-PDF e-reader makes an appearance at any point after getting an iPad, the iPad will still be fun and useful for other applications.

I do feel sorry to let my e-reader side down this way... and I'm also not sure about how tiresome the iPad backlighting is for serious reading versus the wonderful eInk of a good e-reader, but in your situation I'd be inclined toward an iPad, though I'm hoping you will get more first-hand information from students.
posted by taz at 8:59 AM on November 6, 2010

Thirding iPad. I honestly don't get the eyestrain argument - I spend hours reading text off my computer each day anyway so the iPad is no different. I've got a Kindle as well but most of the time I prefer the iPad for it's larger screen and faster navigation. The Kindle is great for reading outdoors but you'll go nuts tryinging to flip back and forth like you do reading a textbook. Also - no color illustrations, doesn't handle PDFs as well.
posted by zanni at 10:20 AM on November 7, 2010

Even on an iPad with the larger screen, the actual display is only the size of half a 8.5" x 11" page. So a full page PDF is still at half-scale.
posted by smackfu at 6:31 AM on November 8, 2010

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