Before Engadget was born, the late '90s saw a rising fear of the millennium bug, not to mention the advent of the first true e-readers. As time went on, e-ink technology on these devices improved, and despite the subsequent rise of tablets, e-readers have persisted thanks to their retina-soothing displays and generally affordable prices. Now, millions sit on bedside tables and in commuters' bags worldwide. Their popularity, however, has given rise to whole new branch of niche e-readers with tiny memories capable of holding but a single text. Join us as we delve into this fledgling fad and ask whether such low-cost hardware can persuade you to put down your Kindle, Nook or Kobo and give them a shot. Is this a new chapter in the e-reader story? Swing past the break and find out.
As these low-storage e-readers come in many forms, we picked up a healthy selection to ensure a thorough review. You see, it's not one specific manufacturer churning them out. They all seem to share the same reference design, but by the time they make it onto store shelves, publishers have their way with branding. A welcome bonus arising from less OEM interference is that all of the e-readers come with non-removable cases, often decorated with artwork that sits behind author and title info.
While most of these cases provide soft shielding, it's easy to find ruggedized versions known as "hardbacks," although they're available at the whim of the publisher. Most of these hardbacks are bundled with detachable "sleeves," intended to resist minor attacks to keep the hard case blemish-free. The rugged versions may increase the life-span of these e-readers in clumsy hands, but their softer counterparts are more than capable of withstanding your standard wear and tear. However, repeating the on / off gesture for booting these devices tends to scar the soft cases, particularly on one edge.
We've learned the e-readers use an ancient, organic form of storage.
As we've said, the e-readers all spawn from the same design, and thus share a simple rectangular form factor (no need to put the lawyers on alert, Apple -- the edges aren't rounded). Total footprint area varies, but what's most intriguing is the large range of thicknesses. After looking at many examples, we came to the conclusion that depth correlates to the length of the pre-loaded text, and is also somewhat dependent on the hard-coded font size. We've learned the e-readers use an ancient, organic form of storage with extremely low data capacity. This is apparently why some are down-right bulky, but that's necessary to keep costs low.
We noticed right away the complete lack of WiFi, Bluetooth, buttons or ports -- that's right... nada. They don't have touchscreens either -- instead, the simple software baked in by OEMs relies of gestures for cycling through pages and powering up or down (achieved by opening or closing the outer case). We haven't spotted one with a keyboard, either, but that's no surprise seeming as the big e-reader makers have dropped this design feature of late.
Compared with the e-readers we're more familiar with, these new-kids-on-the-shelf contrast in build quality. That being said, there's something romantic about their simplicity. They're utilitarian -- a cheap way to push stories to screen. Not a glossy, branded product you'll necessarily ache to have in your gadget collection. The obvious drawback is storage capacity, and sometimes size. You may disagree with having multiple pieces of hardware when one will do the job, but this new phenomenon has inspired many to collect these single-text models. In a few years, perhaps, some will become the stuff of eBay legend.
There's also a burgeoning resale market for these devices, with whole stores dedicated to offering second-hand units at reduced prices. A whole new way of lending has come about, too. As we mentioned, they don't have internet connectivity, so you can't initiate loans over the web. However, exchanging the physical units means there's no countdown for the receiving party. Government-funded institutions are even popping up that loan out the e-readers for a limited time, for free! (They're called "libraries," if you intend to Google a local one).
Manufacturers trying their hand at this fresh breed of e-readers use budget e-ink screens to massage the profit margins, but we're impressed by the quality. Common across all was the off-white, slightly yellowish hue that filled blank spaces. We're happy to say, though, that text is jet-black and well-defined, for the most part. We did notice a certain amount of bleeding text on some models, but can't comment on whether this is due to the particular font a manufacturer decided on, an indication of display degradation, or an issue with the firmware version (remember, this can't be upgraded). The yellow tint we mentioned is more pronounced on some units than others, and we're led to believe this increases with age -- one e-reader we tested (Gulliver's Travels; batch identifier 1913) was by far the worst affected.
Batteries on the models we've spent time with are seemingly inexhaustible.
One aspect of the displays we're almost moved by is their durability. E-ink screens are known to be flexible, and these raw versions literally absorb blows rather than reflect them. Seriously, you could drop one from Baumgartner heights and it would simply laugh in your face. Sure, sharp objects will make dents, but occasional mishaps should remain completely unnoticed. Whatever low-cost screens are being used we can't say (we aren't able to obtain formal specs), but they're the most efficient we've ever seen.
Batteries on the models we've spent time with are seemingly inexhaustible. We're left wondering whether alien technology keeps them running, or if kinetic technology is employed to draw recharging power from the navigation gestures. An absence of front lighting certainly helps the single-text e-readers achieve this infinite battery life, but having been spoiled by the GlowLight and Paperwhite, it's a notable omission. We understand, however, it's just not feasible at these price points.
Probably the best way to explain the software on the e-readers is to say: what software? You're getting the bare minimum here. Forget menus. quote saving, dictionaries, text-to-speech, different fonts and battery gauges (not that it needs one). Text is formatted properly, including headers, footnotes et al, and page cycling is seamless -- any lag is masked by the time it takes to complete the occasionally cumbersome gesture. Some units have a basic table of contents, albeit without hyperlinks, and others have recommendations that appear after you've finished the bundled material, but no options to share news of your completed read on social networks. Ubiquitous across all devices is the ability to read in single page or dual page modes, although you might find that next section of prose in your peripheral vision distracting, if you opt for the latter layout.
One software quirk we found unforgivable was that none of the e-readers are able to save position. It's due to the read-only memory used, and forces you to leave the device in the "on" state, or write down the page number before closing it up. There are peripherals known as "marks" that'll do this for you, however, and we've heard of a hack that'll save the page, but damages the corner of the e-ink screen when used.
On the face of it, e-readers with such limited capacity sound like a hard sell. They lack the deeper functionality of hardware we're used to, and yet large numbers are being purchased. Strangely, you can find every title under Sol in this new format -- something big players in the space are unable to match. Maybe it's the fact second-hand units can be found for under a dollar, or maybe people just like buying new things and establishing a collection. We can't fault the budget displays too much, and besides, we applaud the battery life. All told, we found ourselves drawn to the unabashed simplicity. They've already proved valid competitors to established brands, and we see this continuing, with perhaps all e-readers eventually evolving into the single-text format. Companies see this, too, and if you disagree, ask yourself this: why else would the likes of Amazon and Barnes and Noble take to stocking them? It's the future, that's why.