The 2013 Holiday eReader Tech Guide

The 2013 Holiday eReader Tech Guide

I'm sure by now you're all-too-familiar with the annual mobile device product line refresh. Every fall we get updated versions of the now ubiquitous mobile devices. Apple, Amazon, Google, and others all push out slightly updated hardware just in time for the holiday shopping season. This year's upgrades are almost all incremental. If you already own a 2012 device, you should feel comfortable hanging on to it. Users looking to upgrade from models that are two or more years old or shoppers new to mobile devices have good reason to be excited.  

This year I'm casting a smaller net into the sea of devices. The market has absolutely exploded of late. Manufacturing costs on mobile devices have taken a nosedive, as written about in this Business Week article by Peter Burrows. OEMs can piece together a device with hardware that's good enough with the free Android mobile operating system, sell their efforts for $149 or less, and still make a decent profit. That's going to save budget-conscious shoppers $50 at the very least, and I've seen Black Friday riots congeal over worse “deals” than that.  

If you're in the market for a budget tablet from an x-brand OEM, do not settle for less than the following specs:

  • 1.2 GHz dual-core or better processor
  • 1 GB or more of RAM
  • 16 GB or more of storage
  • 1280 x 720 IPS (in-plane switching) capacitive touch screen
  • Android 4.1
  • Access to Google Play

So this year I’m looking just at devices centered around eBooks and media consumption, generally speaking. Apple’s iPad and Google’s Nexus 7 are more general-purpose than devices like the Kindle or Nook, but come on, like I’m going to write a post on devices and not mention them? And besides, both have their own content stores, so they make the cut.

I’m also only looking at new hardware. I could include last year’s offerings, most of which are still being sold, now at a discount—a huge discount in the Nook’s case—and are still very good. However, that would be rather overwhelming, so the focus is on the new shinies. For a look at least year’s tech, I refer you to 2012’s Tech Guide, which I have rewritten with new insights, some updated models, and cheaper prices.  

This year’s guide is broken into two sections. In the first part, I’ll have an overview of each new product from Amazon, Apple, Google, and Barnes & Noble and their respective services.  The second section includes detailed tables comparing each device’s relevant specifications, should you wish to examine the nitty-gritties.  

The Central Rappahannock Regional Library is proud to provide its members with free access to a number of e-content databases that are compatible to varying degrees with the devices reviewed here. Residents of Fredericksburg, Stafford, Spotsylvania, and Westmoreland County, Virginia are eligible for free library cards; non-residents can also receive cards for a small annual fee. At the end of each device review are links to the compatible library services and the necessary apps.  The available services are:

  • OverDrive eBooks and eAudiobooks
    Our growing collection of lendable popular fiction and nonfiction for all ages; limit of 4 titles checked out at one, per library card number, with no more than 12 titles checked out in a 7-day period.
  • Zinio Digital Magazines
    A large selection of popular magazines, with no download limits and no due dates. Any issues you check out are yours to keep forever, free of charge.
  • OneClickDigital eAudiobooks
    Our largest and most diverse selection of downloadable audiobooks; limit of 10 titles checked out at once.
  • EBSCOhost 
    huge database of eBooks with a focus on non-fiction and academia; limit of 50 items checked out at once. 
  • Freading - a state-provided database with an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction; variable checkouts based on a token system.   

This year’s device guide is based on my own experiences with these devices, as well as reviews from Ars Technica, The Verge, CNET, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.  If you’re looking for the latest in tech news, they are among your best possible sources.

Amazon Kindle Fire HDX and new Kindle Paperwhite

Amazon has released its third revision of the Kindle Fire: The HDX. Just like last year’s HD line, the HDX comes in 7 and 8.9-inch bodies. Both models boast this year’s most powerful “Systems on a Chip” (SoC), at least in terms of raw clock speed and number of processing cores.  The actual performance of the HDX is another issue entirely. After all, are we using these things for anything more than media consumption?  Not really, but the HDX’s hardware is finally powerful enough to run its operating system and apps smoothly and without hiccups—for the most part.

Rather than the gently curving back of the HD line, the HDX has an oddly angled but gentle taper that terminates with a completely flat back, sort of like a pyramid missing its top.  Both the power button and the volume-rocker are situated on the tapered surface, a position that few reviewers I’ve read are a big fan of.  

The 7-inch HDX now comes with a full HD screen at 1920 x 1200, and the 8.9-inch is now 2560 x 1600, making text and video appear crisp and sharp.   

Beyond pixel density, a lot is being made of the HDX’s color quality, which is being touted by Amazon as the most accurate of any tablet this generation.  Given that all new tablets feature high resolution screens, color accuracy and brightness become interesting differentiators, especially on a tablet that is built around media consumption and not productivity. Both versions of the HDX can be had with 16, 32, and 64 GB of storage and optional 4G connectivity, for a monthly fee, in addition to the standard wifi connectivity.

The updated Fire OS 3.0 “Mojito,” based on Android 4.2.2, has been improved in a few ways. The carousel that has dominated the Fire’s home screen for the past three years can now be hidden—a big hit with those of us who don’t want their most recently-opened book, app, document, or Web site to be immediately visible to other users. The home screen also features an iOS-like grid for quick access to your favorite apps. A new side-swipeable menu reveals other apps running in the background.

The biggest change for the HDX line is the presence of the “Mayday Button," which will launch a video chat session with a customer service rep who can walk you through problems, draw on your screen, and, with your permission, even take control of the device. This feature is exclusive to the HDX models and is not available in the refreshed HD models.  Initial reviews of this service are positive. If Amazon can maintain the quality of this service, it will give them a serious advantage over other tablet makers.

As always, Kindle Fires are vehicles for purchasing and consuming media from Amazon. They are not subtle about it. Kindles are still plastered with advertisements, most noticeably at the lock screen. You do have the option of paying a $20 ransom to remove the ads. They are also aggressive in promoting their Amazon Coins virtual “currency,” which I find to be of dubious benefit to consumers. 

If you are primarily a media consumer, the Kindle Fire HDX may just be the device for you. Amazon trounces its competition with Amazon Prime. For $79 per year, Amazon Prime Video provides unlimited access to a huge selection of quality movies and TV shows, many of which are not on Netflix or Hulu Plus. A growing number of these videos can also be downloaded for off-line viewing. In addition to Kindle Fires, this video service can also be accessed on iPads, PCs, Macs, Roku, game consoles, smart TVs . . . pretty much every Internet-connected device except Android phones and tablets.  

Kindle owners also get access to the Amazon Prime Lending Library, a small selection of eBooks that Kindle owners can borrow for free. The selection of quality titles is slim, but there are some gems like the entire Harry Potter series. This feature is available only to actual Kindle owners, not users of the Kindle app on other devices.

And, if all that isn’t enough, well, Amazon does have the best selection of eBooks at the cheapest prices.

Amazon’s app store isn’t as rich as Google Play (which you’ll never find on a Kindle Fire), and it’s a backwater dump compared to the Apple App Store. It’s far better than it was at the launch of the first Kindle Fire, though. And one last minor weakness: while the Amazon MP3 store has the cheapest prices around, its catalogue has some serious gaps. No Beatles?  No AC/DC? Amazon, get to work stealing these guys away from iTunes!

If you are in the market for a productivity device, look elsewhere. Amazon claims it has improved its email and calendar functionality, but I still find both to be severely lacking when compared to the same type of apps on regular Android or iOS devices. Any document editing must be done on apps purchased from the App Store, and there aren’t that many to choose from that are any good.

But faulting a Kindle Fire for not being a productivity tool is like yelling at a cat for not being a dog. They simply aren't that type of creature.  Amazon is never going to expend any significant effort on turning it into a “bring your own device to work” option. If you’re looking for a simple way to enjoy your stories, the Kindle Fire HDX is a great option if you don't mind being locked into the Amazon ecosystem of media.  Given that you don't actually need a Kindle in order to enjoy Amazon media, copy-protected though it is, their offerings are currently the most "open" you'll find of any digital retailer.

The 7-inch starts at $229 and the 8.9-inch starts at $379.  You can read about 2012's devices by clicking here

The Amazon app links to access CRRL eBooks, eAudiobooks, and digital magazines:

The Kindle Paperwhite has also been updated with better lighting and a faster processor, leading to smoother performance and faster page turns. If you own one of last year’s Paperwhites, don’t waste your money. If you’re using any other e-ink Kindle, this would be a good year to upgrade.  The Paperwhite is still priced at $119. The only database e-ink Kindles are compatible with is OverDrive. You don't need to install any "app" on the device for this to work. 

Apple iPad Air and Mini

The full-sized iPad has seen its first redesign in three years with the new iPad “Air.” In a nutshell, it is slimmer, lighter, and faster than previous models. Do you think this might be a trend with Apple?  The iPad Air takes its design cues from last year’s iPad Mini, with slim bezels and slightly boxy but still comfortably curved edges.  Like the Mini, it also features dual speaker grills at the bottom edge, but their placement on the edge of the device and not the front or even the back will still lead to muffled sound when holding that edge.  

The Air weighs only 1lb, down from 1.4 in the previous generation is and is 21.6% thinner. Reviewers are saying that this makes the iPad much more comfortable to hold in one hand for prolonged usage, which must being saying a lot considering I never found any model of the iPad to be especially heavy or uncomfortable to hold. The screen remains unchanged at 9.7 inches measured diagonally at a resolution of 2048 x 1536. While it is still a very sharp screen, it is no longer the standard bearer for high-definition mobile displays.

The other big improvement this year is the new A7 SoC, the first ARM-based 64-bit mobile processor on the market.  This is the same processor included in the new iPhone 5S and brings serious performance gains to the iPad. The A7 delivers nearly double the performance of the fourth generation iPad’s A6X chip and that guy was no slouch. That’s not actually realizing the A7's full potential, though. 64-bit chips  allow for devices with more than 4GB of RAM. The iPad currently only has 1GB, though it puts that relatively small amount to good use. Looking just at the numbers in the hardware specifications table will fool you.  Though at first blush the A7 looks underpowered compared to something like the Kindle Fire HDX’s 2.2 GHz quad-core SoC, the relative performance is much faster and more responsive than anything Amazon or almost anyone else has released.  

Apple has also updated its iPad Mini. Last year’s iPad Mini was essentially a smaller iPad 2. It had the same SoC, the same RAM, ran the same apps, and even had the same disappointing 1024 x 768 low resolution display. This year’s second generation iPad Mini is a smaller version of the iPad Air, possessing its same internals and even its 2048 x 1536 resolution which looks even sharper on the smaller screen. This year’s only noticeable physical difference from last year’s is the addition of 0.8 ounces. Both the Air and the Mini boast a 10-hour battery, and nothing I’ve read suggests that real-world usage is any less. 

Both iPads run the new iOS 7, which is mostly a new coat of paint on the same operating system. The new aesthetic is of questionable appeal, but you better get used to it. Apple doesn’t make big changes to their products but every three to five years. Functionally, iOS 7 is almost identical to previous versions, but there are a few improvements that I enjoy. First, there is quick access to wifi, Bluetooth, GPS, even flashlight toggles by swiping up from the bottom of the screen. The wifi toggle is a huge time saver when you’re constantly moving in and out of wifi range and don’t want to waste your battery. Second, app folders can now span several swipeable “pages” within the folder structure itself. Third, app-switching now displays a preview of every running app, not just its icon, making multi-tasking easier.  

So, iPad owners: Should you upgrade?

What it comes down to is that this year we’ve got a slimmer, lighter, faster iPad, but it's still just an iPad. No big changes here. Owners of the first and second generation iPads should be excited at the opportunity to upgrade to the Air, but I think third and particularly fourth generation owners would be a little disappointed overall. 

And iPad Mini owners?  What about them?

"Blessed are the early adopters, for they always get the short end of the stick."  I think I read that on a matchbook somewhere.  Consider that last year's Mini was a smaller iPad 2 and that this year's model is a smaller iPad Air, which can also be labeled the "iPad 5."  That means in one year, the iPad Mini fast-forwarded past two hardware iterations. To be honest, this took me completely by surprise, and if you're an owner of last year's Mini, you might be a little upset.  I wouldn't blame you for making an obscene gesture at the computer screen while giving Apple your credit card number. Again. 

Due to the iPad's stellar build quality and the huge number of tablet-optimized apps available for purchase, I still believe that they are the best tablet computers for productivity and general use, particularly with the now-bundled iWork and iLife suites. They are no slouches for media consumption either. Apple has a fantastic selection of eBooks, movies, TV shows, magazines, free college courses through iTunes U, and podcasts, not to the mention the best selection of digital music anywhere, if not the cheapest (that crown belongs to Amazon).  

The problem is that, with the exception of music and podcasts, Apple media can only be viewed on Apple devices. For movies, TV shows and iTunes U, this means the iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPod classic, Apple TV, and iTunes on either PC or Mac.  eBooks and Magazines are relegated to only the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch. You will not find apps for these on Android or Windows.  On the other hand, you WILL find apps for consuming all of the media you purchase or rent from Amazon for the iPad, so if you’re concerned, as I am, about the universality of your purchased content, stick with getting it from Amazon.  

You can read about 2012's devices by clicking here

The iPad is compatible with all CRRL digital services using the following apps:

The iPad Air starts at $499, and the Mini starts at $399.  I own one of last year’s first-generation Minis and can tell you that I find that size and weight to be far more comfortable and practical for a hand-held device for reading books, watching videos, and playing games. On the other hand, the larger screen of the Air is probably more attractive to power users, artists, designers, and other content creators, not to mention users with visual disabilities. It’s really a matter of taste and need, since both devices are functionally identical.

Google Nexus 7

Android tablets are sort of the technological middle child on this list. Google’s Play ecosystem of content is far behind both Apple and Amazon, but this shouldn't be a huge concern.  Apps can be installed from Google Play to access your Kindle eBooks, Nook eBooks, Amazon MP3s, Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Crackle.  Firefox with Adobe Flash for Android installed will get you your Amazon streaming video content; Flash is no longer available in Google Play, so click here to download it for free.  Android's Google Play app selection is better than Amazon’s but much worse than Apple’s. And, Android is more customizable than iOS and certainly far more than Fire OS. This all makes Android tablets the best choice for people looking for a tablet with more productivity options than a Kindle Fire at prices cheaper than an iPad.

Google’s Nexus line of devices run Android as Google intended, rather than Android redesigned by OEMs like Samsung, HTC, LG, or Asus, to name a few. This year has seen the release of the second generation Nexus 7, Google’s flagship 7-inch tablet, and the new Nexus 5 smartphone. This blog post is only intended for tablets and eReaders, so the Nexus 5 smartphone will not be covered.  

The new Nexus 7 is a big step-up from last year’s model. Its 1920 x 1200 full HD screen at 7 inches looks gorgeous, with sharp text and beautiful HD video. Last year’s faux leather-like back has been replaced with soft-grip rubber, which I actually find much easier to hold.  It’s also a good deal lighter at only 10 oz.  The overall build-quality is very nice. Though no one builds devices quite like Apple, Asus made a solid, quality-feeling device with no hint of cheap design, which is more than can be said for the vast majority of Android tablets. The 1.5 GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro SoC isn’t the best chip to power this year’s devices, but the Nexus uses it and its 2 GB of RAM so well you hardware geeks are not going to care.

This is almost the best Android tablet of 2013, save for one disadvantage: battery life. The Nexus’s battery is only rated at up to 9 hours of continuous use.  My personal experiences with it revealed it to be somewhat less than 9 hours, but I do push my devices harder than most people. That still sounds like a lot, but if you’ve had any experience with an iPad's all-day battery, you’ll be disappointed by the Nexus. 

The Nexus 7 continues its tradition as the “people’s tablet.” It’s not an elite overpriced piece of metal and glass like the iPad, nor is it the locked down media-monger that the Kindle Fire is. It’s reasonably priced, performs a head or three above the rest of the 7-inch Android tablet crowd, and is easily customized to suit any owner’s needs.  In that sense, it is perhaps the most personal of any tablet on this year’s guide.  It will be next in line to receive the new Android 4.4 “KitKat” update.  And, for the serious Android hacker, it can be easily rooted with the Nexus 7 Toolkit —built by XDA developer extraordinaire Mark Skippen—for system-level access and use of root apps, with plenty of custom ROMs available for any purpose.  

At $229 for a 16GB model and $269 for the 32GB (the same pricing as the  7-inch Kindle Fire HDX, minus the advertisements) I again recommend this tablet to those who want something customizable and powerful that isn’t a glorified Amazon storefront.

You can read about 2012's Android devices by clicking here.  

The Nexus 7 and indeed all Android devices are compatible with all CRRL digital services with the following apps:

Barnes & Noble Nook Glowlight

B&N didn’t give us any new tablets this year, mostly due to flagging sales of last year’s Nook HD models. These are now being sold at a crazy discount with Google Play included.  But like I said, they’re last year’s hardware, so no love for them in this post .

B&N did release a new e-ink reader this year: The Nook Glowlight, which is not to be confused with the Nook Simple Touch with Glowlight.  The new Nook Glowlight is now white with a rubber bumper to protect it from drops.  Text is supposed to look sharper, the lighting is improved, and page turns are faster.  The microSD card slot and hardware page turn buttons on the bezel have been removed, which apparently has a number of users on the B&N forums upset.  

The Nook’s key advantage over the Kindle Paperwhite is the availability of in-person customer service at any of Barnes & Nobles' brick and mortar stores. The Nook also supports many more eBook formats than the Kindle, including the popular ePub and PDF, without the need to convert anything.  Finally, the Nook can be loaded with eBooks from third-party stores like Google Play Books. Still, you’ve got to weigh all that against Amazon's superior selection and pricing, along with Barnes & Noble's steadily declining business.

You can read about 2012's Nooks by clicking here.  

Conclusions

  • Power users with the money will be most interested in the Apple iPad Air with its large selection of tablet-optimized apps for every need.  Media such as eBooks, TV shows, and movies should be purchased through Amazon and used with the appropriate apps on the iPad.  However, third and particularly fourth generation iPad owners might want to wait just one more year to upgrade; first and second generation owners, upgrade now.
  • The iPad Mini is just a smaller iPad Air, more comfortable to hold, and $100 cheaper at every storage price. Owners of last year's iPad Mini are probably upset by the huge update in this year's model, but if they've got the money, they should seriously consider an upgrade.
  • Power users with less money to spend should consider the Nexus 7 or another Android tablet.  
  • Casual users who will be using their devices primarily for media consumption should go with the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX.
  • Those only interested in reading should choose the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite if they want access to the largest number of titles at the lowest prices OR the Barnes & Noble Nook Glowlight if they want to be able to read the largest number of eBook formats, including ePub and PDF. 

Tablet Physical Specifications

 

Dimensions in Inches

Height x Width x Depth

Weigh
in Ounces

Screen Size
in Inches

Resolution
 

Pixels Per Inch
               

iPad Air

9.4 x 6.6 x 0.29

16 (1lb)

9.7

2048 x 1536

264

iPad Mini

7.87 x 5.3 x 0.29

11.68

7.9

2048 x 1536

326

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9

9.1 x 6.2 x 0.31

13.2

8.9

2560 x 1600

339

Kindle Fire HDX 7

7.3 x 5 x 0.35

10.7

7

1920 x 1200

323

Google Nexus 7 (2013)

7.87 x 4.49 x 0.34

10

7

1920 x 1200

323

 

Tablet Hardware Specifications

 

CPU

RAM (Gigabytes)

Storage (Gigabytes)

Camera Megapixels

Battery Life 

iPad Air

1.4 GHz dual-core
Apple A7

1

16, 32, 64, 128

Front: 1.2

Back: 5

up to10 hrs

iPad Mini

1.4 GHz dual-core
Apple A7

1

16, 32, 64, 128

Front: 1.2

Back: 5

up to10 hrs

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9

2.2 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800

2

16, 32, 64

Front: 1.2

Back: 8

up to 12 hrs

Kindle Fire HDX 7

2.2 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800

2

16, 32, 64

Front: 1.2

Back: N/A

up to11 hrs

Google Nexus 7 (2013)

1.51 GHz quad-core Snapdragon Pro S4

2

16, 32

Front: 1.2

Back: 5

up to 9 hrs

 
 

Tablet Features

 

Connectivity Options

Operating System (as of writing)

Supported Library Services

Media Available From . . .

Price

iPad Air & Mini

Wifi, Bluetooth, USB


OPTIONAL: 3G,

4G HSDPA+, 4G LTE via AT&T, Verizon, Spring, & T-Mobile

iOS 7

OverDrive eBooks and eaudio, EBSCOhost, Freading, OneClickDigital, Zinio

  • Apple (eBooks, audiobooks, music, movies, TV, magazines, apps)

  • Amazon (eBooks, audiobooks,magazines, music, movies, TV)

  • Google Play (eBooks & music)

  • Nook eBooks

  • Sony eBooks

  • Kobo eBooks

iPad Air: Starting at $499

 

iPad Mini:
Starting at $399

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 & 7

Wifi, Bluetooth, USB

 

OPTIONAL:

4G LTE via AT&T & Verizon

Fire OS 3 “Mojito” based on Android 4.2.2 “Jellybean"

OverDrive eBooks and eaudio, OneClickDigital, Zinio (with help)

Amazon (eBooks, magazines, music, movies, TV, apps)

7-inch:

Starting at $229

8.9-inch: Starting at $379

Google Nexus 7 (2013)

Wifi, Bluetooth, USB

 

OPTIONAL:

4G LTE unlocked for use with either AT&T or T-Mobile (available only on 32GB model)

Android 4.3 “Jellybean”

OverDrive eBooks and eaudio, EBSCOhost, Freading, OneClickDigital, Zinio

  • Google Play (eBooks, magazines, music, movies, TV, apps)

  • Amazon (eBooks, magazines, music, apps)

  • Nook eBooks

  • Sony eBooks

  • Kobo eBooks

Starting at $229

 

e-ink eBook Readers Hardware Specifications

 

Dimensions in Inches

Height x Width x Depth

Weight

Ounces

Screen Size

Inches

Pixels Per Inch

 

Touchscreen

Illuminated Display

Battery Life

Kindle Paperwhite

6.7" x 4.6" x 0.36"

7.3

6

212

Yes

Yes

UP TO 8 Weeks

Nook Glowlight

6.5 x 5.0 x 0.42

6.2

6

212

Yes

Yes

UP TO 8 Weeks

 

 

 

Connectivity

Supported Library Services

Stores

File Formats

Storage

Price

Kindle Paperwhite

Wifi, USB

OPTIONAL

3G for the purchasing of eBooks only (will not download library eBooks wirelessly via 3G, only via Wifi)

OverDrive

Amazon

TXT, PDF, unprotected MOBI, PRC natively; HTML, DOC, DOCX, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP through conversion

2 GB (only 1.25 GB usable)

Starting at $119

Nook Glowlight

Wifi, USB

OverDrive, EBSCOhost,
Freading

B&N, Google

ePub, PDF, JPG, GIF, PNG, BMP

4 (only 2.5 GB usable)

$119