Better e-reading in the dark

Now you know how it lights up. But will people dish out cash for it? In fact, prices on some e-readers are falling. That is, unless it's a tablet — which many consumers are going for

Brian X. Chen / New York Times News Service /

Electronic readers aren't all that exciting. They're rectangular, their screens are black and white, and they can't do much more than display text.

So how do you liven things up? For starters, Amazon and Barnes & Noble added lighting systems to their newest readers, the Kindle Paperwhite and the Nook Simple Touch, to make it easier for people to read in the dark.

In Amazon's Kindle Paperwhite, four LEDs mounted on the bottom of the reader shoot light toward the surface of the display. (See how above.) Barnes & Noble's lighting, called GlowLight, has a similar system with LEDs.

Neither is cost-prohibitive: Both these glowing e-book readers cost $120.

But will adding some lights be enough to prevent e-book readers from becoming an endangered species?

International Data Corp., a research firm, said shipments of tablets, smartphones and PCs grew 27.1 percent from last year — but e-book readers, on the other hand, are losing momentum. In the United States, manufacturers sold 9 million e-book readers this year, down from 15.5 million last year, according to Forrester Research.

Tablets — a category jump-started by Apple just two years ago — have surpassed e-book readers such as the Nook or the Kindle as the preferred device for reading digital books, according to a study this week by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. One out of four e-books is being read off a tablet, up from one out of 10 last year.

“We haven't reached this point yet, but there are reasonable thoughts that the book experience of the future will be dramatically different than today,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “It will be a multimedia, highly social and maybe even incorporate a wiki experience.”

Tablets, such as the iPad, have sold at a record pace for a new hardware device, and consumer appetite for such gadgets shows few signs of abating. Other companies trying to eat into Apple's market have quickly introduced lower-priced offerings such as the Google Nexus tablets and Amazon's Kindle Fire.

Those sales have made e-reading a breakaway business trend for the year. IDC increased its forecast of tablet sales to 122.3 million for this year, saying the demand for mobile computing devices was much greater than anticipated.

So why would anyone still want a reader?

Readers are still much cheaper than tablets in general; the cheapest Kindle costs $70, while the cheapest Kindle Fire tablet costs $160. And if all you want to do is read books, a dedicated reader is probably still the best device for the job.

And what about that good-old printed page?

So far, publishers have benefited by e-book sales. They get better margins for digital books because they don't have to be printed and distributed. Once downloaded, many titles can be shared and kept permanently. (The e-book phenomenon also has concentrated pricing power in the hands of far fewer retailers, like Amazon.)

But experts still don't expect digital books to overtake printed pages anytime soon. Physical books work better as gifts, and photos and pictures look better on paper than in digital ink, said Jeremy Greenfield, editorial director at Digital Book World.

Eventually, e-books may become the dominant way that people read books, particularly as schools embrace tablets, experts say.

Finally: How much are Americans reading? According to Pew, people 16 and older read an average of six books — either digital or paper — in the past year.