Tech Talk: Read all about it

JEFFREY Archer’s current novel is called Only Time Will Tell, and only time will tell if it’s any more readable than his others. But it’s certainly readable in more formats.

You can buy it online at prices ranging from nearly £10 to under £3. Obviously, you can choose paperback or hardback editions but there is also a growing range of electronic book formats – each sold exclusively by different retailers and each incompatible with the next.

E-books occupy a small but expanding sector of the publishing market, and with WH Smith’s decision to sell cheap ones over the counter, they will be a popular choice for presents this Christmas. But which – if any – should you buy?

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Kindle, from the online retailer Amazon, is the original e-book and currently the most popular. Its basic model is £89, holds up to 1,400 books and has a battery which goes up to a month between charges.

Its main rival is the Kobo Wireless, a Canadian model sold here by WH Smith at £90. It comes pre-loaded with 100 “classic” books (classic meaning they’re out of copyright) and holds up to 10,000 more with an optional memory card. Its battery lasts up to 10 days.

Both have black-and-white “e-ink” screens which are readable even in bright sunlight and use wireless internet to download new titles. WH Smith claims to offer 2.2 million books in this way; Amazon 750,000 plus around a million free titles in the public domain. That’s just as well because reading books is the only thing you can do with these devices (unlike Amazon’s more up-market Kindle Fire, which is a small tablet PC).

Think of Kindle and Kobo as 21st century versions of those book clubs you used to find on the back of Radio Times – the ones who promised a new book every week until you cancelled your subscription. This time around, the purchases are not mandatory, but the devices are useless unless you keep buying. Yet despite their vastly reduced production costs, e-books are often no cheaper than their printed counterparts. Jeffrey Archer’s book is £3.19 for a Kobo edition and £2.84 for Kindle, while the paperback is £2.99. Further along the best-seller list, Jane Fallon’s novel, The Ugly Sister, is at least £1 more expensive in electronic format.

Will e-books ever replace the printed variety? Not at these prices, but as Mr Archer might say, only time will tell. Meanwhile, if you’d like to try an e-book without the upfront expense, you can download free, software-only versions of Kindle and Kobo to your laptop, tablet or smartphone.