Of tablets, e-readers, and shady nomenclature

The market for tablets, e-readers, and mobile devices is booming and the lines separating once discrete devices is becoming blurry. When there's any explosion of technological devices there is always a struggle to find appropriate names for the devices that will inform customers what they are purchasing, and ensure their product "fits in" with other devices in the market.

The latest release of the Kobo Vox here in Canada is hailed as a "colour e-reader" and that's what got me off my ass to write this article. The Vox is not an e-reader. Under my nomenclature it is a Android-based tablet device with a (power hungry) LCD screen and custom applications to talk to an Indigo online store. I guess that's a mouthful … but it most definitely is not an "e-reader"!

Let me try and clear some air and hopefully someone at one of these companies will take heed and call their devices what they actually are and stop confusing customers!

Tablet computer

To me, the original "tablet computer" is a computing device that allowed pen or touch based input. Here is an example of a Lenovo x41t. I had this laptop and I thought it was great. I took notes on it, drew on it, flicked around the internet a bit. It was pen-based, but there was a touch model available as well. The touch was capacitive so it was sensitive and had near perfect precision. A "tablet" was also a simple input device that allowed pen and finger based input, primarily for graphic work. See the Wacom Intuos 3 on the right. It had no screen and no processor or "brain". Just a simple, intuitive input device.

On a cold blistery day in January 2010, Apple decided to eschew a long history of tablet devices and re-define what we thought of as "tablet". The unveiling of an iPad when compared to a Lenovo x41t, to me was laughable. No one would buy this shit, would they? How wrong I was …. but you can't blame me. The Lenovo is a couple of year older than the iPad and it still rocked in specifications  mean, check out this comparison.

  Lenovo x41t iPad (January 2010)
Processor 1.5Ghz 1Ghz A4
Memory 2GB 256mb
Storage 120GB HDD + any amount of flash 16-64 GB flash
Display 1280×1024 LCD 1024×768 LCD
Camera Yes No
Wireless Yes Yes
Pen input Yes No
Keyboard Yes No
Cost $1500 >$600*

*Couldn't find a reliable source for the original price of the wifi model, this is as close as I could get

So the iPad beat on cost, but on every other factor was significantly worse than a 2 year old tablet. I found it hilarious that the first after market accessories for the iPad was a plug-in keyboard. I lol'd and cried, "Just buy a laptop people!!!". And unless all you're going for is "status-symbol",  this device is completely useless in a medical, academic, or professional setting because you can't write on it with a pen-based input.

In any case, what's done is done, and Apple's iPad clearly became popular and redefined the word "tablet" for better or worse.


E-reader is short for e-book reader. Typically these devices use something called e-ink. I feel that this is where the "e" moniker has truly derived, but I could be wrong. The first e-reader was the Sony LIBRIe for release in Japan and using a Philips e-ink display. Here are the important features of an e-ink display over traditional LCD:

  1. Black and white. The ink has two states, on and off … with varying levels represented by shades of gray. There is no colour and unless electrochromic devices take lift … there probably won't be.
  2. Reflective display (vs emission on LCD). It doesn't generate it's own light source, but allows incredible contrast and readability outdoors and in bright light.
  3. Only uses power when switching. This means the battery life is enormous because you don't have to constantly power the device. The downside is that page-switches are slow. We're talking about a month of battery life.
  4. More comfortable to read and a better viewing angle.

The first popular e-reader was the Kindle by Amazon.

Hybrid, bastard-child of the two (a.k.a. iPad, Kindle Fire and Vox)

Now because everyone and their grandma wants to say they make an e-reader nowadays … device manufacturers have been branding all of their devices as e-book readers. This is simply false. The Vox, Kindle Fire, and iPad are not e-readers, unless you want to count the most liberal definition of "electronic book reader" … in which case I have conceived of my own implementation. I present to you … my 22 inch e-book reader*!

*Not an e-book reader

The battery life on the Vox is 7 hours people! Don't be fooled. You are adults, you do not read picture books anymore – just get a black and white e-reader. The colour e-readers are not magic, they have not been gifted by advanced alien technology. They are using the same old LCD screen that you're probably reading this on right now on your laptop or monitor and just packaging it in a tinier, less-useful package.

I mostly blame this one on the corporations, but I also feel Apple has successfully hypnotised it's latte drinking audience into believing whatever it wants – so I can't quite leave the blame off the average consumer who doesn't understand what they're buying.

If your book went blank every 7 hours and you had to plug it in to read, you would be forgiven for wanting to burn it. So why put up with that on your expensive new gadget?  <

  • Anonymous

    Testing out the new Disqus comment engine.

  • Portkins

    I want a light e reader that offers pen based input to take notes on
    Any ideas?

  • Wbeasley

    Another Apple basher passing off their ignorance as a review… sigh

  • mikemurko

    This isn’t targeted at apple, nor is it a review. Try reading in future (they have an app for that). Thx for digging up my year old tech article though.