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To USB Or Not To USB: Is Wi-Fi An E-Reader Must Have?

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Making the switch from buying (or borrowing) and reading traditional paper books to using an e-reader is a freeing experience. You no longer have to lug heavy books around and most e-readers are so svelte, you can literally slip them in a pocket. With a single memory card able to hold thousands of books, you can repurpose your bookshelves and use them to display pottery, photos or that long neglected action figure collection. With an e-reader sporting an E Ink display, you don't even have to think about recharging — for most people, a few hours once or maybe twice a month is all it takes to keep your device running.

There's one shackle remaining for some e-readers, and that's the USB cable. Does having to tether an e-reader to your computer to load up content represent a headache, or is it a non-issue? Most of the major e-reader manufacturers have now adopted Wi-Fi as their default method for acquiring content, the notable hold out being Sony. Its popular Reader Touch and Reader Pocket e-readers don't offer a Wi-Fi option. 

If you're in the market for a new e-reader over the next few months, or looking to pick up a discounted previous generation model in the future, you should decide whether USB content management is a deal breaker for you, particularly if you're thinking about going Sony.

Why You Should Ditch USB for Wi-Fi

  • With Wi-Fi, e-reader owners don't have to also own a computer. Content is managed and bought online using the device.
  • Wi-Fi means spontaneous shopping for e-books is possible; if you want a new paperback while at the beach, you can browse, buy and download one in seconds instead of having to drive home and plug the e-reader into your computer.
  • For those who wish to sideload content, most e-readers (Kindle being a notable exception) offer the ability to do so with removable memory cards. Besides, the USB port is still there and you can hook up the device to a computer any time you wish.

Why USB Content Management Is Overblown As a Downside 

  • Most e-readers recharge by connecting to a computer's USB port (companies often sell dedicated power chargers separately, but at added cost); therefore many people are already hooking their e-reader to a computer via a USB cable a few times a month anyway. Downloading content while connected should be no big deal.
  • Browsing or shopping for content via a computer is a much faster, more intuitive, easier to navigate and enjoyable experience than doing so using an e-reader's limited display capabilities.
  • Most e-readers are essentially locked into the manufacturers e-book store when buying e-books by Wi-Fi (for example, the Kindle is tied in to Amazon.com's Kindle Store). By using a computer, e-books may be purchased from any website that offers titles in a supported format. 
  • Borrowing books from public libraries for an e-reader requires a computer.
  • Users who sideload content onto their e-reader typically do so with a USB connection.
  • Wi-Fi isn't available everywhere, and even where it is available, it isn't always free. Therefore, the concept of being able to buy an e-book ay time or from any place you wish isn't entirely accurate.
  • Wi-Fi wears down your battery, meaning you have to plug in more frequently to recharge.

Conclusion

The argument over Wi-Fi vs. USB for content management largely boils down to convenience and personal reading habits. Having Wi-Fi on an e-reader is hard to argue against as a good feature, with the only real downside being battery drain — and that can be virtually eliminated by turning off the Wi-Fi when not in use. On the other hand, most e-reader owners end up skipping the extra cost optional power charger and plugging into their computer's USB port to recharge their battery. If you are the type of reader who doesn't need fresh content every few days, then USB loading while you're recharging anyway probably won't faze you. The only case where it's black and white is when you don't own a computer, making USB content management out of the question — you need Wi-Fi in that case.

That being said, I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that with its next round of e-reader hardware, Sony is going to bite the bullet and include Wi-Fi connectivity so you no longer have to make that choice. Whether everyone needs it or not is a moot point when every major competitor includes Wi-Fi as a standard feature.

Next up, look for the battle to shift from Wi-Fi (which does have issues in terms of availability) to 3G, a much more "universally available" connectivity method offered on some Kindle models

 

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