The most popular e-reading devices (Kindle, Kobo, Pocketbook & Nook) use their own proprietary operating system (usually based on Linux). This ensures that they are highly optimised for ebook reading but can do little else.
Over the last few years, e-readers built on the Android operating system (typically used on phones and tablets) have become more and more common because they provide more flexibility and versatility.
In this article, I want to discuss the Pros and Cons of Android e-readers.
What are Android e-Readers?
But, first, let’s take a look at exactly what an Android e-reader is and how they compare with their peers.
Like regular e-readers, Android e-readers are small tablet-esque devices, with a monochrome e-ink screen (although there are now some colour e-ink screens available). The company E-Ink Corporation supplies all manufacturers with e-ink screens, so the base screen technology across all e-readers comes from the same place.
An e-ink screen is advantageous over the LCD/OLED screens of phones, laptops, tablets and even TVs because it is reflective rather than emissive. This means that ambient light hits the screen and bounces off so that your eyes can see it. In comparison, LCD/OLED screens require a backlight that fires electrons from the back of the screen to light it up so that it can be seen. This means it emits blue light, which (although the science is still currently a little sketchy) can be easier on your eyes.
Some e-ink screens have a frontlight, but this doesn’t emit blue light like an LCD/OLED screen with a backlight. Rather than firing light straight at the viewer, a frontlight points the light at the screen.
E-ink screens can also be viewed clearly outside, even on very sunny days.
Another advantage of e-ink screens is that they draw very little power. In fact, when the screen is static they don’t use any power at all. This means that the battery life on e-ink screens is far longer than LCD/OLED screens (sometimes several weeks).
So, both Android and regular e-readers use e-ink screens, which makes them great for reading ebooks, even outside, without having to be recharged frequently.
But what are the differences?
Pros of Android E-readers
First, let’s look at some of the benefits that an Android e-reader has over regular e-readers.
Choice of e-reading software
On regular e-readers, the software that is used for reading ebooks is pre-installed by the manufacturer and cannot be changed. This means that you are limited to viewing only the file formats that the manufacturer supports.
Android e-readers usually ship with some pre-installed e-reading software but if you don’t like it, or it doesn’t open a particular ebook filetype, you are free to install an alternative e-reading app from the Google Play Store. You can have as many e-reading apps as you like, including Kindle Reader, Kobo Reader, Pocketbook Reader, KOReader, Moon Reader etc.
This makes Android e-readers a lot more flexible for reading a variety of materials and ensures that they are tied into a particular ecosystem (such as Kindle or Kobo).
Other functions besides e-book reading
And with an Android tablet, you’re not restricted to just installing e-reading apps from the Google Play Store. You can also install apps to access your email, browse the web, scroll through social media, and lots more besides.
This means that Android e-readers are not just e-readers but multi-functional devices that can carry out a lot of the tasks that you might perform on your phone, tablet or computer.
Better hardware specs
Typically, Android e-readers have higher hardware specs than regular e-readers, including faster processors, more memory, more storage space, and extra features like speakers and a microphone.
This isn’t just because Android needs more resources to run, but also so that the device is able to run whatever third-party app you decide to install on it.
Cons of Android E-readers
Right now, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Android e-readers are far better than e-readers with locked-down operating systems, but there are some drawbacks.
Although it is possible to install other e-reading apps, such as Kindle or Kobo, you may notice that the performance is slightly more sluggish than on the respective e-reading device.
The difference is slight (and using these apps on an Android device is not in any way a painful experience) but if you are used to the responsiveness of a dedicated e-reader, you will probably notice it.
This is because the software on regular e-reading devices has been heavily optimised to work with its specific hardware, and will not be used for much more than reading books.
Similarly, the custom-built operating system on regular e-readers has been designed to be quick and lightweight, whereas Android has to use a lot more resources (because it can potentially do more).
Not ideal for all apps
Although it is technically possible to install any app from the Google Play Store, that does not mean that all apps will work correctly on an e-ink screen. Apps that require fast refresh rates, such as watching videos on the YouTube app, are not really feasible on an e-ink screen.
In addition, Android itself was not designed with the e-ink screen in mind, which means that you can experience more ghosting (faint imprints of previous page displays) and flashing as the screen refreshes.
Steeper learning curve
Because Android e-readers are more versatile and configurable, consequently there is a steeper learning curve.
Regular e-readers are primarily designed for one specific task (reading ebooks), which means they have a much simpler interface and fewer configuration options.
In contrast, Android e-readers have a lot of settings and options and it can take much longer to work out how to do what you want to do.
In continuation of the previous point, the additional versatility and complexity of an Android e-reader result in many people being distracted from what they were supposed to be doing.
With a multifunctional Android device, it is so easy to check your emails, browse the web, or scroll through social media when all you wanted to do was read a book!
Regular e-readers have the advantage that they are focused reading devices and don’t have the functionality to tempt you into doing something else instead.
In summary, the pros of Android e-readers are:
- Choice of e-reading software and where you buy books from
- Versatility to carry out other tasks/install other apps
- Generally, better hardware specs
And the cons are:
- Unoptimised ebook reading performance
- Unoptimised operating system and apps
- Steeper learning curve
- Less focus
In essence, when you purchase an Android e-reader, you’re sacrificing simplicity for complexity. You’re gaining flexibility and control but losing focus and optimisation.
There’s no right answer about which kind of e-reader you should get – personally, I use both – but I hope that this article has helped you to recognise the advantages and disadvantages of an Android e-reader and you can use it to inform your buying decision and get the e-reader that is right for you.
ADDENDUM: Who are some of the Android E-Reader Manufacturers?
Meebook supplies budget Android e-readers. The hardware is decent but the software is a little lacking and it is not updated all that often. In addition, in my experience, it has been difficult to get hold of any sort of customer support from Meebook if you have an issue.
Boox is a bigger and more established brand but their products are more expensive. The hardware is high-spec and the software is pretty decent too, with their native reading app (NeoReader) being one of the best available.
There are regular software updates for Boox e-readers and customer support is pretty responsive, however, sometimes there can be a bit of a language barrier because their support team are not native English speakers (Boox are a Chinese company).
Boox also seems to be releasing new devices constantly – at the time of writing (July 2023) they have already released three new e-readers this year, as well as several e-ink writing tablets.
About the author
Dan Dutton is passionate about E-ink writing tablets, which bring together the pleasure of writing on paper with the power of digital technology. When he bought his first tablet, he realised that there wasn't a lot of unbiased information available for people that were considering buying an E-ink tablet, and so he built eWritable.