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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Digital Books vs Physical Books

If you didn't get the news, has apparently slashed prices for renting electronic books for its Kindle reader by as much as 80%. This sounds like good news for those of us who have a Kindle or use the Kindle reader on a computer or pocket pc/smartphone. However, the renting sets a time limit on how long you can use the ebook before it becomes unusable. Printed books (new or used) don't have this problem at all. But is it worth choosing an electronic copy of a book over a physical copy of a book?

The argument for electronic books is a simple one. Who really wants to carry a backpack full of books on his or her back all day? With electronic books, I only have to carry around my ebook reader in my backpack and all of my books are stored in my ebook reader. However, like everything in life, there is a proper time and place for electronic books.

Books having to do with math and the sciences have little use for electronic books. For these books, you will often find that people may write notes in these books to help them to study and remember concepts. With electronic books, the software may allow you to enter page notes, but unlike physical books, you cannot position the notes on the page where you want them. Also, many of these books are kept for reference, as the next level of a subject matter builds on the previous level. For these kinds of books, you are better off buying a new or used physical copy of the book.

I can see electronic books working for areas like literature. For these classes, you will have to buy many books which you will use in class. For most of these books, you will probably not need them again in your lifetime, so a rental of that book for a period of time makes sense.

Computer Science/Computer Engineering is another area where electronic books can work. With the way technology grows and gets completely outdated, it's only a (short) period of time before a book on a particular topic gets outdated. If you get an electronic version of the book, you take it to learn the concepts and you can grow and build from resources outside of it (like the internet). For those books that teach basic, universal concepts, however, those books should be physical ones.

Now I also have a critique of the cycling of textbook versions by college professors. Before you decide to switch to a newer version of a book you are using, please review the new version first and compare it with what you are using now. Many times, the newer version of a textbook is only slightly different from the version that you are using now in your classes (some examples of differences are organization of the book, different page numbering, etc.) From a student's standpoint, it's not worth buying the newer version of a book if I can find a slightly older version of the book for less money than the newer version would cost if all of the concepts taught in the newer version of the book can be found in the older version of the book.

I know it's still the middle of the summer, but perhaps this will give both students and professors/teachers some time to think about this in preparation for the fall semester. Personally, I prefer my math and science books to be physical ones, while my literature (and other arts classes, except for music theory) to be electronic ones, but that's just one man's opinion. If you have any thoughts on this, please let them be known via the comment box below. You can also follow me on Twitter too (username is @rctechgeek).

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