Category Archives: Basics

Core skills and tools for life online.

Facebook Timeline…once more, with feeling!

Good morning. Over the weekend, many Facebook users were told that as of August 4th, their profile pages would be switching to the new Timeline format. Let’s take a look at Timeline’s features and see how you can prepare for the big switch.

Facebook Timeline

New Features in Timeline

The major updates with Timeline are a new look for your own information and your Wall and an easier way to navigate a person’s history of posts in Facebook.

    Facebook Timeline's timeline

  • New layout. In Timeline, there’s a Cover photo up at the top (just like on many websites), your information underneath, and then your posts down below. On a laptop or desktop computer, you’ll see two columns of posts. On a mobile device (smartphone or tablet), you’ll just see one. The stories scroll down the page in reverse chronological order – newest first and older as you go.
     
  • Timeline to get to older posts. One of the big problems with the old profile page is that you could only go back a few dozen posts at a time. There was no way to see what you or someone else had written last month, last year, or back when you started on Facebook. Now, there’s a ‘timeline’ off to the upper right – just click on a year or month to look at posts from that time.
     
  • Cover photo. This image should be a large-ish, interesting picture either taken by you, of you, or is of something important to you. It’s the first thing people will see when they look at your Timeline, and you can have fun with it. Later this week, we’ll be adding a separate post on uploading photos to Facebook, to walk you through the process of adding a Cover photo.
     
  • New kinds of updates. From your timeline, you can add different Life Events and use Facebook as a true online documentary of your life.
    Facebook Life Events menu
     

A Few Facebook Tips

  • Change settings easily. Watch what happens when you put your cursor over things on the screen. There are a lot of settings hidden in plain sight on Facebook pages. Put your cursor over text, images, and empty boxes on the page and wait a moment – a box with an X, a small gear, or some text might appear on the right to offer you choices. Click on them to see what your choices are.
     
  • Edit link previews. When you post a link, Facebook automatically creates the link and adds an image if there is one. Remove the image by clicking the box next to No Thumbnail. Change the description by clicking on the text until it turns yellow, then delete or type until it says what you want it to.
     
  • Unfollow posts. If you’re tired of getting notifications for new comments on a post you’ve commented on, Unfollow it. Up at the top left, click on the globe icon and put your cursor over the latest notification for that post. Click on the X that appears in the box, and then click on Unfollow.
    Facebook's Unfollow feature
     
  • Create lists of friends. Now you can create different lists of friends, so you can easily choose which people can see which posts. Make a “Close Friends” list for the people you know well, add your parents and cousins to “Family,” and keep your “Work Friends” separate. You can also click on the list name under Friends on the left side of your News Feed page to just view posts by those people.
     

Why some folks don’t like it

Facebook has been moving users to the new Timeline for a few months now, and many people have said they don’t like it. Some don’t like the layout, some think it’s slow to load, some think it’s just broken. Some people don’t like the fact that it’s easier to get to older posts, and some don’t like all the ‘extra work’ they think the new layout makes them do.

But before you decide you don’t like it, please do three things:

  • Really try using it. Add a life event, look back at old posts you made when you first got on Facebook, add friends to lists, quickly and easily change settings on a post. Like your parents said, “Try it before you say you hate it.”
  • Remember that it only affects your personal page. Your news feed page will stay just the same.
  • See what Timeline does really well, and what your News Feed page does well. Ask yourself if it might be okay for one to work one way and the other, another?

In the comments or on the Learning for Life Online Facebook page, tell me what you think of Timeline. Good or bad – we want to know.

Help & Resources

Finding and Using Online Help

Out in the wild world online, getting help using a particular tool is often up to you. However, using help centers, support pages, live chat, and discussion forums, there are many ways to figure out how to make things work the way you want them to. These suggestions are good for using online tools, but also for using the help resources available online for home & personal electronics, appliances, tools, and other gadgets we use.

Getting Help from a Website

Where’s the link? — The link for a site’s help section is usually in the upper right or lower right corner. Sometimes, it might be along the bottom edge (with links to About Us, Contact Us, etc.) or very occasionally in the regular menus at the top or left. The link to the help section is frequently near the links to the account settings, which we found last week.

LG products knowledge baseOn the site’s home page, take a look for links to Help, Help Center, Support, Support Center, Customer Care, Getting Started, or Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ). A site might use any of these to link to their help section. If you see the words “Knowledge Base,” that’s a fancy way of describing a way to search by a product name or number to find information about that one thing.

What will I find in the help section?
The first way that a website usually offers help is through a Getting Started or Setting Up Your Account page. These pages give you step-by-step instructions for creating an account, changing the settings, and learning the basics of using the site. Many sites include a video that shows you how things work in real-life.

After you’ve used the site for a bit, you probably have a few questions. So do many people, and websites usually have a list of Frequently Asked Questions to offer answers. As the title suggests, these are questions frequently asked about how to use a site or tool, and often include problems that users frequently run into. Each question is answered briefly, with examples or screenshots when needed, and occasionally by linking to another section.

For more complex questions, or ones that aren’t asked as often, the help section will list other topics, arranged by category. These sections are often organized from signing up for an account, through using the basics, to more advanced features and troubleshooting. Work your way through the categories as you learn to use the site or tool

While you’re there, take a look to see if the site offers tutorials, training or other suggestions for learning how to use a site or a real-world gadget. For examples, see Microsoft Office training and DIY videos from Home Depot and Lowe’s.

In most help sections, there’s a search field just for the help section. When you’re searching Help, try to use the same words to describe things that the site or tool does. If you need help on Facebook Pages, type “facebook pages” into the search field. Be specific, and use just a word or two to get started.

Zappos.com live chatFinally, some larger companies will offer live chat with a support person through their help pages. If you’d prefer to talk to a real person, at any point, try turning it on and asking your question. When you’re using chat, you don’t have to worry about misunderstanding what someone says on the phone, and you can occasionally save the chat for later.

If I Can’t Answer My Question There, What Next?

Search the web, especially if you have a strange error code. Copy the error code and paste it into a search engine like Google or Bing – make sure you include the software you’re using or the website you were on. Then click search. Read through the results list and look for words like answers, forum or discussion. These indicate places where people go to talk about software and technology, and often ask each other questions to get help that way. Also, look to see if anyone else has had the same problem and written about their solution somewhere, in a blog or Facebook post.

Use discussion forums to ask your question and get answers. If you’re really getting stumped, look on the service or tool’s website for customer discussion forums, or look for other ones online using a search. These forums are places where users get to ask questions, search to see if someone else has already asked their question, and hopefully get some useful answers. Take a look at any of the Google product forums or Apple product communities for an idea of how these work.

If you have a blog or a Facebook account, post your question where other people can see it. Again, other people might have had the same problem and might have found a solution for it. You never know until you ask, right?

Help & Resources

Facebook – Privacy Settings

Facebook Timeline

Note: We’ve moved the short look at Timeline that was here to a later post, with more details and suggestions. Check it out!

Facebook Settings

That said, with Timeline and other new features Facebook has developed, it’s more important than ever to understand the security and privacy settings on your account. So let’s walk through some of these settings and explain what they mean. We can’t cover every single setting, but we can look at the most important ones.

Facebook Settings menuUp in the upper right hand corner of every Facebook screen, you’ll see your name, the word “Home” and a triangle pointing downward. That triangle means that there are more menu choices. Click the triangle and you’ll see options for Account Settings, Privacy Settings, and the links to Log Out and get Help. [My account has a few extras, for Pages that I manage for other groups.] We’re going to skip Account Settings for the moment and look at Privacy.

 
Facebook Privacy SettingsPrivacy Settings. When you click on Privacy Settings, you’ll see a page that starts by reminding you that you can set the privacy level for every single post you make on Facebook. This is good to remember – you get to choose whether something you post is only visible to Friends, to a list you’ve created, or to the Public. Underneath that, you can set a default setting for all posts; I’d recommend by limiting everything to Friends to start with.

Underneath that are the more specific settings that you can control. Next to each one, click on Edit Settings to see what you can change. For most of these settings, you can choose to let different things (posts, tags, etc.) be visible to No One (but yourself) or Only Me, to your Friends, to all the Friends of your Friends, or let it be Public. I suggest you work your way slowly through the How You Connect and Timeline and Tagging settings, because they’re pretty easy to make decisions about.

Facebook Privacy SettingsNext are probably the most important settings to understand. The Apps, Games and Websites or Apps and Websites settings control what kind of information that sites and apps other than Facebook itself can see and use about you. These are called third-party apps and they include any app created by some company other than Facebook. Most of the games and ‘fun stuff’ in Facebook are actually these third-party apps, and you want to make sure that you only let them see the bare minimum of information needed to use them. A game doesn’t need to know your hometown and an app for the Washington Post doesn’t need to know what your address is.

Click on the Edit Settings link for Apps, (Games) and Websites and READ THE WHOLE PAGE that comes up before you click anything. Then, if you don’t use any games or other apps in Facebook, you should Turn off all apps. Once you click Turn off apps, many of the words on this page will turn grey and the settings will say, “This is disabled because you turned off all apps.” That’s good – this makes your information as secure as it can get. Nothing has access to it unless you permit it.

You might find that when you click on links that other people share, it asks you to let that app do something. THINK CAREFULLY before you click Yes. See the example of a Social Reader app that wants to know an awful lot about me before it will let me read an article someone posted. Do you really want to let this app work, and give it access some of your information? If you’re okay with that, go ahead and click yes. You can always change your mind later by visiting the Apps section of your Account Settings and blocking specific ones. Sample of Facebook App asking for permission it doesn't need

The last two Privacy Settings sections let you make your past posts more or less public (now that it’s easier to see them using Timeline), and to manage Blocked People and Apps. This is another good section to spend some time with, so you can stop getting those game invitations and friend requests from people you don’t care about. You can also add people to a Restricted List, so they can only ever see your public posts. You don’t need to unfriend them, but you can limit what they can see of yours.

[Note: This post has gotten very long – we’ll cover Account Settings in another post later this week. Take your time with the Privacy Settings for now.]

What’s the Big Deal?

So, why do all these apps want access to your information? Because they are businesses, and they are trying to make money by analyzing you and figuring out what you might want to buy from them. Yes, it’s all about advertising and selling information and stuff. We’ll talk more about this later on this month, but for now, just remember that any time you use a tool for free on the internet, it’s because You are the product being bought by advertisers and other companies.

Yes, there are a lot of settings you can change to manage your privacy in Facebook. It seems overwhelming, but it’s really a good thing. You get to keep as much control as possible over what information about you is shared on this social network, with and without your knowing it.

As always, the best way to learn about something is to play with it: take your time, read everything on the screen, and make sure you get help when you need it. For the rest of this month, we’ll look at other types of settings you should find and understand in all of your online accounts. If you have a Facebook account, start with learning these, and next week we’ll look at more places to keep yourself safer online.

Help & Resources

On “Knowing Enough”

For the month of April, Learning for Life Online will show you how to learn more about the settings and features of the tools you use online. We’ll start by exploring the new Facebook Timeline and the security and feature settings Facebook uses. After that, the next two sessions will cover finding and changing the settings on any online account, then finding and using Help for an online account or a real-life product you use. On the last Monday in April, we’ll wrap up any loose ends from the previous weeks and maybe have a spring surprise or two.

But before we start looking under the hood of all these online tools, let’s think about just how much we really need to know about these tools in order to use them.
 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user stephenliveshereFor most technology, you only need to know as much as the driver of a car. Get it started, send it in one direction or another, stop when you need to, get it fixed when it’s broken, understand the safety features and rules of the road.

That’s all, and that’s enough.
 
 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user therealkeltonSometimes, you might need to know as much as a mechanic. More about what’s going on under the hood, more about how it really works, more on fixing most of the everyday problems.

And that’s certainly enough.
 
 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user aero_gopherIn a few cases, you might even want to know as much as people who build cars. You’re thinking about how to create new features, solve complex problems, make improvements, get the most out of your tools.

That’s absolutely enough.
 
 
 

Photo and design courtesy of Flickr user smallritualThen, maybe – just maybe – you want to know as much as the designers of cars. You want to get the science behind it, understand the math that makes it go, create the art and beauty
of design, and learn the physical mechanics of construction.

This is more than enough, and more than most people would ever think of trying to know.
 

The point is, you don’t need to know exactly how a particular tool works in order to use it well. You may not understand everything about your car or DVD player, but you know enough to use it safely and well. The same is true for online tools – the more you know, the more efficiently and securely you can live life online. However, just by learning the basic rules of the road and understanding a few safety features, you can get pretty far. That’s what Learning for Life Online is here to help you with.

Next up, Facebook Timeline and the privacy and account settings.

Getting Social – Sharing the neat stuff you find online

When the internet began, the only way to share interesting information online was to copy and paste it into an email, or forward one email message around and around.

Nowadays, the web is built for sharing neat stuff. From social networks like Facebook and Google+ (G+) to video and photo sharing sites, it’s easier than ever to share the interesting links that you’ve discovered.

Copy and Paste

The easiest way to share a link is still to just copy and paste. At the top of your browser, you’ll see the address bar. Inside of that field is the web address or URL, usually starting with “http://www.[something]”. Click into that address bar and highlight the entire URL. Then, either click on Copy (under the Edit menu at the top of your screen) or use Ctrl-C or Command-C to copy the item.

Next, just paste the URL wherever you want to share it from – into an email message, into a Facebook status update, into a comment you’re writing, into a blog post of your own. Click on Ctrl-V or Command-V, or Paste from the Edit menu and the full URL will appear. No need to type it all out yourself; let the computer do the work of remembering all the numbers and letters.

If you’re a bit more comfortable with a mouse and are on a web page, you can right click on the link you want to share and choose Copy Link Location. This avoids the possibility that you don’t highlight the entire URL in the address bar before you copy it.

Sharing in Facebook

Sharing a link in a Facebook status update can be as easy as pasting a URL into a status update, but do get a few more choices. First, when you paste that URL into a status update, Facebook knows you’re linking to a web page and will add a little preview of that page, including the title, a bit of text and an image. You can get rid of the image by clicking the box next to the words No Thumbnail, and you can click on the preview text to delete or change any of it. You can also share to the public or to just your friends by changing the Audience drop-down on the post.

Sharing something that a friend posted on Facebook is even easier. At the bottom of the post, click on Share. Facebook will ask where you want to share this item – your Wall, a friend’s Wall, or in a private message to someone. Pick the destination you want and follow the steps until you’re done.

Finally, all it takes to share a photo or video via Facebook is to upload it. Click on Add Photo/Video at the top of the page, then either upload a single photo/video or Create a Photo Album to add many photos of the same event or thing. Walk through the steps and when you’re done, your photos or videos will be shared on your Wall or Timeline.

Sharing from Flickr or YouTube

There are two ways you can share a photo or video that you find online. Just above the image (in Flickr) or just below it (in YouTube), there’s a small Share button. Click that and either:

  • Copy the link that they offer you, just like you did in the address bar. Now you can paste that link into a status post, email message or as a link on a page.
  • Get the HTML/Embed code. This small bit of web page code will let you actually paste the video itself into a blog post, blog comment, or web page you create. If you’re not using one of those tools, don’t worry about the Embed code – just copy and paste the link itself. But if you are using a blog or working with your own website, try embedding the video instead. Copy the code they offer you and paste it into your blog post or comment. It should look like this:

Sharing Anywhere Else

Most websites and tools will let you share items in one of the ways described above. Before you just cut and paste the URL, look around on the page and see if you see a Share button to click. Try clicking and see what happens – the service will probably just walk you through the steps you need to share using either a link or by embedding an image or video.

A word of caution: If the service requires you to create a new account with them before you can share something, stop and pause for a minute. Ask yourself if you really want to create a new account just for this, or if just copying and pasting the URL is fine. You don’t need to create accounts just because a website tells you so. Remember that you get to choose what you do and don’t want to do online, including signing up for a new service. Pause, and decide what you want to do next.

Help and Resources

Next week, we’ll take a step backwards and look at how to find neat stuff online. Stay tuned….

Playing With a New Gadget

Welcome back to Learning for Life Online, the Boston Public Library’s self-directed learning program about online life. We’re starting up again after a brief hiatus by getting back to basics.

Courtesy of Imamon on Flickr, Creative Commons licensed
When you’re trying to live life online, it’s important to know how to play with a new online tool. It’s also important to know how to start using and playing with the gadgets that connect us to those online tools. Some gadgets are so easy to use that it’s no problem, and others require a little more work.

Here are some suggestions for getting started with a brand new gadget:

  1. Read the manual, but don’t try to read it all at once. Start with the list of What’s in the Box and the Getting Started or Quick Start sections. Go slowly, and look up any words that aren’t familiar. Read as much of the manual as you can before you turn your gadget on.
  2. Push the buttons Follow along with the manual, step by step. Learn what each button and setting does when you press it, one by one.
  3. Do the ‘driving’ yourself. If you let another family member or friend ‘set up’ your gadget for you, you won’t understand how it works. Try to at least get the basics, so you can troubleshoot any problems yourself. Do ask someone to go through it with you, if that helps, but push your own buttons.
  4. Be patient with yourself. You’re learning a new skill and a new tool. Don’t rush, and take breaks when you need to. The more time you take now, the more you’ll know from now on.
  5. Have fun! This isn’t school, and you aren’t getting graded. Learning how a new gadget works gives you the freedom to play, and gives you the power to make it do what you want it to (rather than the other way around).

Remember, like online tools, similar gadgets often work in similar ways. The Power button always turns it on and off. The volume controls will be the same everywhere, as will Play and Stop. Menu button will almost always get you back to your main menu of choices. Yes, some of these gadgets have a lot of buttons, but the basics tend to look and work the same way on all of them. If you knew how to operate a cassette Walkman, an iPod or other mp3 player will feel very similar.

Help & Resources

There are too many kinds of gadgets out there to list, so here’s a few good ideas for finding help about your gadget online:

  • Go straight to the company’s website. Type the full website address in at the top of your browser and hit Enter. Then, look for a link on that says Product Information, Support, Help, or Troubleshooting. Click on it, read the screen, and click the appropriate link.
  • Use a search engine to find information. Type in the full name of the gadget and the word ‘support’ or ‘help,’ then click Search. Lots of results will come up – look for ones from the company that made your gadget first, then try others. The first page of results will have the most popular links, which might be most helpful (if they’ve helped other people).
  • Ask someone else who owns one. A friend, a family member, someone you know from work or school. Even if they don’t know the answer to your question, the two of you might be able to sit down together and figure it out. That answer might be useful to them one day, too.
  • Use a search engine to find discussion forums about your gadget; search for the name of your gadget the word ‘forum’ or ‘discussion.’ This is a little more advanced, usually, because the conversations on these forums are often technical.

Welcome to Learning for Life Online at the Boston Public Library

Learning for Life Online at the Boston Public Library is a self-guided program to help you discover the tools and skills needed for living, learning and working online. It’s for users of the Boston Public Library and anyone else who wants to learn along.

To learn more about the program and how it works, read the Getting Started page.

The Only Constant is Change

We’ll be taking a short break from ebooks this week to talk about one of the skills necessary for living life online: being comfortable with change.

“Nothing but change endures.” Whether we know this quote from Heraclitus or Isaac Asimov, it still rings true…and nowhere more so than online. Everything we’ve seen about online life so far – the flexibility, the social nature, the connection to technology, the possibility for innovation – are things that encourage change, and occasionally require it. Even more than with cars or electronics, the internet makes rapid and continuous change not only possible, but relatively easy to do.

For those of us used to a world made of bricks and mortar, this kind of change can be surprising and uncomfortable. When you visit a store every day, you don’t expect to walk up one morning to a completely different storefront with doors in new places, a new way of ordering, changed packaging, and brand-new (and maybe younger and faster) employees. You walk in the door and realize you don’t know where anything is, don’t know where to find what you want or how to even begin looking for it, and you feel that the staff don’t understand why you’re confused. In these brick and mortar stores, you can usually see the changes as they happen: the scaffolding and construction, the “big change coming” signs, employees saying goodbye to their regulars before they leave.

And yet, that’s precisely what it can feel like to have an online service you use all the time change its website overnight. You wake up one morning and everything you finally have gotten comfortable with has changed….again. It can be frustrating, can make you feel like you don’t know how this stuff works after all, can cause you to throw up your hands and walk away from the machine.

Don’t.

Don’t walk away, and don’t give up.

Take a deep breath, remember that you do know what you’re doing, and go back to basics. In our very first post on Learning for Life Online, we talked about playing with new online tools. These same skills are what will help you now.

  • Read the screen and see if the site has a link to a list or a video about “What’s new!, or maybe a new help section to walk you through the changes.
  • Once you’ve found that list of what’s new, push the button and watch the video or click on the link to the new features list. Then, try out one new thing at a time and see how it works.
  • Take your time and don’t be afraid. Yes, things have changed, but rarely does a website or service change absolutely everything all at once. You’ll recognize what’s familiar from the previous version and can focus on how it works differently now.
  • And a new one: don’t panic. It took you time to learn the old features, and it’ll take some time to learn the new ones, but probably not as much time as you think it will. All those changes will probably make the site easier to use and help you do what you want to do, so give them a chance.

Also, don’t believe the myth that the “younger kids who’ve been doing this forever” are any more comfortable with change than you are. They aren’t, and every time a service they use and have customized to be just the way they want it to be changes, they complain and get frustrated just as much as the rest of us. And then, like the rest of us, they get used to the changes and keep on going.

So, why have we taken time to talk about being comfortable with change this week? Because several major websites/services have announced updates and new features in the past two weeks that will have an effect on millions of people.

Facebook changes a little, then a lot

In late September of 2011, Facebook users woke up to yet another series of changes: their Most Recent feed choice was replaced by a Top Stories feed that missed half of what they wanted to see, their lists of friends and acquaintances were different, the login and stuff on the left side of the screen had moved around again, and there were different choices and settings that needed to be updated. That morning, most Facebook posts seemed to be about how much they hated the new look and feel, but that anger died down by mid-day and now, two weeks later, it’s all but gone. (For some history, the same thing happened in 2009.)

What many Facebook users didn’t realize is that these changes were the first step towards a much, much larger change, coming later in October. You can watch the full announcement and demonstration of the new Facebook Timeline, but in short, it’s a visual way to display all of your posts, photos & videos, apps, and anything else you want to share on Facebook. You can customize the look and there are new features that let you “curate the story of your life.” Mashable.com has several articles summing up the little changes and the big ones to come.

Amazon Kindle ebooks finally available through your local library

Ever since public libraries began to offer downloadable ebooks through their online branches, users have been asking, “…but can I get some books for my Kindle?” For a very long time, the answer was No, but last week, that changed. Now, Amazon Kindle users can check out library ebooks if their local library uses the Overdrive ebook and digital audiobook service. Once you find a book in your library’s ebook collection (check out the Boston Public Library’s for example), you check it out using that system and then seamless move over to your Kindle account to download it. This is a huge change because now the millions of Kindle ebook users can now check out library books. Awesome.

Boston Public Library’s online catalog gets personalized

Earlier in 2011, the Boston Public Library got a new online catalog, and overall the response has been really positive. Just today, the company who manages that online catalog updated the page you see when you first log in, to make it easier to see the important information (what’s checked out & when it’s due) and recommendations and ratings made by the people you follow. Check out this short video about all the changes to the online catalog for more information.

Summing Up

One of the greatest strengths of life online is that it’s easy to update and improve on the services and tools that we use there. However, this means that those services and tools will change, and we must change with them….or find new tools. Change isn’t always easy, but it doesn’t have to be hard or scary or frustrating. We can learn to roll with changes and maybe find that the new, improved thing is actually better. But you’ll never know if you don’t give it a chance.

Help & Resources

eBooks & eBook Readers – The Basics

With the surge in popularity of eBooks and eReaders, it’s easier now than ever before to have nearly anything you could want to read at your fingertips in moments. Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at what ebooks and ereaders are, how to read ebooks on devices beyond ereaders, and the many places to find and download ebooks.

What Is It?

Electronic books, or ebooks are precisely that – electronic versions of physical books. Rather than read them printed on paper, we read the content of these books on some kind of electronic device. In the US, many people read their ebooks on an ebook Reader, but other devices you can use include your computer, your mobile phone or smartphone, or a tablet device like the iPad or GalaxyTab. Note: This week, we’ll discuss just the ereaders and next week, we’ll look at reading ebooks on other devices.

eReaders are dedicated devices meant only for (or primarily for) reading ebooks on. The Amazon Kindle was the first and most common ereader for many years, but the Nook has become popular because you can also use it to surf the web. Other readers on the market include the Kobo, the Sony Reader, readers from Aluratek and PanDigital and many more.

There are two important differences between different brands of ereaders: the file formats they allow, and the way the screen works.

  • File Formats. There are three most-used formats for ebooks – EPUB, PDF and Amazon’s AZW (Kindle only). EPUB and PDF are what’s called an ‘open’ file format, and they can be viewed by most of the ebook readers out there. Amazon made the choice to create their own ebook file format, and those ebooks can only be read on Kindle devices and applications. You don’t need to know how the different formats work – you just need to know which formats your ereader can read, and which ones it can’t. That will let you find and download the correct format when you’re looking for your own ebooks.
  • Screen Type. There are two primary types of screens for ebook readers:
    eInk or ePaper screens were first used by the Kindle, and later by the original Nook and Sony eReader. An eInk screen looks just like a page of printed text, with a warm grey background and black ‘ink.’ You can change the font size somewhat, but the idea here is to recreate the experience of reading a printed book.
    Color LCD screens were first used by the Nook Color, and they allow the ereader to show color images and to surf the web. With these screens, it’s possible to view magazines, picture books and comic books on your ereader.

Features on ereaders vary from model to model, but nearly all of them will keep track of where you are in a book, let you move from book to book without losing your place, and allow you to download books onto the device for offline reading. Some ereaders will let you highlight text or save notes about what you’re reading, making them useful for students, scholars and voracious readers. The Nook color and other color ereaders will let you surf the web using a basic browser, turning an ereader into a simple tablet device (far less expensive than an iPad!). For an idea of all of the features available, look at the product pages for each of the readers mentioned above.

How Is It Useful?

Imagine being able to carry a small library’s worth of books with you wherever you go, available to read at a moment’s notice? You can decide at the very last minute whether you’d rather be reading the latest James Patterson or re-read that book of Carlos Casteneda’s poetry you love. Now picture being able to write in all of those books without harming them, and marking your place without the risk of losing your bookmark or ruining the corner of a page. Finally, think about all of this happening in a device that weighs less than your average paperback and that can close its cover and slip into a bag.

This is what it means to use an ereader to read ebooks. It is a different experience than reading a printed book, to be sure, and it is sometimes a better one. For traveling, especially, carrying and keeping track of a single ereader is lighter and easier than lugging around a dozen books. Just like iPods and other mp3 players changed the way we listen to music on the go, ebooks and ereaders are changing how we read.

Ereaders can also make it easier to read and finish books. One person who could never finish a book because he always seemed to lose them 50 pages from the end is reading more than a dozen books a year now, thanks to his Kindle. People who need larger text to read more easily now have many more options, because any book can become a large print edition on an ereader. Finally, while electronics are not environmentally friendly themselves, there is some good in not having millions of books printed only to end up recycled not too longer afterwards.

Try It Out

Since I’m not going to tell you to run out and get an ereader, let me suggest getting ahead on next week’s lesson (when we’ll talk about reading ebooks on devices other than ereaders) and take a look at Archive.org. Archive.org is a free online archive of texts, audio, video, websites and many other formats. Search through the texts archives and find something you’re interested in reading. Then, click on one of the options under View the Text – you can view it online, or download it to your computer to read whenever you’d like. PDF might be the easiest format to start with, since nearly every computer can read that format.

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