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Are eTextbooks Better Than Traditional Textbooks? A Comparison Of The Different Services And Required Hardware

A stack of textbooks, an iPad 1, and a Kobo Web  eReader.  Which is best: eTextbooks or paper, lightness or longevity, contraption or conventional?

A stack of textbooks, an iPad 1, and a Kobo Web eReader. Which is best: eTextbooks or paper, lightness or longevity, contraption or conventional?

Shrink Your Textbooks By A Few Pounds

Have you ever lugged around a pile of textbooks? Some of them are a solid four inches thick! Paper isn't light. A pile of books makes for a heavy and bulky load. Imagine being able to shrink your textbooks so that three huge books weighing ten pounds and standing around six inches when placed in a pile become one object that weights about a pound and is less than half an inch thick. Not only is this more comfortable and convenient, this new textbook would be searchable and have a way to quickly and easily access the glossary just by clicking a word. If you haven't guessed by now, I am talking about eTextbooks, a new technology that may be able to supplement or even replace old fashioned textbooks.

What Are eTextbooks?

eTextbooks, also known as digital textbooks, are computerized versions of old fashioned, paper textbooks. The digital versions typically have the same materials as the original copy. Some digital textbooks now offer expanded information. These texts will have everything that the paper copy had, the same pagination as the paper copy, and then have added features like movies or animations. The digital versions vary greatly in what features are offered. Each book, textbook edition, and provider will be different. If you are looking at getting an eTextbook, make sure to check out what you will get with the different providers.

eBooks generally have some common features that are not found in traditional textbooks. First, the fonts often can be changed. Many eBooks allow you to adjust the font size and style. Second, many eBooks allow you to change the brightness and the background color. Typical colors are white, sepia, or black. eBooks can have live links. You will just click on an underlined portion of text and it will bring up a glossary, diagram, website, or other material. Many eBooks can be read to you using text to speech. Any text on iOS or OSX will have this feature. It is also available within many of the eReader programs. Lastly, eBooks are searchable and often have searchable note taking and highlighting features.

eTextbook ProseTextbook Cons


Run on a battery

Can carry multiple texts in the space of one

Requires specific hardware

Enhanced features like animations and movies are sometimes available

Less textbook selection

Often costs less

Can't buy used


Technology changes so book may not work in the future

Convenient and portable

Can be slow

Can sometimes be used on many devices: phone, iPod, computer, tablet, iPad

Inconvenient if you are typing a paper and trying to look something up on the same device

Notes are searchable

Can't write and highlight as easily as paper

Typically match page numbers and chapter layout of original text

Likely will not work on eInk readers

Tablets and PCs can have multiple apps to access all of the brands

Different brands use different apps or software and often can't transfer between name brand eReaders. This means you need multiple apps or devices.

Many types can be adapted for disabilities. Font size can often be adjusted. Text to speech is also a possibility.

May become obsolete and unusable

You can use text to speech features easily in any iOS eBook

Can't borrow from a friend or library as easily.


More fragile than traditional, paper books

Possibly a large, upfront cost to buy a tablet computer, computer, or eReader

What Hardware Do I Need To Use An eTextbook?

Generally speaking you will at the very least need a Mac or Windows computer. Some of the tablet apps allow you to download straight to the tablet but this varies by company. An Android or iPad tablet will make your book more portable. Also, the touch screen on these devices makes it easier to highlight and take notes when this is an option. The nice thing with a computer or tablet is that you can have software for multiple providers all on the same gadget. Another benefit of computers and tablets is that you have a color screen. Some apps will also work on Android or iOS phones. These are smaller and harder to read. Lastly, you could use a dedicated eReader. The challenge here is that while eInk is often easier to read, many eTexts do not have a version that will work on eInk readers. Another problem with dedicated readers is that you can often can't run software from other companies. The Kindle is especially picky in this area.

More specific information will be given in each section about the eTextbook providers.

Where Can I Get Digital Textbooks?

There are a few ways to get a digital textbooks. First, I recommend checking out your college bookstore's website. A number of them are now providing links to digital textbook services. Next, you can get online and check out the different services. I will summarize some of the current eTextbook providers below. Last, you can try searching online for your textbook's title and the words "eTextbook", "digital", "eBook", "PDF", or "ePub". If you go this route, do not download any "free" copies that you find. Stick to legitimate providers such as the book publishers or other eText services. This will help you avoid any copyright violations.

If you have checked out all of these options and can't find what you are looking for, you can get a paper copy of the text and scan it. This can be a very long process as many textbooks are 500-1,000 pages long. If you are up to the task, check out this article at Legal Geekery called, "How to Digitalize Your Textbooks." This article has great instructions on scanning your textbooks. If you find these steps too time consuming, try out a service that will scan your texts for you. Many mom and pop print shops will be able to help you with this. You can also find book scanning services online. One example of an online scanning service is Blue Leaf.



Hardware Requirements: iPad, iPhone, Computer (Safari, Chrome only)

Ownership Options: full ownership of eBook, does not expire

Purchase Options: individual chapters or full textbook


Free Sample: Yes - Individual chapter available for most books

Inkling is one of my favorites. Inkling is fast, easy to navigate, and does not treat the textbook as a traditional book. These eBooks navigate through an intuitive column system that uses swipes and scrolling to quickly get to where you want to go by navigating the chapter headings. It has note taking and highlighting available. Both of these tools are indexed and searchable. The pictures and tables enlarge when tapped. Many pictures have animations to enhance comprehension. Books can include a huge variety of multimedia including animations, movies, 3D pictures, layered images, quizzes, and more. Searching is fast. It also includes a dictionary and the ability to search any words online if they are not in the text's glossary. The only downside is the price. It is one of the more expensive providers. Also, it has very few textbook titles at this time. I really recommend checking it out. Go to the site, see if your text is available. If it is, download a free chapter and see what you think.


Amazon Kindle eTextbooks

Hardware Requirements: Kindle Fire, iPad, iPhone, Windows Phone 7, Blackberry, Kindle, PC, Mac (print replica textbooks will only work on the Kindle Fire, iPad, Mac, or PC)

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Ownership Options: full ownership, rental with option to purchase at the end of rental period

Purchase Options: full textbook


Free Sample: yes - first chapter is free

Amazon has entered into the eTextbook race with their own product. The textbooks may or may not match the print format of the book. Amazon has the unique feature of having a variable rental period. When you buy the book, you can choose to rent it for any period between 30-360 days. Once it has expired, you can extend the rental or you can purchase the book. All of your notes and highlights will remain in the book. Amazon offers a 7 days return period on all textbooks. Notes and highlighting will sync across multiple devices. Amazon credit card users will get points for eText purchases. There are a huge number of titles available through this service.


Chegg eTextbooks

Hardware Requirements: Accessed through the web (iPad, Mac, PC) using Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer 9, Chrome

Ownership Options: 180 day rental

Purchase Options: full textbook


Free Sample: select book samples provided, seven day sample while your traditional textbook is being delivered.

Chegg started as a traditional textbook rental company. They have since expanded into eTextbooks. They have a neat feature. If you order a paper book from them, you will get access to that title as an eTextbook while the book is being shipped out. This way, you are ready for class while you are waiting on your book. All of Chegg's eTextbooks need an active Internet connection for access. This can be a down side if you are in an area with no coverage or if you do not want to use up your data. Like the others, it includes note taking and highlighting features. Chegg runs a homework help section on their website. This means some extra assistance for any Chegg user.


iBooks 2 Textbooks

Required Hardware: iPad

Ownership Options: purchase

Purchase Options: full textbook


Free Sample: No

Apple began offering textbooks with the advent of iBooks 2. These texts are built specifically for the iPad. These eBooks can include 3D imaging, interactive pictures, galleries and study notecards that can be reviewed. iBooks 2 includes the same note taking and highlighting features that are in the other programs. Apple has created their own textbook design software and is hoping to lower the prices on texts. Many of their texts are under $20.00. At this time, the titles are primarily for K-12. I haven't seen any textbooks in iBooks that have an equivalent paper copy, however, they do make good companion books if you are struggling with a topic. Hopefully more college level titles will become available.



Required Hardware: Mac, PC, iPad, iPhone, Android, Kindle Fire, web browser

Ownership Options: purchase, 180 day rental

Purchase Options: full textbook, some available by chapter


Free Sample: Limited to select books

VitalSource is another eTextbook provider that has a huge selection of eBooks. It is a great place to look for any of your required textbooks. To read VitalBooks you will need a VitalSource app on your computer or tablet or a web browser that can access their site. You can have the book installed on two different devices. Like Inkling, the formatting of the book is unique to this provider. It is not identical to the printed text but does include page and chapter numbers that match the book. I find that I really prefer the apps that have built the book format to be that of an eBook. They are much easier to read and browse when they look more like an eBook and less like a paper book. VitalSource is able to search all of your textbooks at once from their apps. This makes it very easy to find information when you need it. VitalSource is able to print limited numbers of pages from each book. The limit varies by title. Just like other eTextbook programs, you can copy, paste, highlight and take notes in VitalSource. Prices are very similar to those of Amazon Kindle textbooks. Some schools are connecting this provider to their distance learning web apps like Angel or Blackboard.


Coursesmart a.k.a. eCampus eTextbooks

Required Hardware: iPhone, iPad, Android, web browser (Firefox, Safari, Chrome)

Ownership Options: 180-day rental

Purchase Options: full textbook



Free sample: sample text included with free preview

Coursesmart is one of the original eTextbook providers. They have been around for many years. eCampus is using Coursesmart to sell eTextbook services. You can use either site to get to the same materials. For the most part, you must have Internet access to get to your textbooks. Coursesmart does allow caching limited portions of up to five textbooks on your computer or iOS device for reading offline. See below for a chart of what is available online versus offline. Note taking and highlighting are supported. You can also print up to 10 pages at a time out of any of your eBooks.

Coursesmart features

Product CapabilitiesOnline ReadingOffline Reading

Internet required


No - can checkout needed sections for offline reading

Pages look exactly the same as traditional, printed text



Easy navigation



Take notes and highlight text



Copy and paste




Yes - within an eBook, chapter, or page

Yes - within a page

Print pages

Yes - up to 10 pages at a time


Send information to classmates



Read on mobile devices in a browser

When connected to the Internet

Yes - supported browsers only

Read on Android, iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch


Yes - iPad only

Access to eTextbook expires when rental is over



CafeScribe web version

CafeScribe web version


Required Hardware: iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, Android, Flash enabled web browser (limited offline capabilities)

Ownership Options: varies by title, some are rent and some are own

Purchase Options: full textbook


Free Sample: yes

CafeScribe is run by Follett Higher Learning Services, a publisher or collegiate textbooks. It stresses the social learning tools. Students can connect with each other or the instructor through the software. Like the other providers, CafeScribe has a number of digital note taking, highlighting, and search features. This provider has online and offline features. CafeScribe has a text to speech feature built into the reader so that it can be found easily without any technical knowledge. CafeScribe is built to be an online eReader, however, it does allow you to use your eBooks offline for a period of 10 days. Up to 30% of each textbook can be printed or copied and pasted into new documents.



Required Hardware: iPhone, Android, web

Ownership Options: own

Purchase Options: full textbook


Free Sample: no

Xplana was created to be a social networking hub for students. It has tons of note taking features to record and take notes on lectures, means to talk to other students, and other tools to organize and share educational materials. The focus of Xplana is not to be an eTextbook provider, however, that is one of its features. The current textbook library appears to be fairly small. Also, I couldn't find any of the schools that I have attended in their database. I am guessing that at this time, not many institutions have joined Xplana.



Required Hardware: iPad, Samsung Galaxy Note, web, Windows 7

Ownership Options: 6 month rental, own

Purchase Options: full textbook


Free Sample: sample books included with free demo

Know looks to be among the most innovative eTextbook providers. They started out as a tablet company. When that plan flopped, Kno regrouped and decided to go the software route. From what I have seen, it was a great choice. Kno has both K-12 and collegiate texts. There seems to be a very large selection of textbooks available at Kno.

Know has an extensive set of unique features. First, Kno includes a course manager. This manager is a method to organize and sort out your eTexts by course or term. Kno allows you to keep a virtual journal. You can clip text and graphics to put in your journal. It can also have stickies in it. Search not only includes the journal, it can also search books, courses, and terms. Amazingly, Kno will automatically create flashcards for you. Another very unique feature on Kno is smartlinks. Smartlinks are created by Kno for your specific textbook. These smartlinks are links to outside resources that are covering the material that is in your text. Kno has 3D manipulative graphics and the ability to use a pen mode to write on the text and make notes in margins. This makes it possibly the only eReader to let you take notes in the margins. All of the diagrams have a quiz me mode so that you can see if you know your stuff. Lastly, it works off its own cloud and has Dropbox integration.

I haven't had a chance to have my own Kno textbook, but the demo that I looked at and the listed features put it at the top of my list with Inkling.


For More Information:

Some Final Thoughts On eTextbooks Versus Traditional Paper Books

  • Different eTextbook publishers use different page layouts for the same titles. I prefer ones that are built to look like an eBook rather than ones that look like printed paper. I recommend downloading samples from the different providers to see what you prefer.
  • Inkling is the most unique and least book-like eTextbook publisher. VitalSource and Kno also have a unique format. These publishers carry many titles. iBooks 2 also has a unique look, but the focus seems to be more towards K-12 versus collegiate.
  • If you will need the book as a lifelong reference, either stick with paper or get an eTextbook and paper. If any of these companies go out of business or change their software you will likely loose the book.
  • The social learning aspects of many eTextbooks look really cool. The problem is that there is a large number of companies offering each title. The likelihood that your classmates and teacher will all be using the same eTextbook provider is very low. Unless the whole class uses the same platform and avoids the traditional paper format, these have little to no value.
  • If you are vision impaired, the eTextbook revolution is a miracle. There are a growing number of eTextbook titles out there that match the standard paper titles. Without extra software you will have access to text to speech and enlarged text. Some eTextbooks are also equipped for braille. For people with fine motor challenges, the touchscreen on an iPad will be much easier than turning a page on a book.

Some Humor - Why Paper May Be Better Than Digital


Tolovaj Publishing House from Ljubljana on March 30, 2015:

Paper will always have its charm, but in my opinion e-books are long time winners. They can be delivered in no time anywhere in the world, they can be edited, mistakes corrected, hyperlinks to new resources added and so on and on. With addition of multimedia things already started rolling!

Lena Welch (author) from USA on May 15, 2013:

Thanks for the comment about the text to speech! I am sure that will be helpful to someone.

vinylrake on May 15, 2013:

CafeScribe's text-to-speech is all but useless if you are trying to do anything other than sit in front of your computer because it will only read one page of a book at a time. Press the READ button and it reads the currently visible page outloud. Once it finishes you have to manually click to go to the next page and then click 'READ' again. Lots of fun if you have a 300 page book and want to listen to it while you are driving or riding the train or washing dishes, or any of the million other things people do while they are listening to eBooks.

Lena Welch (author) from USA on March 06, 2013:

Depending on the brand of eTextbooks you may be able to use Calibre to convert them to a form that would be able to be read on an eInk eReader. This would help a lot with glare. I find myself using my eText and paper text in different ways and have been known to buy both.

Elizabeth Barrett Kearney from Maine on February 28, 2013:

I am in two classes right now that use e-textbooks and I hate them . I can't read that long staring at a screen, i get a headache, my eyes hurt, etc. I would much rather had a book with real pages in my hands...Great hub though! very informative. I can see why other people would like them, but I don't LOL

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