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Are Kindle textbook rentals a real deal?

A commuter reads on his Kindle e-reader
A commuter reads on his Kindle e-reader as a subway train arrives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 18, 2011.Brian Snyder / Reuters file
/ Source: TechNewsDaily

Pending college students everywhere smiled (and former students grumbled) at the news that Amazon will offer electronic textbook rentals at significant discounts. But are Amazon e-textbooks really that much of a deal?

It all depends on what kind of device you own.

Kindle textbook rentals will work on Kindle e-readers as well as the Kindle apps for PC, Mac, smartphones and tablets. If you already own one of these devices, you're in. However, deciding to get a tablet just for the Kindle e-textbooks can be self-defeating because the tablet will potentially cost as much as a semester or two's books.

And if you only have a desktop PC or Mac, the textbooks won't be mobile enough, especially if textbooks are required in class.

So take into consideration the device you need. If you've already got a tablet, laptop or smartphone then it's an excellent option. If you're just starting school, the e-textbook discounts could easily recoup the cost of a tablet over time, but if you're nearly done with school it's a much more difficult call to make. Remember, you can't eat a tablet.

One of the most attractive options might be the Kindle e-reader itself, which can be as cheap as $140, much cheaper than a phone or tablet. However, there is another problem with using e-books for education. The Kindle e-reader renders everything in grayscale, page turns are more cumbersome than in a book and searching can be tedious.

Perhaps the most important aspect of a real textbook is the ability to scribble notes in the margins and highlight important passages. Indeed, many students prefer used books that have already been highlighted and annotated to make their studying easier.

Kindle e-textbooks can be annotated and highlighted, but the system is incredibly clunky in the Kindle device and not much better in the apps for other devices. In this case, the physical, dead-tree textbook still trumps the latest technology.

Then again, awkward annotation systems may be infinitely preferable for students who like lighter backpacks and heavier wallets.