One of the barriers that people put up between themselves and eBooks is the idea that they will have to shell out a lot of money for a new device. That's certainly what Amazon and Apple would like you to think.
While the pros of having a dedicated eReader are numerous, the reality is that you could dip your toes into the eBook market without having to shell out a lot of money for a fancy new device. I point this out because, if you're like me, you like to try things out before spending gobs of money. I wasn't sure I would like reading on a screen, so I wanted to take a sort of 'test drive' first and that's when I came across ways that you could read eBooks on your existing equipment.
I am a Mac user - I have an iMac at home and I carry a MacBook Pro laptop with me when I am out and about. I did a quick search for 'ereader software' and was pleasantly surprised by what I found.
Kindle for Mac (or PC)
There are two devices that are trying very hard to be your dedicated eReader - Kindle from Amazon and the iPad from Apple. Other companies have come along to compete against them with devices like the Nook from Barnes & Noble, the Kobo or Sony's line of eReaders, to name just a few. But Amazon and iPad are currently dominating the market and when I went looking for software I could put on my MacBook, I searched 'kindle for mac' and found that they offered a stand alone application I could download and install.
Kindle for Mac is a free download from Amazon's website, requires Mac OS 10.5 or higher and doesn't require you to actually own a Kindle - you read everything right there on your laptop. Kindle for PC is also a free download from Amazon's site and requires Windows XP with Service Pack 2+, Windows Vista, or Windows 7 to run.
You do need to have an Amazon account to download anything from the Kindle store, but I also found that it works really well with other sites like Smashwords.com. The interface is fairly simple to read and on my MacBook I can just swipe my fingers across the track-pad to advance the pages.
When I want something from Amazon, I simply tell it to deliver the book to my Mac and it shows up when I connect the laptop to the Internet. When I bought books from Smashwords, I downloaded them in .mobi format, double clicked the file and it opened right up in Kindle for Mac and is now part of my library.
Adobe Digital Editions
If you want to move away from Amazon controlling your library, you could try Adobe's Digital Editions software.
This is a free download from Adobe's website and is a competitor to the Kindle software detailed above. You can use Digital Editions to view and manage eBooks or to download and purchase new content. it will also let you push your library to a stand alone device if you decide to add one later - I couldn't find how to do that with the Kindle software, but that doesn't mean you can't - simply that I couldn't find it. Still, it was worth mentioning here.
System requirements for Digital Editions are Microsoft Windows XP with Service Pack 2 (Service Pack 3 recommended), Windows Vista (32-bit or 64-bit) or Windows® 7 (32-bit or 64-bit). They also want you to have IE 8, Firefox 3 or Google Chrome for your browser and be running Adobe Flash Player 9 or 10 - so keep in mind that the use of Flash will be a bit of a resource hog and you'll want to have plenty of ram and a decent processor to go with it.
On the Mac, they support the Power PC platform, which Kindle does not, so you can have a Power PC running Mac OS X v10.4.10 or v10.5, or an Intel Mac running OS X v10.4.10, v10.5 or v10.6. For browser you'll need Safari 4 or Firefox 3 and again, you'll need to run Flash 9 or 10. Caveat - there's a reason Flash isn't supported on the iPhone OS, a good one - it is a massive drain on system resources. As a long time Mac user with both PowerPC and Intel Mac's under my belt, I can tell you that Flash on a Mac is a terrible thing. Whenever you are on a Flash heavy website, you notice the performance drop immediately. Everything seems to slow down because Flash demands so much of your systems resources.
If you go with Digital Editions on a Mac, you may not have the same rich, user experience as someone on a PC.
Another alternative is Calibre, an open source eBook reader and library management application.
Calibre is an open source project which means that there is a community of developers and users who collaborate to develop the software. It's a free download from their site and offers similar features to the two other software packages mentioned above.
A few areas that stand out - Calibre will convert ebooks from one format to another. So, you could purchase a book from the Kindle store but convert it to a file format supported by your Sony reader, for example. It will also sync to multiple devices, so if you have a Kindle, lose it and buy a Nook, you won't lose your existing library or have to repurchase your books for the new device.
It also has a built in eReader so you don't have to buy a separate device at all - you can simply read your eBooks on your computer or laptop.
Calibre supports Windows, OS X and Linus installations. For Windows, Calibre works on Windows XP, Vista and 7. For Mac you will need OS X Leopard and higher. For Linux, Calibre has a binary installer that has been tested on a number of distributions on both 32-bit and 64-bit x86 machines - visit the website for more details about Linus installations.
There are a lot of other choices out there - I chose the three that I have personally played with to talk about here today. If you are looking at getting into eBooks but can't see yourself spending over a hundred dollars for something that you may not like, downloading one of these free applications is a great way to test the waters before diving in.