Digital textbook vs. Physical | Which is better?

Digital textbook vs. Physical
Picture of Santiago Mallea

Santiago Mallea

Chief of Content At Gradehacker

Should you choose a digital textbook or stick with the physical book?

If you are a college student and don’t know which is the best way to read the required materials and textbooks, these are the main aspects you need to consider:

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There is no doubt that college textbooks are one of the most important resources while studying. Where else would you get all the information you need for your assignments and exams? The only problem is that now students have to choose which is the best fit for them. The convenient digital textbooks, or the traditional physical books.

The ebooks vs textbooks question has been out for many years now, and college life has found a way to work both ways. While some modern college students definitely choose digital reading because of its online features, old-school students still prefer to get their physical book and store it proudly on their bookshelf.

The truth is that students can get their degrees regardless of which form they choose, but many continue to miss the benefits and disadvantages of each book format.

Maybe you are a book lover and feel that you would never change traditional textbooks for an ebook, but you also wish to save the hundreds of dollars they cost. Or maybe, you are a child of technology that has always read everything on your electronic device, but you just can’t stand the online distractions anymore.

You want to improve your reading experience, and you are looking for the biggest pros and cons of both formats. This is where we come in.

Here at Gradehacker, we have helped tons of students who are going through their college journey. We are experts in finding the best college resources for non-traditional students, and that’s why we decided to list the good and the bad to answer the on-going question: Digital textbooks vs. physical, which is the best for you?

Let’s begin!

Digital textbook vs. Physical

Reading Experience and Portability

We are starting with the most visible difference: how and where you actually read.

Digital Textbook

Electronic books can be read from any digital device. Mobile devices, tablets, smartphones, or e-readers, there are plenty of options to choose from.

And because they are stored digitally, they can be easily accessed anywhere at any time! Whether you are on a train commuting to work or having coffee at your local café, you can just take out your phone and read your course material.

Plus, an electronic book is easier to transport because it fits easily into your bag and weighs much less than a physical textbook. Instead of moving from one place to another with five 300-page books, you just carry one device with all the material in there.

One of its best advantages is that you can use many features that can significantly improve your study time. Highlight a particular paragraph, bookmark an important page with the answer to an exam question, and find specific keyphrases with the search function. Some ebooks even provide audio versions of the chapters too!

Other elements allow you to set different font sizes, bold words, and change the background color. But, one of our favorite features is that some e-books let you adjust the screen’s brightness to resemble the tone of a physical page and avoid eye strain.

However, we must say that the experience changes depending on your electronic device. It can be more challenging to read from your phone, as you have to avoid online distractions like social media alerts. Maybe you are in the middle of a chapter, but after a friend shares a funny video on Instagram, you end up wasting 30 minutes scrolling through memes.

The best thing to do is to use a single device like a Kindle, a small hand-held e-reader. You can buy digital texts and books, add them to your library, and read them whenever you want without the distractions of the internet and social media.

Physical Textbook

Regular textbooks represent the most traditional learning method. Paper books have passed down information and helped students become experts throughout the ages. How can they be inefficient?

Well, many people believe that the traditionality of textbooks has been surpassed by the convenience of ebooks. But why?

First, because a print textbook is much bulkier than an electronic book and takes up a huge amount of space. It doesn’t matter where you are going; you will always have to carry that heavy book. And it’s even worse if you have to carry more than one.

Additionally, most textbooks contain too many pages, and it can be hard for college students to find the study material they need. You might spend hours upon hours flipping through your book in order to find what you are looking for. This could prove to be quite frustrating when you are trying to cram for a big test.

The popularity and growth of online textbooks are undeniable, but you just can’t beat the ever-lasting utility of physical books.

After all, hundreds of books with useful information that were written before the expansion of digital textbooks still don’t have a digital version

Whether it is hard-to-find statistics or an interesting opinion by a famous author, there are lots of texts that are impossible to find on the internet, because they are simply not there yet!

Sometimes, an old book from your library can be the source you were missing for your assignment!

Plus, and book lovers will agree, there is something about the aesthetic of paper books that digital books will never have. Many readers find a sense of pride when they see their bookshelves. It’s their own library that reminds them of every book and text they’ve ever read. A symbol of the information and knowledge that they now have.

Digital textbook vs. Physical

Price and Availability

Now, we continue with arguably the most discussed difference: the cost.

Digital Textbook

Digital books and texts can be found all over the internet. You can find them on websites, purchase them through your electronic device, and nowadays most teachers post them directly to the college portal. 

Still, many times you still need to buy a particular textbook for one class. 

Here is when our friend Google comes in.

Of course, all prices change depending on the site. For example, we searched for “Fundamentals: Davis Essential Nursing Content + Practice Questions” on Amazon and found that its Kindle and digital format was $31. However, we also looked for it on Chegg, one of the cheapest textbook rental services, and found you could rent it for $30 or buy it for $40.

While in this case there is a $10 difference in favor of Amazon, it is a good tip to always check the main and most reliable websites to get the best price. If you want to learn more about Chegg and all of its services, you can read our in-depth review!

But undoubtedly the best feature digital textbooks have, is that many times you can find them for free. If you want to save $200 on a book that you will end up using just for one class and will never read again, you can find a better alternative by looking for it online.

If you want free textbooks, don’t miss our list with the best websites to find them! If you prefer to watch the video, check it out here!

Physical Textbook

College textbooks can cost hundreds of dollars per semester. If you are taking three classes, and for each one you need to buy a $100 textbook, that’s $300 for some books that you may only read a few times.

But just as with online textbooks, how much you end up paying for a physical copy depends on where you look for it. The obvious first choice is campus libraries, but most of the time they have the highest price because they offer the newest edition.

To save valuable dollars, many students buy old editions from other students who have already completed that class. Not only are you paying less for the text you need, but you might also get some valuable annotations from the student you bought it from. And to complete the cycle, you can sell it yourself once you finish the semester!

You can also find more options on the internet. Following the example of the “Fundamentals: Davis Essential Nursing Content + Practice Questions”, we found that on Amazon you can get a new edition for $62 or a used one for $21. With Chegg, you can rent it for $14.50, but if you want to purchase it on another website, Barnes & Noble charges $42.95 for a new one and $32.67 for a used version. However, they currently don’t have any copies available.

Overall, getting a physical copy of a book is a higher cost, but if you are a book lover who likes filling out your bookshelf, there are plenty of options to find them for less money.


We’ve talked about the cost and the actual experience, but one difference that is worth taking into account is that electronic textbooks are not as durable as a physical book can be.

Digital Textbook

Ebooks are nice, affordable, and convenient, but the truth is that you will always depend on having a charged electronic device, with wi-fi, and in good condition.

But besides that, ebooks do not require much upkeep.

The most important question is how long you can use an e-reader until it runs out of life. While it may vary depending on the model of the e-reader, Kindle’s battery lasts between 28 and 36 hours, and has a durable life of 8 years.

However, you need to be extra prudent with how you use and move around with your ebook. Because they are so thin, they tend to be fragile and easy-to-break devices

Therefore, if you break your device, you won’t get access to your reading material until you get a new one.

Physical Textbook

A physical book can be eternal, it is as simple as that. With due care, books that are over 50 years old can still be read. If you avoid dust and humid areas, a book can end up outliving you!

But if you spill some water over it, rain catches you while you are reading outside, or if you move it around too much, the state of your book will deteriorate. Too many of these missteps, and you get a poorly cared textbook that instead of showing it proudly on your bookshelf, you’ll want to hide it in the shadows so no one can see it.

Nevertheless, if you are not the most careful book owner, you’ll still have your textbook. Maybe one that’s in bad shape with torn pages, but it’s still a book in the end.

Textbooks require constant care. You have to keep them clean, dust off the cover, and keep them safe from water and humid spaces. Get all this done, and you’ll have an ever-lasting source of information!

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Taking Notes

As college students, taking notes is an important part of studying, and your experience changes depending on what format you choose to do it.

Digital Textbook

Many ebooks take good advantage of technology and let you save pages, highlight paragraphs, and leave comments on specific sentences.

Write annotations, leave your thoughts, save an important link, or reminders for later! If you don’t understand something while you read, highlight it, find it instantly when you are in class, and ask your professor about it.

Plus, because all comments you leave are in the same place, you see them regardless of the device you are using. And you don’t have to worry about losing your annotations in a messy backpack too!

Physical Textbook

There are two types of students who take notes. On one hand, there are those who take proper care of their books and prefer to write all the important information on a separate paper.

On the other hand, there are students who end up writing even more words than what their book already has. Messy outlines, specific colors to highlight sentences, and long arrows to connect paragraphs with your understanding of them. A manual process that helps you understand the information at your own pace

By copying and highlighting everything, you end up reading the same sentences over and over, which gives you a better idea of the book.

Taking notes on a textbook is a common habit for visual learners, and if you are one, you should check out the best tips to improve your visual learning.

So Which One Should You Use?

To answer this question truthfully, you need to know your needs and see which format meets most of them.

Digital Textbooks


Usually cheaper

Online distractions

Easy to find

Have to properly care of your digital device

Free alternatives on the internet

You need to charge your device to use it

Can be read from many devices

Has a durable life

Easy to transport

You can't find old books

Includes study features to take notes

You rely entirely on a device

Find keywords and pages in seconds

Physical Textbooks


Lasts forever

Usually more expensive

Aesthetic pleasing

Can be burdensome to carry

Easier to rent and sell

Hard to find study material or assignment answers

Have a wide variety of old books available

No online distractions

Best for visual learners who take notes

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Digital textbooks are for you if you:

On the contrary, physical textbooks are for you if you:

However, there is no need to only stick to one. Maybe you can buy physical textbooks that will be more useful throughout your whole college journey, and try finding online textbooks for a cheaper price that you will only use just a few times.

Now you are fully prepared to make an informed decision. Next time you have to get a textbook for your class, you’ll know which format will be the best fit for you!

If you want to learn more tips on how to improve your college journey, check out some of our related blogs:

Picture of Santiago Mallea

Santiago Mallea

Santiago Mallea is a curious and creative journalist who first helped many college students as a Gradehacker consultant in subjects like literature, communications, ethics, and business. Now, as a Content Creator in our blog, YouTube channel, and TikTok, he assists non-traditional students improve their college experience by sharing the best tips. You can find him on LinkedIn.