The idea of just using your tablet or eReader to download the textbooks you need is catching on. But the fight to universalize this option is ongoing and probably won't be settled until textbook publishers feel that they are getting paid. Until then, students are forced to straddle both worlds.
Real or Virtual Textbooks
For purists and publishing companies, a physical textbook can't be beat. There's something about having an actual textbook in your hands that you can use to make supplemental notes and thoughts. The batteries won't need to be charged and the tangibility factor is a plus. On the other side of that, physical texts can be weighty and expensive. The copy you have is it; if you lose it, you will have to buy a new one, without those special notes you wrote.
While you will need to charge your eReader or tablet every once in a while, you will always have total access to your book. You may not be able to make notes on your virtual book but there could soon be an app for that. The good thing is if there is an update, all you need to do is download. Virtual textbooks are lighter to carry so it's easy to transport and you won't need to try to resell your textbooks online or in the campus bookstore for one third the price you originally paid.
Current Options for Students
Education technology is still trying to decide where to land, but in the meantime there are still some resources for students looking to save a few dollars on some book costs.
One of the best places to get your textbooks is Amazon. Whether it's physical or virtual, you're usually able to find other students selling their texts there or vendors. Of course, you have to be careful about the edition of the book but even if you're off but for some, it's worth the risk. Amazon Prime is also an option for those with Kindle eReaders. The can check out certain books for free from the Kindle Lending Library. The options are limited to popular and classic book titles, not necessarily hard textbooks like Physics 101.
Project Gutenberg is the oldest digital library in the world and offers over 43,000 eBooks completely free. The copyrights on the titles are expired so legacy subjects like art history would have no problem finding those kinds of texts. It's also great idea if you want to supplement your current text or do research.
Online book swaps match students who want need a text to students who have it and don't need it anymore. While it's a great idea, book swaps are only as valuable as the participants so see if your local institution has one set up online.
Some professors are able to reserve a few copies of the titles from which they teach. Students can go to the library and check those out for a few hours. While it's not the ideal solution, it's good for those who are having a hard time getting the texts. Of course, the caveat is, you're not the only one who wants to check it out, so be prepared.