eBooks and eReaders–a Short Overview

Soon I will be lucky enough to review Sony’s Reader, an eBook reader by Sony. But before I do and give y’all a review, I thought it might be nice to give folks a brief overview of eBooks, both on devoted devices and PDAs.

I’ve been in the online documentation game for a long time.? A long time.? I was writing online doc back in 1991, before the Web even got going, back when Acrobat wasn’t even a twinkle in Adobe’s eye.? So I have some pretty (ahem) strong views on online doc, eBooks, eBook readers, and what makes for a happy online reading experience.? And before I foist my opinions of the Sony Reader on you (and hopefully other eReaders, like the upcoming WordsGear, by Panasonic–sorry; Panasonic doesn’t have an English version out yet), I thought you might like a brief overview of the whole eBook/eReader deal.

Or maybe not.? In which case, move along!
I love eBooks. For one thing, while I don’t do a lot of travelling, I do enough so that it’s nice to have a big ol’ library of books handy on a pocketable gizmo that’s the size of (or smaller than) a paperback that I can take on a plane. If it can double as a game platform and/or a PDA, hey, so much the better. For another thing, being able to read in bed without having to juggle a booklight is a wonderful thing.

I have tried reading eBooks on both PDAs and portable media players (PMPs)–feel free to read my reviews of the Cowon A2 and the upcoming one of the Archos 604 wifi (the Creative Zen Vision W doesn’t have document reading capability–bad boys, Creative!). My preferred eReader is, logically enough, eReader, and I have a pretty extensive library in that format.? eReader, which is owned these days by Motricity, supports several different platforms:

  • PalmOS (with support on your desktop)
  • Windows (Windows Mobile, Windows SmartPhone, and Windows Pocket PC)
  • Windows (at least 2000 and XP–I haven’t tested Vista)
  • Symbian
  • Mac (I am hoping for support on the iPhone; a 320×480 pixel resolution screen is good for eBooks)

From a software standpoint, I have only tried eBooks on Windows, WM, and PalmOS.? For portable devices, I prefer the reading experience on a WM device, because the WM implementation provides textured backgrounds, while the PalmOS version does not.? This is unfortunate, because in many other ways, the PalmOS version is superior; for example, it provides you the ability to modify the onscreen icon menus at the bottom of the reading window, which is a really nice feature that I wish the WM version provided.? But ultimately, the superior readability of the WM version wins out for me.? Your mileage may vary.

This is doubly unfortunate for me personally, because the Tapwave Zodiac might have well been designed as an eBook reader; its shape fits nicely in the hand, and its shoulder buttons allow you to page up and down easily while holding it in one hand.

Also–and I know they can’t have planned it this way–it just so happens that when you hold it in your left hand, you can hook your pinkie in the cut-in for the head-phone jack for even more comfort. Cool!

My HTC Universal, on the other hand, can only be paged down by using the D-button, which means that I can either use two hands, or contort my hand.?Both options stink.

In addition, the Universal is quite a bit heavier than the Zodiac–10.2 oz (290g) vs. 6.4 oz (180g), plus I often use my extended life battery on the Uni, making it even heavier!? When deciding on a device to use as an eBook reader, bear in mind that an ounce or two of weight makes a huge difference if you are holding it one-handed.? (As a side-note, the Sony Reader has a reported weight of? 8.8 oz (250g), putting it spang in between the Zodiac and the Universal.? I’ll let you know how it feels after holding it for a while.? The Universal gets dang heavy with the extended battery though, I’ll tell you that!

I have also read books in PDF, but even though I have been producing books in PDF format professionally for years, I don’t think it’s a very good format for online books.?? PDF doesn’t “flow to fit,” i.e. it gives you a “page” just as it would look in a book.? Further, I have found that the rendering speed of PDF if absurdly slow, and Acrobat is a very “heavy” application that takes up a lot of CPU processing power.? Searching in a PDF file takes a long time, I do not like the way the search implementation has changed in the more recent versions of Acrobat (I can give you a list–I already emailed it to Adobe), and I’m not too fond of their online help, either.? In short, I am not a PDF fan.

In my experience, portrait mode reading using a screen resolution of at least 320×480 is optimal.? I have tried landscape mode on several different screens, and it just doesn’t work for me; I think people will find that, like me, they have been too canalized by their upbringing with hard copy books to go with landscape mode for eBooks.? Further, anything smaller than 320×480 I have found just too durn small.? On my wife’s Treo, for example, the 320×320 drives me (and her) nuts.? I enjoy the size of my Universal’s 640×480 screen, but the size difference between it and my Zodiac isn’t really noticeable because WM devices use up a lot of screen real estate because of the upper and lower menu bars.? (Look at the difference in resolution between the PalmOS and WM versions of the Treo, for example.)

I think that there is a “sweet spot” for device size, probably right around “trade paperback” size.? One is going to have to balance the comfort of “in hand” vs. the comfort of screen size.? It’s just a guess, but I would think that a resolution of about 800×640 with a size of 4.5″ is probably about optimum, based on my experience.? The Sony Reader has a resolution of 800×600 with a 6″ screen; the Panasonic WordsGear 1024×600 with a 5.6″ screen.? We’ll just have to see how it all falls out.

So there you have it; Doug’s eReader overview.? Now let’s see how the devices measure up to the theory!


About the Author

Douglas Moran
Doug is a nerd from way back, falling for a Commodore PET at the age of 15, and never looking back. Riding the nerd wave, he got a Computer Science degree and entered the tech industry at a young age, deciding after a year and a half of front-line phone technical support that he should try something, *anything* else. He settled on technical writing, and has been cranking out documentation for companies like Unisys, SGI, Cisco, Juniper, and many others ever since. He is nothing short of ecstatic to be working for H-P from his home base in Austin.