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!

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8 Comments on "eBooks and eReaders–a Short Overview"

  1. I’m an ebook geek too…I read more on my PDA’s than anything else I do on them. I loved my Toshiba e800 for ebook reading with UBook – the jog dial was perfect to page down. Unfortunately, it suffered from a mystery ailment and expired on me, and I switched to the iPaq 4700, which is probably the worst PDA to read on, since it does not have a d-pad at all, just that stupid touchpad, which either doesn’t register my finger tap, or jumps ahead 12 pages.

    I ultimately switched the function of the record button, but in the Innopocket Magnesium case, that little button is hard to press holding one handed.

    Then, I put a book on my Samsung i600 smartphone, and tried Tiny Ebook Reader. Not bad, but TBR has few customization options, and can only read a couple of formats. Then I switched to MobiPocket Reader – not bad, more customization. The only problem I have is that it loses it’s place even after I attempt to bookmark a page if I switch batteries.

    Kind of annoying overall, but manageable I suppose. I try to write down the page number before I switch batteries, but for some reason, the pagination changes each time I switch batteries. For instance, I may have left off on page 2045 of 5000, but when I go back, the pagination shows 5500 pages, so my page number is way off and I have to guess to get back to where I left off. Weird…

    Looking forward to reading the review of the new reader devices!

  2. I like the e-books. At work I have to wait for some processes to complete and my waiting time is to short to start anything and is to long to twiddle my thumbs so I can read a few pages while I wait. Also some of the books I like to read are arriving in a e-book form before they come out in a print version. I have seen the Sony e-book and was not impressed. I use Palm TX in landscape mode and work really well.

  3. I’d like to share a slightly different perspective on the Reader, if I might.

    As always, you guys do great reviews. Nice job, Doug, of touring the device and giving a flavor of what it’s like. That shot of the side gave a great look at how thin it is also. Besides, I enjoy e-book coverage in all its forms!

    What was most surprising to me is that you didn’t like the display.
    Almost unanimously, people like it except for no backlight. I think your wife may have the more common view about that!

    As for reading on it, I bet you probably wouldn’t even notice the page turn flash or delay anymore if you read a full book on it. You might even occassionally forget and reach as if your are turning a paper page! Or even crazier, you might get so used to it that it becomes comforting, like for me now.

    And you really can hold it in its cover like a paperback and your right thumb falls naturally on the page button. So it surprised me that you didn’t think you could use your right hand to hold it. In fact, that was most certainly the reason for the location – designers felt that if you hold it with your right hand, the thumb falls just at that spot. It was part of mimicking a regular book. Oh well. I also wish that there was a RHS button. 🙂

    But, like I said, great review. It gives a nice feel for what it’s all about. Hope to hear more about e-books from you!

  4. Bob: I’m glad you posted your perspectives on the Reader. That’s why I wanted to go into so much detail; because I’m convinced that things that bugged me will be *perfectly fine* with other folks. I honestly encourage people to go into their local Frys and hold it in their hands and see what they think. I personally think it’s not there yet, and that we should wait for release 2 or 3, but that’s just my opinion, of course.

    Two notes: I tried to hold the device by the bottom with my right hand, but because of the thinness of it, the way it is balanced, and it’s size (about 6″ tall), it felt very awkward to me to hold that way. I think that the Panasonic Wordsgear, with their reversable spine thingee, is probably a better way to go. Although of course I won’t know until I get a chance to try it. If ever.

    Second, you are probably right about the page turn delay, but I am reasonably sure that I would not get used to the time-lag when it comes to navigation, both inside of menus, and searching for bookmarks, pages, books, and so on. The lag-time was really, really annoying to me, and while yes, when I was just reading it wasn’t so bad, when scrolling through menus or selecting bookmarks, it was stupendously frustrating.

    Thanks for the kind words; I hope I get a chance to review more eBook devices as well. As an online doc guy (it’s my “real job”), it’s a passion. That, and personal media players, as you may have noticed. [laughter]

  5. The folks over at Mobileread – Bob Russell is one of them – have made of the Sony reader almost an object of devotion, and their views make a nice contrast to yours. I am more with you than them, in great part because of the display, which frankly struck me as only marginally better than existing displays. What amazes me, though, is how much is made of the ability of the Sony to hold 80 books, to which I say, so what! If you are going to a desert island for many moons that may be significant, but who needs, on a trip, to bring more than a handful (5-10)? And I agree that the physical balance of the Sony is such that holding in a right hand is difficult and uncomfortable. The DRM problem is serious and is the main reason I will not fork over the dough. Even more unbelievable to me, however, are the statements made by the Mobileread crew: many say they no longer read what they refer to as “dead tree” books, and read only ebooks. IOW, if you want to read a book, but you can get only a print edition, you don’t read it. That’s just absurd!

  6. pradley: I would have to believe that any decent eReader, or a personal media player (PMP) or PDA with decent eBook reading capability (not that I’ve found a PMP that has *that* yet, but never mind) will have either a decent amount of available space–all PMPs I’ve tested so far have a minimum of 30GB of HDD space–or an SD card or other card slot. And with the prices of 2GB cards so low these days (what, $50/card?), that’s an *enormous* amount of books. “Cryptonomicon” is 1.6MB; that means you can fit something like 175 books *that big* on your 2GB card. I mean, c’mon!

    So their argument about 80 books, well, it’s kind of silly. I have something like 75 books on my PDA, which has a 4GB card in it, and it’s not even close to being full. Not to mention a ton of music, some film clips, a bunch of games (including Myst and Riven, for cryin’ out loud!) . . . crowing over “80 books!” is just silly. In my opinion.

  7. Douglas, I agree. In fact, on my T/X and now my Q I have a dozen or more books and could put on many more. Sony thinks that’s a selling point and Travel&Leisure Magazine (I think) just listed the Sony reader as its gadget of the moment because you could go off somewhere with all those books on one device. But, as you say, that’s not new for an edevice. Remember that self-contained ereaders have been marketed before (remember the “Rocket”) without much success. Why should Sony succeed this time? The answer is not obvious to me.

  8. @machielg http://tinyurl.com/akxtof Look at the comments too. Does it help?

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