With all of the hullabaloo over the Amazon Kindle 2‘s recent release, one might think that there were no other eBook readers on the market; not so! Those who eschew DRM protection and who can do without the convenience of an online content store (I’m thinking of Amazon‘s and Sony‘s, specifically) should pay particular attention to the Ectaco jetBook, a reading device capable of handling .txt, .pdf, .fb2, .jpg, .gif, .png, .bmp, and MP3 file formats. According to the literature I picked up at CES, the EPUB format is expected in Q1 2009*.
The first thing to greet you when opening the box is an Ectaco / LingvoSoft bonus CD containing translation dictionaries, flashcards, and phrasebooks.
Included in the box are the jetBook. a wall charger, a set of earphones, a USB transfer cable, a silicone case, a padded sleeve, and a user manual.
It’s very cool that Ectaco included two carrying cases with the jetBook because finding accessories specifically made for this reader will likely be near impossible, as it is not one of the more widely known brands.
Display: 5.01″ VGA reflective monochrome TFT
CPU: ARM9 200MHZ
Memory: SDRAM 112MB (comes with 48MB free due to pre-loaded content)
Card Slot: SD 1.0 card slot (12.5MB/sec), supports up to a 2GB SD card
USB: USB 1.1
Audio: 3.5mm stereo audio headset
Battery: 2800 mAh Li-ion
The jetBook measures approximately 6″ tall x 4.3″ wide x 0.5″ thick, and it weighs about 7.5 ounces. It seems a little bit blocky, but it is better looking than the Kindle 1 was. The screen measures 5″ diagonally, and it dominates the front of the device. The jetBook is available in burgundy, gray or white; I was sent the burgundy version.
The case is composed of plastic, and it is quite solid and rigid. The jetBook actually feels like a comfortably sized reader to hold for extended periods of time, as it is not so large as to be unwieldy, and not so heavy as to cause major wrist fatigue.
Let’s take a quick device tour…
On the left side is a plastic sliding Page Up / Page Down bar. Although I was at first worried that it might snap off if something hooked it just right, I never had any issues during the testing period. I would eventually find the slider to be an incredibly unobtrusive way to navigate through pages; I like it better than using a D-Pad or clicking button.
On the left of the device is what reminded me at first of one of those paper address books with the lettered tabs on the side, but in this case, the tabs are numbered 0 – 9, with letters and symbols on each. The first time I looked at this alpha-numeric keyboard, I couldn’t help but think of what a chore it would be actually entering data with this method; I was right.
On the bottom left of the jetBook is another Page Up / Page Down entry method, this one situated horizontally and using buttons. It seems a little bit redundant to have the buttons there, but I suppose they would come in handy if the slider on the left was ever accidentally broken.
On the bottom right is a cluster that includes (from top left going clockwise) Menu, Font Size / Zoom, Cancel and Rotate buttons; in the center is a four-way D-pad with center select. The D-pad has other uses of course, but it is also yet another way to Page Up and Page Down.
There’s not much to see on the jetBook’s back, mainly just the hump (presumably from the non user-removable battery) and the reset button.
On the bottom of the device is a power button, which seemed a little too small at first – like you might have to use the tip of a nail to activate it, but it was actually quite easily operated by pressing with a flat finger or thumb. On the right is a 3.5mm headphone jack.
The right side is plain, but for the edges of the alphanumeric keys.
On the top of the jetBook, there is a rigid plastic cover that hides and protects the SD and miniUSB ports.
On the bottom of the left side, there is a pass-through for a wrist lanyard.
Next to a fat paperback, the jetBook is positively elfin.
The same can be said when it is next to a thinner than usual hardback.
Their screen sizes aren’t much different, but the Kindle 2 makes the jetBook look nearly pocketable.
The Kindle 2 is a bit thinner than the jetBook, however.
That’s the hardware; now let’s take a look at the interface and the user experience…
When I first turned on the jetBook, my immediate thought was E Ink? And then I realized that no, it wasn’t E Ink; I was looking at a screen similar to the grayscale LCD display that I used to read from on the Palm V…
…albeit with three major differences: much larger reading surface, much higher resolution, and no backlight option.
Similar to the Palm V, the jetBook has a bit of a greenish-cast background, which is more noticeable when it is side by side with an E Ink device like the Kindle 2.
The jetBook’s screen is easily viewable indoors as well as outside in full sunlight. Fonts can be made larger or smaller if needed, but there is no contrast adjustment.
The menu is easily navigated by selecting the corresponding number on the alphanumeric keyboard to the desired screen option; selections can also be made via the D-pad and center select.
The jetBook has a built-in MP3 player which allows music to play in the background while reading, but this is really a borderline useless feature because the maximum amount of memory is just a little bit over 2GB, assuming a 2GB SD card has been inserted.
The jetBook can display pictures in grayscale…
…and perhaps the most useful part of this feature is this…
…the ability to zoom up to 200%.
The jetBook comes with a plethora of free classics pre-installed. You’ll find many favorites are already here, including titles by the following: Daniel Defoe, the Grimm Brothers, Herman Melville, James Matthew Barrie, Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, O. Henry, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Barr, Franz Kafka, Herbert Wells, Miguel de Cervantes, Oscar Wilde, Robert Stevenson, Edward Berens, Leonardo Da Vinci, Plato, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Jack London, James Cooper, James Joyce, Jane Austen, Jerome K. Jerome, John Galsworthy, Sidney Heath, Sun Tzu, Thomas Hardy, Victor Hugo, Walter Scott, William Shakespeare, and William Thackeray. There are also reference documents pre-installed, including the CIA World Book, Fodor’s Travel Guide, The King James Bible, The United States Constitution, the .pdf eBook user manual, four websites for downloading free eBooks (in English), as well as others in Russian, Polish and (I think) Czechoslovakian, and almost inexplicably – the .pdf manual for getting a driver’s license in New York State.
This is really a great selection of reading material in and of itself – especially the classics, for those of us who have been meaning to take the time to enjoy them again; it is really handy to have such a great selection pre-loaded.
Reading on the jetBook’s screen is similar to reading a book and typical of most readers with no backlight; as long as you are in decent light, you can easily see the page. Even on the smallest font the letters are crisp. If your eyes eventually grow tired because the font is too small…
…you can easily change its size by clicking the Font button in the cluster.
Things worth noting:
1. If you exit out of one book and open another, your place will be automatically saved in the first.
2. You can read in landscape mode, and when you do, turning pages is the easiest done with the D-pad.
According to the user manual, the jetBook can operate continuously for over 24 hours. I didn’t go on a reading binge that could put that number to the test, but I did find that once charged, the battery life was very good. I took a trip to New York and brought the jetBook along. I read on the plane each way, read a (very) little bit while I was in New York, and read a bit more once I had returned home. The battery meter finally dropped to one bar the other day, so I recharged the device. Worth noting is that the battery can be topped off either with the wall charger or through the miniUSB via computer.
When you have read through all of the material that was pro-loaded on the jetBook, you can add even more free books from these sites:
You can simply download the files you want to your desktop (Mac or PC) in a format that the jetBook accepts (.txt, .pdf, .fb2), and then drag and drop the file into the proper folder on the jetBook when it is connected to the computer via USB.
Now comes the tricky part: Not everyone is going to be satisfied with freely available classic eBooks. How can you get current bestsellers onto your jetBook? Right now, you can’t; not legally, anyway. And therein lies the rub.
Until Publishers and authors can figure out a way to merchandise their current bestsellers and past catalogs as DRM-FREE eBooks, or until Ectaco partners with a DRM-enabled eBook publisher, reading on the jetBook will be somewhat limited. But don’t let the phrase “somewhat limited” scare you – there are over 27,000 free books on the Gutenberg site and 23,000 on the ManyBooks site, alone. Even with some overlap, you should have enough reading material to last you the rest of your life.
The Ectaco jetBook is available directly from the manufacturer.
What I Like: Great size, very portable; extremely easy to operate; large screen with lots of viewing options; multiple language support; pre-loaded with a diverse virtual library of classics and information; easy to download even more reading material from several free eBook sites
What Needs Improvement: Seems pricey for a device with no current bestsellers access; Entering data through the alphanumeric buttons is a pain; no way to get current bestsellers or other DRM protected works onto the reader legally
*Update 03/10/09 – I have just received the following from Boris Krol, Ectaco Product Manager:
jetBook will support ePUB, Mobi, PRC and RTF formats by April 2nd.
This will be good news for those who are considering the purchase.