In Search of the Electronic Book

This entry has been in development for a couple of weeks. If you’ve been following my Twitter stream, you’ll probably know why it’s relevant I mention this. I have a follow-up entry in the works which will provide a better conclusion, but for now I think the bulk of the entry still stands.

I used to read. A lot. Not the bite-size, throw-away blogs and news you get on the internet; I read real, actual books made of paper, ink and glue. Sitting down with a good book is relaxing in a way sitting in front of a computer can never be.

Sitting down with a good book is relaxing in a way sitting in front of a computer can never be.

Strangely for a bookworm, I never quite clicked with borrowing from libraries. Even though I would only stop reading to eat and sleep, the thought of having a time limit on how long I had the book in my hands was a turn-off. Another annoyance was the library having, say, 2 books out of a series, but none of the rest. Or a general lack of interesting science fiction. Or anything newer than 5 years ago.

No, I liked to own my books and the experience of reading them.

Of course all of this is past tense. I used to read books. I stopped. Why? Not because of the Internet, despite what the “death of print” brigade might suggest. No, I stopped for a far more practical and boring reason: lack of space.

Over the years I have lost, sold, thrown out, or given away books to make room for new ones. More books than I can possibly remember. Each time a book has left my possession I have felt a sense of loss, and an annoyance at having to give up something I’ve enjoyed for what seems like such an insignificant reason.

This system of clearing out ahead of the new could only work for so long though. Inevitably other “stuff” would need the space. Eventually all that was left was a solitary 8“x36” shelf, and a cardboard box in the loft (though I cheated a bit and moved a stack of technical books to work). Over the course of a few years my once proud collection is nearly gone.

Obviously, as a Geek, I turn to technology to solve this problem.

Ebook readers have been “about to go mainstream” for a couple of years now. Whether they will in their current form remains to be seen, but there is a lot of momentum behind eReaders this year.

On the surface of it an eReader is the perfect solution to my problem; a small, convenient, physical form which can hold a lifetime of books. However, the market is still immature and fractured. On one hand you have Amazon and their high-quality, highly-regarded Kindle: the first eReader to achieve anything close to mainstream status, but tied to a proprietary format available only from Amazon. On the other you have nearly everyone else: a multitude of competing readers of varying quality, mostly aligned behind a open standard in ePub, and supported by multiple online stores.

Price is still a pain point preventing mass-adoption; despite recent cuts by most of the major manufacturers, eReaders generally linger above the magical $/£99 price for consumer electronics.

In short, the eReader market right now is exactly how I remember the Portable Music Player market in 2003. All the uncertainty back then didn’t stop me buying the 3rd-generation iPod, and it’s not going to stop me buying an eReader.

Over the course of the last 3 weeks I have carefully researched eReaders of various shape and form. What follows next is my take on what I regard as the best three which are available to the UK.

So where to begin? Well how about with the Amazon Kindle, which all other eReaders are currently measured against? Sometimes described as the “iPod of books”, the Kindle offers some fantastic features for its price. A 6” e-ink screen; thousands of page-turns on a single charge; a QWERTY keyboard for note taking; 2GB of onboard storage; the real killer feature is the free, global, 3G access to the Kindle bookstore. Amazon claim you can buy any book, anywhere, and be reading it in 60 seconds. Combine with the ease of use of the Amazon store and generally low online prices, and you have a potentially wallet threatening combination.

There are, however, a few problems with the Kindle. It doesn’t support ePub, which is the format nearly every other manufacturer is converging around. The selection of books in the Kindle Store available to the UK is not as vast as in the US (nor as cheap, as Amazon adds a little extra to cover wireless costs). Finally, for me the form factor doesn’t seem as natural as the next eReader I’ll be covering; it’s almost like having a pad of paper to hold with a window cut into it to read a page from a paperback book through. I’ve yet to hold one, so actual usage may prove me wrong.

In my mind, a much more natural fit as an electronic book replacement is the Sony Reader Touch Edition. Yes, it’s a slightly silly name following in the great Sony tradition. Of the three eReaders I’m listing in this article, the Sony is the only one I have spent any proper time “hands-on” with. The form of it to hold in your hand is marvellous. It’s the most book-like in shape, being around the same size as a large Moleskine notebook; it weighs about the same as an average paperback; the case is even made out of aluminium, which gives it a rigidity which sets apart from some of the other eReaders which didn’t make this list.

Another feature which sets the Sony apart is the touchscreen alluded to in its name. The touch controls allow for an overall more natural interface than the mountain of buttons adorning most other eReaders. Unfortunately, the touchscreen also provides the Sony’s big weakness. In order to make the e-Ink screen touch sensitive, Sony have had to add an extra layer onto the screen. The problem I found when testing the Sony is this extra layer is uncomfortably glossy. E-Ink is supposed to be superior to other screen technologies for long reading spells precisely because it isn’t overly glossy, providing more of a natural reading experience. Under indoor lighting, with sunlight coming through the window, the screen was glossy enough to see myself in. The non-touchscreen model right next to the Sony Touch had no such problems.

The Sony is also the most expensive, retailing for around £230 in the UK, well above it’s non-touchscreen competition.

The final entrant on this short list of recommendations is the iRiver Story. The Story is, to look at, a Kindle knock-off, with almost the same form-factor. Indeed, to the untrained eye, the only difference is the shape of the keyboard and placement of a few buttons. Dig a little deeper, and look past iRiver’s relative obscurity, and you’ll find what appears to be a very capable eReader. Take the Kindle, but add in ePub support, a comic book reader, and expandable storage up to 32GB(!). The only thing missing is integrated 3G and WiFi (on the current model, though a WiFi model has been announced).

I briefly tried out the iRiver a few days ago; it’s good enough to make this short-list, but it has a few issues which could be deal-breakers. Firstly, I found the construction and materials to be appalling. The plastic felt cheap and thin, with an uncomfortable flex when pressing the page buttons. Secondly – and most importantly for me – it felt slow. Page turns were noticeably slower than on the Sony, with a much large pause between pressing the Next Page button and the page being displayed. The effect was a little jarring and made reading feel a little unnatural. If you are considering the iRiver I would encourage you to try a hands-on first. They should be appearing in your local W.H. Smiths over the summer.

So where does this leave me, and by extension, you? I’ve picked out three decent eReaders to choose from, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. I could make the choice based on Open vs. Closed. ePub vs. Amazon. Personally I’ve never been one for that argument. For me, the answer lies in “which one works best?”, “which one has more books available to it?”, and (sadly) “which is most cost effective?”.

At the time of writing I’m leaning towards the Sony. It has the most comfortable and natural form, access to any book store using ePub, and if you hunt on eBay you can get some official refurb units for ~£130 including shipping. The glossy screen is weighing against all this, as is the relatively sparse feature set when compared to the Kindle and iRiver.

I’ll have to give the Sony a few more test runs before I decide, but no matter which way I go, no doubt you’ll end up reading about it here.

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