May 29, 2008

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Read on your screen
Bookworms and tech geeks unite!
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

As the weather gets warmer and you contemplate taking that favorite trashy novel to the beach, ask yourself: what if you could take a few hundred trashy novels?

That’s the promise of e-books. Sure, you can already take thousands of text files on your laptop, PDA or even many music players, but it’s not really pleasant to read on those things. Shiny screens and short battery life really cut into the enjoyment. In contrast, the first generation of dedicated e-book readers is maturing, and while prices are a bit steep right now, a second generation promises more affordability soon.

The real advantage of e-book readers comes in their electronic ink screens. Rather than backlit displays relying on constant refreshing, electronic ink screens flip each pixel on or off and leave it that way for however long you’re on a page. There’s no power consumption until you change pages, and the words really look like they’re “there,” like printed text on a piece of gray paper. Most support newspaper and magazine subscriptions as well as books.

As usual, the offerings vary by price and features. Here’s a quick look.

• Amazon Kindle, $359: This is the current heavy. It’s in the middle of the price pack, but being advertised on the front page of the biggest book site on the Web gives it a tiny little edge, y’know? Its killer feature is using the existing cell phone network to connect to Amazon’s store and download new content, and you pay for the content, not the connection. You can also e-mail converted text, Microsoft Word and PDF content to the device for a dime, or sync it via USB cable for free.

There are even a few hidden functions on the Kindle. With the same cellular connection, it can roughly determine your location and mark it on Google Maps. You can also browse Wikipedia and even play Minesweeper, though that eats up the batteries considerably faster than reading.

• Sony Reader, $299.99: For once, Sony has the cheap option. The 6-inch screen makes it about the size of a trade paperback or new release hardcover book, but only a third of an inch thick. It supports Sony’s proprietary e-book format as well as PDF, plain text, Word files (after conversion with software) and a few other formats.
• Bookeen Cybook Gen3, $350: Boasting a 1,000-book capacity plus expandable storage, the Cybook wants the heavy readers market. It also advertises a slightly higher battery life, 8,000 page flips, than competitors, but is otherwise pretty similar to Sony’s offering. It does play MP3s — again, at the cost of battery life — and uses the Mobipocket secured e-book format.
• iRex iLiad Book Edition, $599: Larger and pricer, but get this: you can write on the screen and save your margin notes back to your PC. It also uses the Mobipocket format and also reads PDF, Word and HTML files. For another $100, you can sync with your PC over WiFi.
• Bebook, $399: Although trying to position itself as an “open standard” e-book reader, the Bebook doesn’t really do much other readers can’t; it just doesn’t default to one protected format over another. If you like the Bebook’s styling — and let’s not kid ourselves that styling won’t be important here — and feel like sticking it to proprietary formats, even symbolically, it’s not a bad buy.

In the near future, a company called Astak promises a 5-inch reader for less than $200. Let the price wars begin!.