Ebook readers

A review of some of the issues I have with the current crop of ebook readers, including a list of things I consider essential. I talk about the kindle, the nook, the sony reader, and the iRex reader.

I’ve often had coworkers ask me why I don’t have an ebook reader yet. I would appear to be a good candidate. I almost always have a book with me, and usually have several on the go at once. In the past year, I’ve read over forty novels or short-story anthologies. Having immediate access to my library is certainly a welcome image. However, none of the current set of ebook readers provides the feature set that makes me want to pull out my wallet.

I’m a literature student. I don’t just read books. I also tend to read a number of academic journal articles. The majority of these articles are PDF image scans, downloaded through my library’s web proxy. There usually hasn’t been much in the way of processing on the PDF. The article has not undergone OCR, there is no additional markup. Just the original image. I need to be able to open these, as is. This is not negotiable. Don’t make me send the file away to some third party to transcode it for the device.

Wireless access is nice, I guess. I’ll probably use it if available. Don’t force me to use it load my device though. My parent’s cottage is an hour’s travel into the centre of a wireless dead zone. I tend to get a lot of reading done here, as the internet isn’t much of a distraction. Should I need to, I’d like to be able to load new books onto the device while out of coverage, through a USB connection to my computer.

Wireless coverage hole
The cottage is in the middle of the white patch of no service

I’d also like to annotate the text. Bookmarking, highlighting areas, adding text notes, and ideally drawing on the device are my general expectations. This is an area that ebook readers have a real advantage over physical books. If I write in the margins, underline or highlight text in a book, it remains. There’s also limited space to annotate a paper book. Let me add hyperlinks from one work to a bookmark in another. For my purposes, I’d like to link a section of a PDF article (which again, may be a basic scanned image) to a section in an ebook which it relates to.

That’s another thing. Don’t limit what I can do based on what kind of file I have open. Accept that I will want to have content from another provider. Don’t punish me for this. Most of this content probably isn’t available through your storefront. This is an area that Apple really shines. When they first released the iPod, they did things differently than their competitors. They made it extremely easy to load other content onto the devices, while providing an easy way to purchase music through their online store. Sony’s players at the time required several nightmarish transcoding operations to load existing mp3s. Be like Apple.

Kindle

The Amazon Kindle is finally available in Canada. This indicates at last that the mobile carriers in Canada are ready to deal, hopefully with Amazon’s competitors as well. Amazon pushed for their “whispernet” always on wireless connection for content purchases. Amazon is really milking the Kindle for as much content as they can sell. It’s also unclear as to exactly what rights to content you are actually purchasing. I’ve heard that some books have a limited number of download attempts. Also, the 1984 fiasco brought to light the controls that Amazon can bring to bear. I’m uncomfortable with Amazon dictating terms after purchase.

While it is possible to load third-party content onto the Kindle, this requires sending the documents to Amazon for transcoding into a format which the Kindle can read. Support for PDF documents is currently experimental. From what I gather, support for features such as annotations, notes, and dictionary lookup are unavailable in some formats, such as PDFs.

You can subscribe to newspapers and blogs with the Kindle, but you’re paying for it. I can already read blogs for free on my computer. I’m not sure why I would want to pay to read it on the Kindle.

Amazon is currently the market leader, at least in the United States. Their late entry into other markets (Canada, Europe and Asia for instance) has given other readers, in particular Sony, a big lead. The Kindle is tied too strongly to Amazon’s storefront. There isn’t much data interoperability, and Amazon has shown a great willingness to wield their power over your data.

Nook

The Barnes and Noble Nook is an interesting device. The colour display is an interesting idea, as it provides a small screen with quick refresh. This should provide a responsive virtual keyboard for annotations. It has a WiFi radio, which means that I’m not limited to using the 3G radio.

The nook also has decent file support. They support ePub, PDB, PDF, MP3 as well as standard image formats such as JPG, PNG and BMP.

The ability to lend books wirelessly to friends is an interesting concept. They don’t even need to have a nook, as the reader software is available for BlackBerry, iPhone, Mac or PC.

According to Barnes and Noble, some of the features, specifically “bookmarks, highlighting, notes, lending, rating, recommending” are only available for content purchased through Barnes and Noble. This essentially cripples the device for academic journal access.

Finally, this is not available in Canada yet, and isn’t even available in the US until January. Way to miss the Christmas season.

Sony Reader

The Sony Reader is intriguing. Documents can be transferred to the device with Sony’s software, or third-party software. Last year’s touch screen model was capable of annotating the text, but the interface for adding notes was awkward, and the on-screen keyboard was not very responsive. I have yet to try the Sony Reader Touch, announced recently, but it claims better responsiveness. Notes can apparently be exported back to the computer. CNet’s review however, mentions that the interface for adding annotations is still rather clumsy. The Sony touchscreen readers still have contrast issues as well. The screens can be used with fingers, as well as a stylus. This adds an extra layer to the screen, which increases glare and reduces contrast.

The Sony readers seem to have decent support for other file formats, but the reported usability issues will keep me away from this device for now.

iRex

The other ebook reader announced lately is the iRex Reader. It only supports the use of a stylus for touch input, but the current software doesn’t support freehand annotations. iRex has promised a firmware update to provide support. Like the Kindle, the Nook and the Sony Reader Daily Edition, this is another wireless device. According to iRex, it supports a few extra file formats. Still sounds a little rough around the edges, and their support for earlier readers hasn’t been the best. This reader is also not available yet.

It will supposedly support Adobe PDF, EPUB, Newspaper Direct, Fictionwise, eReader, and plain text files. The iRex reader will apparently access the Barnes and Noble store, which is a win for both the Nook, and iRex. While these devices will compete against each other, it suggests some level of compatibility between devices, for your purchased files.

Another thing about the iRex is that it’s based on Linux. Their earlier ebook readers provided users with the ability to develop and run other software on the device. A very interesting concept.

Conclusion

None of the readers hits it out of the park yet. A few are much more intriguing than others. Some just aren’t available yet. I plan on paying attention to ebook readers, but despite the flurry of press releases over the past month, I’m not looking to pick one up soon.

Author: Nick Matthews

A software developer and English major. Full time geek.

2 thoughts on “Ebook readers”

  1. Kindle – I have the DX (as does my wife) and I like it so far. Reading PDF files is fairly easy (you simply drag and drop the file via USB cable). Graphics may make the page slower to load, and small print is a bit hard to read, but it works fine. My biggest hang-up is the lack of annotation for PDF. Like you, I’d like to at least add a note or highlight text.

    Nook – From what I heard, you can only lend a book once for two weeks. During that time you have no access to the book and after two weeks it comes back to you (and your friend has no access to the book).

    Sony Reader – While a touch screen sounds great, it doesn’t really fit my needs. If I did any graphics work, I’d want a tablet PC.

    iRex – Never heard of this one. And I see you left out the Plastic Logic QUE. Might want to check that out, even if it is geared more for the “professional” with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc. support.

  2. Thanks for this cursory run down of e-readers. I thought I was the perfect candidate for an e-reader. I don’t read books anymore, preferring to read online content or from a PDF. I don’t like the Kindle at all. I have been spoiled by what a touch interface can do (I have an iPod Touch) and I like my content to be platform agnostic. Proprietary formats are a big turn off. I had intended on purchasing a Nook but B&N had really botched the release. After hyping up customer expectations my excitement has been deflated now that units won’t ship until January, 2010 and the B&N stores don’t even have demo units.

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