I have been an e-book reader for years, both on computers and on portable devices such as Palm organizers and my Alphasmart Dana.
For anything longer than a short subway trip, however, or an afternoon coffee break, the Dana won't cut it for reading---the screen is too reflective and the lighting has to be arranged just so.
Enter the eBookwise, with a long-lasting battery and a screen the size of a real book. Also, eBookwise is owned by the same people who run Fictionwise, where I already had an account and a few books ready to go. So I ordered.
Priced for frugal booklovers
Prices of basic eBookwises start at $110 and shipping, a fraction of the costs of such machines as the Sony Reader ($300) and Amazon Kindle ($400). That's with 8MB of internal memory and no slide-in card. A machine with a 128MB card will cost $180, allowing you to store far more than 100 typical books.
While the eBookwise lacks the most modern technology, it could delight frugal booklovers, and unlike the displays on E Ink machines, the LCD screen will glow hour after hour in places that would be too dim even for reading off old-fashioned paper.
Part I: Content, and where to get it
As soon as my new eBookwise reached me---I waited three weeks---I bought a test book from the company's server. Shopping was easy enough for the most part. Browse for the title you want, submit your payment information, and the book will be transferred to your "online bookshelf," from which you can download to your device.
The idea of an online bookshelf, vs. storage just on the eBookwise machine, might confuse newcomers, but it has a huge benefit—once you finish a book, you can remove it from the reader to save storage space, but it will still be there in your on-line bookshelf if you want to read it again. The only issue I had with the eBookwise buying experience was the inability to download a backup file for my PC in case something went wrong with the company’s server, or if I wanted to buy a new compatible device.
If you are storing all your books on an included memory card, you could use that to make backup copies, but I prefer the Fictionwise approach where you can download files to your actual computer.
Unfortunately, eBookwise does not accept Paypal, while Fictionwise does. It may seem like a small detail, but if I am in front of my computer, I don’t always have my wallet handy to look up credit card stuff. I am much more likely to make an impulse buy on Paypal where I don’t need anything but a log-in.
Since Fictionwise owns eBookwise, if you have an FW account already, the eBookwise device will give you the option to transfer any multiformat books you may have bought already into your on-line bookshelf. If you buy future multi-format books from Fictionwise, these will not automatically be added to your online bookshelf, but you can download them from Fictionwise in the .rb format and manually upload them onto your eBookwise. You can also download .rb-formatted ebooks from the popular Manybooks and Munsey’s websites, which have large collections of free public domain and creative commons licensed titles. Munsey’s additionally has a download option for the eBookwise .imp format, which can be dropped directly onto the memory card without requiring further conversion.
Part 2: Getting books onto the eBookwise machine
The simple answer is to buy a PC with Windows, the only platform that has desktop software available for it, and from the accounts I’ve seen in the Fictionwise Yahoo Group, everyone who uses the program is very happy. What about the Mac and Linux people? They have two options. There is something called a “personal content server” hosted by eBook Technologies, Inc., where non-PC users can upload content and transfer it to the device. I was at first concerned to hear that each user had a 10MB limit: I thought that meant that I could only add 10MB of personal content, period, but I was gratified to get clarification from the tech support people that it only referred to what you could host on their server at any given moment. Once you download your content onto your device, you can delete it from the server and free up that space again.
I was able to use the server to upload some free e-books, and some old Fictionwise stuff, but the process was not without glitches. I got error messages several times, and while I was able to try again and get the file uploaded successfully, I resented the extra time I had to take to upload some of them two or three times before it took. If Fictionwise is not going to provide non-PC users with desktop software to upload content on their own, the company really needs to make sure its Web-based jury rig is reliable. And I don’t like the idea of being dependent on an outside system for something as vital to an e-book reader as the process of adding books.
Glitches notwithstanding, the personal content server was as straightforward as such a thing could be, I suppose, but it requires both an Internet connection and the continued existence of the ETI server, neither of which can be guaranteed in perpetuity.
Apparently, there is a way to drag and drop files onto the memory card (although this does not seem to be encouraged), but only if you can get the files converted into their proprietary .imp format first. E-Babel strikes again! There are conversion tools available, but again, it is just a needless layer of complexity. We badly need some open format standards out here in E-Book Land! Also, you should be aware that you can’t do any formatting or editing once it’s on the device. So, if you dump a whole bunch of random files onto the memory card, I’m not sure how your bookshelf will look once you load them. I know that the personal content server filled in my name as a default author for all my uploads. I could change it before I went ahead, of course, but it leads me to suspect that this is a default option, and what you will likely get with a file dumped directly to the card. If you want some control over what title and author will appear on your bookshelf for each item, it might be best to stick with the personal content server if you lack a Windows machine.
Part 3: Registering and using the eBookwise
The device arrived already charged and ready to go. A few sample titles, including an owner’s manual, were pre-loaded, and I was able to play with these at my mother’s house before I got the eBbookwise home. My three-year-old niece was fascinated with it and had no problems drawing on the screen and using the buttons to advance the pages (loudly exclaiming ‘oooooh!’ every time she did so). The registration process itself was uneventful, if somewhat needlessly fiddly. I followed the directions and had no problems, but if you are the type to not read the manual, you may have some trouble as parts of the process had to be done on the Web site, and parts of it on the device itself. If you don’t complete all the steps properly, you may have trouble buying books in the future or using their server to upload your own content.
I found when I did try to buy a book that, again, there were some layers of needless complexity going on. It was completely manageable for someone like me, but if they want e-book readers to hit the mainstream customer who is perhaps not as technically capable, the e-book industry really needs to iron out some of these interface quirks and think more like people than programmers. For example, the “device name” seems to be a different thing from the “user name” you use to access the eBookwise Web site, so you’ll need to take care when you’re logging in somewhere to make sure you use the right one. When I did decide to buy a book, I had to log in to the Web site under my user name, but then log in a second time with my device name in order to actually download the purchase.
Additionally, there seems to be an issue where my eBookwise can only read from one memory area at a time: if you plug in a memory card, anything on the internal memory won’t show up on your bookshelf while the card is there. I just left the card in and stored everything on it, so it was not an issue for me, but it is a limitation worth noting for those who plan to load up multiple memory cards, or those who are going to load up content onto the internal memory, then add a memory card and freak out when they think all their books have gone.
As for the good stuff, the device was a joy to read on once I got everything set up. My Palm device used to choke terribly as soon as the memory card got more than a dozen items on it. Not so here: my initial content dump put about 50 books onboard, and they all show up instantly when I click the bookshelf icon. I was delighted to find the backlit screen very read-able: no Dana-style glare, no need to angle the screen just so. I’ve tried it in bed, on the subway, at home and in the mall food court.
Some small viewability issues arose if I were under really bright fluorescents, but otherwise, things were dandy and I am just thrilled. The buttons are well-placed for turning pages one-handed, and the touch screen was not overly cluttered with too many options. I especially liked the button that lets you flip back and forth between the last two books you opened, and the shortcut button which you can customize with the action of your choosing. I have mine set up to swap between the two font options. I find the regular size adequate in most cases, but there are occasionally books where the creators seem to have over-ridden the default font with something else, and I found the larger font option more comfortable.
So would I recommend the eBookwise? Yes, actually. There are some quirks that I think a next-generation device would need to work on. But this technology, the concept of e-books, even, is still so new that I don’t think anyone is doing it better at this price. Is the e-book concept at a point where someone like my mother would use it? No. It’s still kind of a techie domain—I don’t think any of the issues I mention are things the average techie couldn’t work around, as I did.
And the main point is that once I did get my books on the eBookwise, it was simple to open it up and comfortable to read from. The eBookwise is not iPod-simple yet, but it could be. It should be. The idea of using an eBoookwise-type machine will never reach critical mass as a concept unless it is.