Quite by accident I find myself reading three different books on three different readers. I hadn’t intended to do this, but somehow it happened. The result has been that I’ve found that I really don’t like any of these platforms. A paperback is still a more comfortable way to read. Until somebody gets the ergonomics of this machines right I don’t think e-books will ever take off. Let’s look at my readers and I’ll tell you what is wrong with them.
Palm TX: This is my oldest reader. I got it shortly after it first came out and it is still going strong. My ebook software of choice has always been Mobipocket and that’s what I’m using to read “Over the Edge of the World”, which is a history of Magellan’s voyage. On the plus side, the TX is small and fits easily into a shirt or pants pocket. As I compare it to the other readers I am convinced that this is the approximate size a recreational reader should be. One of the great advantages of paperbacks (not trade paperbacks) is that they can be tucked into a pocket. The TX emulates this nicely. On the other hand the cons to the machine are strong. The battery life is poor. An e-book reader should have a very long battery life – books don’t run down. The screen is almost impossible to see in the sun. No reading on the beach with this little guy. Inside, the backlight screen is glary and, even though I use a pale blue background, it hurts the eyes after a while. Page changing isn’t great, either. Pressing the up and down part of the central button is just not a natural action. The best page changer I ever found was the jog wheel on my old Sony Clies—all sadly dead. The TX has WiFi, but the implementation is poor. I find it won’t connect to many of the networks I use frequently, including my home Apple network. So much for downloading ebooks.
Sony Reader: This is my second one. I still have the 500 and am now using the 505. I’m currently reading Richard Kadrey’s “Butcherbird” on it – by the way it’s a lot of fun. The screen on the 505 is much better than that on the older 500 in terms of contrast, but I still need to carry around a book light for low light situations. And I don’t mean “really low light”, I mean times when there is just not a lot of direct illumination. With a paperback I only need one in really low light situations. This is a pain in the neck. Unlike the TX, however, the machine is perfectly visible outdoors, and would survive the “beach test” just fine. There are other things I don’t like about the Reader. (By the way, though I don’t have one I am sure that all of the comments in this section would apply to the Cybook and the Kindle because they use the same form factor and screen). First, it’s too bloody big. I can’t put it into my pocket. If I go shopping or out to the coffee shop I need a bag to carry it. Not good. My paperback fits in my pocket. Second, it is not very ergonomic. The buttons don’t have a good feel and sometimes it is hard to tell if you have pressed them or not. They are also too small and placed in an inconvenient location. They don’t fall naturally under the finger. The rocker switches also have a very poor tactile feel, and, again, don’t fall into a natural location. On the second try I would have thought that Sony, who should know ergonomics, would have gotten this right. Also the cover is a bit of a pain and is often in the way and makes the machine too heavy. The menu system is very poorly thought out, as well. It’s a pain. Battery life is superb. This is the machine to take when you are going cross country or around the world.
Eee PC: This is the final contender. Here you see the machine propped up the Proporta Classic case. The case folds backwards and makes an excellent stand. Using this case the Eee PC is the most comfortable of the three to use while lying in bed. Just prop it up on your stomach. Both the TX and the Sony fail the bed test. I have Mobipocket loaded on the machine and am just finishing John C. Wright’s “Orphans of Chaos”. The machine isn’t the best for laptop reading, at least without the case, because the underside gets pretty warm. The screen is very good with Mobipocket and if I crank the brightness down it is not as glary as the TX and is quite comfortable to use for a long period. On the other hand it washes out in the sun and would fail the beach test with flying colors. No outside reading with this puppy. Ergonomically, however, hitting the space bar to change pages is pretty comfortable, especially if you prop it up on your lap or stomach with the Proporta case. On the other hand, it’s just too big for everyday use. On top of that the battery life is only about 3 hours, so no cross country trips with this machine. One nice thing is that the WiFi works really well and connects to everything I tried it with. It is a breeze to download ebooks over WiFi and I can see some of the attraction of the Kindle when I use this little computer.
Bottom line: We don’t have a good reader yet. If we are going to get e-books to be popular we need the equipment. Contrary to the way the market is going, I would suggest that the reader be made smaller, not bigger. Using the TX reminded me how convenient the paperback size really is. On top of that by making a reader this size the cost would certainly be cut down. The iPhone, by the way, is too small to fit this bill. I have one and don’t think it will make a really great platform. Battery life will be good, but it doesn’t have a big enough screen and I don’t think that tapping the screen to change pages will be a very natural action. We’ve go a ways to go yet.