Is it time we switched to eBook readers?

13 Apr

The gray text background of the Sony Reader is obvious, against the white paper of a regular book. (Photo by Geoff Meeker/special to The Telegram)

April 13, 2009

By Geoff Meeker

The electronic book reader is a technology that seems destined to succeed, for all the right reasons.

About the size of a paperback, the lightweight, battery-powered devices attempt to mimic the book-reading experience as closely as possible. They can store more than 150 digital books at a time, and, because no trees are killed, are environmentally friendly.

While they are growing in popularity, however, electronic readers have yet to achieve wide consumer acceptance. The reasons are more complex than simple matters of functionality. Truth is, people have a highly personal relationship – a love affair, if you will – with books.  They like to hold them, smell the paper and ink inside, collect them like a klatch of close friends, and feel them lie open, next to their hearts, as they fall asleep.

I know, because I am one of those people.

Yet, it has been difficult to ignore the call of the electronic book. They have come a long way in a short time, and early challenges – such as clarity and sharpness of text – have largely been overcome. And think of the convenience: you can load up dozens of books and take them anywhere, on a flight, to the beach, camping or whatever. It’s the reading equivalent of the iPod, and not just for traditional books: the Sony Reader can display pdf, Word and a variety of other file formats, including RSS feeds from your computer. This means you can download a batch of documents, kick back on the couch and read in comfort. The potential environmental benefits, in terms of paper saved, are enormous. And the battery life – 7,500 page-turns with a single charge – is remarkable.

So I am willing to experiment and even make the switch, if suitably impressed.

The Sony Reader was the only such device I could find locally, at Sony’s store in the Avalon Mall. There’s a 30-day return policy, which is good to know when trying something new like this.

It’s not cheap, at $349. However, you can purchase electronic books – or eBooks – online for less, sometimes much less, than hard copies at the bookstore, so this investment can be recovered over time. Included is the eBook Library software (not Mac compatible), from which you download books from the Sony eBook store, much like browsing and buying music on iTunes.

But those are all peripheral to the Big Question: can the Sony Reader duplicate the book-reading experience?

It’s pretty close. The nice leather slipcase opens to reveal the Reader inside, so it feels book-like. You select titles from a menu, and turn pages by pressing a small, conveniently located button. The screen is not backlit like a computer monitor, so it’s easy on the eyes (though you will need a reading lamp). You can choose from three different type sizes. And the text is sharp and crystal clear; indeed, when you first turn it on, it looks almost like paper.

And that’s the key word: almost.

The background – the ‘white paper’ part – is light gray, not white. This reduces the contrast between the words and the screen behind it. Though I found this distracting, I did adjust. In fact, I read 300 pages of a trashy thriller in a single sitting, more than I’ve read in quite some time.

You may have heard about the Amazon Kindle 2 Reader, which seems to have more advanced features than the Sony. Kindle 2 has built in cellular wireless, so it doesn’t need a computer at all.  And surprisingly, the wireless downloads are free – all costs are covered by amazon.com. There’s a major downside though: it works only on the Sprint network, which is not available in Canada. I expect this will change, eventually.

For now, I am sticking with the Sony Reader. I’ve had it less than a week and have to admit: it’s growing on me.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.



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