Ebooks Are Nice, Too: eInk Rocks Edition

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Cybook Gen 3 Yesterday we talked about getting started with ebooks with little to no monetary investment. Today we’re moving on to the top of the line devices, which will require a significant initial investment but give a truly world-class ebook reading experience.

The two best-known of these devices are Sony Reader and Amazon’s Kindle. Two other popular devices are the iRex iLiad and the Bookeen Cybook Gen 3. The common thread among these devices is the screen: it’s large and, unlike a computer screen, PDA, or smartphone, is not backlit. eInk, or electronic ink, as the technology is called, uses electrically charged liquid particles on a sheet of plastic film to form words and images in grayscale. (We’re sure we got something wrong in that explanation; maybe we should just direct readers to the eInk website.) It’s quite simply the closest electronic reading experience to reading on paper, and we think the most hardened ebook hater will find it a friendly technology.

We started out reading ebooks on our Treo, and loved everything about it: the portability, the ease of use, all the wonderful free public domain books! Unfortunately, we spend much of each day staring at a computer screen, and we found that our increasing use of a backlit device for reading ebooks made everything go black and swimmy after a bit. We loved ebooks, but something had to give. Last year, we decided the time was right to purchase an eInk ebook reader, and we chose the Cybook Gen 3.

The other three readers we linked above were all considered (we were thisclose to buying a Kindle after playing with a co-worker’s; if there hadn’t been a two-month backorder at the time, we probably would have). One of the enduring problems with ebooks, which we will discuss in another post later this week, is format incompatibility (another is digital rights management; again, we’ll address this later in the week). We were already using eReader and Mobipocket on our Treo, and we liked that the Cybook Gen 3 also used Mobipocket, which has been ported to many other devices, and that books in that format were widely available from many retailers.

We purchased a Cybook Gen 3 from BooksOnBoard (our favorite ebook retailer, along with Fictionwise) in late January 2008. The device was on backorder, but BoB expected to receive more machines shortly, and the device was in our hands within two weeks. We loaded it up and have been reading ebooks happily ever since.

The Cybook Gen 3 is the slimmest and lightest of the eInk dedicated readers, weighing less than 7 ounces with a 6-inch eInk screen. It can be purchased with a protective leather cover (and we recommend doing so) that gives it the dimensions of a small, slim journal, though much lighter. Besides Mobipocket, the Cybook supports HTML, PalmDoc, TXT, and PDF. (In our opinion PDFs are not the best choice for ebooks on any of these dedicated devices except the iLiad, which has a larger screen. Handling of PDFs has improved tremendously with firmware upgrades, but it’s far from perfect.) It supports any TrueType font you care to load to it, and a large range of font sizes, from tiny to huge–useful for reading in dim light. It also displays images in .jpg, .gif, and .png in grayscale, as well as MP3s if you want to use the Cybook to listen to audiobooks. We haven’t used it for audiobooks so can’t say how well it works. Several firmware upgrades have improved the reading experience (and we’re expecting another any time now) and Bookeen has also added onboard memory (from 64 MB to 512 MB) to the units it is currently selling.

Books are transferred in two ways: you can sync with Mobipocket on your PC (just plug in the Cybook via the included mini-USB cord and fire up Mobipocket, and the Cybook takes care of the rest), or transfer files via drag and drop. We prefer the latter method, as we keep all our books on the SD card, and it’s easier to get everything sorted the way we like it.

Since the screen is not backlit, you must have a light source to read the device. Many users like the clip-on book lights for reading in bed. However, eInk devices are easy to read outside in full sunlight, unlike many backlit devices. Some people find the “flashing” as each page turns distracting–the page turns completely dark gray/black, then the words come up for the next page. However, we found that once we were absorbed in a book, we cease to notice the flashing and get into a rhythm where we know how far from the bottom of the page we need to push the button to display the next page. It’s the same rhythm we get into while turning the pages of a book.

Our only dissatisfaction with the Cybook at this time is the handling of the library. The device takes forever to sort out the library upon booting (we have 300+ books in it; while we could conceivably carry less, we’re using less than a quarter of the space on a 1GB SD card, so why should we?) and there is no provision for folders within the library structure. We found a workaround via the helpful folks at the MobileRead forums: place the books into folders named for the authors (last name first) and then set the library to sort by file path. The books are displayed in the library in order of the author’s last name, and then alphabetically within each folder.

Obviously these devices are great for traveling. We’ve certainly had that experience of finishing a book in the middle of a plane flight, and having to make that mad dash for the airport bookstore between flights, trying to find something good to read among the limited selection, and then trying to jam another book into our carryon bag. But now we just load up with lots of reading material before leaving, and tuck our slim, leather-covered device into our (much smaller now) carryon bag. The battery life is terrific; we’ve gotten as much as two weeks out of a single charge. (If we’re reading a lot, say hours a day on vacation, four days is about right.) It can be charged via USB or by using a USB wall charger. We sometimes piggyback it on George the Eee PC for charging purposes–plug George into the wall and then the Cybook into George’s USB port, and charge both at once (useful in hotel rooms with few electrical outlets). Flight attendants love it and ask about it all the time; we are frequently questioned on our daily train commute and when we read the Cybook in public. “What is that?” passersby cry. “You’re reading BOOKS?”

The main drawback for these devices is the price; indeed, much of the public fascination with the Cybook ends when the curious hear the cost of it. The most expensive, the iRex iLiad, costs $699, but it has an 8″ touchscreen and integrated wifi. There also is a less expensive, less well-specced “Book Edition.” The Sony PRS-505 is the least expensive at $269, and it frequently goes on sale and can be had for around $200. The Kindle, the Cybook, and the new and improved Sony PRS-700 hover in the $350-400 level. However, the prices have dropped a bit in the past year and are expected to drop even more over the next few years. New devices using the eInk technology–and other technologies that improve upon it–are being developed. We expect within five years, dedicated book readers will become, if not as pervasive as the iPod, quite prevalent, especially now that Oprah has placed her royal imprimatur on the Kindle, driving it into a two-month backorder. We don’t see ebooks replacing pbooks, but we can certainly see ebooks giving mass market paperbacks a run for their money. More on that later, too! And we’re happy to answer questions about the Cybook Gen 3 and ebooks in general.

We have a volunteer to write a review of the Kindle; if anyone would like to write a short review for the Sony Reader, iLiad, Mobipocket on the BlackBerry, or Stanza/eReader on the iPhone, we would love to publish it! Just drop us an e-mail.