October 15, 2009

What's this gadget?

It looks like I'm going to get myself one of these things within the next couple of weeks.

"What is it?", you may wonder. Even though it looks like one, it isn't a diary. I already have a smartphone that does everything I want of a diary and more besides, and I certainly don't want to have to cart yet another gadget around with me, expecially if I already have something that does the same thing. No, this is something that's commonly called an “eReader”. It is used to display books that are sold in electronic form, or “eBooks”.

Your next question is undoubtedly going to be "what's wrong with a normal book, one with pages that you can turn?". My answer to that is "absolutely nothing", I love the things. In fact it's precisely because I love books that I think I need to get this contraption.

The fact of the matter is that I've started reading again after a long period of comparative disinterest. I can think of 3 authors I enjoy reading who have written at least 2 books each that I've not yet read, plus a series of 5 or 6 books from one of them that I want to read. All in all there are about 25 or 30 books on my wishlist right now, and I'm getting through them at a rate of 3 or 4 a month. The problem that poses itself now is where to store the damn things. This house is already stuffed to the gills and there just isn't room for many, and yet I do like to keep them and sometimes read them again further down the line. For example, I've read “The Hobbit” and “The Lord Of The Rings” many times since childhood.

Reading books on a computer screen isn't an option for several reasons. Firstly, I like to hold the book in my hands. Using a computer pretty much rules that out. Secondly, I do most of my reading in bed at night, and I'm not taking a computer to bed with me. Finally, there's the quality of the screen. Even the most expensive and high-quality computer screen is going to be more of a strain to look at than something that's printed.

There is, however, a solution in the form of a dedicated, handheld device such as the Sony PRS-505 eReader pictured above. In length and width it is only slightly larger than your average paperback book. It is, however, less than a centimetre thick. It therefore takes up much less space than a real book. But it will also hold up to 150 or so complete books unless I stick a bog standard SD card in it, in which case it'll end up being able to store thousands of books. Do you see the advantage now? Think of a device about 1/2 the volume of a paperback book, think of a pile of 150 paperbacks, and then think of which you'd like to cram into your house and catalogue.

The tactile side of having something book-like is there, but what about the screen?

These eReaders use so-called “eInk” screens. They look a bit like paper, the black pixels are high contrast, and the screens have a higher resolution than LCD screens. They look very close to a printed page. Not only that but they are extremely economical energy-wise. eInk screens only use power to change what's on them. This means that you can basically display something on them, switch off the power, and they'll carry on displaying quasi-indefinitely. Most eReaders will allow you to flip something like 6000-7000 pages between pit-stops to charge the batteries.

The final argument in favour of an eReader is the fact that eBooks are usually a bit cheaper than their paper equivalents. The eReader will therefore pay for itself over time, although it can be argued that the convenience of having so much in so little space, especially when travelling, contributes more to the value of the eReader.

On the downside, not all publishers and authors allow their works to be published in electronic form for fear of digital piracy. If you search the internet you will indeed find plenty of places from where you can download software to defeat the copy protection on protected eBooks, so their fear is founded to a certain extent. Most publishers, however, take the (more sensible in my opinion) point of view that not everyone is going to resort to piracy, very few will in fact, and most will play according to the rules. Not all of the authors I enjoy subscribe to the latter point of view and I will have to carry on buying real books that they write.

As most of you know, I refuse to use Windows on my computers. Instead, I use GNU/Linux for various reasons. This does pose a minor problem for the copy protection used on most commercial eBooks: there is no Linux software to manage this copy protection, only Windows software. I do, however, have access to a laptop running Windows on which I can install the software required to “authorise” the eReader so that it will be able to read and display copy-protected content. From that point onwards I'll be able to use a piece of Linux software called Calibre to manage my eBooks, protected or otherwise, but Calibre will only be able to transfer protected eBooks to/from the eReader and not display them. This doesn't bother me in the least since I have no intention of using the computer to read my eBooks.

What if the eReader stops working? What happens to the dozens of books stored in it? Will they be lost? No. The eBooks that I buy will be backed up on computers in multiple locations before being installed in the eReader. For them to be lost completely, my home and two datacentres in the US would have to burn to the ground.

The PRS-505 is a model that's been discontinued by Sony, so why that one in particular? The reason why I want this one is because the two devices that "replace" it are nowhere near as good. Further up the scale there's the PRS-600, which is a touch-screen device. It has more storage space for eBooks than the 505 and it has the same 6" screen, but there's a touch-sensitive layer on top of it that renders the screen prone to glare in certain lighting conditions and generally less crisp. It does add a feature whereby you can make annotations on books you're reading. Fair enough, but that doesn't interest me, I just want to read the books. The other replacement is the PRS-300, which has no touch-sensitive layer, but the eInk screen is only 5" instead of 6". I think that's a bit small.

Anyway, stay tuned. Once I've got the contraption I'll provide a write-up.

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