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There's more than one way to read a digital book

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / February 26, 2009
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I've got plenty of books already, but more keep turning up, including a few that have to be plugged in and recharged.

Project Gutenberg, the first effort to computerize classic books, began when Richard Nixon was still wiretapping his enemies. What we've lacked are attractive, simple devices for reading these digital volumes. And suddenly they're popping up everywhere.

Amazon.com's Kindle, released in 2007, was the first e-book reader to make a mark. The company refuses to say how many it has sold, but outside analysts reckon they have moved half a million or more. Now comes the second edition.

The $359 Kindle 2 is an incremental upgrade. It's a thinner, more elegant device, with enough memory to store 1,500 volumes, according to Amazon. The old Kindle had a slot for inserting extra memory; not this one. Also gone is that odd little scroll wheel for navigating menus. Instead, there's a little square button that tilts up, down, left, and right, just like a joystick.

On Kindle, the reading is easy, thanks to a 6-inch black and white screen developed by E Ink Corp. of Cambridge. There's a slightly uncomfortable "flashing" effect when you press the Next Page button, but you get used to it. Besides, the new Kindle flips pages faster than the old one.

And if your eyes get tired, Kindle 2 will read to you. Text-to-speech software converts the book into a surprisingly lifelike male or female voice, then pumps it through a headphone jack or the Kindle's two small but tolerable speakers. The system works so well that the Authors' Guild, an association of writers, warned that writers could lose the royalties they now earn from audiobook editions of their work. Fewer people will buy the new James Patterson thriller on CD if their Kindles can read it to them. As a writer, I sympathize. As a reader, I shrug.

Of course, the new Kindle retains the original's most addictive feature - seamless integration with Amazon's online bookstore. You can buy more than 230,000 electronic books, or subscribe to dozens of magazines and newspapers, without rising from your chair, or tracking down a Wi-Fi Internet hotspot. Instead, the Kindle attaches to Sprint Nextel Corp's cellular data network, which serves every major US population center. Order a book, and it's installed in a couple of minutes. There's no charge for using the Sprint network; Amazon eats the cost. Yet the company still charges only $10 for most electronic books, even bestsellers.

Kindle's association with the biggest online bookstore helps it dominate the e-book market. But it's got competition.

Sony Corp. has quietly sold more than 300,000 of its Reader e-books in the past two years. The $400 PRS-700 Reader is smaller than the Kindle, mainly because it lacks a push-button keyboard. Instead, a touchscreen allows you to open books and turn pages with a tap of the finger. It's less sensitive than it ought to be, forcing you to press fairly hard to get some action.

Still, it's clever and intuitive. Drag your finger left-to-right to turn to the next page; right-to-left takes you back one page. There's an on-screen keyboard for writing notes or doing word searches, but the keyboard barely responded to my finger taps. Luckily, the Reader's slide-out stylus works much better.

The Reader's screen gives off too much glare in brightly lit rooms. Otherwise, its E Ink screen is a match for the Kindle's. And unlike the Kindle, the Sony Reader has an internal light, so it can be used in a darkened room.

The Reader's critical defect is the absence of a wireless buying option. No cellular data network; no Wi-Fi. Using a personal computer, you visit Sony's online bookstore to buy titles. The purchased texts are fed into the Reader through a USB cable. It's hard labor compared with Kindle's painless purchasing system.

But I suspect the most popular e-book devices will prove to be smartphones, such as the BlackBerry or Apple iPhone. Granted, screen sizes are small and battery life short. But millions already use these phones to watch movies and play games. Turning them into e-books is just a matter of writing the software.

Apple's iTunes Store offers a pair of high-quality iPhone applets, Stanza and eReader. These let you find and download books using either the iPhone's 3G cellular network or a nearby Wi-Fi hotspot. Stanza's creators claim their free program has already been downloaded more than a million times. That's more than all sales of Kindle and Sony Reader combined.

But Stanza and eReader mostly offer free downloads of old titles that are no longer under copyright.

So here comes Shortcovers, a new service from the big Canadian bookseller Indigo Books & Music Inc. Shortcovers, due to launch in March, will offer about 50,000 books to start with, including current bestsellers. The service will also deliver the latest magazines and popular blogs. Users will be able to buy individual chapters of a book for 99 cents, or entire volumes. Shortcovers will work not only with the iPhone, but also with BlackBerrys, as well as phones running Google Inc.'s Android software.

None of these devices are entirely satisfactory substitutes for printed pages - nor do they need to be. If you want a real book, buy one. But sometimes it's better to push a button than to turn a page.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

(Correction: The original version incorrectly asserted that the new Stephen King title was unavailable on certain platforms.)

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