I recently ordered a Bebook Neo, the European equivalent of the Amazon Kindle. It arrived from the Netherlands in two business days (there is no custom between European Union countries). It has wi-fi and an headphones jack if you want to listen to music, but these features do not interest me. I want to tell you about the reading experience.
As a programmer and engineer, I read a lot of books, on various subjects:
- technical ones (Kent Beck, Martin Fowler, Uncle Bob...)
- managerial ones (Peopleware, Agile Estimating and Planning)
- science fiction (Asimov, Dune, Philip K. Dick...)
- fiction (Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance)
- personal development (Getting things done)
- cooking (well...)
Furthermore, there are other publications available in electronic format only, like DZone Refcards and free ebooks from SitePoint.
The only problem with reading ebooks is the device you use to read them. My Asus EeePC 701 (the first netbook in the market segment) is good for writing articles, and skimming blog posts, or for a bit of PHP programming by SSHing into my home machine. But for reading extensively, LCD screens will kill us.
First, there is backlight. You know when, as a child, you were told not to stare at the Sun? Here is the same mechanism, on a smaller scale. Direct light is sent from the LCD screen to your eyes, and over the minutes or the hours staring at it becomes not very beneficial for the eyes. Besides the protracted direct lighting, the LCD screen has a very different light intensity from the surrounding environment (from objects which do not emit own light, of course), which causes eyes to strain to continuously adapt between the screen and the rest of the world:
When reading a good book, I usually get in a flow state and do not make 5-minutes pauses, which sound innatural and break the natural page turn rhythm I am accustomed to since I was 6.
With an LCD, the brighter the environment, the less you see on the screen (outdoor you can't see anything, especially with modern glossy displays). With a e-ink screen like Kindle's or Nook's Bebook's ones, you have to actually provide external light to read. This is an advantage for e-ink devices, since you can easily provide light when it's needed, like you do for paper books. I do so with an abat-jour over my bed. On the contrary, it's quite difficult to obscure the sun if you want to read outdoors with an LCD screen.
As any library affectionate can tell you, an LCD-based device is not an ebook reader, period. Forget about iPads - those can make for wonderful trays for Martini glasses like my CD drive does, not for readers that do not cause headaches.
Second, there is the user experience. I used Evince, the Ubuntu equivalent. The ebook reader software is specialized and offers a simpler interface. Zooming have several acceptable levels and text is automatically reflowed to fit the pages. There's no fine tuning of the horizontal scrolling bar to have all the text visible at the same time, nor continuos adjustment of the vertical one; only two buttons to go to the next or previous page.
Third, there is battery life. I haven't still recharged my Bebook after the initial unpacking day more than a week ago. It basically consumes energy only for its idle cycle and during page turns. Requiring no own lighting mechanism, when you're reading a page it is essentially not consuming. Its charge is estimated to last between 4,000 and 7,000 page turns. In comparison, for my netbook I have a choice between attaching a cable to the nearest power outlet or using a half-kilogram battery.
Fourth, there is size and weight convenience: the internal memory of Bebook Neo is 512 MB and a book commonly occupies from 1 to 10 MB of storage space. This particular device has an SD card slot that you can use to expand the memory further: with 8-16GB of SD cards, you have practically infinite memory (unless you own the Library of Congress). You're helping the environment at the same time - I bet the material used for manufacturing an ebook reader and the energy it used during its lifecycle are a more efficient choice over printed books. If there are doubts, maybe we can recharge readers with solar panels. :)
Fifth, there is the absence of distractions. On my netbook, I'm one click away from opening my mailbox or twitter account. In the latest versions of Ubuntu, new messages from instant messenger buddies shows up as notifications (in some also Twitter mentions), and I have to close Pidgin or Empathy.
Sixth, it is very trendy. No one I know in Italy has an ebook reader. When people brag with their iPhones you can peacefully continue reading your favorite book and ignore them. :)
The downside of the solution is only its cost. A device from the Bebook series costs between 250 and 350 Euros. If you live in the US, the Kindle and the Nook are available and cost much less. Take into account custom duties if you decide to buy from another country.
These costs are comparable or inferior to those of netbooks, but ebook readers are much more specific devices. However, if you read a lot, embracing an ebook reader will give you all the advantages above.