Thursday, August 12, 2010

Get an ebook reader

Only if you enjoy reading books, of course.

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...)
For some of these books, I don't even know if an Italian version exist. Instead, ebooks (mostly in PDF format) are ideal to get them in their original English edition. For example, Packt Publishing sent me a PDF copy of some of their books for review in less than a minute from my registration.
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.


cdamian said...

I plan to buy an ebook reader too. Here at work I checked out the Kindle 2 and Nook of my co-workers.
The displays are very nice, though I find the secondary colour display on the Nook distracting. I also might be tempted to hack the Nook, which runs Android and this would be even more distracting.
I found both of them a bit small though, so I probably go for the Kindle DX. I find the small screens OK for novels, but not for technical documents.
You can order the Kindle in Europe by the way, it is one of the items Amazon ships from the states and it is also available in the UK now.
We are pretty much at the beginning of the ebook reader development, so whatever we buy now will be cheaper and outdated soon.

Doug said...

hey thanks
I am a developer and I enjoy reading as well. What prevent me from buying an ebook are:
- Bookmark: in a real book I can just use a bookmark
- Search: in a real book I can use index or remember the page (hilight e.g)

Do you see those limitations?

Anonymous said...

another thing I miss on eBooks is - making small notes an marking areas which I think are important.

When I read paper books - I make side notes and sometimes undeline areas which I think are important - I miss them on eBooks

EnQ said...

@Doug: I'm surprised to read these questions - at least the readers I tried and read about so far should outdo any printed book considering bookmarks and search functions. While you rely on index pages to search in a printed book (which is not always successful) you should have full-text search in ebooks, just as in PDF files on a PC. In addition, I would expect most ebooks to provide index pages nevertheless. Depending on the file format and reader software there may be much faster navigation to chapters and special sections such as index pages.

Bookmarks and notes can be added without relevant limits on all devices I know of.

I don't have a reader yet due to the high prices. I was tempted to order the basic version of Kindle DX but Amazon wants to ship them from USA (doesn't seem like I could order it from UK to Germany?), so I can only guess shipping rates and customs but fear that they will cost between 30 and 40€ extra. The big plus on the Kindle DX is that an English dictionary is included and appears to be instantly accessible (very nice for foreign readers :) ).

One point against ebooks is certainly that you can't open two pages at a time. Maybe if screen resolutions are getting even finer and screens become slightly bigger, some readers may introduce a function to open two pages at a time in split view. I don't know of any (affordable) reader doing that currently and I doubt this will be featured by affordable devices in the next one or two years.

Spock said...

For all the drawbacks that were mentioned before ( bookmarks, annotations, etc.), I would suggest you consider an Entourage Edge ( ). As a perk, you also get an Android tablet...
I am a happy owner of an 'old' 7" Sony reader, and ordered my Edge :)

Giorgio said...

EnQ is right on bookmarking and search - they're actually basic features of ebook readers. They even usually automatically bookmark the last page you were viewing, so if you read in a linear fashion you simply close the book and return to it at the right page without noticing.

Rogério Vicente said...

I'm curious about one thing. You mentioned that you read allot of technical books. Can you read books with code correctly on your ebook reader? I mean, blocks of code, UML diagrams and stuff like that?

So far what kept me from buying one is that I have the impression that e-ink readers don't read PDF files or display code correctly.

Am I wrong?


Giorgio said...

I chose appositely the Bebook Neo because it reads everything from pdf to epub and chm. For what regards the code, in the pdf books I am reading now it is displayed correctly; only sometimes when zooming the formatting is not respected (it is treated as normal text). However you can turn off the zoom with a single button end when it happens.

shail jindal said...

i was looking forward to getting a device to read ebooks. I cannot read much on the LCD screen of my machine.
can you guys suggest me the best device which avoids the strain on the eyes and is very close to reading on paper.I am looking forward to some voracious reading activity.
any suggestion most welcome!

Giorgio said...

As I said before, any e-ink device is fine for your eyes: Bebook, Kindle, Nook. The differences between them stand in supported formats and wireless.

bradleykoch said...

i used many ebook readers software but i can't satisfied from their performnace because i want one software that shows all files in every format.