As I have lamented before, I do not have access to a well-stocked and conveniently-located library here in Bangalore that lends books at reasonable rates. The alternative of buying all the books that I want to read is not just an expensive proposition - I also do not have enough space in my home to stock all such books. For some time now, I have been eyeing electronic book readers as a solution to this problem. It looks like I will very soon (but not quite yet) be able to get such a device at an affordable price.
Besides saving lots of space and providing unprecedented portability, electronic books also have some additional advantages over ordinary books:
- There are lots of freely-available electronic books. For example, Project Gutenberg provides electronic versions of thousands of classic books.
- You can easily make backup copies of (non-DRM-crippled) electronic books. This is unlike ordinary books, which can get damaged, lost or stolen.
- It is much easier to search through an electronic book.
- It is easier to enlarge the font of an electronic book or have the text read out by a text-to-speech software to help the visually-impaired folks.
- You save trees from being cut to produce paper.
- Electronic books should be cheaper than ordinary books since the publisher can very easily produce as many copies of such books as it wants.
- The Internet makes it much faster to deliver an electronic book than an ordinary book, when you order them through an on-line retailer. You also save on the shipping costs.
- Since software is usually used to write and typeset books these days, electronic books can be produced with no additional effort.
Of course, electronic books will never quite have the "feel" of ordinary books. Some of us also love the different smells of different books. An electronic book reader is quite delicate and more expensive when compared to an ordinary book. Unless an electronic book is in an open format like plain-text, HTML or PDF, it is quite possible that future electronic book readers will not be able to read it. Some publishers intentionally cripple electronic books with DRM making it more difficult to do things that are otherwise quite simple to do with an ordinary book (for example, share it with a friend). Many of the electronic books are unreasonably priced compared to the corresponding paper versions in spite of the fact that it is far cheaper to produce and distribute an electronic version of a book.
All this aside, there has been a huge downside of electronic books till recently - reading electronic books has not been as comfortable as reading ordinary books for most people. It is quite straining on the eyes to read lots of text on a computer monitor or on the tiny LCD screens of smart-phones and PDAs. It is also difficult to read such text in bright light. Even the dedicated electronic book readers have suffered from this problem. You can print out an electronic book to ordinary paper, but this is either too expensive or not feasible for most people.
This has now changed due to the availability of "electronic paper" displays. These displays look just like ordinary paper and are therefore quite easy on the eyes. They only use power when the displayed image needs to be changed and thus can run on a battery charge for much longer periods than LCD displays. Though the technology has been around since the 1970s, it has only recently become commercially viable. There are now several electronic book readers based on this display technology and judging by the reviews of these devices, we might just have passed an inflection point in the history of electronic books.
Here are some of the electronic book reader devices based on electronic paper technology currently available in the market, along with their prices as advertised at the moment:
- Kindle, by Amazon, $400 (Ars Technica review of the Kindle)
- PRS-505, by Sony, $300 (Ars Technica review of the PRS-505)
- Iliad, by iRex, $784 (Ars Technica review of the Iliad)
- Cybook, by Bookeen, $480
- Hanlin, by Jinke, $300
- BEBOOK, by Endless Ideas, $400
- SoriBOOK, by Diginaru, $400
Ars Technica usually provides in-depth and unbiased reviews and therefore I have also linked to a review of a device on Ars Technica wherever available. MobileRead has a comparison-matrix of electronic book reader devices. You can also find a lot of nice videos on YouTube that show most of these devices in action, giving you a feel for these devices that is very difficult to get by just reading the reviews.
For example, here is a little video review of the Amazon Kindle:
Of these devices, the Amazon Kindle seems to have the best overall package in terms of price, connectivity and availability of electronic books. I like its integration with Project Gutenberg and Wikipedia. I also like its ability to look up the definition of a word in the integrated dictionary. Unfortunately, it also looks like the ugliest of the lot with some rather weird design choices in my opinion. It also cannot natively display PDF files. Amazon should release a newer version of the Kindle that rectifies these mistakes. Some of these devices, including the Kindle, are also unnecessarily saddled with DRM. Many of them have features that are of doubtful utility in an electronic book reader (for example, an MP3 player or a web browser with severely limited features).
Electronic paper still has some way to go before it can become an acceptable replacement for ordinary paper. The resolution of electronic paper still doesn't seem to be anywhere as good as ordinary paper. It cannot display colours other than black and white (or shades of grey), which is all right for ordinary text and figures but not for colourful photographs. The most troublesome aspect seems to be the manner in which the display is redrawn - there is a slight pause, followed by the blackening of the display followed by the final image. Depending on the person, this can either be very irritating or barely noticeable while turning pages.
These devices seem to be almost, but not quite, there. I think I will wait for the next generation of such devices before I buy one for myself.