Those who know me know that I'm a gadget nut, and I've gotten a few gadgets lately that fall into the category of essential for my on-the-road lifestyle and of interest to software developers and other geeks as well. One of them is the Sony eReader. This is the first real application of digital ink, which has been The Next Big thing for several years While it looks like a monochrome LCD display (with no back-lighting), digital ink acts more like real ink in that it doesn't consume power while it's being displayed. Most LCDs need a constant (very low level) charge to keep their dark bits aligned. With digital ink, you just zap them once and they stay in place until you zap them again. The obvious use of them in a digital book reader makes perfect sense: it consumes no power while you are actually reading the page, just when you turn the pages.
The Sony eReader was announced at the beginning of 2006, and was originally going to be available in the Spring of last year. Fast forward to November, when they actually shipped (I got mine late November, and I was on the list of "ship it too me right off the assembly line". Here's a picture:
Reading eBooks on it is an awesome experience, pretty much all I hoped for. The screen is highly readable as long as you have light (it does not have a back light). Essentially, if you have enough light to read a regular book, you can read this one. Even in low light it isn't bad because you have 3 zoom levels for eBooks: small, medium, and large (Mr. Magoo could read the large without his glasses). The page flips are slow because of the digital ink, but it's not really noticeable. I quickly forgot that I was reading something on a new fangled device and just enjoyed it, and have subsequently read more than a dozen books on it. The battery life is stunning: I used it for an entire week in Singapore, reading a couple of hours a day, without recharging it once (and that included 2 marathon reading binges on the 26 hour flights there and back). The eBooks (and even PDFs) take up very little room. It comes with about 100 Mb of storage; I immediately put a 2 Gb Memory Stick in it. I guesstimate that I can probably get 1000 books on this puppy.
One of the great appeals for me was the ability to put PDFs on it. I carry (or would like to carry) a fairly sizable collection of reference books with me, in addition to whatever I'm reading at the moment, and lots of books (especially technical ones) exist on PDF. Alas, the reading experience with PDFs leaves something to be desired. Unlike eBooks, the eReader can't reflow PDFs, meaning that you can basically see them in 1 of 2 sizes: regular (the entire page) or zoomed (just the text on the page, eliminating the margins). The text of most PDFs is still too small for portrait mode even in the zoomed state, so I generally flip it to landscape. One of the annoying bugs bites you here: when you flip pages on PDFs in landscape mode, it re-sets itself to regular mode but still thinks it's in zoomed. That means to be able to read the page, you have to flip it back to regular (for real), then flip it back to landscape. That means that every time you flip pages, it's a 3-press operation. Which wouldn't be so bad except for the glacially slow refresh rate for the digital ink (which is hardly noticeable for a single page flip). Once they get this bug fixed, PDF's will be reasonable on this device, but painful for now.
The selection of eBooks is pretty small right now, but growing fast. As you would expect, there are a fair number of science fiction titles, including Neal Stephenson's whole catalog (which I have dully downloaded and and synced onto my eReader). The worst part of that whole experience, though, is the Connect software that comes with it and manages both syncing with the device and shopping at their on-line bookstore. Strike 1: Windows only, so I have to crank up Parallels to access it. Strike 2: Think iTunes written by a high school student who's just learned VB. It's awful and clunky. The should have picked a reasonable starting place (like Eclipse RCP) rather than reinvent a buggy version of an application that needs a file system view, a HTML-centric content pane (or pain, in this case), and standard menu stuff. Strike 3: buggy, crashing at the drop of a hat. One of the few options on the menus is "Update", which I access frequently to try to get a better version. While it works mostly, it also locks up on a regular basis. At least the syncing part pretty much works and is fast. It really shows, though, how much you take something like iTunes + iPod for granted until you see an amateurish version.
The Bottom Line
The above notwithstanding, I love this little thing, especially for eBooks. If they would get the PDF bug mentioned above fixed, it would be Good Enough for PDFs too. Of course, what I would really like is the ability to reflow PDFs, but thats much tougher. If anyone reading this knows of a PDF to eBook converter, please let me know...I've searched in vain. The Sony eReader has some pain points (like the PDF bug) for a version 1.0 product, but it still a great addition to my collection of gadgets.