Yesterday I was out partaking in some fine English brown ale and Chicago deep dish pizza, when the waiter noticed me reading something on my iPod Touch. He started asking the usual “Is that a Touch or an iPhone?” and “Do all iPhone apps work on the Touch?” questions, which I’ve grown used to at this point. Then he surprised me, by telling me about the Kindle app for the iPhone, and generally gushing about the Kindle hardware. I ended up discussing some of my first-hand experiences with various e-book readers, and eventually we subsided into trading favorite authors.
What struck me as interesting about this whole conversation is that he only knew about the Kindle and its iPhone app. He was considering buying one or both of these, and he had never even heard of the alternatives, neither on the hardware nor software sides of the equation. I find it amusing that in such a short time the Kindle has established itself as a stronger brand in the marketplace than Sony, who has been at it for two years longer.
Requirement: Quality Screen
When it comes to a replacement for my beloved paperbacks, I have one key requirement, and the rest is all hopes and dreams. Since I’m going to be reading books on this thing, I need a high quality screen. E-ink is acceptable, as long as the text is crisp, page turn is instant, and it has uniform lighting for nighttime reading.
I do appreciate durable design, portable form factor, a screen size that’s just right, and plenty of battery life. As far as functionality goes, I appreciate having a built in dictionary and easy to use bookmarks. I do require access to both free and paid bookstores (customizable, I don’t want just the device manufacturer’s stores), and I also need support for plenty of formats, with EPUB and PDF being the minimum I will accept.
My Thoughts on the Current Hardware
The Kindle devices I just can’t take seriously: their keyboards are awkward and unnecessary (hello touchscreen!), the design is just unprepossessing, purchases are locked-in to Amazon’s ecosystem, and there is no native EPUB support. I’ll pass.
I did own a Sony PRS-700 Reader for about a week; it was close, but not quite, what I want in an e-book reader. The screen quality was not what I had hoped for, due to a badly designed touchscreen layered on top of the e-ink display. The touchscreen caused horrible glare, and blurred the text beneath it slightly. The touchscreen functionality itself was below average. The reader did support EPB, and the PDF support was pretty slick (and fast!). The previous model, PRS-500, had a much better screen, but its PDF performance was lacking, as was its interface and design. There are plenty of other e-ink based readers from different vendors, but nothing that really stands head and shoulders above the rest of the pack.
After returning the Sony, I ended up delving into the various e-book readers for the iPod Touch. eReader was decent, Kindle’s app was so-so, and Stanza just blew me away. I’ve read a dozen books on Stanza, and that number is climbing rapidly. The iPod Touch is already a permanent fixture in my pocket, so the portability and convenience factor is high. Even though the screen is a bit small, I’ve grown used to holding the device slightly closer to my eyes than a usual book to compensate.
When the next round of e-ink readers hits the streets, its going to be a touch choice between a paperback-sized dedicated reader and an application on my iPod Touch or iPhone. Perhaps Whispersync will have made its way into a few more applications by then. The thought of moving from e-book reader to iPhone to web page to iPod Touch, keeping my bookmarks and current page in sync, gives me shivers of delight.
The e-book market has taken off since I first wrote this article, with solid competition to the Sony Reader springing up from many vendors. The three I would pick as the current leaders in the field are the Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook, and Apple iBooks. While the first generation Kindle was an ugly, ungainly thing, the latest models are sleek and affordable. The Nook is doing well simply through the strength of its retail presence to help move along sales. Apple’s iBooks is leveraging the large number of iPads, iPod Touches, and iPhones to move its product. While none of these vendors is doing it right (prices are sky high on books, books are laden with DRM), this is mostly the fault of the publishers. I do have high hopes for the future. I hope one day to be able to buy an EPUB (at a reasonable price) on my desktop computer, access it on my Notebook / iPhone / iPad, and have my current page and notes be sync’d between the two devices and the web. Its getting close, I can almost taste it.