Sunday, October 9, 2011


For quite a while now I've been scandalizing my more literate friends by not having switched to an electronic form of reading books. As I was offered some e-books, however, I figured I might as well break down and see if I'd like it.

I've been very dubious about the ergonomics of e-readers, specifically the feel of them in the hand, and the experience of all the flashing of e-ink when turning pages, and managing books on the computer, and the very limited features as far as layout goes. I've also been loathe — and still am — to get a Kindle. Amazon's whispernet, ease of buying and browsing books, and offering a properly implemented cloud for storage appeal to me greatly, but their insistence on their own proprietary format, DRM, and lack of support of third-party books pretty much nullifies all that. Instead I went on Ebay and got a "cheap" Sony PRS-300 reader.

The PRS-300 is one of Sony's "Pocket edition" ones, meaning it has a 5" screen instead of the 6" one commonly found on Kindles, Kobo's, Sony's other models, etc. On the down side, it requires tethering via mini-USB for most anything, as it has no expansion slots or wireless. You do not, however, lose resolution, as the screen crams the same number of pixels than the larger readers do (and e-ink has a much higher media resolution than the pixel count).

The Sony reader also comes with software that is in typical Sony fashion absolutely horrible malware. On the upside, the Sony readers are well supported by Calibre, so I didn't even bother with the bundled software. The way I figure, if I can't get a DRM-free book in electronic format, I can just buy one in paper form instead.

I've now read about a book and a half on it, and my feelings are mixed. The page turning has become a non-issue, and is not bothering me at all. The ergonomics of the Sony are a bit dubious, but on the other hand its small size makes it pretty neatly manageable. The biggest gripe I have is about the quality of text. The e-ink advertising claims that the display has more contrast than a paperback, but to my eyes this isn't true, though it's close. The smallest font ends up being so ragged looking that I never use it, and even the medium one does irritate me somewhat, not only in the appearance of the font, but also in layout. Some of this may have to do with having pixel-peeped at LaTeX output throughout my college career. Glare is incredibly well controlled, and a non-issue; aside from the quality of text and perhaps the contrast, it really is a match of paper, at least visually. The texture, feel, smell, and sound of paper, of course, are missing.

It seems to me that with e-book readers history is repeating itself. Just like with HTML, the first noble attempt was to describe the content of the language; "This is a header", "This is a quote", "This should be emphasized" and so forth, and leave the details of what that means to the end device — since there was no way of knowing the end device's resolution, color, or even if it was a visual display at all, or a braille terminal or audio reader. Of course, this did not satisfy content producers who wanted control over their material, forcing everyone to enjoy that blinking headline. So, inherently, in an e-book you lose the art of typography and layout that may have been presented in a paper format, but conversely the readers do not appear to be sufficiently smart to format text in a particularly pleasing way themselves.

On the upside, you can have a pile of books in the device, instead of cluttering up your room, and managing your library with something like Calibre is nice and powerful. Also, you can enjoy instant gratification, and get the next installment in a series in a matter of minutes or seconds, rather than waiting a few days for the mail (or making a trip to one of those elusive brick-and-mortar stores that likely won't have what you want on their shelves anyways.)

In short, then, I'm still on the fence. Perhaps, in a few years the technology has either advanced sufficiently, or obtaining books in a reasonable format has become easier and cheaper, making it worthwhile. Alternatively, there's certainly room for a visionary to produce a reader that has the capability of producing superior text layout and a compelling tactile experience, much like Fuji did with it's X100 camera. Until then, I'll use my Sony when I can or have to, and keep dealing with physical books.

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