The Electronic Book Reader Comes of Age

With electronic readers, you can carry a whole library in your vest pocket.

Nov. 14, 2007 — -- For many of us, printed books are satisfying in ways beyond the words they contain. The heft of the good hardcover book, the cover art, riffling the pages, progressing through the volume as the page stack becomes smaller on the right and larger on the left.

Billions and billions of printed books have been published, read and saved in the 600 years since movable type was invented, so why mess with a good thing?

Sony Electronics is doing just that, betting that readers will be won over by the convenience of readability of its new electronic book devices.

Sony's reader, the PRS-505, can hold 160 books in its fixed memory, enough to line the shelves on a good-sized wall in the average American home. The $299 device is about the size of a paperback book, but a half-inch thick and weighs less than a pound.

Revolutionary Design

The Sony book reader is revolutionary not only in its storage capacity -- which with plug-in cards is virtually unlimited -- but in the un-computerlike way it displays and turns the virtual book pages.

It displays black print on a white background, just like a book. The font is highly readable and adjustable by size. Unlike laptop computers, you can slip the Sony into your purse, read it in direct sunlight and even bookmark the pages.

Menus are easy to understand, and the device allows about 7,500 page turns on a charge. And it's connectable to your PC for downloads of books -- either free from a variety of sources or purchased from Sony's eBook Library.

In our tests, the book reader smoothly accepted a Microsoft Word version of Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" (downloaded for free from Gutenberg.com in a few seconds). The formidable 207,117-word text was easy to view and took up a tiny fraction of the reader's memory.

Many thousands of copyright-free classics are available on the Internet, also notably on Google's book project. For newer novels, Sony's library has 20,000 titles.

Surprisingly, though the reader has liberated the book from paper, electronic books aren't always a bargain.

For example, David Baldacci's "Stone Cold" download retails for $15.19 at the Sony site, while Amazon will deliver a hard copy to your mailbox for $16.19. The electronic version of "World Without End," Ken Follett's new novel set in the 14th century, costs $28 at Sony while Amazon lists the pulp one for $19.25.

The Sony reader also lets you store and play or display music files, pictures (in glorious back and white) and podcasts.

So what's not to like about the Sony?

Well, for many bibliophiles, a lot. Book lovers like to have, hold and keep their volumes, which don't need charging. The technology of a printed book won't ever change and with proper care, books will last hundreds of years or more. You can write notes in the margins, and enjoy the ambience they provide on your book shelves, not to mention the statement they make about your erudition.

Digital book readers are a cold-hearted solution, to be sure, but a practical one for travelers or commuters who don't have much baggage space to spare for books.

Sony has become the leader in electronic readers after earlier versions from other manufacturers fell flat in the marketplace due to battery limitation as well as readability issues. But more competition is on the horizon.

Enter Amazon, Google

Amazon, the online book seller, plans to introduce an electronic book reader this fall called the Kindle. At a reported cost of $400 to $500, this device is expected to wirelessly connect to the Amazon store, a capacity the Sony lacks. It may also have a backlight for night viewing, another feature the Sony would benefit from.

Meanwhile, Google is said to be ready to roll out fee-based pricing of downloads of newer books from its growing database, which can be viewed on any player or computer. Google's Book Search project is an ambitious effort to digitalize some great research libraries, though there's no word how this will dovetail with the fee-based effort.

Google has many thousands of books for download, but unfortunately they are in the dreaded PDF format. The Sony can store and display PDFs, but reading a book in this format can be annoying because the printing isn't always crisp or black. There are photographs of the pages rather than a stream of text you can manipulate.

Whether the Sony or Kindle will become the iPod of book publishing is anybody's guess. But books may simply never have the mass appeal of downloadable music. One reason is that unlike music files, book users will never get a huge store of free, newer books on the Internet to jump-start things. And the copyright folks at the big book publishers are no doubt glad about this.

Despite the advances in book players, a killer application device doesn't exist -- one that can wirelessly download and display books, newspapers, magazines, Web sites and e-mail. The Kindle may come close to this ideal, but Amazon has delayed its introduction several times already, presumably to work out kinks in the technology.

The need for electronic reading devices is likely to grow as more people fret about the billions of tons of paper used for printed material and the vast energy that goes into its manufacturing and delivery.

Many believe the time will come when devices like the Sony reader are as common as printed newspapers and magazines are today.

But just try using an electronic reader as a quick child booster seat at the kitchen table, or thumping one to make a point during a heated argument.

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