An Inside Look at the Leading E-Book Readers in Action

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The Players

I started by deciding I’d pit the Sony PRS-505 and a Bookeen Cybook Gen 3 against Amazon’s Kindle. I picked these three readers because they are all priced about the same, between $300 and $400. All use the same deeply impressive e-ink technology, which creates a glare-free image that is as clear as paper. Millions of small microcapsules laminated to a sheet placed over a circuit board flip to show either gray or black when they get either a positive or negative charge. The page "prints" and stays that way, until the next small electrical jolt.

Amazon’s reader was the only one of the three that could connect wirelessly to Amazon’s bookstore and the internet. I wasn’t all that impressed when I first heard that. After all, how much time would I spend shopping, rather than reading? The utter convenience of the reader would sink in later. Did I really want to have to shift back and forth between computer and reader?

Sony’s $299 entry is slim and ultra-modern, with a sleek metallic case holding the fantastic e-ink screen. It is very pretty. However, the buttons were an issue for me. There are two little "half moons" on the far right side: one for forward, one for back. There is also a circle on the left that you can push left or right. The half moons felt a little sharp after several chapters.

Yet beyond ergonomics, it was the Sony bookstore—the only place you can buy copyrighted material for the Sony reader, which you then download to the device through a USB cable—that I truly disliked. It just doesn’t feel like Barnes & Noble, Borders, or Amazon, where I end up buying most of my books these days.

I also think I may have broken the reader while doing what people do when they read in a comfy chair at night. I fell asleep reading—not on purpose—but not such a surprise either. The top metal edging was a little warped the next day and the power button never slid back and forth again. Sony swapped out the unit right away, but for the next few weeks, the reader took it’s place on one of my dusty bookshelves.

My first experience with the Cybook was not with the device but one of its creators—Laurent Picard, with whom I love talking. With his partner Michael Dahan, he started the Paris-based Bookeen nearly 10 years ago. Indeed, their first Cybook was introduced around the time of the Franklin Rocket eBook, both heavy LCD readers with batteries that lasted about 4 hours; the
current crop lets you read for days or even a week on one charge.

Those early days of e-readers were exciting. Then, most books cost more electronically than they did on paper. I was curious at the time, but on deadline for my first book, I never found the time to actually get my hands on a reader. Still, a tiny community of fans cropped up even then, meeting at, to discuss the latest technology. Many of them began to read on their palm pilots and BlackBerries.

Form and Function

That group of e-book veterans has rallied behind Cybook Gen 3, the first e-ink entry by Bookeen. It is currently out of stock, and no wonder. Picard and Dahan are the only folks marketing a reader that will accept all current forms of nonproprietary copyrighted material. Sony readers can read only copy-protected material bought from the Sony bookstore, and that material cannot be transferred to another brand. Amazon has set up similar limits.

The Cybook is also the only one of the three readers available internationally. Picard himself is open and excited and just seems so pleased to see the ebook market finally getting some real attention, despite the fact that his company is dwarfed by its competition. "We are setting ourselves up as a challenger," Picard says, an understatement delivered in a lovely French accent.

A basic Cybook costs $350, though for $450 you can have the deluxe version with leather case, charger, spare battery, and SD card. I like the Cybook, although it also suffers from slightly uncomfortable page-turn buttons. In the near future, Bookeen intends to give users the option, with a software update, to use a small navigation square to turn pages instead. The Bookeen folks are also working on a software upgrade that will allow users to search book contents. A "look-up" function using international dictionaries is already available.

Last to arrive at our home was Amazon’s Kindle. I had plenty of time to read the reviews before it arrived; the popular opinion has been that Amazon’s team desperately needs design lessons from Apple or even Sony. The Amazon site itself is littered with one-star "reviews" from Kindle refuseniks protesting its original $399 price, the fact that Kindle was not anything like the iPod Touch, and that Kindle books could only be read on a Kindle and could not be later sold as "used."

Also while waiting for my review copy, I shamelessly asked Ian Freed, VP of Kindle at Amazon, why they’d made the thing white and why they hadn’t (yet) adjusted the cost down from $399? He was patient, but it was clear he’d been asked the same questions over and over. According to Freed, Kindle was meant to become as unobtrusive as a book, and the company believes that $399 isn’t that expensive considering Amazon supplies free Sprint cell phone access to the Kindle store and, for now at least, to the web. (Interestingly, the price dropped to $359 in May.)

When I finally got my hands on the Kindle, it looked a little better than I expected, although it was indeed white, all plastic—except for that famous e-ink screen—and had huge page-turn buttons running up both sides of the device.

Then it performed its best magic trick. It melted away when I was reading. At 10.3 oz., it was 2 oz. heavier than the Sony and the Cybook, but it fit in my hands in such a way that, given the choice of three readers on any given evening, I kept reaching for the Kindle. I also loved that I could search books, save clippings, and make notes.

When I began this piece, I thought the cell phone connection to the Amazon store would be only moderately interesting to me—that I’d still do most of my shopping on the computer. Well, that was before I subscribed to The New York Times and always had my digital newspaper with me. That and a bookstore’s worth of books—just by turning on my Kindle. The ability to download almost anything in moments has made me a minor celebrity on Sundays among the other parents waiting for their kids to finish gymnastics class.

I have to admit, I now regard the Kindle as beautiful, just as it is—all chunky white plastic and great big buttons. You don’t have to look or think to turn a page—a quick thumb flick and the page turns. In fact, it is my fondest wish that Amazon banish any thoughts of trying to ever make a Kindle that is sleeker or ultra modern. It just fits—it fits the act of reading, and it fits in my hand. It feels like a book, only better.

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