Sunday, September 26, 2010

HARDWARE: My eReader Pick ... Or Should I Say Picks?

As detailed earlier this year, I had my hands on both a Sony Reader 300 and a first-edition Kobo with version 1.0 systems software. I found both wanting. Lately, I've been giving a version 1.4 Kobo Reader an extended trial. I guess it's been about a month since my trusty Sony Clie PDA, my eReader of choice for most of the past decade, has seen the cathode ray tube light of day.

The Clie has some advantages I find VERY IMPORTANT. It's instant on/off, always remembering where I am. The fonts are easy to resize and pick from a variety of alternatives. There's NO time between 'pages,' with each page change being an eye-blink, if that. I can hold the Clie in either hand and move both forward and backward, using any of the SIX different mechanisms for doing so. And I rarely hit back when I mean forward. And vice-versa. I can search through the book for specific words and I have an on-board dictionary for when I want that. I can read in the brightness of day and easily at night when I opt for Yellow Text on a Black Background. Heck, the Clie even has an itty-bitty little VGA-quality camera.

So, why the heck have I spent too many hours this year researching new readers? Well, the Clie screen is small. In fact, it arguably only shows about two paragraphs at a time, give or take a paragraph or two. It's more like ONE of MY paragraphs, but it can be five or six if it's a bunch of short dialog type paragraphs. But you get the idea. Still, I could live with it, except for one MAJOR issue. Battery life. The Clie, long out of production, is now on its third battery, with the fourth (and inevitably the last one) already bought and ready to be installed. Despite being less than a year old, the battery gives me no more than six hours of life.

Now, in some ways, that's actually good. It stops me from turning a good book into a full-day escape from the kind of work I need to do to PAY for my reading habit. But I tell you, it gets old doing everything and anything to slow down the inexorable draining of the latest charge. And then it takes TOO long to charge, 2-3 hours. If you are in the middle of an exciting passage in the book and get a "Battery too low. Please Recharge Now" message, it can be a real bummer. Angst-producing, if you know what I mean. And yes, I can read while re-charging (I have a separate cable, thus allowing me to read and recharge at the same time), but it's just that you are taken out of the moment.

There's also the increasing difficulty finding books in the PDB and PRC format to buy. It's an old format that doesn't allow much in the way of graphics and such. That limitation aside, I've read a LOT of books on my Clie's (and Handspring Visor before them). I figure I'm passed 200 books on eReaders, about a third of my reading list for the last decade.

The actual impetus to get me going on The Search For the Replacement, was a need to get my mother an eReader. The Sony didn't pass muster for her, but was a perfect present for Dawna, Patrick's wife. I didn't think the Kobo was going to work either, especially when the first one I got her crashed and had to be replaced. But I was wrong and she has been thoroughly delighted with her Kobo, working through The Sisterhood books by Fern Michaels.

So, I took a second look at the 6-inch screen Kobo. It was going to end up as a Christmas present for one of the extended flock, so I wanted to figure out the warts and all that, before giving it over. It turns out that the newest firmware on the Kobo has made it a much better reader. I like it a lot.

The Kobo, besides being the most Canadian of the choices, the most available here and mostly the least expensive, has a lot going for it. It's really light-weight. Has this great non-slip backing that should be industry standard (It would, however, drive the GelSkin business OUT of business. And that would be bad). You can read the screen forever without eye strain and the battery on THIS unit is lasting easily into the second week with nary a recharge. And that's with pretty decent use. You are supposed to get somewhere around 8000 'page' turns per recharge. That's 'page' turns, not page turns. You can't quite get a full-page on the screen, even with the smallest type. I guess the smallest ends up being about three-quarters, maybe 80 percent of an actual paperback page. I've spent MOST of my reading at the second smallest size when wearing reading glasses, which is about a half-page. I also have used the second-biggest setting when not wearing reading glasses successfully. That's maybe a third of the page, maybe a quarter. So, on the first weekend, I read about 1000 pages spread over four books. That translated, probably, into about 2000 'page' turns. And not a single whimper from the Kobo power supply. There is external card storage and you can move books to and fro through a USB cable. I threw 80 books from my Calibre library into main memory with very little in the way of issues. Things are a little slow on my machine when interfacing (I use XP). But on Mother's Kobo, which is a Win7 laptop, it's VERY quick. Granted she's got a thousand or two fewer books in her Calibre and most of her's are romance pamphlets, but it is very easy. And did I mention Quick?

Just a reminder. Calibre is simply the world's best software if you are an eReader user. Kobo does come with its own desktop software, which is handy for updating the firmware and buying books. But otherwise, it's unusable. On the other hand, it's not iTunes, which is a blight on all Windows computers at the best of times. And who wants Steve Jobs making all content choices for you? Not interested in Jobs, iTunes and, by extension, an iPad. But I've said all of that before.

For a dead-ahead reader and book corrolary, the Kobo does the job at a pretty good price (It's now $130 bucks, down $20 or so from release. It WILL be $99 come Christmas in what should be a VERY competitive market then).

But I won't be buying a Kobo for my own personal use. There ARE downsides to the Little Reader that Could. It's ridiculously slow on start up and is borderline too slow on page turns. All eInk eReaders have that same failing in page turning. Veteran users (you will become one inside of 20 pages), learning to press the next button while just starting the final line of text on the page you are reading. The decision to remove the book cover for a less graphic intensive message during the upgrade to version 1.4 firmware was a mistake. It took away one of the neat features of eReaders. In fact, eInk readers only consume energy when CHANGING pages. Leaving a page (or a message) on the screen takes hardly any energy whatsoever. (I use to believe it took none, but I've come to think otherwise lately).

There is no searching capability and the GOTO page function is missing entirely. If you have a properly formatted book, you can get close using Chapter selection and go from there. But some files, such as PDF documents of saved web-pages, don't HAVE chapters. If you have to go through the pages one press of the D-Pad controller at a time, then make the type as small as possible to get as much on the screen as possible. Then do your Guitar Hero thing and MASH that button, trying to get as many pages into each refresh as possible. Dictionary? Not so much. Not at all, in fact. There's also no viewing in the dark, which isn't as important now, when the friendly warm glow of a lamp is at least as important for the warm part as for the glow part. But come the start of air conditioning season, BEFORE turning on the air conditioning, the ability to read in the dark without any warmth pollution coming from the lamp right beside your noggin is a wonderful thing. The lack of being able to see the series info and the description beyond title and author also grates. I work hard to input those things in from

I guess my last nit with the Kobo is that it's just barely a one-handed device, thanks to a bizarre design decision or three. First, the D-Pad is located far right at the bottom. You CAN hold it up right-handed and click forward easy enough. It can't be done for long stretches, but it's doable. The only way to do it with a left hand is to hold the Kobo like it was a frisbee, with your left thumb and forefinger clutching it by that same lower right-hand corner and using the knuckle of the thumb to click foward. WHY didn't the designers just put the D-Pad in the MIDDLE? There, it would be easy accessible to the thumb of either hand holding the device. It's light enough for one-handed use, just not designed for it.

THEN, there are the four buttons along the left-hand side that are on the edge. Amongst them is a BACK button. Hunh? You mean like the BACK (aka LEFT) button on the D-Pad. Useless, but just about the right spot if they wanted to have a left-handed forward button. There are three othere buttons that could ALL be combined into one menu button, with the easy to use D-Pad (left-right, up-down, central decision button). But oddly enough, the 3-D thinking ONLY extended to the D-Pad. ALL the menus are single columns, except in the options. It's really quite confusingly simplistic. And ohhh, what I could have done with those extra buttons!

So, for MANY people, I think the Kobo is a reasonable choice, economical, Canadian, very well supported by the Chapters/Indigo folk and it mimics the reading experience on a paperback really, really well.

Me, I'm aware that all of my requirements, which include web-browsing, 10-inch size, non-glare screens and some sort of third-party screen overlays that will protect me from my own fingerprints means I will NOT be able to get all of that in one machine. Tablets will have battery and backlighting issues. Readers will have lack of Android Store issues, as well as the size issue.

So, I will be giving the new Kindle3 are very serious look while wondering if the KindleDX might be the right choice. I'd say no, because I intend to pair the Kindle3 with an Android tablet. Won't probably happen until the New Year. Samsung has got a LOT of people excited, but it's launching at the 7-inch size and when I finally get a tablet, I want it showing magazines regular-sized, not two-thirds size. My eyes are bad enough as it is. There is a rush TO the 7-inch form factor (mostly because Android 2.2 and earlier REALLY don't scale UP at ALL well) and even Apple is reputed to be headed there. I think they can keep all of them. Not interested. The Kindle3 will fill THAT nitch closely enough for me. What I will need is the bigger machine for the bigger jobs.

That will include web-browsing and giving me a third visual option when I've got two games on and an interest in a third (March Madness, for example). It'll be easy enough to set up on my ever-present reading easel on the kitchen table and will let me browse the web while eating. It'll be a good way to combine the time I spend around lunch-hour during my daily waltz through the web. That normally takes about 90-120 minutes, time I could better serve by eating through it. And by the way, the screen overlays will come in handy there. I need the bigger screen for quick lookup of documentation. I can have all kinds of manuals available quickly. I KNOW I can have them open in windows on screen too, but they are not quite full-sized there.

When I go out (an increasingly rarer scenario), I will be taking the Kindle3 with me. Unless I will be working for a day (or longer, it's happened) on-site somewhere. Then I might have both or go with the tablet. I might also be dragging the Win7 laptop around with me too. But I DO expect the Android-based tablet WILL be part of my two-pronged approach to solving my eReader problem. I don't know WHICH tablet it will be or how soon in 2011 I will be getting it. But I do know that the best of both worlds means having TWO different eReaders.

The right tool for the right job. And all that.