I’ve been an avid ebook reader ever since I bought my first Palm PDA in 2001. Hundreds of e-books have passed by on those tiny screens. It has become a daily ritual to read in bed, right before going to sleep. Since my current Palm T3 is getting a bit old, I’ve been looking at dedicated reading devices. The past few weeks I’ve tried a number of them in shops. I’ve also been lurking on sites like TeleRead and popular forums such as MobileRead. To my dismay, I am not at all happy with the products that are available right now. Here is a short summary of the 5 things that I think are wrong with the current generation of e-readers.
1. Usage restrictions
Since I stuck to my Palm computers for almost 10 years, you’ll understand that longevity is important to me. What I buy should remain useful for as long as possible. It is unavoidable that any e-reader bought today is technically outdated in a year’s time. The e-books, however, should last a lifetime. All of my current books are in the DRM’ed pdb format. If the need arises, there are hacks out there to crack that protection scheme so that the converted files can be read on other devices. As far as I know the local legislation allows me to do this.
Struggling with usage restrictions is a hassle that, if possible, I want to avoid any future purchases. This automatically rules out the Amazon Kindle as my next e-reader. Its DRM protection limits you to reading purchased books on either a Kindle or the Kindle reader software. That is just too limiting: only DRM-free ePub files seem to offer a reasonable guarantee of being usable for many years to come on many different devices. Aside from that, ordering a Kindle in Europe is a hassle and due to geographic restrictions, their range of available books isn’t that great either.
2. Cheap hardware
The COOL-ER eReader is one of the first devices I got my hands on. It is a very light device, but it felt incredibly flimsy. The casing creaked and the bottom half didn’t seem to fit together perfectly. Its buttons were difficult to press. I cannot see this device lasting more than one or two years. The iRiver Story felt much better, but its navigation buttons are positioned too low, making it awkward to hold the e-reader. I also don’t think bright white is a good color for such a device. Dirt is too easily visible and the plastic will gradually get a yellowish cast, similar to that of old Macs. None of the devices I tried stood out as being particularly sturdy. My Palms and iPods have all survived accidental drops thanks to their solid construction. I expect the same from an e-reader.
In general, I have yet to see an e-reader that matches the industrial design and care to detail of Apple or Palm devices. Maybe the Sony Readers will convince me, but I haven’t yet laid my hands on them. It is also amazing that many e-readers, such as the BeBook Neo, don’t ship with a solid case or only include a flimsy sleeve.
3. Bad typography
In Dutch ‘ij’ is a very common letter pair. Imagine my surprise when the Cybook Opus e-reader displayed those two glyphs too close together, making the characters stand out in the text like little islands. The Barnes & Noble Nook isn’t available in Europe yet. I watched a video review of it and was surprised by the clumsy way in which it handles justified text. There were huge empty spaces in the running text. The default font on the iRiver is too thin, making the stems look ragged. I’ve tried changing fonts on it as well as on the Bebook Mini and the Opus. Either it wasn’t possible for all ebook formats or the range of fonts was way too limited. I also noticed some glitches in hyphenation. The IREX devices seem to offer decent control over margins, but many others don’t. I actually like a small empty border around text. It is disappointing that typography should be a non-issue but it clearly isn’t.
4. Blinking screens
Up to now I’ve only looked at ebook readers with an e-ink display. The quality of the screens is really nice, even though the contrast isn’t as high as that of paper and ink. Reading off such a screen is, however, a joy and much better than looking at a TFT LCD screen. What I dislike is the blinking of such screens when you go from one page to another. Apparently this inverting is a limitation of the way electrophoretic e-paper displays work. Most people seem to get used to the effect and don’t notice it anymore after a few days. There are however users who keep being annoyed by it. I don’t know into which category I fall. Buying at a place like FNAC which has a 14-day no questions asked return policy might be the best solution to avoid surprises.
5. Clumsy software
One thing I like about reading on my Palm is the easy access to dictionaries. Most of my books are English. Since that isn’t my mother tongue, having a dictionary at hand is incredibly useful. Unfortunately insisting on a built-in dictionary immediately rules out 70% of all the devices that are currently available. It is a pity that I haven’t had the opportunity yet to try the Sony PRS-600 Touch Edition (pictured below), which comes with a built-in English dictionary. Unfortunately not all users are happy with the Sony’s low-contrast screen, so I’d never buy that device without the possibility of first playing around with it. Since I can read 4 languages, having multiple dictionaries would be even better. None of the devices on the market seems to offer this yet.
I have an extensive library of PDF documents, mainly manuals and magazines. Most cheaper ebook readers can’t handle PDF properly: their screens are too small, they are too slow and they cannot handle complex documents. Apparently no device is capable yet of storing and handling my 30+ GB of PDF data. It would be nice if an ebook reader could be used as an actual library for books, magazines and manuals, with proper viewing and searching capabilities. That would justify a higher price tag, but even the 499 euro IREX Digital Reader 800S is restricted to being an e-reader, not an e-library.
I would expect that a device geared towards reading books would allow me to sort books using a wide range of parameters such as read/unread, fiction/non-fiction, type of fiction, author,… Many of these options don’t exist on the current crop of ereaders. The ebooks themselves are partly to blame, since publishers don’t seem to be able to come up with a proper and universal set of metadata. The ereaders themselves however also have fairly limited options for tweaking a system to your own needs. Too many of them have this ‘1.0’ feeling to them. Fortunately tools like Calibre, an application that aims to be the iTunes for ebooks, can enhance the limited capabilities of many ereaders.
If all you need is a device for reading one page after another of a single book, I am sure the current ebook readers meet that need. Unfortunately I expect a device to be able to offer a substantial improvement over something that was invented almost 600 years ago. As it looks right now, ereaders haven’t gotten that far yet. I’ll stick to my Palm until it falls apart or replace it by either a large smartphone or a small Android tablet. Hopefully in a few years time there will be ereaders that combine a solid and practical hardware design with sensible software. Maybe the Apple iPad, combined with one or two 3rd party ereader applications, will be the best choice. If the lack of an e-ink display turns out to be its only ereading limitation, it may be preferable to other devices that are crippled in so many other ways.
[UPDATE 5 JUNE 2015] A year after writing this article, I did get to see the Sony PRS-T1 in the flesh and bought the device. Overall I like it but it does get used far more during the summer time than during winter. The low contrast screen is indeed a limitation.
[UPDATE 25 JULY 2016] I am still happy with my little Sony and have meanwhile read thousands of pages on the devices. That doesn’t stop me from secretly glancing at a Kobo Glo HD with its higher resolution frontlit screen.