Devices turn the page on how we read

Devices turn the page on how we read

The Pocket eBook is slightly larger than a paperback and is easy to read in most lighting.

Two view-only products offer clear text and some useful features but don't quite qualify as classics

By Thomas R. Temin

GCN Staff

Not even a die-hard computernik likes to curl up in bed with hardware. But two companies want you to do just that. They produce what are essentially read-only devices in booklike form.

SoftBook Press Inc. and NuvoMedia Inc. initially targeted the consumer market. Now both are actively touting their products to government and business. The two companies say they believe, correctly in my opinion, that specialized computers optimized for downloading and displaying text could be useful for carrying around documents such as the Federal Acquisition Regulation, aircraft documentation'you name it.

As computer hardware, SoftBook Press's SoftBook and NuvoMedia's Rocket eBook have elegant but flawed designs that do a couple of things really well. They also each have software to translate your documents into a proprietary format for distribution to other electronic book users. Don't confuse either product with a notebook computer or an oversized personal organizer.

Because both companies are marketing to government, the GCN Lab decided to check out their electronic books. I lived with each for several days.

When I brought home the SoftBook for a long weekend, friends and neighbors who held it were generally awed and didn't want to give it back. The tablet measures an inch thick at the left-hand edge, tapering to a half-inch thick at the right. It comes fitted with a thick leather flap that protects its vertical, monochrome LCD.

With the flap closed, you carry the SoftBook around like, well, a book. The wide spine rests comfortably in your hand. Flipping the flap back automatically turns on the unit by opening a tiny magnetic switch, unless you've turned it off manually using a software control on the touch-sensitive screen.

At the controls

Controls are as minimal as on a Palm computer from 3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif. Three flush tabs along the top activate the menu, close the book and display its cover page, and return you to the main menu showing what is loaded on the SoftBook. A long, two-way rocker switch along the right edge turns pages back and forth. Two tiny thumbwheels control screen brightness and contrast. Each page displays as in a book, with no scrolling.

The SoftBook has a stylus that tucks neatly into a hole in the bottom. You use the stylus to jump rapidly to a particular page or to navigate to selected words or phrases. For example, if you're in the middle of a book and want to find the first use of a name, SoftBook's software lets you do so with a couple of taps on the screen.

The SoftBook, top, holds fewer pages and weighs and costs more than the eBook, but its search action is better.

Also included is handwriting capture software you can use to annotate anywhere on the page. You can save the annotations'a useful bow to the reality of how books are often used.

My test unit contained several books, including Bill Gates' most recent tome, the dull Business @ the Speed of Thought.

The SoftBook has one of the best displays I've ever seen'bright and sharp with even illumination corner to corner. It is highly directional, though, so two people can't comfortably view the same document.

Moreover, its reflective surface can be tricky in bright ambient light or under fluorescent lights. I found the serif text font easy on the eyes for extended reading. You can choose from two type sizes. I found the larger, which was around 14 points, easier to read.

My main complaint about SoftBook is its weight. At 3 pounds, 1.2 ounces, it's heavier, by 8 ounces, than my copy of David Herbert Donald's 714-page biography of Abraham Lincoln. Holding it for long periods is tiring. Much of the weight comes from the lithium-ion battery that powers the SoftBook for nearly five hours, longer than for most notebook computers.

SoftBook is also rather large, but whether it is too big is a matter of taste. Its display type is larger than that of the Rocket eBook, and it stores 1,500 pages in its standard 2M of memory. With optional flash memory expansion cards, you can store up to 50,000 pages.

If SoftBook is equivalent in size and weight to a hardcover book, the 22-ounce Rocket eBook is the paperback equivalent. Shipped in a thick leather case, Rocket eBook measures 7.75 inches by 4.75 inches. Its grip edge is 1.5 inches thick, tapering to about 0.75 inches. The viewing area measures 3 inches by 4.25 inches and is surrounded by a narrow frame with navigation icons that you tap, like SoftBook's, with a built-in stylus.

NuvoMedia says the eBook can store 4,000 pages of text.

Like SoftBook, eBook lets you select one of two type sizes. I preferred the larger, which is somewhat bigger than the type in most paperbacks.

Although it's as sharp as SoftBook's, eBook's screen has less contrast even in backlit mode. You can switch off the backlighting to double battery life to a claimed 40 hours, but that makes lengthy text as difficult to read as on a Palm handheld.

SoftBook's thick leather flap protects its vertical screen while not in use and makes it bulkier.

You navigate eBook page by page using two thumb-activated buttons. Despite its dimmer screen, I preferred eBook's form because the page-turn buttons are on the thick end'the one you hold it with. SoftBook's page bar is on the right, but you hold it with your left hand, making it a less convenient, two-handed device.

Ebook lacks any other mechanical controls except for the power switch, which also lets you toggle the backlighting on and off. All other controls are via the stylus.

One nifty feature of the Rocket eBook is that, with a couple of bangs of the stylus, you can flip the type around for right-handed control. The navigation icons are designed to be read upside down, as it were.

Being left-handed, I appreciated this feature. A company spokesman said one of the machine's designers is left-handed and insisted on it. Readers can operate eBook with their off hand, leaving their more dexterous hand for writing, eating or operating machinery.

For that matter, you can display eBook's text horizontally with the controls at the top or, for convenient reading with the device in its cradle or resting on a surface, at the bottom.

Specific move

One eBook drawback concerns navigation. Whereas Softbook assigns a page number to each screen, eBook's stylus-activated slider bar only lets you move to a specific percentage, from beginning to end of the text.

A better way to navigate both devices is to annotate text you might want to return to and then search for the annotation, or simply use keyword search. Both units' software includes a pop-up keyboard where you can tap out the word or phrase to which you want to bounce.

SoftBook lets you to go to the just-previous instance of the chosen word or to its first occurrence.

One annoying eBook characteristic was the insensitive touch-screen. I had to tap so hard with the stylus that it was difficult to choose the letters precisely and I was afraid of cracking the glass. That eliminated using its software keyboard.

In contrast, SoftBook's screen was highly sensitive and, because the unit is twice as big as eBook's, tapping out a phrase was easy and sure. Company representatives said the eBook's problem may have been specific to my test unit.

Downloading books into eBook requires an Internet-connected PC. EBook comes with a cradle to connect to a serial port; a Universal Serial Bus version is available for Apple Macintosh users. SoftBook Press operates a Web site for downloading published books. You connect the built-in SoftBook modem to a phone line, and it automatically connects you to the Web site where you navigate on SoftBook's own screen. Downloading the collected presidential inaugural addresses took about 10 minutes.

But what about publishing your agency's own material?

Unlike computers, electronic books don't simply store files that you can read. To build a book for display, you must first convert the document text to clean Hypertext Markup Language and transform any images to JPEG, GIF or BMP files. You then use software supplied with each reader to convert and, optionally, compress and encrypt documents to prepare them for downloading. Encryption is machine-specific, meaning the files can be read only by the specific machines you want. An authorized user of an encrypted document cannot share it with an unauthorized user.

I didn't test the bookmaking software, dubbed RocketLibrarian for the eBook and BookMill for the SoftBook. But there is an important difference: With the SoftBook system, once you create a book you must upload it to the SoftBook Press Web site for downloading to readers. This shows its consumer orientation. Each owner has a reserved space on SoftBook's server to store books larger than the device capacity.

With RocketLibrarian, you can publish right from your PC and, shortly, your Mac, or from your organization's Web site.

A spokesman said a forthcoming version of RocketLibrarian will convert Microsoft Word files to eBook format, but for now you must save any Word documents as HTML.

Ironically, the electronic book format will probably be more useful as a data distribution and reading device than as a consumer-oriented bookholder. A whole summer's reading could fit into either model I tested, but both are expensive and lack book features that the online frenzy tends to ignore. The spatial orientation of paper makes the spine-bound book one of the greatest user interfaces of all time.

On board a Navy ship, an electronic book could display engineering or operational documentation or inventory data, replacing crash-prone PCs or difficult-to-read handheld devices. Any agency could benefit by distributing regulations, codes, procedures or training materials this way.

Read closely

Precisely because they are download-and-read devices, electronic books would lose out to infrared or bar code read-and-write computers in, say, a logistics or medical dispensing environment where inventory information constantly changes and frequent synchronizing between handheld device and server is needed. And, they couldn't handle data entry or field updates. Moreover, the process of converting documents to proprietary electronic book formats'incompatible with one another, by the way'is time-consuming and would likely be contracted out.

Both SoftBook and Rocket eBook are definitely Version 1.0 in hardware as well as software, but they show tremendous potential to fill a gap between full-fledged computers and palm devices. I wish I could meld the best of each into a single machine. Although I prefer SoftBook's more refined interface, navigation tools and slightly better readability, I give the overall nod to Rocket eBook for its compactness, better ergonomics and value.

Download books or create your own for these two electronic readers
Rocket eBook
NuvoMedia Inc.
Palo Alto, Calif.
SoftBook Press Inc.
Menlo Park, Calif.
Dimensions7.75 by 4.75 by 1.5 inches;
3- by 4.25-inch monochrome display
8.5 by 11 by 1 inches;
8- by 6-inch monochrome display
Weight1 pound, 6 ounces3 pounds, 1 ounce
Capacity4,000 pages1,500 pages
Pros' Versatile form factor
' Crisp text display
' Large, bright screen with crisp text display
' Excellent text navigation
Cons' Screen somewhat dim
' Text navigation limited
' Considerable bulk and weight
' Requires vendor's Web site for publishing documents
Real-life requirementsAny Windows operating system or Mac OS 8.5 for document conversion software; Intel or compatible processor or Power Mac; open nine-pin or Mac serial port or USB port; 16M of RAMWindows 9x, NT 4.0 or Mac OS 7.5 or later version for document conversion software; 166-MHz Pentium or equivalent or Power Mac; 32M of RAM for PC or 18M of RAM for Mac

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