E Book Readers: Easier On The Eyes

Once merely interesting gadgets, they are maturing into useful products

On a recent trip from New York to Washington, I settled into my seat on a packed train to discover that my reading light didn't work. Normally, I would have been peeved, but instead of my usual paperback I was carrying the latest Ken Follett potboiler on a new RCA REB-1200 from Thomson Multimedia (www.rca.com). With its bright, backlit display, I read all the way home, untroubled by the gloom.

Built-in lighting may not be reason enough to spend $699 on a gadget, but it's a nice benefit. More important, these electronic-book readers, once merely interesting gimmicks, are maturing into useful products, though I still see a serious problem with the cost of e-books and with the selection of what's available. The newest readers are the result of Gemstar-TV Guide International's acquisition last year of SoftBook Press and NuvoMedia. Gemstar worked out a deal with Thomson to handle manufacturing and marketing under the RCA brand. The color REB-1200 is the successor to the SoftBook Reader, while the smaller, monochrome REB-1100 replaces NuvoMedia's Rocket eBook.

The two readers work in much the same way. You download books directly from Gemstar using a dial-up modem (or direct Ethernet connection with the 1200). Storage for some 8,000 text-only pages is built in, with expansion available through flash-memory cards. A simple rocker switch flips pages back and forth, and a scroll bar moves you quickly through the book. Using the stylus, you can search for text, highlight it, or add handwritten notes.

SECURITY. I prefer the 1200, both for its larger screen and color display, which provides a brighter, higher-contrast image even if a book is all or mostly text. The published battery life for the 1200 is just five hours; I beat that by turning the screen backlight down. Also, it uses removable batteries, so you can always carry a spare. But the $400 premium over the 1100 is steep.

Good e-book software for PCs is available for free download from Adobe (bookstore.glassbook.com) and Microsoft (www.microsoft.com/reader/), both of which provide better text display than the RCA products.

So why buy a dedicated reader? The big reasons are ergonomic: You can hold it like a book and take it anywhere since it fits in a briefcase as easily as a paperback. Battery life is good, especially with the 1100, and the dedicated readers don't get uncomfortably hot to hold the way laptops do.

Dedicated hardware also offers publishers greater protection against unauthorized duplication than PC-based readers. Although you can retrieve a book you have paid for as often as you want, you can only download it to the same reader used for the original purchase, and the contents are encrypted using software hard-wired into the device.

Why should consumers care about security? Mainly, to encourage publishers to make e-books widely available. While the music industry continues to resist e-distribution, publishers (including The McGraw-Hill Companies, BusinessWeek's parent) view it as inevitable. But they remain wary about the risk of profligate copying.

Availability of titles remains the biggest challenge to the e-book business. Gemstar's online bookstore lists thousands of titles, but most are older, including many classics in the public domain; Jack London is particularly well-represented. Of the 15 titles on The New York Times best-seller list on Dec. 31, only 5 were available from Gemstar's online bookstore, at prices averaging 7% more than Amazon.com charges before shipping. You also can subscribe to several e-magazines, including Time and Newsweek; information services, such as Dow Jones; and such features as book reviews from The New York Times.

The new e-books represent a big advance in usability, although in good light I still prefer the feel of an old-fashioned paper book. E-books most likely will come into their own for reference materials, especially those that are frequently updated. And the big-money payoff of e-publishing is likely to be textbooks. Still, the hardware has gotten good enough that electronic readers deserve space on the bookshelf.