A Step Closer to Good Electronic Books

I got to play with a Sony PRS-505 digital reader at a bookstore today. Basically, it’s an electronic device about the size of a slim paperback, with a big screen on which to read electronic books. According to the signs, it allows you to read plain text (it found a README file on the SD card I stuck in it), PDF files, and whatever proprietary DRM-hobbled format Sony’s pushing this year.

I think I could stick it in my back pocket like a paperback, but at $300, I wouldn’t want to accidentally sit on it.

The most impressive thing about it, in my opinion, is the screen. It was hard to judge with uniform neon lights, but as far as I could tell, the screen was reflective, like paper; not light-emitting, like cell phone and PDA screens. If you’ve ever struggled to read a PDA screen in bright sunlight, and like reading at the beach, you’ll appreciate the difference. The screen is also nice and crisp, with good resolution. It’s not quite like reading a book, but it’s up beyond 8-pin-printer and into cheap-ass laser printer quality. In fact, for a moment I was fooled into thinking that instead of a working model, they’d displayed a mock-up with a printed sheet of paper to show what the display would look like.

The device doesn’t have a touch screen, but there’s a row of ten buttons down the side to allow you to quickly select one of ten menu items. There are also buttons in different locations that allow you to turn pages, depending on how you want to hold the book.

Either the controls or the display seemed sluggish, though. This may be a limitation of the technology used for the display.

All in all, it seems a reasonable device that I could see myself using to actually read books. Even if I don’t want to shell out for proprietary-format books, Project Gutenberg still has a ton of good stuff, and there are lots of things on the web that are easily convertible to PDF. To say nothing of possibilities like uploading RSS feeds and whatnot.

Stepping back for a moment, though, this device (and others like it) seems to suffer from the same problem as MP3s: you can take the attitude that what matters in a book is the text, just as what matters in an album is the music. So you don’t need the physical book any more than you need the physical CD and booklet.

But books and albums are still, well, physical objects. Back in the days of LPs, album covers were often intricate works of art. CDs don’t give artists as much room to work with, but there’s still a lot that can be done to make the physical album an interesting object (like the Lego-textured jewel case for Very). Books often have cutouts in the cover, or fold-out pages (like the maps in the back of Lord of the Rings), or bleeds, or textured paper, and other elements that don’t lend translate well to bits. So while I concede that what matters is the content (and boy do I sometimes wish my O’Reilly bookshelf were greppable), sometimes it’s nice to hold a cool object.

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