Real books glow

A reader writes:

Seeing as you're both someone who knows his gadgets, and someone who enjoys a good read once in a while, I was wondering if you've ever considered those new-fangled e-book contraptions.

I've been considering getting one, as shelf space is always expensive, so I want to reserve that for books I'd want to re-read often, or just proudly display. Besides, the ability to carry a lot of books at less space/weight than the average paperback is quite interesting.

I live in the Netherlands, so I'd need something internationally available (which will probably go for you in Australia as well). However, since I read mostly English, something bound to a primarily English store like Amazon (Kindle) or B&N (Nook) isn't too much of a problem.

From what I've heard, the Kindle, even though it goes against my open-source instincts, is actually one of the best models for actual reading (as opposed to showing off your latest gadget).

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.


PS: If you recommend the iPad, I'm going to be very disappointed, as I always though you were immune to the Jobs-cult propaganda.

I don't actually have a really good answer for this one - though I will of course manage to sound off interminably anyway - but I bet some commenters will have ideas.

I'm pretty sure that one day, paper books will be rather quaint. But I'm not crazy about any of the current e-readers. Definitely not the iPad; if you need/want the various other things an iPad can do (including just delight you with its interface) then the e-reader function is just a bonus. But it's only got a normal LCD display with 1024 by 768 resolution, so if reading books is a primary interest for you, the iPad is nothing special.

A standard-geometry 1024 by 768 LCD with subpixel rendering is actually perfectly adequate for reading - maybe even a whole page at a time, depending on the text size. It's just not worth spending a lot of money on. You can of course do the same thing with any number of random laptops, including various ancient tablets and other oddball devices that let you fold the screen around. You could even use a netbook.

The downside of doing your reading on a relatively normal computer is that you can't use the online e-book stores that deliver DRM-encrusted books that can, generally, only be read on specially-blessed hardware like the dedicated readers.

Current dedicated readers
can all display at least a few kinds of non-DRMed content, and you can generally bludgeon one non-DRMed format into another so you can view it on Some Damn Reader that can display PDFs but not plain text, but it's all still quite a fractured and hideous format war; don't hold your breath for one reader that works with everybody's online store and can read everything else too, including DjVu and CBR.

If you're perfectly happy with the Amazon/B&N/whoever-else online stores (which, yes, may only be accessible in North America - what e-book stores are there, besides the Amazon one, that work outside the US and Canada?), plus whatever other formats your chosen reader deigns to support, then that's fine, of course. (Provided you don't end up with the bold new version of customer-service hell that prevents you from buying books.) While the online stores are still charging new-paper-book prices for e-books that you don't really even get to own, though, they don't interest me at all.

A buck a book, I and much of the rest of the world would be happy to pay. But Amazon clearly don't find this very exciting while they're still selling Kindles as fast as they can make them.

That said, the reason why I've chosen to ramble on about e-books despite not owning any kind of dedicated reader is that I have been doing a lot of reading on a screen instead of a page, lately. To the point that I have managed to do what I presume many others have - opened a paper book while lying in bed, turned off the light, and been surprised by the discovery that I can no longer read.

I do my reading on the World's Greatest Conversation-Starting Laptop, the ridiculously cute OLPC XO-1. Which is not actually a very useful general-purpose computing device (as the original owner of the one I've got discovered...), but which makes a pretty decent e-book reader, provided you don't want to read any DRMed books.

There are a lot of free-to-download books out there. Very few current authors let you download their stuff for free, but if you like ancient sci-fi, or any of the usually-considerably-more-ancient stuff at Project Gutenberg, or the Internet Archive's rather-more-peculiar-on-average text archive, then you'll have a full reading list for rather a while.

If you can get an OLPC laptop for the same price I did (I did pay for the postage!), then it's a good option for free-book reading. The standard Reader (PDFs, etc) and Write (actually a word processor, but fine for reading plain text) interfaces are a bit of a pain, but my main complaint about Reader is that there's no way to quickly set the zoom so that the text fills the width of the screen without wasting screen on blank margins, which isn't a big deal unless you're reading numerous short pieces and have to keep resetting it. The OLPC's screen (now being separately commercialised) is one of the best things about it - it's a TV-type hexagonal-subpixel-layout colour screen normally (effective resolution as little as 588 by 441, or as much as 984 by 738, depending on how you measure it), but if you turn the backlight down to zero it changes into a 200-dot-per-inch mono display that you can read in sunlight.

This isn't quite as awesome as it sounds, because the mono-mode colour scheme is the good old LCD almost-black-on-dark-green, not nice white e-paper. But it's still handy. I think e-paper readers have the reverse problem; they're great in good light, but nobody's yet found a way to make them light up properly.

Enough of this digression; about as many of you are likely to read books on an XO-1 as are likely to read them on an eMate. The important question is: What have I missed?

Who's got an e-reader they really love?

Is there software you can run on a normal laptop or netbook that lets you buy and read Kindle/Nook/Sony-Reader books?

Is there some shameless DRM-cracking $100 option from Hong Kong? (There already are a hatful of dodgy little reader doodads at the usual crapvendors, but I'm pretty sure they can't read any kind of DRMed file, and their screens look pretty terrible.)

Anybody buy books on paper and then download illicit PDFs?

Has someone started a kind-of-legal $10-a-month all-you-can-download e-book emporium yet?

Posted in Books. 32 Comments »

32 Responses to “Real books glow”

  1. tantryl Says:

    Haven't seen a subscription service for ebooks yet. Though I'd be very interested in one. Same with audiobooks - there are sites with those available but they limit you to x books per month... generally coming out at about $10+ per book any way.

    Like you, my main problem with e-books is the cost and the DRM that may mean your right to have it could dissolve at any time.

    Give it another 5 years. Maybe things'll improve for the consumer.

  2. TimJW Says:

    I just bought one of the new Kindles, despite considerable reticence about DRM, etc. I also objected to the price of books, although Amazon are doing a reasonable job (at least here in the UK) of making ebooks price competitive with paperbacks, or even cheaper.

    The mental hurdle I had to get over was that ebooks are worth as much as paper books - after all, the printing costs of paperbacks bear no resemblance to their selling cost either. As my paper library started to hit the limits of my accomodation, ebooks are actually worth more to me as I don't need to buy a bigger house to keep them all!

    DRM is a pain, but the Kindle DRM scheme (and, I believe, most of the competitors) is thoroughly broken, so it's pretty easy to strip off and guarantee future access to anything I buy. For cross platform conversion, I've been very impressed with Calibre, which is a kind of open source iTunes for books; it seems to convert almost any format into any other format cleanly and quickly.

    I was also pleasantly surprise by the new "pearl" eBook screen - it's certainly much more readable than the iPad, although the resolution isn't up to print standards yet.

  3. bondetamp Says:

    You can get kindle-reader software for several platforms (I got it on my PC and on my Android before I got the actual gadget) at

    They sync, so that if you read a bit on your cellphone then the next time you open that book on the Kindle (or on your PC) it asks if you want to jump forward to the furthest read page.

    I don't really mind the price if this can get more authors to publish books in the format. With the binding quality of most modern books, a paper book is no more a permanent purchase than an e-book. If you add in things like fire or flooding, e-books are rather more permanent.

  4. bmgoau Says:

    I own a Sony PRS-600, which is their current 6" touch screen reader. It's due to be replaced soon with a new line up for the holiday season. Sony's ereaders are solid units, read all formats except Amazons proprietary one, use standard USB cables, accept MMC and SD card memory and, like all e-ink based units, boast a battery life measured in weeks (or thousands of pages).

    That being said, there are weaknesses to Sony's ereaders. They are on average more expensive than competitors and the touch screen decreases contrast while dramatically increasing reflections. Overall however, I have been extremely happy and have been reading much more since I bought one.

    The most surprising positive aspect about owning an e-reader isn't the convenience of their size compared to a normal book, but the raw comfort. You don't need to hold a book open and you can read at almost any angle without straining your arms.

    If I was buying an ebook reader today it would have to be the newly released Kindle. They now support a sufficient number of formats to make concerns about DRM defunct, but overall their screen technology and functionality are ahead of the field. The Kindle is the iPod of the ebook world.

    As for ebook pricing and purchasing services, I wouldn't worry too much. The size of ebooks means you can literally download packages of 80,000 works from your favourite bittorrent website. Additionally there are sites like this that have tens of thousands of works accessible by http: They are, however, not strictly legal.

    Lastly, you should check out this blog post, which puts the iPad LCD and E-ink screen literally under the microscope:

    My final recommendation to anyone reading this is: If you read a lot, or want to read more, get one. And as of September 2010, get the Kindle. And don't stress over pricing and DRM, it's not an issue at all if you know where to go.

    P.S The best ebook library management and format conversion software is the conveniently free and open source Calibre:

  5. Fallingwater Says:

    I've been looking into buying an e-ink ebook reader myself, but I'm waiting for prices to go down before I pull the trigger.
    LCD-based ebook readers from DealExtreme don't look like a good idea. Aside from the unknown quality of the screens, all reports say they've got a fairly lousy battery life, and I wouldn't bet my life on them having a good interface.

    Mind you, I've never cared one tiny little bit about the various ebook shops, so I've done exactly zero research in the field of what formats are readable on which device. As far as I'm concerned, an ebook reader only has to read pdf and txt (and in a pinch just txt will do fine, seen how pdfs can be copypasted into editpad and saved as txt). Lit is nice but not a necessity.

    That said, I've found several half-decent solutions for reading ebooks on the go without splurging for an e-ink one.

    - An old grayscale PDA. The old Palm IIIx I used for reading isn't great, because the screen is fairly low-res; ideally, you'd want something like a Handera 330, with the higher-res widescreen display, but (as Dan says in his 10-buck-gadget piece) good luck finding one. By the way, grayscale for two reasons: 1) old second-hand PDAs are very cheap, and 2) grayscale screens eat a lot less power than colour ones, even when backlit.

    - A netbook. Not quite as portable, but then we're nerds, when do we NOT have our netbooks around with us? I have mine with me wherever I go. Not as useful if you're a dynamic reader who reads what he can in short slices of time (a few pages during the bus ride, a few during lunch break...)... but me, I can't read like that at all - I need to read for a while, or I get distracted. So my reading is almost all indoors, and so my netbook suffices.

    - A picture frame. Some even have built-in .txt readers, but most don't - you need something like Zune Ebook Creator to jpg-ify the text files. Note that you can't really use the cheapest, nastiest frames for this, because they lack any sort of file manager, which prevents you from quickly getting to a specific part in a book. It's a pity, seen how many of them, given as unwanted presents to nerds from unenlightened relatives, would have instantly become a lot more useful; but if someone's given you a slightly spiffier brand-name one with a file manager, you might now have a reason to keep it around and not have to take it out of the "useless tech junk" box whenever the relative in question comes to visit. Also note that almost all of them have no batteries; a truly dedicated hardware hacker can hack up a pack and run them off of that, but it's hardly an efficient project - most frames have no powersaving features at all, and draw quite a lot of current (relatively speaking).

    - A media player. They all have a file manager, so the aforementioned Zune Ebook Creator (which was, as you probably guessed, originally made for the Zune media player) is a perfect match for them. Note that some media players (mostly chinese generic ones) have built-in text readers, but they very often lack basic features like a page search function or selectable font sizes. Of course, all media players have fairly small screens, so you need to have decent eyesight.

    - A smartphone, which is my current choice for when I can't use the netbook. I have a Nokia 5230 running hacked Symbian 9, on which I installed ZXReader (developer site in russian, but it's easy to find the download links and the program runs in english just fine), which is basically the perfect txt reader. Note that it's not compatible with pdf, but then as I mentioned earlier it's easy to convert pdf to txt. I assume similar programs are available for smartphones running Android, and someone's surely made one for apple users (I really wanted to say "applefags" here, but that'd be rude so I didn't). Smartphones aren't cheap, and I don't recommend buying one just for this, but if you use one anyway there's no reason not to adapt it to ebook reading duty as well.

    As a side note, I can't figure out why nobody's yet made an e-ink reader that runs from AA or AAA cells. It would seem like the perfect application for alkalines or even carbon-zinc cells - who needs rechargeables when a pair of alkies are good for a few weeks/months of runtime?

  6. pittance Says:

    I've read on screens for a long time, I had one of the old transflective colour screen Palms a long time back and this was fairly appalling (but I got used to it)

    A few years back I moved to a Dell X50v which was way nicer (VGA screen was really clear) & those are going for really low money used on eBay now. There are some nice neat plain text readers I liked to use (Haali reader was my main one).

    I've currently moved across to my HTC Desire; the oled screen has the big benefit that you can dial the brightness way down to use it at night without disturbing any significant others who may be in close proximity. There are two or three decent free readers on Android...

    I mainly use plain text files - even legally you can get huge amounts of reading material in that format (albeit with a bit of pre-processing required sometimes)

  7. Anne Says:

    I have a hand-me-down Sony PRS-700. It's an e-ink touchscreen model about the dimensions of a trade paperback, but considerably thinner (~1 cm). The screen is a little shinier than is entirely convenient; in some light the reflections can make it hard to read. That said, it has rows of white LEDs embedded in the sides, o at the cost of decreased battery life (or plugging it in) you can get quite decent illumination. Theoretically the touchscreen allows one to annotate books, but all I use it for is to turn pages: the physical buttons to turn pages are small and not in obvious places, but you can turn pages with a swipe on the touchscreen. The black-and-white screen renders text very sharply, in one of twelve predefined fonts (four sizes*serif, sans, and typewriter), but images are forced to a not-that-impressive grayscale. Still readable.

    For reading ebooks, basically one wants epub. PDFs do work, but my experience has been that the text is always too small for comfort on the reader even if one turns it sideways (which it supports); so much for my idea of reading papers from on it. Fortunately, epub seems to be emerging as the standard ebook format, at least among open formats. I honestly don't know what DRM formats this reader supports; my approach has so far been to either obtain legal DRM-free ebooks or buy Adobe's DRMed books (Adobe Digital Editions works under WINE) and break the DRM (with inept). I think in principle I could install the Sony software (under WINE) and buy books from the Sony store. Meh.

    For obtaining books, well, I'm in Canada, and I don't know what works where. But Baen has a great stance on DRM ("just say no") and also sells ebooks at quite reasonable prices. They counterbalance the intangibility of ebooks by making "buying" an ebook rather more than buying a physical object: not only do you get the file to do with as you will, they remember that you bought it, so if you lose the file you can download it again (or read it online). For free ebooks, well, Project Gutenberg has epubs whose only drawback is the several pages of "yes it's really free!" boilerplate that replaces a cover. It is kind of amusing to go find the reading list for a classical education and be able to, in an afternoon, put most of it on a device you can carry around in your pocket.

    There is also, of course, piracy, but there is a lot of crap out there: books that are badly OCRed (the spell-checkers mean that words are often replaced with other similar-appearing words), books whose formatting is hopelessly mangled (page headers mingled with text, italics lost, chapter breaks removed and re-added every few hundred kilobytes...), and books in useless formats (PRC!). Generally, the larger a collection is, the less inspection it has had. Ebook availability is also improving so rapidly that there's almost no point downloading a book you're going to read "later"; if you download it later you'll get a better-quality copy. If you're a Good Samaritan among pirates, you can use Sigil to clean up the epub - it's a slightly creaky epub editor with a WYSIWYG mode but also (shades of ancient WordPerfect!) modes where it will let you poke around (including regular expression search-and-replace) with the underlying raw XHTML+css.

    As for DRM, Adobe Digital Editions is widespread and easy to crack (hooray for python! even if you need to install python under WINE to extract your keys from the registry, at least the main script works natively wherever). Once cracked, you have a perfectly normal epub. Several libraries, public and university, to which I theoretically have access, will "lend" ebooks, but I have yet to find an interesting ebook to borrow. So my main fallback for getting otherwise hard-to-obtain books is kobo. They sell ADEPT-encumbered books, they also remember which ones you bought and will serve them to you again if you like, they'll let you read the books online, and they have a decent selection. Their prices are high but not really worse than a paperback. My main hesitation, with them, is my reluctance to give money to a DRM-monger. So sometimes I resort to buying a paper book and pirating the corresponding digital version.

    I find when I'm at my computer I'll read ebooks on screen (using fbreader). But this is not at all convenient for reading in bed, where I find the ebook reader with light is perfect. The real niche it fills, though, is reading on the metro: it fits in my pocket and my hand just about like a paperback does, and so for all those times I'm riding the metro (every day!) or waiting for a doctor or whatever, I can just flip it open and start reading. Plus I'm probably moving to another city soon, and the fewer paper books I have to deal with the better.

  8. Anne Says:

    @5, @6: A decent epub is much preferable to txt or pdf. txt often suffers from the fact that it has line breaks hard-coded in, so if you want to fill the screen of a device, you are stuck with the corresponding text size. Being able to rescale text is really very useful - if the light is bad, make it bigger. txt also, of course, loses any italics or non-ASCII characters your book may have (e.g. accents, em dashes, open and close quotes). Even if you don't care about fonts, books often use italics to distinguish a character's thoughts from narration, and you lose this. pdf is generally not reflowable, so that again you're stuck with one font size, often too small for a portable device. You're also stuck with page breaks, page headers and numbers and all that cruft. If you try to copy-and-paste from a pdf, you will not only lose formatting, you'll often keep the cruft. Just say no. By comparison, epub on a decent reader, allows chapter and subsection headings, which both look like headings and wind up in a table of contents. It allows images, where appropriate (covers, pretty subsection dividers, the occasional illustration). It's readily resizable. It's an open format readily manipulated with open tools. It's well-thought-out in terms of support on portable devices (size of individual XHTML files is limited, so that you don't cause the reader to melt trying to render the entire Great Book of Amber). And so on. It's just the right format, at the moment.

  9. AdamW Says:

    Like a couple of other commenters I have a Sony Reader (the 6" touch screen version) and like it a lot. It pulls off the trick that good Sony stuff does (and bad Sony stuff really, really doesn't...) of just 'feeling' perfect; it's the right size, the right weight, and it feels very solid in your hand. You can read it pretty well one-handed or two-handed, and it'll fit in most generously sized pockets (so not your trendiest jeans, but probably your beach shorts and definitely your cargo pants). It can read all formats except the Kindle stuff, and you can de-DRM the files quite easily so you can be reasonably sure that you *do* in fact own them. It doesn't have a web browser or a keyboard or any of that silliness, all it does is read stuff, which I see as a feature and not a drawback. The Kindle's keyboard always seems like a gigantic waste of space to me.

    For Anne - Sony's own Reader Store does work in Canada, though some books aren't available if you're in Canada, and some cost more than they do for US people. I also second Anne in highly recommending Baen's ebook store, - they sell the books extremely cheap (often $5 a book), and when you bought it you really bought it; you can download it as many times as you like, in any one of a bunch of formats, and there's no DRM. They also have a free section with quite a lot of free books (the authors can choose to make some of their books available in the free section in the hopes that it'll get people to buy their other books). It's just awesome.

    There's a store I've used a few times, Diesel, which appears to be available worldwide (at least in the UK and Canada), and works alright. It sells DRM-ed ePub files which can be de-DRMed in the same way as ones from the Sony store. That's at . There's also a couple of UK book chains with ebook stores - Waterstones and WH Smith's - which I've not had any trouble accessing from Canada. They again sell DRM-ed ePub files. And of course there's Project Gutenberg, where you can tons of out-of-copyright stuff - including of course pretty much the entire classic canon, get some Dickens! - free, and fairly high quality.

    I find the Reader so massively superior to paper books I just don't buy them any more, except for collecting purposes (when I buy a limited hardback or something I just stick it on a shelf and 'acquire' an ebook version of the same book to actually *read*). You can shove it in a pocket and read it on the bus, it doesn't get dinged up, it's way more comfortable to read (as someone pointed out already), and it's obviously hugely superior for travel (instead of trying to jam four weeks worth of reading in a suitcase when I'm going to the UK I just throw my reader in my pocket). I really can't see anywhere a paper book's superior, and this is coming from someone with four book cases full of the things...

  10. Anne Says:

    @9: My ebook reader is great. But I have to say, there are books for which it is very poorly suited. I have a bookcase full of technical books, and they just won't work on the reader - full of equations, full-colour pictures, and complex page layouts, I'd really need a large full-colour screen that can show PDF in good quality. (Or, dreaming in technicolour, XHTML+MathML+large colour pictures; but this would require someone to do a really good job with CSS laying out the ebook. There are actually schemes for converting MathML to SVG, which epub readers are supposed to support, and images of the equations would be an acceptable fall-back. But requiring a great deal of work to format well as epub remains an issue. In any case a paperback-sized black-and-white screen will never cut it for these ones.)

    I also feel, as always seems to happen with me with portable devices, that I wish I could open up the code and add a few minor features. A recently-read books list, for example, so that I could easily switch between books. I'd also change the fact that rotating the page keeps the number of words per line constant rather than the text size. And so on. I like the hardware, these are just minor changes to the software, and I wish I could make them...

  11. aramid Says:

    Despite the immediate technology-lust I felt the first time I laid eyes upon an ebook reader a few years ago, I resisted buying one until about six months ago, for the same reasons I've seen a few other people bring up on this page already. DRM and format lock-in were the obvious concerns, but there are ways around both issues. Calibre makes a great library manager and makes format-shifting a piece of cake, and although I've not needed them yet I'm aware that there are also programs available for DRM 'management' should I find such steps necessary.

    I think the more significant concern I had (and still have) with ebooks is with the pricing. When a book is first released, a ~$10 ebook is a fantastic value, a third the price of the hardcover. However, once the paperback is released, ebooks lose their competitive edge; I'd really like to see ebooks experience a price drop to sit more comfortably alongside the paperbacks. $1 would be amazing, 30% of the paperback price would be great, but even being consistently a few bucks cheaper than the dead-tree equivalent would be acceptable.

    Despite all this, six months ago I decided to buy an ebook reader. This was motivated entirely by my decision to start reading a series not available in any local bookstores or libraries, and not in any way influenced by the discovery of an 80,000-title bittorrent collection. I spent some time shopping, getting hands-on time with any reader I could find in my area, and ended up getting a 2nd-gen Kindle. It's been great, and even though I've since had more time in-depth with a few other readers, I still feel I made the right decision.

    The Kindle's e-ink screen is not quite as nice as the Nook's, and both of those readers are a bit larger overall for the same size of screen as some of the Sony offerings. I initially felt the keyboard was more of an irritation than a useful addition - after all, I've been reading dead-tree books for years and never needed a keyboard on one of those! But actually, it's quite nice to have; remember that you can't flip back and forth as easily on an ebook reader as you can with a physical book. If you want to check back a few chapters to make sure you understood something correctly, or jump ahead a few to make sure your favorite character makes it out of a tight situation okay, you need to use a text search - the alternative is clicking furiously through twenty pages (at about one second per flip), then clicking back again. The Nook's touchscreen serves in place of the Kindle's keyboard for the same purpose, but it's even worse to type on, it glows annoyingly while being used (books don't glow, thanks), and its presence led to the development of a strange interface split between two display devices, where you sometimes lose track of which screen a button is going to act on. Kindle offers by far the nicest user experience, and also succeeds at acting the most like a book.

    I think that ebook readers in general are quite nice for heavy leisure reading (as opposed to technical, which is more suited to a tablet where you can annotate and highlight). They weigh the same as a paperback, but don't need held open, and no matter what position you're holding the thing in you never need two hands to turn the page. They're doubly beneficial if you travel a lot, of course, or if you just don't like to store a bunch of books.

    The only real issue I've had with my Kindle is that I can't give books to friends as easily. With paperbacks, I'll often give books away to people I think might be interested in them - I'm don't typically re-read them, and they're just taking up space on my shelf. With the ebooks, at least they're still not taking up space on my shelf.

  12. FatBigot Says:

    The attraction of the Kindle in the UK is the link to Wikipedia. As captured by XKCD, the resemblance to the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is worth the money on it's own.

  13. Fallingwater Says:

    Anne (8): while copypasting a pdf does put some cruft such as pagenumbers and filenames in the resulting .txt, a simple search-and-replace job with wildcard characters on Word will remove them and leave you with a pristine .txt - I know cos I've done it. And as for stuff missing, well, I do sometimes encounter the occasional bad/weird character, but open/close quotes and dashes I've never had problems with. Also, ZXReader allows me to set the font size I want, regardless of the fixed size in .txt files.

    Mind you, I'm not a txt fanboy or anything, so if people start OCRing stuff into epub I'll gladly use that (assuming I find a decent Symbian reader), it's just that right now the easiest way to read downloaded stuff seems to be pdf or txt.

    Then again, I could try copypasting the next pdf into an epub instead of txt and see if I can get it read properly on the smartphone. Worth a try, I guess.

  14. Anne Says:

    @13: I've tried converting PDFs to other formats before. There are even tools, pdftohtml and pdftotext, that try to do it for you. The problem is that PDFs often have line breaks at the end of every line, so if you want to be able to use different line lengths (different-sized windows with the same font, or different fonts at the same width) you have to somehow reassemble the paragraphs. This is sometimes possible, at least approximately (for example, end-of-line breaks may have a space while end-of-paragraph breaks may not, though hyphenated words may also not have a space). You can also sometimes get rid of the pagination cruft (again approximately) with suitable regular expressions - but how do you tell which pages begin with a new paragraph and which don't? And don't get me started on the horrors that come out of OCR.

    You can deal with all this gunge and get an ebook out the end; you can even get a more-or-less correct one with enough effort input (though watch out - "proofread" OCRs often deteriorate rapidly in quality once you get out of the first few chapters). But the difference between a miserable conversion and a nicely-formatted native epub is just stunning.

    epub is not magic; if you convert some txt or pdf into epub it'll still be almost as nasty. The point is that those formats lose important information. If the books have been carefully treated, you can get a reasonable-quality text. But for a genuinely nice reading experience, you want something that has been produced directly as epub.

    Try, for example, Baen's version of "The Warrior's Apprentice"; consider feeding the epub into something like the online ibis reader, if you don't have a nice epub reader handy. Or, for that matter, read the online version, effectively epub in a "reader" built into the web server. Yes, an OCRed version might get the text almost right, but the formatting makes it vastly more comfortable to read. And if you don't like the layout, font, chapter breaks, or whatever, a decent reader will let you change all those - it's just CSS, after all.

    I'm not saying you can't read pdfs or txts; I have, probably millions of words' worth. But the difference between them and a proper epub is the difference between reading a novel printed out on letter paper in monospace and reading an actual paperback.

  15. safetydan Says:

    For those complaining about the price of eBooks, it's worth understanding that most of the cost of a book is not the actual printing. See Charlie Stross's series on publishing and eBooks for a more detailed analysis.

  16. Bedlam Says:

    I'll add my voice to the chorus of 6" Sony Touch Reader owners. A marvellous device. No more contortions trying to comfortably hold whichever 1000 page fantasy tome currently has my attention.

    Despite being in Australia, I use the US Reader Store with the usual trick of giving it an imaginary 90210 address - they don't appear to cross-check with my credit card's billing address.

    In addition to the convenience of being integrated with the device, the store itself has an impressive selection and at often the cheapest price my half-assed searching can dig up.

    I'm not as concerned about DRM as with music, as this is the only device I'm using them on. Perhaps once it catches on and I want to lend them to friends, it might be an issue. I believe the Nook has a lending ability built into its DRM so a friend can temporarily take your rights. You'd think that would become an industry-standard feature.

  17. Chazzozz Says:

    My very first e-book reader was on my Palm m100 (circa 2000) and came from the charmingly named Peanut Press. Peanut was subsequently bought out by Palm who cunningly renamed it to '', but they then sold it to Barnes & Noble about 2 years ago. It's still going, and they still offer the same software on quite an impressive array of platforms. I've now got it installed on my HTC Diamond2 with WinMo 6.5. The pages are surprisingly un-awful even on a low-res screen, and as it's been pointed out before, you can read in the dark with the backlight turned waaayyyy down to preserve marital bliss.

    I've purchased a few books from Peanut Press/ over the years and found them to be very reasonably priced. Last time I checked they even had my previous purchases on file with the ability to re-download if necessary. Kudos to them for the service.

    However, what makes the reader so good is it uses the Palm PDB format. This is a simple file type that supports bookmarks, searching, note annotations, and a couple of other features I can't remember. There's also a direct link to the online store, but that's to be expected.

    The real nugget, though, is if you dig around on the site a bit more you'll uncover a link to DropBook. With DropBook you can make your own e-books from plain-text files and convert them to PDB. There's plenty of online help, too, to get you started. I've used it to convert a bunch of Project Gutenberg books to enjoy on my smartphone. Sure, you've got to spend the time on the conversion, but I figure it's roughly equal to what I'd be spending real money on for a paper-based copy anyway.

    If I was to buy a dedicated reader then I'd look at one of the Android-powered tablets from DealExtreme, or somewhere similar. You're getting more than just an ereader and the price is pretty good. You can get reader software for the Android platform from most of the major vendors, plus a smattering of free ones for non-DRM books.

  18. Popup Says:

    I'm still holding out for an e-reader, even though the latest batch of e-readers do look pretty good.

    However, Madame has an iPad (mainly used for faff-booking...) and I tried to download Sustainable Energy - without the hot air onto it. (It's an amazing book, that I highly recommend to anyone who's the slightest bothered about energy supply.) It's freely available as a beautifully formatted PDF with amazing colour diagrams etc. here (50Mb PDF).
    I must admit that it was quite a WOW feeling to browse through it on the iPad. The sub-pixel rendering works wonders, and the full-colour diagrams look great on the screen. And it has the horse-power to make everything flow smoothly.

    It won't work for long-term reading though, as the batteries won't last, and it's too heavy to be comfortably held in one hand for any considerable length of time. But all-in-all I must say that for indoors reading (the screen is too glossy to use outdoors) it's surprisingly pleasant!

    (And for leisurely browsing the web from the sofa it's unbeatable.)

  19. wds Says:

    Because of DRM I haven't yet gone out and bought an eReader. I'm aware that you can torrent the books, but I actually do want to buy them. Unless when I buy a physical book and the publisher tries to sell me the ebook for 50% off (I can buy the exact same content at only half the price? Wonderful!). I'll second Ibis Reader for reading on a phone though. I use it on my droid and it's pretty good (though it's clearly designed for iPhone, some features don't quite work).

    Baen books is nice and all, but it's Baen books. When not in the mood for pulp sci fi I'd really like to have some more options. Are there any mainstream authors (besides, arguably, Cory Doctorow) that sell ebooks in DRM-free formats? If so, where?

    In addition, it'll probably take ages for Dutch-language ebooks to become DRM-free, which I imagine will kill part of our local publishing industry here, as we all start doing our reading in English. Such a missed opportunity...

  20. AdamW Says:

    Anne: yeah, you're right about technical books and 'work' reading. I should note I only ever read plain text fiction books. I have read the Guardian Weekly on the Reader once or twice, but that's a bit of a painful experience as they don't produce an ereader-formatted edition so all you can use is the PDF which is formatted exactly like the print paper, and the Reader isn't capable of reformatting it perfectly for on-device reading (the presence of multiple articles on the same page in different arrangements, as is common with newspapers, confuses it).

    chazzozz: I have a cheap Android tablet and I probably wouldn't recommend it purely for ereader purposes. It's not as smooth an experience as a dedicated ereader, the short battery life is a pain, and it's noticeably more bulky than my Reader - it doesn't fit in as many pockets and isn't as nice to hold single-handed. And the most humdrum issue of all is the one that more or less killed it for me in the end - they don't come with cases and no-one sells nice slipcases for obscure yum-cha Android tablets you can only buy off geeky websites, so I never feel particularly safe just throwing it in a bag or pocket and going, as I do with my Reader in its handy slipcase. It'd be too easy to bang the screen up (and my particular yum-cha tablet doesn't have a very well thought out power-on and power-off arrangement, so I'm stuck with it being completely turned off for storage and taking an age to turn on any time I want to use it, or being suspended for storage, in which case anything else bumping the screen or one of the keys tends to turn it back on, whereupon it sits in my bag, powered up, and drains its battery). This is the kind of thing that expensive dedicated products from brand-name companies tend to solve :)

  21. haesslich62 Says:

    I've happily used a Sharp Zaurus sl5500 PDA for reading for years - I have hundreds of ebooks on an SD card, it's small and convenient to carry anywhere.

    The main disadvantage of dedicated ebook readers - at least the ones with e-paper screens - is that they're not backlit. I like to read in bed, and my Zaurus allows me to do that without having a light on - which allows SWMBO to sleep next to me.

    I've recently switched to using my smartphone (Motorola Droid X) for reading, and it also works well.

    As for sources of reading material, Baen Books has a Free Library with a decent selection of less-than-ancient science fiction, and Webscription has lots more, including a monthly subscription service.

  22. rndmnmbr Says:

    I've been doing the whole ebook thing for years. I foolishly picked Microsoft Reader LIT as the format of choice, gambling that PDAs running some flavor of WinCE was the wave of the future. The upside to LIT was the 'Read in Microsoft Reader' plugin for Word, so it was theoretically easy to convert anything it could read into LIT files, and I did amass a nice little collection.

    I've recently been torrenting epub files, most of which are decently formatted. epub for fiction and PDF for nonfiction and anything illustration-heavy seems to work out for me. And I have no problem with piracy considering the thousands of dollars I've already sunk in actual books (albeit most of them are on semi-permanent loan to my brother, who actually has shelf space for them).

    In addition to torrents, there are a couple channels on that keep my addiction to reading materials fulfilled.

    I've been holding off on buying a reader, though, until I have a decent telephoto lens (my old Tamron 171D 28-200mm sucking harder than an Amsterdam prostitute for high school sports photojournalism), but perhaps by Christmas I'll have my nice lens and enough money to consider a proper reader.

  23. livingthingdan Says:

    @anne: I hear you on wanting to tweak the software a so that the good hardware does what you need. the bulk of my reading is technical reading - pdfs full of equations and charts, and as is usual in the academic world, distributed as PDF or nothing. In my case, though, the missing feature is that I really want a way of annotating, commenting on and automatically synchronising my PDFs with my citation index, and none of the e-reader devices really seem to support that (Well, Mendeley seems to have an ipad app, but I'm not yet convinced abou that particular device). Where is the Kindle/nook academic version, i'd like to know?

  24. corinoco Says:

    I haven't decided on a reader yet, but I like the idea of one. Yes, I love my massive book collection, but it is a pain in the back every time I have to move house/flat (once a year the past decade or so...). I have recently finally digitized my entire CD collection, and now buy (or... find...) online only, unless it's Enya or Sarah Brightman.

    I have quite a few ebooks lurking in my archives, I tried using various Palms and now the iPhone as readers, but small screens aren't comfortable, no matter how clear.

    I now have my entire collection of D&D books in PDF - necessary as the really old stuff is getting too fragile to read, though I didn't, er, actually DO the PDFing myself...

    As for a reader, I tend towards the iPad, as it does other stuff too, but I'm unsure about getting one around the end of the year as I am sure Apple will just bring out the better iPad right after I buy one. Yes, I know it's the old 'don't wait for tech' argument, but in this case I'm viewing it is 'Do I REALLY need an iPad/reader yet?'

    As for good authors with online stuff - Charles Stross has released a few short stories, and his novel 'Accelerando' online. I'm kicking myself for missing getting my paper novels of his signed when he was out here a few weeks back. His 'Laundry' series is a cracking read - BOFH meets Cthulu!

  25. Friedrich Says:

    An iPad is actually a very good eBook reader, not least for its compatibility (since there are dozens of apps for different formats) and, surprisingly, its screen. While I don't quite like its rather coarse pixel pitch, the fact that it's illuminated actually makes reading easier in low light, and its contrast is much better than on the ePaper readers I've seen yet. Some of them have screens with such low contrast that I wouldn't want to read on them for a prolonged period of time. The iPad's interface is beautiful (and practical!), of course. And it can do a whole lot of other stuff, which may or may not offset one of its three major flaws: Price.

    The iPad is much more expensive than other eBook readers. If you really want a device for book reading only, it's clearly overpriced. But if you want a very usable web tablet, video tablet, almost-handheld-game-console etc. it may be worth the high price. It certainly is a very nice device.

    Drawback number two: It's too heavy. It only weighs a couple hundred grams, but it's too heavy to hand-hold for a long while without resting the bottom on something (your lap?). The reason is of course the huge battery to get ten-hour battery life out of a device with a backlit LCD, and the glass surface of said LCD.

    Drawback number three: Yeah, you need iTunes. I'm on a mac, so I don't really mind, but some seem to have some kind of irrational allergy to Apple products (see PS of original message).

  26. Friedrich Says:

    BTW, the iPhone is not a very good reader: It's too small. It'll do in a pinch, but the squinting and scrolling really gets on one's nerves after a few minutes. Especially on a rough bus ride where you need large fonts.

  27. AdamW Says:

    friedrich: "its contrast is much better than on the ePaper readers I've seen yet. Some of them have screens with such low contrast that I wouldn't want to read on them for a prolonged period of time. "

    contrast isn't absolute, on either device. The key question is where you'll do most of your reading. An actively-lit LCD screen is a good system for you if you do most of your reading indoors, and especially good if you want to do it at night. An e-ink screen is much better if you want to read outdoors, especially in direct sunlight.

    Try sitting on a park bench at midday and compare the contrast on an iPad and an e-ink screen then :)

  28. Steve H Says:


    I think you miss another huge point with ePaper readers. The battery life on them is measured in weeks, not hours. Consequently, the iPad, in some ways, is a very poor eBook reader.

  29. methuseus Says:

    I have a nook and I love it. I download all the free classics that they have every week to read. Plus some torrent sites have some nice epub files. Also sites like Feedbooks have free epub files that I've read.

    Barnes and Noble has their nook software for Windows and mac that can read epub files, as well as some other formats. This is brand new to it though. The reader software (renamed nook when they added epub support) used to only work with books bought on

  30. Friedrich Says:

    @AdamW: You are very right, of course. The one time I've tried to read on a last-generation Sony reader with touchscreen (which are not reknowned for their great contrast, I gather) was in a dimly lit bar. As far as glossy backlit displays go, though, the one in the iPad is quite bright.

    @Steve H: Yes, of course, the iPad is only useful when you have an outlet every evening for two hours or so. It won't be a good eBook for wilderness travel.

  31. frasera Says:

    kindles days are numbered, its too slow, educators have noticed it just takes too long to interface or add your own notes, you have to read the text as a novel, and that is not how text books work. its about speed, and soon enough retina displays will make ipad type devices even more superior. the kindle is doomed.

  32. Popup Says:

    Ok, I'm a bit late to the party, but Dan linked to this the other day, and I re-read it.

    I've now got a kindle, and I must say that it's amazing! It's easier to carry around than a thin paperback, the screen is very readable in just about all light conditions (except dead of night...) and it's got an amazing infrastructure that's evolved around it.

    If you complain about competing ebook formats and DRM, I've only got two words: Calibre and Apprentice-Alf. The former is 'itunes for ebooks', i.e. an awkward interface around a content conversion/ebook management system, and the latter is a set of plug-ins for Calibre to handle DRM removal.

    I still maintain that the iPad is ideal for sofa-surfing (and maybe reading in bed), but for ebook reading the all latest e-readers are very capable.

Leave a Reply