So, I decided to see if any of the ereaders out there were any better. Thankfully I work for a large library that provides downloadable ebooks as part of our service, so our Materials Management department has a bunch of ereaders for testing that I was able to borrow. I figured that since the library offers encrypted PDF ebooks to the public, there should be some readers out there that could handle them. I borrowed a Kobo, a Nook, and a Sony PRS-300 and I loaded the PDF onto each of them. I was actually shocked at how bad the PDF looked on the Kobo and the Sony. Neither of them was able to fit the text to the screen, so it was a wee little block of text in the middle of a white field. I couldn’t get any further than this with the Sony, but I was able to zoom in on the Kobo, but then I had to scroll left and right to read the whole page – not a pleasant experience at all. The Nook was the best, but by best I mean okay. I wouldn’t want to read a whole novel in PDF on it because the formatting was a bit askew (weird page breaks, and headers and footers that ended up in the middle of the text sometimes).
One would think that Adobe would at least provide decent platforms for reading their encrypted files, or work with the ereader companies to make a device that can read them well.
Up until this point I never really worried about stripping DRM from ebooks. I either read encrypted epubs on my iPod or dealt with the hideous limitations of the Adobe authorized apps or read short stories on my desktop computer. But now I realized that even the ereaders that we are recommending to the public to use with our library ebooks choke on PDFs. All I wanted to do was read my book comfortably, and if I had to figure how to convert it to a better format I would. Once I knew what I was looking for, I found some Python scripts that strip the Adobe encryption from PDFs and went to work. Within 20 minutes I had a shiny new unencrypted PDF. Of course, I already knew that it would look awful on the ereaders, so I set about converting it into an Epub, a format that most ereaders handle natively, so I know it would look good. With the help of Calibre, some internet forums, and my good friend who understands programming far more than I do, I was able to take the PDF and make a perfectly readable Epub. All this work just to be able to read a book I got legally on a device I already own!
All this leads to my big experiment of the week (no, learning to decrypt ebooks wasn’t it). Here I have an Epub to read, and three ereaders to read it on! Although I usually read on my iPod if I have to read an ebook, I know an opportunity when I see it.
Here are my thoughts:
1. Sony PRS -350.
I have issues with the button placement for turning the page. The button is on the front of the reader just under the screen, right in the middle. Maybe I just have really short thumbs, but I found that to press the button I needed to stretch my right thumb uncomfortably from where I was holding the device. By a few chapters in my thumb really ached. Not good at all! Also, the screen is a dinky 5 inches, so I was turning the pages a lot more often than a real book just because there’s a lot less text on each page. Sony does have larger readers, so this isn't a fault of Sony and if you're not a speedy reader like me it probably is just fine. It's very light and portable, which some people prefer over a larger screen. Personally, I gave up on this one pretty fast. Bear in mind this is an older version of the Sony reader, later version have a touch screen where you swipe to turn the page. I tried one of these briefly and don’t like the swipe to turn. I found the motion of swiping distracting, and the reader didn’t always respond correctly. Now, if it was a tap to turn the pages (like in the reading apps on the iPod Touch and iPad) I might be happier because it’s minimal movement. Anyway, the Sony Reader didn't work for me.
The Kobo is amazingly light! It’s about 7 1/2 ounces, so it’s really easy to hold and read one-handed. The back has a lovely quilted texture that is really nice to touch and hold. The print is readable and the screen is 6”, so there’s more space for more words on the page (which reduced the number of times I needed to turn the page). But let’s talk about turning the page, why don’t we? There is one big page turning button on the Kobo, on the front bottom right of the device. I guess they think people will only read right-handedly? I’m right-handed, but the way I hold a book depends on a variety of things – if I’m reading while eating, what side I’m lying on in bed or on the couch, if I’m in the window or aisle seat on the bus, if I just feel like switching off which hand I want to hold the bloody thing. The button placement causes a huge problem if for some reason you want to hold the book in your left hand (and don’t even think about holding it near the top instead of the bottom). The button (a four way controller) is stiff, so it takes a bit of force to press it, and there’s an audible click when it’s pressed. Not fun at all. The other issue I have with the Kobo is that the response time is pretty slow. I press a button (any button) and then wait. Eventually what’s supposed to happen happens, but it’s slow like molasses. Page turning is slow also. The way an ereader works should be this: you read to the bottom of the screen, press the page turn button, and then your eyes go back up to the top of the screen. By the time your eyes are at the top, the next page should be waiting for you to read. With the Kobo, when my eyes get to the top, the device is in the middle of refreshing, so I see a bit of the previous page, the flash of a page refresh, and then the new page. That flash should be happening during the time it takes for me to shift my gaze, not once I’m there. This response time was annoying because it would break the flow of the story each time I turned the page. I did, though, read a whole book on it without hurling it against a wall. Pros: lightweight, quilted back. Cons: button placement, response and refresh time.
Compared to the Kobo, the Nook is a monster (and I don’t even have the colour Nook, which is even heavier). This thing is heavy! I definitely wouldn’t be holding this one-handed. I started reading my book club book on the Nook, George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. A monster book for a monster ereader, I guess. I really like the buttons on the Nook. Along the edge of the device on both sides are integrated areas to press for forward and back, so you can use your right or left hands to turn the pages in either direction. They aren’t discreet buttons and the bezel is seamless on the sides, but the areas to press are big and have a little raised dot over the direction arrow so you can find it without looking and can rest your fingernail on it (which is what I do). Brilliant. The refresh speed is really good – miles better than the Kobo. The contrast on the screen is nice. So far so good. But wait –the Nook has a another colour touch screen underneath the reading screen. The only other buttons on the device are the forward/back buttons and the power button. Everything else has to be done with the touch screen. It’s awfully unresponsive and because it’s so small the space you have to touch for a specific selection is tiny. The controls are unintuitive and it drains battery life like crazy. Halfway through my book, only reading a few hours every day, it ran out of power. Not good at all! What would have happened if I was on a plane or beach or somewhere where I couldn’t charge it? And even if I was at home, I’d have to sit next to the power outlet to read while charging. One other tiny thing is that the power button is on the top of the device and easy to hit by accident, so I found myself putting it into sleep mode by mistake a lot until I figured out not to pick it up from the top. I’d be happier if the power button was a slider instead of a button. Overall I love the back/forward button placement, but I hate the colour touch screen and the weight is an issue.
So, of the three devices I tried, all of them had at least one fatal flaw.
Then I decided to try the Kindle. I’ve been against the Kindle from the beginning because of it’s proprietary format, DRM, and unwillingness to play nice with library books. But now that I know how to liberate my ebooks and put them in the format I want, my main concern about the Kindle is gone. Having used the Sony, the Kobo, and the Nook, I know what I want out of an ereader: lightweight, ambidextrous page turn buttons, and fast response time.
The library doesn’t own a Kindle because it’s not compatible with library ebooks, but luckily I have a friend who let me play with her Kindle 2. It’s big and there’s a lot more bezel than there needs to be. But the screen is crisp, the response time is fast, and the buttons are well placed. I really like the dedicated Home, Menu and Back buttons, and don’t hate the huge keyboard on the bottom as much as I thought I would. It’s relatively light.
Of course, the Kindle 2 is no Kindle 3, so I headed over to Staples to play with the latest and greatest Kindle. The good: it’s much smaller and lighter than the Kindle 2, so one-handed reading is possible. The e-ink screen has amazingly good contrast. It’s super zippy fast. The not so good: The buttons along the side are very narrow, so you can’t rest your whole finger on them anymore. They are also along the side edges of the device, so I’d worry that if I picked it up by the side I might inadvertently turn the page. When looking at text, the margins are very wide, and you can’t adjust them very much on the device (you can make them bigger, but not smaller, than the default setting). I did look around online and found a way to set the margins by rewriting some of the system code, so I’m not going to worry about that. My biggest pet peeve is that it does not tell you where you are with page numbers. It uses indicators instead (and a progress bar, like the Nook). I have absolutely no idea what indicator 456 of 13295 means in terms of book length. I don’t know what they’re counting, and it doesn’t give me a sense of place. If I’m reading a book on the Kindle and my friend’s reading the real book, what good does telling her I’m on indicator 348 do? I know Kindle is going to be showing “real page” numbers on Kindle books in their next software update, but what does that do for those of us who would be putting our own ebooks on it? But, overall the Kindle has the best hardware of all the ereaders I’ve tried, and the interface is no slouch either.
Last week if you asked me I probably would have said that I have no desire to own an ereader. I love real books, the feel of paper, the expanse of text, the ability to know just by feel where you are in the book, being able to flip back and forward with ease... The course of this week has made me look at how and what I read and determine that an ereader is a good thing to have. It won’t replace my books – I have a deep and abiding passion for reading physical books, but it is a good companion for those things that are not available in print (e-galleys, online-only publications, etc…).
So yesterday I ordered a Kindle. Once I get it and start playing with it, and set up Calibre plugins and tweaks to get it working the way I want it to, we’ll see if I made the right decision.
While actually doing some serious reading on ereaders instead of just playing around with them for a few minutes, I discovered some interesting things about how I read.
1. I read much slower on an ereader than a print book.
2. I don’t really like having just one page in front of me. I find myself distracted by things in my peripheral vision. One of the things I like about a real book is that I have a wider field of text in front of me, so if my eyes wander they hit more text, so I stay in the mindset of “reading” and don’t get distracted by things outside the reading experience. This might be one of the reasons I read more slowly on an ereader.
3. I find reading a social experience. I talk about what I read, and when I’m in public I like seeing what people are reading and have them see what book I’m reading (except if it’s something embarrassingly smutty) Conversations have been started on planes and in waiting rooms based on the book in my hand. I’ve read books because I’ve seen other people reading them on park benches. I find that ereaders lose that “social networking” aspect of books with the loss of a unique cover for each book. This is what I want on my ideal reader: The back cover should be a colour screen (covered with something like plastic for protection) on which you can, at your own discretion, have an image of the cover of the book that you’re currently reading. That way you can show off your highbrow tastes on the subway, or your ironic lowbrow tastes in your favourite hipster coffee shop. Or just reconnect with the non-virtual world of people who might be interested in what you are interested in. It’s like Foursquare for books, just in the real world!