Ereaders...not quite the death of paper

I am the proud owner of an ereader. I have had a Sony PRS-600 (Touch) for less than 24 hours. But unless something changes dramatically, I am unlikely to be an ereader user 24 hours from now. To say I am disappointed would be an understatement. For what I have paid for the unit, I almost feel taken. Before I delineate the short comings, let me tell you how I got here.

I am a reader. Ever since I was young, I have read. Books, magazines, cereal boxes, what have you. My parents fostered a love of reading in me and it took hold. I read books like Dune and the Lord of the Rings when I was 10 and to this day I have stacks of paperbacks, hardbacks and falling off backs scattered around. I have books on a variety of topics from philosophy to Cisco IOS. But I did not get an ereader for reading books. I got it for my other problem - documentation. Like most of us, I have directories of PDF files, Word documents, and raw text files full of documentation. Some of it vendor created, some of it created by luminaries in the field and some of it cobbled together by yours truly. I wanted an ereader to help manage and provide convenient access to the documentation without having to search though directories, distribution CDs and thumb drives. I also had the wild notion that I could consolidate my favorite editions of magazines, like the Linux Journal and some of the O'Reilly books I find myself using frequently, into one easy to carry device. Now I have a laptop, and a netbook, but the easy on, easy off, gentle on the wrist idea of an ereader just seemed to be the magic gizmo that would make things easier for me.

When the Kindle first appeared on the market, my interest was piqued, but I decided to wait. When my wife got an Apple Touch, I started paying attention. She downloaded the Kindle app and I took a look at it. The largest disadvantage I found was the screen size. To my mind, it was too small for concentrated reading, even something as fluffy as a novel, much less something as detailed as code in an installation document, but it gave me an idea of what I was looking for. In November, I started doing a survey of all the ereader devices on the market at the time and was surprised by the number of devices that are available if not the general lack of variation between them. They all have the same things in common. Most are between six and ten inches in visual display (my netbook is ten inches), and I was looking for something at the lower end of the scale around the size of a paperback, maybe a little larger. Most can either accept PDF formatted documents natively or through some sort of conversion process and a couple, including the Sony, could consume other file formats, like MS Word documents. All of them seem to have been built with some form of the Open Source tool sets, which is nice even though I was not about to start hacking the kernel on these devices right away. The final selling point for me was expandability: would it take more storage media easily and especially, SD RAM storage media, because I have piles of these little chips sitting around. In the end, the Sony met my technical requirements.

I picked it up on Sunday and started the process of loading it and using it.

Let me start by saying that it is a very simple device. This is both a pro and a con. It comes with a nice iTunes like interface for managing books and photos and music (yes, if you want you can put pictures and MP3 files on it. The pictures are displayed in gray scale and I found them to be less than satisfying, especially those dynamic ones of my daughter shot in 8 megapixels with full colour saturation. I haven't got to the music, but I digress). Loading books is a simple process with a number of ways to get documents onto your device, including the direct load method of dragging your file to the folder on the device itself: a very nice feature for moving large numbers of files or entire folders of documentation. Sadly, the simplicity is also a bit of disappointment. If, like me, you have your documents in folders, and you drag these folders, the reader does not recognize the hierarchy and while it reads the documents in the folders, it does not acknowledge the folders. You are instead, forced to create your own hierarchy, called Collections, in the PC interface (you cannot create it on the device itself) and move the files into the new Collections, much like making a playlist. This turned out to be another failing point.

The Collections are not user sortable. They are sorted by file name, but not the file name of the actual file as seen on the PC but the file name of the PDF as displayed in the properties of the PDF, which, depending on how much attention was being paid at the time of PDF creation, may have nothing to do with the actual title of the document the PDF is referring too. This gets frustrating very quickly when, for example, you have manuals that were generated in another country or another language. I have two radio documents that were created in Japan and the PDF title is a couple of ideograms, properly displayed by the reader, but completely meaningless to me who does not speak the language and there is no way to alter them. For me, this was annoying but not a major issue, although it could rapidly become one.

These are the major issues:

Legibility: I bought this to be able to read documentation, so it does not help that I cannot read the words or, that I cannot read the words. Let me explain. There are two aspects to legibility. The first is the font size. Most books are set in either 9 point or 11 point type, with a certain amount of space (leading) between the lines, usually 2 points. While this may seem incredibly small, especially when the average font standard for most memos created in word processors is 12 point, it is, in fact, quite comfortable and most people find that long documents in larger fonts uncomfortable to read. However, if you take the PDF for the Linux Journal and load it up, you find, immediately, that it is all most illegible at the small font setting on the ereader. In fact, to make it legible, you have to bump it almost to the large setting, but in doing so, you reduce the amount of text available to barely a paragraph at a time, which, if you read at a decent rate, say 400 words per minute, you will be frustrated with both the limited text available and the speed at which you can move to the next block (I will cover performance in an minute). The other minor annoyance is the text flow leaves some pretty interesting gaps in the text that I found to be frustrating or annoying, depending on where they fell.

The second issue of legibility is the ability to read the text on the screen. In this case I am talking about glare and lighting. The screen is a matte finish, designed to reduce glare as much as possible, but I discovered that in conditions where I could read documentation on paper, I had a hard time reading the screen. In fact, unless the light was coming exactly over my shoulder, with no shadows, I could not easily read the screen. Further, in tests on the train (fluorescent) and in the office (also fluorescent), there was enough glare that I could not read the entire screen unless I tipped and moved it to slide the glare around from the text I was reading. It is hard enough to read barely 100 words at a time, much less when you have to bob and weave to do it.

On legibility, I have a third annoyance and that is with the, oh call it microscope factor, of having to zoom in so tight to read paragraph chunks that you cannot see the overall document. I found this to be very disconcerting but that is a personal preference thing.

Performance I expected that page turns would be nearly instantaneous. OK, so, I can live with not quite counting to one as I initiate a page turn, but I cannot live with counting two, or three or putting it down to flip the pancakes and picking it back up again and finding it has just turned the page as I am watching it repixelate. Initially I thought it was the PDF, but I found this occurred on nearly all PDF files over 50 pages. This is not acceptable performance, especially when you need to flip through to say page 203 of a 900-page document. Even RTF documents, which are what MS Word documents are converted into, are slow on their page turning. To me this is a deal breaker as former boss would say.

Rendering One of things that I found odd was the inconsistent rendering of PDF documents, specifically the fonts. I suspect it has to do with what was used in the master document and how the PDF was told to manage the fonts, but in several cases, there would be a major font change within the document, and sometimes within words, where the font would shift from serif to sans serif and back again. I could find no logic behind the shifting, especially since the PDF seemed to render correctly on the PC and in print. This is incredibly distracting to read.

There is also an issue with drawings and images. Now to be fair, Sony warns you about this in tiny print, but it does not make it any easier to accept when you are experiencing it. Some images cannot be zoomed in on. This is a problem when one of those images happens to be a schematic and you really do not want to put in a resistor when you should be putting in a capacitor. It is also difficult when you are trying to determine just what that button on the front panel is supposed to be used for.

Configuration One of the first things I looked for was a contrast adjustment. It does not exist. No dial, no setting, nothing. You cannot alter the predefined contrasts. In fact, other than the date and time and the gesture you use to change the pages, you cannot alter much on the device. And while I cannot think of something beyond the contrast and brightness I would want to alter (other than encrypting it, but that is a different discussion), being able to alter the contrast might actually alleviate some of the legibility issues I experienced in some of my lighting conditions – like standing next to the stove, trying to read grandma’s pancake recipe. Fortunately, I have that printed out.

In all, I can buy a lot of paper, toner and binders for the $300 the unit cost me. Sure there is the bulk of paper. But I do not have to wait for the unit to decide to show me the page I want to read. I do not have to ramp up the magnification to be able to read the document, angle the light and wait seconds for the page to render, completely or otherwise.

Now, in the interest of fairness, I am picking on Sony because that was the device I bought, but I am not expecting I would have a much different experience with any of the devices on the market. I might not have the same legibility issues on a larger Kindle like screen from a font perspective because it has a bigger screen, but then the form factor of a Kindle comes into play, and it is too big for carrying for my requirements. None of them are backlit, making the screen glare an issue regardless. And I am not reading books. I am reading documents. So my file type of choice is going to be the standard PDF, and I do not want to have to shove it up to a converter just to load it on my reader. Again, one of the advantages of the Sony is that it consumes a variety of file types natively. I like that feature. But I cannot live with the other short comings.

Of course, your mileage and experience may vary.

Shameless plug: Hear my interview with Hap Holly, KC9RP, editor of the Rain Report, talking about the January 2010 issue, Amateur Radio and Linux at the Rain Report web site.


David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack


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Happy with my Sony PRS-600 (Touch)

AstroFloyd's picture

I'm pretty happy with my Sony. The reason is that I actually bought it to read books, not PDFs. I think that is the important thing to know for people who are considering buying one of these devices:

* EPUB is the PRS-600's default format. It uses reflowable text and is well-formatted independent of the chosen font size (though, indeed, when you need a very large font, not many words will fit on this small screen and you end up flipping pages and interrupting the flow of the story a lot - LaTeX-like hyphenation package would help here). For the 33.000 (and counting) free eBooks that Project Gutenberg offers (and my main reason for buying this somewhat costly device) in EPUB format, this is perfect (~$0.01 per book).

* PDF is almost the opposite of EPUB: the lay-out is fixed and in many cases designed for A4 or letter format. Putting it on a screen of 12cm heigh therefore shrinks things dramatically and makes them practically unreadable. On the PRS, you can increase the font size, but the text is not reflowable. For a simple text document this means that 'soft returns' are added where the text needs to be wrapped in order not to run off the screen, but the original 'hard returns' of the PDF are still present creating the gaps mentioned. If text is in columns, or tables or figures are present, anything is possible. I have only the most important PDF papers on my device and can read them in landscape mode, each page divided over two screens, with which you gain ~40% on the font size. Another tip is cropping the margins off the pages with PDFCrop, which helps significantly. I write my own documentation using pdfLaTeX, and so it's easy to create a 12x9cm (actually, I create 16x12cm) version next to the normal one, in which case there is no need to scale up the font and everything works fine.

Apart from that, you need good light to read (a 7W conventional bulb is too weak, but anything above that works - direct sunlight is no problem either), page flipping is not much faster than in a conventional book (though if you keep the 'next page' key pressed the device forgets about anti-aliassing and page flipping becomes a lot faster), because of the eInk technology, which indeed also prevents you from getting a head ache. I use Linux, hence calibre to copy documents to the device. The program also downloads a couple of newspapers for me every morning, and it could easily replace my current actual newspaper (it also fetches Linux Magazine once a week, no one seems to have bothered writing a script for the Linux Journal yet, but that's possible). calibre can also change the name of a PDF document for you. I bought a $12, 8Gb SD card, so I can load roughly 10.000 books (if the device can handle that) - opening a book from the card is a little slower than from the internal memory.

Unfortunately, it turns out Sony went out of their way to prevent people from hacking the Linux system that runs on this device, so that this has hardly happened yet (in contrast to their previous PRS). This is a shame, because there are many small improvements that could make navigation just a bit easier (e.g. tapping on the S/M/L to change the font size in stead of pressing the Zoom button and then tap the font size on the screen - using both buttons and tapping is as slow as needing both keyboard and mouse for something, which is why my KDE can do almost anything I need with keyboard short cuts). Being a FOSS person, and after reading what was possible with the older version, I was a little disappointed there.

I wouldn't have minded paying a little less for this device :-), but I already know of roughly ~$100 worth of books online or in used-book shops around me which I considered buying, and one which I didn't because it would have cost me a couple of hunderd dollars, that are now on my eReader (I need to do a bit more work to get Plinius in EPUB).

So, if you want to read somewhat older books for the rest of your life for $0.01 or less each, you can consider buying this device. If you want to read (premade) PDFs, don't. What *I* need to do is consider buying a second one so that I have to fight less with my wife ;-) and then wait a couple of years for an A4-sized one to read all my papers in PDF format (and another couple of years to get a colour one).

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Anonymous's picture

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nice article

scottman's picture

Very nice review. The new sonys do look slick but the documentation type pdfs are not there yet. I want an ereader just for that, i have manuals, how to pdfs, book pdfs that i would love to take off my LCD eye killer monitor and put on an eink device. So i can actually read it without my eyes bleeding on me. The way the ereaders are coming along and after the CES conference i would say return it, wait for xmas again and see whats lower in price, the competition between ereaders is going to get better and with the color einks in the future the grayscales will go down in price. The Que Pro or whatever is very slick, and it might do exactly what you need it to do. But that price tag is expensive, 800 i think. I was thinking of getting the ezReader because its inexpensive, and allows me to view horizontal.

It does what it was intended to do.

Sumpen's picture

I have had my Sony PRS-XXX for over a year now, and I must say it does what it is intended to do. I agree with most of your critique but it feels like you bought a bike and is disappointed it doesn't do all the stuff a car does.

Its made for reading books and its really awesome for doing just that. Faster page flipping would probably imply more processor power and less battery time or some page cache for the next page which would demand more working memory.

Its far from a finished product but even though I still need paper for course literature, magazines, writing etc. I dont think I will ever pick up a paper back again for leisure reading. It just fits so damn nice on my belly when I'm in reading in bed and I only need to move my thumb for the page flips =)

This is just the beginning. The next generation or the one after that will surely fulfil your needs. Will be really awesome when I can get Linux Journal at the push of a button to my device.

Make your own e-reader from a netbook

NetbookFan's picture

My Staples and Borders don't have e-books on display even though they sell them.
Wonder why?
Sales figures for the Kindle haven't been released by Amazon.
Wonder why?
B&N reader still hasn't shipped.
Wonder why?
Because they all are terrible to look at, slow, with proprietary content that is going to change format in a month or three.
I know lots of people who are happy e-book readers, but they all use notebook or netbook computers. The happiest use netbooks. Turn it sideways. Turn down the backlight. Presto. A real e-reader. And fast. And hey, it's a $300 computer, too.

Yeah.. and 25 pages into

Anonymous's picture

Yeah.. and 25 pages into the book the LCD screen has given you such a headache you no longer desire to read.

Will this be

Anonymous's picture

PDF reader it is not.

Anonymous's picture

My wife gave me the PRS-600 for Christmas and I love it. I don't expect to be reading technical documentation on it or any of the related pdfs. However, I do love it for reading fiction that I would normally pick up in paper back form. I've decided not to purchase fiction in anything other than an e-format. I typically read the books once and keep them around for reading in a couple of years or give them away to friends. You can get some free ebooks from Baen (asking for a donation) website as well purchase other books. I've already read 3 books that I wouldn't have purchased in the bookstore and I'm planning to buy the all of the books for a particular series. I've also read some of the free stuff from Cory Doctrow's website.

The limitations that you point out for the pdfs and technical docs exists for all of the readers on the market. Most of the time when I need tech docs I'm at a computer so that I can read them there. The best bet for you and us is to wait for something like PlasticLogic's larger reader.

Design and Expectation

sean729's picture

With the e-ink displays on the PRS there is no backlight, so I am not sure how adjusting contrast would be possible. I did notice between the PRS-505 and PRS-700 the latter was less clear and attributed it to the overlay for the touch capability. PRS-600 is better but not much, so I stayed with PRS-505.

Navigating the file system on the PRS, sounds like a chore given the slow refresh rate of the device. Your content might be better managed with Calibre (see ), since it can populate some of the metadata for books from online sources. For docs, Calibre can to some extent determine metadata from the file name convention.

It would be nice if LJ would support the ePub format to alleviate some of the limitations of reflowing PDFs.

Kindle 2

Mark Alexander's picture

I have a Kindle 2, and while it shares some of the defects of the Sony (e.g., PDFs are generally not usable on such a small screen), it doesn't have the performance and legibility issues that you described. Page turns are snappy, as are opening books, jumping between books, and searching. The screen is readable in most lighting, and glare is pretty minimal. I find it very pleasurable to use as a replacement for text-only books.

I have heard that the touch-sensitive layer on the Sony screen is the cause of its glare problems.

Books are almost dead

macias's picture

I think ereaders would kill books right now if only one thing was done -- making software totally open-source. I own DR 1000 and it is great, but its speed and bugs are killing me. Huge part of the software is open-sourced already but the core is not, so I (and other users) have to wait when manufacturer will finally make the fixes.

I can tell you, they are not too eager to do this.

And did anyone see a book which hanged up while turning pages. Or a book that turning page from 10 to 11 took x10 more time than turning page 20 to 21? I guess not. So for now, books are safe. Small ereaders are joke, TTF ones will ruin your eyes, Kindles would erase the content as they will be told to, DR1000 is buggy, and so on and so on. So far, every manufacturer tries hard to screw something. And they are successing in doing this.

Onyx boox

jimbauwens's picture

My brother has done some investigation in e-ink e-book readers, and he stumbled on the Onyx Boox.
This e-reader has the touchscreen layer under the e-ink screen wich makes visibility better.
The onyx boox runs Linux and is fully open source and they even encourage people to develop for it . It has a webkit based webbrowser and supports many filetypes.


Not impressed either... yet?

Bill's picture

I'm sure ebooks and ereaders will get better, but why is it not better yet? I have toyed with a friend's Kindle and Kindle2. I am not impressed. For pleasure reading, sure, it's okay at best. But like you, i require good pdf display. I'm waiting for someone to make an ereader that folds like a book such that 2 pages can be viewed side by side or 1 large 8.5x11 page can be displayed if the device is rotated 90 deg. This would make the 2 page format (like a book!) 8.5" tall by 5.5" wide per page. I have a lot of books with that approximate dimension! The single full page of 8.5x11 when perhaps snapped into place as a single page would provide us with the reference size needed for our nerdy docs and textbooks.

As for the file structure, i also would like to copy/paste to a memory card and then read them from a file explorer just as they are on the card. This is how i organize my pdfs on my pc and it's how i want to pull them up on my device. Are there no focus groups who have ever brought up this issue or is the industry that stubborn?

As for the speed, i cannot fathom why it is so atrocious. We're talking about a fancy TI-92 calculator screen, just bigger (not much though)! An ARM cpu with 64 megs of ram a decent Li battery in my 2 sided book design above should be more than enough to power a simple doc reading app on top of Linux with very simple video output! If upping the processor decreases my battery life from 50 hours to 20 hours then GOOD! I would rather have a responsive device than long battery life. (This is why i abhor Dish Network... the receivers have very slow processors, making channel changing very slow!)

I would also like color, but outside of a textbook for learning (chemistry/biology/etcetera), i do not need color.

And why are the ebooks so expensive? It costs maybe $0.01 to distribute an ebook. Add a small fee to the publisher and the rest to the author. The publishers are sitting on their high horses right now, but when they fall, i will be kicking them in the kidneys and throwing dirt in their faces for their monopolized raping of my wallet.

When the industry produces a decent ereader, i will buy it. I'm glad to see i'm not the only fool who hates the current garbage in the market.

Similar experiences

Morten Juhl-Johansen Zölde-Fejer's picture

This more or less matches the inpression I got with the Nook from Barnes and Noble. Does this have something to do with the ePaper, too?

publishing standards and eReaders

Doug T's picture

Since recently getting a Kindle I have had similar problems when I wanted to review existing PDFs (particularly instrument landing approach plates and 2 column files) as well as LinuxJournal issues. However, for general reading purposes, the convenience of being able to browse for, immediately buy and receive a book and keeping a large library on it is unbeatable. In fact, it's possible that I have bought my last book for simple enjoyment reading (like I bought my last CD when I got an iPod). To address the issues with journals and so on, are publishing standards and conventions likely to change to accommodate eReaders? Should authors keep eReaders in mind when writing/formatting/publishing anything?

Same here

War-N's picture

I have found the exact same shortcomings on (first) and Kindle 2 and (now) a Kindle DX. While they render "true" e-books quite nicely, the large majority of of my digital library consists of PDF files (including Linux Journal). I had been looking forward to toting these around with me to read at will. Even on the large Kindle DX, though, the text for magazine PDFs (including Linux Journal) is unreadable. I'm rather disappointed by this, but I DO have higher hopes for more capable e-readers in the coming year.

The question I ask myself, though, is if I'm trying to force my "old school" PDF format on these snazzy new e-readers? Is it just a question of acquiring new versions or converting my content to one of the many e-reader formats?


David Lane's picture

While PDF is a little long in the tooth, there is still a considerable amount of paper tied up in the format and there is some issue in my mind about how easy converting format from PDF to some more modern ebook style is going to be, or how successful. Clearly, there are issues with PDF, as my rendering problems pointed out, but how to resolve that is up in the air, especially when the document resolves just fine in other media. This is not to say PDFs are foolproof. I have lost a number of hours to making a PDF work right across a number of platforms, only to have issues. So I am certainly not wedded to format, but if that is what the industry is providing me, to some extent I have to suck it up and be able to support it, both as a consumer and a device provider.

Thanks for the input on Linux Journal on the Kindle. Our internal group has been studying it as another method of distribution.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

I have a Kindle DX, and how

Richard Heck's picture

I have a Kindle DX, and how well PDF works varies greatly by PDF. If the PDF is mostly text, then the Kindle can reflow the text much as it can with Mobi, and then it works well. If the PDF is mostly scanned images, as many of the old journal articles I want to read are, then you're stuck with one page per screen, and there's not much to do about it. With mixtures of text and images, I think you run into similar problems.


Michael's picture

I love my Kindle, now if it only did RTTY.......

RTTY on a Kindle....

David Lane's picture

Tell you what get RTTY working on the Kindle and I will make sure you are in the next edition of Amateur Radio and Linux ;-)

(I should point out that it isn't all that far fetched. I once used my Palm VII as a packet terminal with a KPC3 and an HT.)

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

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