My view on eBooks is that they should be a good substitute for the printed word. I want to be able to pick up my eReader anywhere I could use a printed book and be reading my book in as quick a time as I could find my place in that printed book.

I don’t want eye strain when reading. I can read quite small print books but I want the option for larger fonts, in the same way you can get large print books, for the members of my family who struggle with small print.

For me this means an e-Ink screen. e-Ink looks like pen on paper. It has a similar reflective nature to paper and can be used outdoor without issue (an area that LCD screens usually struggle with).  I can talk with some authority on this as i have also used a lot of LCD based screens to read books over the years – I started reading eBooks on a Pocket PC way back – and although I will occasionally still read off my mobile phone screen if I happen not to have brought my eReader with me, I really would not want to go back to LCD as my main reading platform. e-Ink does have some disadvantages though; currently it is only capable of black on white images,  it is slow to refresh and you can’t read e-Ink in the dark. Let’s take those one at a time:

  • Colour e-Ink readers are coming very soon probably this year. I can see the advantage of colour for papers,magazines and some illustrated books but it is not a major advantage for most fiction books – after all most paper based books are monochrome.
  • The refresh only really occurs when changing pages and navigating menus. When navigating menus this can be frustrating which is why I think some of the modern readers have as seperate LCD panel for navigation but I have to argue that you spend very little time in the menus on a reader. You tend just to use the menu to chose the next book to read. Once into reading the book you only get a screen refresh when changing pages. With modern readers this refresh takes no longer than turing a page in a paper book would. I know some people do find this screen refresh distracting but there has been a lot of work done recently to reduce the refresh times and improve this experience
  • You cannot read a paper book in the dark either. For me the benefit of the clarity of e-Ink and the comfort of reading make up for this limitation. You can get a number of cases with built in lamps for most eReaders as well – one thing to note the batteries for these rarely last one charge of the ebook

One final point on eInk/ePaper, I know people do sometimes point out that the screen backgrounds are not a pure white more of a gray. I have recently being doing a lot of work with the TintMyScreen technology from OmniRead group who are specialists in the effects of background colour on reading comfort.

One of their conclusions is that pure white backgrounds are not the best for the majority of people to read from. Of course OmniRead would really like to see eReaders having customisable background colours to help people read better on them but, in the meantime,  the off-grey of readers does suit quite a lot more people than a white backoround. Indeed when I ran through the OmniRead tests my optimal screen colour is virtually the same off-grey as my reader shows.

Full disclosure my company Whittaker Moore Associates Limited developed the testing routine for TintMyScreen based on OmniRead’s patented processes, we are also working on a joint venture with them to provide a mobile testing enviroment and a method of tinting devices.

Back to the subject in hand, I want to be able to take my reader with me and not have to worry about charging it for a whole trip – in my case that usually means being able to read 2 to 3 books without charge.

Steve Jobs recently said when talking about the iPad’s battery life that noone would read for more than 10 hours and they could charge daily. True enough that noone will  probably read continuously for 10 hours but I may want to read a book sporadically over more than 10 hours. An example of this is a long flight. I often have flights that exceed 24 hours with transfers. The transfers usually lead to me sitting in an airport for a couple of hours – I want my eReader to work then. I am not sure how long the iPad will last when turned off but my laptop is often pretty lacking in charge when I get to the transfer point even when it has been put to sleep. My eBook will survive that long and more. Depending how I turn the Sony off I can get several days or even several months life out of it.  This is another major benefit of eInk over LCD technology – eInk only uses battery when the content is changed whereas LCD constantly needs some power to maintain state.

The next thing I want out of my book reader is easy navigation of content – it is no good having a load of books if you can’t find the one you want to read easilly. I also want to be able to get back to the page I was reading quickly even I have changed to another book in the meantime. For me this latter situation happens quite a lot. I carry a lot more than just conventional books on my eReader I might download guide information for my destination, notes for talks I am giving, even the odd daily cartoon. Sometimes I might want to hop and read one of these and then go back later to reading a book I am midway through. I can do this easilly with my Sony reader but others I have tried make it difficult. This particularly seems to be the case with eReader software developed for more generic devices such as mobile phones.

Finally and this is much less of an issue these days I want to be able to access a wide range of content and easilly get it onto my device. For me I am not worried if I have to connect the reader to my PC to upload those books – I can store hundred of books on the device I am highly unlikely to run out of reading material when away from my PC.  I know some people see wireless access as a good thing and I can get this for accessing periodical material like news and magazines but for books I am truly not concerned.

There used to be an issue in that most reader’s used their own book formats and books were not interchangeable – fortunately most publishers have moved to Adobe’s ePub format (the kindle being the big exception here but I guess Amazon’s huge book list makes up for that)

One point on ePub – people get confused with ePub and Adobe Digital Editions. It is an easy mistake as most publishers using ePub are using ePub protected by Digital Editions but they don’t have to. ePub is a format for containing text and images in a format that can easilly be displayed on multitude of screen sizes and allows for easy resizing and flow. Nothing in the ePub standard determines what form of content protection should be used. Indeed it is quite possible to sell ePub books without any copy protection. Most publishers have chosen to protec their books with Digital Editions which is a form of Digital Rights Management that locks that content to a certain number of devices which are registered to your Adobe ID.  Although the number of devices is fairly generous I am still not the fan of DRM. I certainly am not a fan of the idea that stores can chose to use different forms of DRM going forward and that devices may not support interchangeable books. I already have quite a few books in Sony’s old format which I will not be able to use if I change device. The book industry needs to leanr a few lessons from the music industry’s experiences.

So to summarise what makes a good book reader – ease of use and convenience. A good easy to read screen, great battery life, ease of use and good content. Those are the standards I will be using when I review devices here.


One thought on “What makes a great eBook reader.”

Leave a Reply