After a week with Waterstones' new Sony eBook Reader I now have a definite view on the future of this technology. I like it. Faced with the 100 free classics which come with the unit, I've worked my way through Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities plus I have rummaged around in several other books. So far, the experience has been positive and I have bought three novels from the Waterstones on-line store. What I like about the Sony is that it is thin and compact. From the front it is the same size as an average paperback, but about one third of the thickness. While it weighs a bit more than a paperback, this isn't noticeable and it is more comfortable to hold and read than a real book.
The display, the new liquid ink technology, is very easy on the eye and is just as easy to see in all light conditions as the page of a normal book. There is no backlighting, so you need the same levels of ambient light that you would need for ordinary reading. In most lighting conditions, though, the screen is bright and clear and there is no problem with glare in sunlight, for instance.
Controls are very simple. There are buttons for page forward and back and they are not easily pressed by mistake. I have read reviews of the Amazon Kindle, for instance, where it is criticised because the page-turn bar is too easily pressed so you lose your place. Another button adjusts type size–small, medium and large, roughly equivalent to 9pt, 12pt and 16pt. So there is a display for everyone and older readers will appreciate the ability to choose a really large typeface.
Whichever type you choose, the pagination is dynamic. There is no scrolling, you just press to turn the page. Obviously, if you choose the largest typeface the number of pages in the book increases accordingly. The operation is very simple. Apart from the above adjustments and the list-view of books, the only other option is to look at bookmarks. You create them by pressing a bookmark button and the system keeps track of the most recent marks. Using this facility you can jump between several books and always know where you are up to. In most cases, I simply switch off the book when I want to pause. As soon as you switch on again the display comes back to the last-viewed page.
After a week, I now prefer to read the Sony rather than a standard book. This is quite a statement and I didn't think I would be so impressed. I can now envisage a time when I can pick up my eBook reader and have my entire library in my hand. This isn't so far fetched because we already have that facility with music and the iPod.
At the moment the problem is that not all publishers are willing to take part in electronic publication. There are gaping holes in the lists and it is still necessary to buy real books if you want to follow some of your favourite authors. If you only read classics, though, you are in luck because they are mostly out of copyright and freely available in electronic form.
I predict that electronic books will grab the imagination of the public sooner than anyone predicts. Once the market gets to critical mass, the publishers will flock to join the bandwagon. In the meantime, we are pioneers.
There are several ebook readers available in the UK but the main contenders are the Sony from Waterstones and the Rex Iliad from Borders. Amazon are likely to join the fray soon with their Kindle which is linked to the Amazon on-line store. The Iliad has many more features, such as annotation, but is twice the price (£400) and is just too large. The Sony does a good job of replacing a book and keeps the options to the bare minimum. At the moment I like that, although in the future I can envisage making more use of footnotes, annotations and cross-referencing.
For the moment, though, it is thumbs up to ebook readers. Anyone who wants to criticise should read a complete ebook before holding forth.