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Travel and eBooks: A Jet-Lagged Perspective

December 11, 2007

Airbus

Having just returned from a trans-Pacific journey involving 20+ hour flight times, I can now say that long, economy-class encapsulation has given me a new perspective on the relative qualities of ebook readers.

In preparation for the travel, I loaded up the iPhone, the Sony Reader and the MacBook Pro with titles. The choices I made among my reading devices are telling — notably missing is the X61T Tablet PC, since I didn’t want to haul a second laptop-sized machine in addition to my primary Mac. If you plan to travel with a laptop and you also want to use a tablet computer as an ebook reader, make sure those two machines are one in the same. iPhone world clockOtherwise, be prepared to consistently leave one of them behind (or risk a sore back). The iPhone came along by default, since I needed a phone and texting device. The laptop was optional, but I wanted to bring it along so I could process photographs on the road. The Sony almost stayed home, but its small footprint and low weight made it an easy last minute addition despite my already-overloaded messenger bag.

Even before getting on the plane, I knew I wouldn’t be using the Mac for reading purposes. With a battery life of just 2-4 hours (and aircraft power ports limited to Business Class), it had little chance of making it through even the short hops, much less the main ocean crossing. I saved it for computer-specific tasks.

The iPhone looked better on paper, given its multi-faceted functionality, long-ish battery life and its status as my current-favorite reader. Unfortunately, the iPhone’s current software shortcomings got in the way of using it for reading. The hack I use to access PDFs requires access to the Apache web server that I installed, but when the iPhone is in airplane mode, Mobile Safari is blocked from accessing the server. While I could still view the PDFs with either the Mobile Mail program or the third-party PDFViewer v0.3, neither method enables landscape viewing (necessary for readable text sizes without horizontal scrolling) and the latter is too immature to use reliably.

In the end, the Sony’s seemingly inexhaustible battery life made it the only useful device for reading on the long-duration flights. I easily fit my wife’s and my own reading choices on an SD card, with multiple titles for each of us (her primary read turned out to be Cat’s Cradle while I finished up Letters from St. Petersburg and started Some Sunny Day). Such an extended selection would have been impractical in print format. Unlike my last trip, however, I made no attempt to use an ebook travel guide, since the limited navigation and slow response on the Sony had previously proven useless for reference tasks. We lugged along an old-fashioned (and bulky) paper version of Lonely Planet Philippines instead.

The next time I need to cross an ocean, I’m looking forward to further advances in the state of the ebook reading art. While the Sony turned out to be a pretty workable solution, I’d ideally still prefer to carry a single device for all of my in-flight entertainment needs. With the iPhone software development kit promised for next February, its ebook software situation should be up to speed soon. Its fast and flexible interface would also enable Lonely Planet-style reference look-ups, which will allow me to leave that last heavy chunk of paper at home.

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