Archive for July, 2007

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iPhone and eBooks: an Early Flirtation

July 29, 2007

Hands On

I played with the iPhone for an extended period yesterday, and it delivered the revolutionary, eye-popping experience that everyone has described. It’s clear that this is the future — not just for mobile phones, but for handheld devices of all types, tablet PCs and perhaps other categories of devices we haven’t yet envisioned.

I took a look at the same ebooks that I posted previously to see how they behaved in real life. The one thing the photographs can’t convey is the extraordinary sharpness, brilliant color and overall quality of the display. Even when the PDFs were reduced to fit the full page on the screen, the text was actually still readable, though at such a tiny size that it was necessary to magnify the page to be comfortable. The pages rendered more beautifully than they do on my MacBook Pro with its high-quality screen.

As I noted in the earlier post, the iPhone has some serious (but very correctable) shortcomings in its PDF and file handling. But even given those limitations, the iPhone is still surprisingly usable for certain kinds of content.

The comic book Lullaby was very readable through the phone’s mail app, given its highly graphical nature and short length. Moving with light finger motions from panel to panel felt comfortable and natural.

The Avant-Guide Las Vegas also worked reasonably well as a reference guide where I might look up short bits of content, though navigating to specific material within the book would be a problem given the limited navigation tools.

The promise here is very real. My previous speculation (based solely on word-of-mouth and a few still photos) is confirmed — a few software updates could make the iPhone (and its offspring, especially the ones that evolve a larger display) the killer devices in the ebook world.

I’ll continue to experiment with the iPhone and I’ll post more thoughts and perhaps a video or two here. Stayed tuned!

Related Posts

iPhones and eBooks: The Video
iPhone Reader: The Long Sessions

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Starship Troopers and the Nine-Year-Old: Heinlein at 100

July 26, 2007

heinlein2.jpgRobert Heinlein influenced me deeply. In ways I won’t ever fully know. I read Starship Troopers when I was nine, and it was the title that set fully ablaze an already-smouldering early love for the written word. Whatever else might be said about its political or cultural overtones, it remains a smashing, action-packed story that grabbed a hold of my young imagination and never really let go.

In later years, I discovered Stranger in a Strange Land — 10-15 years too late to catch its counter-culture heyday, but multiple readings still gave the desired mind-stretching effect.

With the one hundredth anniversary of Heinlein’s birth being celebrated this month, it seemed a good time to remember.

Read Taylor Dinerman’s look back at Heinlein’s legacy for the Wall Street Journal here. Jim Downey also recounts the events at the Heinlein Centennial Gala here.

(via Entertaining Research)

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Wandering the Mirror-World: Pattern Recognition

July 25, 2007

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

Lest you think I read nothing but books in digital format, I just picked up William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition in good-old-fashioned paperback. It’s been waiting on my shelves for some years, and my recent completion of One Hundred Years of Solitude left an opening for those moments when I want or need to read sans gadgetry.

Gibson creates immersion. Each time I unseal the book’s pages, I feel a distinct shift as I enter its otherworld — heroine Cayce Pollard’s obsessive, design-centric existence. Intensifying the effect, hers is a kind of mirror-world of mine. Like Cayce, I’ve sat in meetings in over-designed design offices, with their softly glowing walls and self-consciously minimalist splashes of color on mono — where accent-inflected Euromales and hard-visaged New York femmes defined fashion solely in shades of black. I felt like I was wandering vaguely wide-eyed in an alternate universe then, and revisiting through Cayce’s eyes is like seeing it mirror-on-mirror, an endlessly-engrossing recursion.

More on this as the story develops.

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Banned Books in America: A Timeline

July 25, 2007

banned booksAkumagoro posted a nice narrative timeline of banned books in the US.

These are tangible and literal examples of Frank Herbert’s incantation, “Fear is the mind-killer…”

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On Order: the Lenovo X61T Tablet

July 25, 2007

Lenovo X61T Tablet PCYesterday, I talked a little about the various devices that might be used for reading ebooks. We decided to go ahead and order this guy — the one I put at the high end of the spectrum — a Windows-based tablet PC.

Looking at the various tablets that are out there, this one on paper sounds like a good candidate. At just over four pounds and a little more than an inch thick, it’s at least in the ballpark for a comfortable read while lounging on the couch. With a transflective screen that Lenovo claims is very readable outdoors, it could be a good read out on the park bench, too. A claimed battery life of seven hours means I could sit on that park bench in real life for at least 3 or 4. The 12.1 inch display should be big and sharp enough to comfortably display a full-size PDF without having to squint. The screen responds to both stylus and a finger touch, so page flipping and note taking can be done with the most appropriate tool.

With a walk-out price of over $1800, it’s obvious that no one would ever buy this machine solely for reading an ebook. On the other hand, if you’re like me, you might need to have a laptop handy most of the time anyway so this might be a viable option (or, in my case, a good-enough substitute until Apple makes its own Mac/iPhone hybrid tablet!).

When the machine gets here, we’ll know for certain and I’ll be sure to post the results here.

Have you had any luck using a tablet for ebook reading? How about for day-to-day computing?

Update: It’s in! Take a hands-on first look.

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eBook Readers: Looking for Just Right

July 23, 2007

tablets, dedicated devices and handhelds

In my last post, I talked about a workaround for adapting a laptop for better ebook reading. But surely there are better options?

The current crop of devices that are being used as readers seems to be split into three groups.

At the top end are tablet PCs like the Lenovo X60t. A full-up Windows-based machine, it’s a general purpose ultraportable laptop that can be converted into a stylus- or touch-driven tablet. While the good-sized color screens and form factor are nice, it’s not inexpensive at $1200+, batteries drain fairly quickly and it’s a bit chunky for a cozy read in bed. Worse, the full Windows functionality implies increased maintenance overhead. Clearly, if you need a tablet PC for other reasons, this type of machine makes sense but I certainly wouldn’t want to have to update virus definitions just to read a book.

At the bottom (in terms of ebook reader functionality) are small handhelds and phones adapted for the purpose, including the iPhone. While these are undeniably useful for on-the-go applications where you don’t want to lug around a bigger device, I personally don’t relish the idea of reading longer texts (especially for pleasure) in this way.

The category that holds the promise of being just right is the mid-size dedicated or multi-function device, like the Sony Reader or the iRex iLiad. Both are based on e-ink technology, which means very sharp and readable grayscale displays and much long battery life compared to LCD-based tablet PCs. Both weigh less than a pound, and critically, they can show a book-sized page without scrolling.

The iLiad is the more capable — and expensive — of the two. In addition to reader capabilities, it can surf the Web via wi-fi and it allows on-screen writing and notation using a Wacom pressure-sensitive pen. At $700, it’s a stretch unless its additional functionality can justify the cost. Yet, functionally, it’s actually quite close to my concept of an ideal reader. For example, this video from an iLiad user shows that it is very capable of supporting books and graphic novels from WOWIO.

The Sony Reader is a much more specialized device, supporting reading only, with no wi-fi, Internet or writing capabilities. But at $300, the price is certainly much better.

In both cases, the price vs. functionality equation is not necessarily compelling for most. But the buying rush prompted by a recent deal on the Sony Reader demonstrates the pent-up demand for a low-cost but capable device of this type. Similarly, the huge interest in an expensive but highly functional device like the iPhone indicates that given a powerful feature set and outstanding usability (mixed with a good dash of marketing élan), a high price tag would not necessarily be a deterrent for a device of this type.

I’ll be continuing to look at devices like these in more detail in the coming weeks, examining just how usable they are and — more importantly — whether they can be used to really enjoy a good read.

Related Posts

Lenovo X61T Hands-On: A Bookworm’s First Ride
iPhone and eBooks: The Video
Sony Reader: Mammal or Dinosaur?

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eBooks: The Reader’s Experience, Part 1.5

July 20, 2007

Reading an Ebook Vertically

As I continue my experiment in actually reading ebooks, I’ve been experimenting with ways to make the experience work better for me. The photo illustrates one of my current methods of viewing an ebook on a laptop, which I use when the content isn’t better viewed as a two-page spread and I’m settling down for an extended read. It optimizes the display by filling up most of the screen with a single page, providing text that is actually a bit larger than a typical print book. At the same time, the distractions of the OS are completely hidden behind Acrobat Reader’s full-screen mode.

Obviously, the ergonomics are a compromise. Given the standard laptop configuration, the weight distribution is all wrong since the bulk of the machine is concentrated in the keyboard/cpu portion. My wife’s smaller and lighter MacBook with its stubbier aspect ratio is much better suited. Even so, I very much wish I could lop off that whole half — which would pretty much leave a thin and light tablet computer. As long as we’re at it, let’s throw in a higher-res display, an iPhone style interface and some Flash storage and we would already have my ideal ebook reader.

It’s so close. Apple? Will you help?