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eBook Reader Technology Scorecard

August 31, 2007

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I’ve been evaluating different ebook reading technologies over the last months, and I think it’s time for an interim report card on just how suitable the different technologies are for the purpose. My ratings are extrapolated a bit to try to account for the capabilities of a category as a whole rather than any specific device, but it’s obviously an inexact art. I’ll also put out the immediate disclaimer that this discussion is based on a limited sample of devices which aren’t wholly representative of the range of available gear. For fun, though, I’ll even include hypothetical ratings on a machine that doesn’t yet exist — my dream ebook machine, the mythical iTablet or iSlate. This not-so-farfetched device is like an iPhone grown up into a slick, touch-driven, Mac OS X tablet computer.

These hardware categories — desktop, laptop, tablet, dedicated reader, mobile and mythical iTablet — are rated on six criteria that affect the reading experience:

Compatibility refers to a machine’s ability to open ebook files and other documents in various formats. Are proprietary and DRM’d formats supported? Are workarounds required or even available for opening these formats?

Form Factor is a qualitative measure of how comfortable the devices are for reading. Does it pass the reading-on-the-couch test? How about the even more rigorous trial of reading in bed?

Portability is an indicator of size and weight. Is it something that I’ll want to casually carry around, or will I need to consider trade-offs to save room in my messenger bag or, more importantly, to save my back?

Display is a subjective measure of how good the screen is for the purpose of reading. This encompasses hard data like color, screen resolution and screen size, but it also is a subjective measure of how comfortable the reading experience is and how well it renders and displays text.

Battery Life is an indicator of how often the device needs to be charged on a typical usage cycle. This includes drain from other uses, so if I typically use a laptop for general computing and use up the battery, this is included in the measure. A dedicated device is, by definition, largely used for a single purpose and thus would have fewer other applications leeching from its usable batter life.

Experience is an effort to sum up all of the subjective and sometimes intangible qualities in a single number. This includes the device’s feel in-hand, negative distractions from the reading experience (such as system demands for attention — did someone say “Vista?”), interface usability and even that ultimate example of subjectivity— the fun factor.

The Scorecard

feature desktop laptop tablet reader mobile iTablet
compatibility 10 10 10 4 6 7
form factor 1 3 8 8 6 10
portability 0 5 7 9 10 8
display 9 9 9 5 3 10
battery life n/a 5 6 10 8 7
experience 1 4 6 6 5 9

Notes

Compatibility ratings are high for the general-purpose computers, since they can generally handle anything that can be thrown at them. One major exception is the lack of support for some proprietary DRM formats on the Mac.

the hypothetical iTablet displaying a comic book

The hypothetical iTablet.

The mythical iTablet would have limited initial support for these formats, but being a general-purpose and relatively open machine, software could be developed for the purpose.

The form factor for the tablet PC gains a few points for a large and flexible display, but loses them again for being somewhat bulky compared to a dedicated reader. Conversely, the dedicated reader gains points for svelteness but loses a few for the relatively small screen. These factors are a wash for me, resulting in the tie score.

Display ratings for the mythical machine are higher than the other general-purpose machines based on the assumption that it will sport a superior display like that in the iPhone.

Text display on e-ink-based dedicated readers like the Sony Reader would be a point or two higher for text read in good light. The lower score in the table reflects poorer performance in marginal lighting conditions. Displays on LCD-based dedicated readers like the iLiad are closer to the ratings for tablet devices.

The tablet would rate higher on overall experience if it were just a little lighter and more compact, and if the operating system required less care and feeding. I ding the mobile devices for overall experience because I don’t like reading on tiny screens unless I have to, even given the superior screen and great ebook potential of something like the iPhone. Your mileage on this, like everything else on this table, will vary.

A Moving Target

I’d like to make this table a living document, updating it periodically as the technologies evolve and adding additional criteria as needed. If you have suggestions for additional measures, let me know. And if you violently disagree with my ratings — or just have your own ideas — I’d love to see your version of the table and the reasoning behind it!

Related Posts

Lenovo X61T: The Reading-on-the-Couch Test
Sony Reader: Mammal or Dinosaur?
eBook Readers: Looking for Just Right
iPhone and eBooks: the Video

13 comments

  1. Well, the Mobipocket reader is really nice, and lets you read on a lot of devices, and you can play with the type size and format to suit yourself. My book Master of the Jinn in on it, and it looks really good. But the best thing about an ebook may not be for the general reader, but for school, where all the text books could be stored on one iLiad of example. And libraries could download an ebook to your computer by just going online with your library card.

    What I really want is a Tricorder from Star Trek that can do anything🙂


  2. Funny, the old Star Trek-style slate is exactly my mental picture of the iTablet in use. Unintrusive and multi-purpose, it would be as handy and portable as a legal pad but with most of the functionality of a laptop or tablet PC.

    Mobipocket is undeniably handy, but I wish it were available on more platforms, particularly the Mac.


  3. I know you said iTablet was mythical but please tell me you’ve heard that this is in production. Oh, man. I save up for years to afford that thing.


  4. The iTablet has to be coming, in some form. The iPhone’s multitouch interface is Apple’s future, and it will inevitably migrate in some appropriate way to the bigger machines. Steve Jobs was asked about multitouch for Macs at last month’s release of the new iMac, and he said, “Classify that as a research project.” Whatever that means.


  5. While we’re waiting for the real thing, Engadget posted a set of fun Apple mockups a while back, including several iTablets that we can dream about. Or there’s the ModBook, but it suffers from the same problem that Tablet PCs do — the Mac’s OS X interface isn’t designed for touch control the way the iPhone is.


  6. Thanks, Gerry. I’m definitely checking those out. One can dream right?


  7. I think you should add a category for PDAs, since I assume your “Mobile” category is referring to a mobile phone display, which is generally tiny.

    While most PDAs offer poor pixel density in this day and age, some are starting to take things to a new level.

    I’m currently on the fence about buying an eInk reader such as the Sony Reader or the soon to be release Cybook Gen 3, or going with a next-gen PDA/Mobile such as the HTC Advantage x7500/x7501. It has a bright 5″ VGA screen (640×480) and 6+ hours of battery life (if you have the various radios turned off).

    I suppose eyestrain could be another metric for your column, though it is highly subjective. Some people complain that reading eBooks on LCDs isn’t as pleasant as on an e-Ink display.

    I’m so confused about which way to go. I look forward to your future updates to this story.


  8. Mike, I had considered adding a separate category for PDAs, but that whole category of devices seems to be dying off, with its niche overrun by smartphones, UMPCs, iPods and other devices. I suppose that given the HTCs’ upwardly-mobile specs and the blurring of distinctions between a UMPC and high-end PDA, those could really be lumped together.

    As for an eyestrain metric, I’d like to keep that within the “display” category since they’re so closely intertwined. I definitely agree that the e-ink display is beautiful and somehow more comfortable than LCD, as long as the reading light is good.

    I share your confusion about picking a reader. A friend just asked me for a recommendation, and I’ve been dithering because none of the solutions are really very satisfying…


  9. Thanks for this blog. I’m relatively new to ebooks, now on my third Sony Reader with a cracked screen. (I travel overseas and relied – past tense – on it for reading.) I did not know I was paying a premium for the books from Sony and how limited the selection was until recently. Adobe is the best-looking format to my eyes, but I cna only use it on my laptop.

    The information in the blog gives me a little hope, but I do like the PDA form factor, if only they would do bigger screens. The iPod touch has a good form factor and is pretty readable, but very expensive and Apple is apparently not letting the ebook reader software people work on its devices.

    For now, I’m reading on my Treo using Microsoft Reader. Because it works which surprises me. I tried Mobipocket Reader but their server has been down over and over again – a huge disappointment coming out of Amazon. Plus Mobipocket’s support is even worse than Sony’s – ten days to respond on their only support mechanism, their forum. Amazon flopped with ebooks before and they’ll probably do it again after people get over-reliant on their format. They used to be a nice small company. Now they’re the big cheese and they know they don’t have to provide the ebook service to get the customers.

    Unfortunately, the screen on my Treo is waaay too small. I love that I can hold it in one hand and that it is backlit.

    (My Sony is basically a two-handed read, not nearly as comfortable on an airplane or in a hotel bed at night. And about 75% of the books I want to read are not available on Sony. Of the remainder, I can always find them cheaper on some other site. Check out Fictionwise and Booksonboard for better prices. And Sony does not do night-time or weekend support. By the time, they respond, I can go find a bookstore and buy the paperback – for less – and read the whole book! Booksonboard seems to respond round the clock, seven days, though they don’t say anything about it on their website. And fictionwise seems pretty fast during weekdays.)

    If my Treo screen was about the size of the phone itself, it would be good. Does anyone know if there is anything like that coming?

    Thanks, Monty


  10. Monty, it sounds like you’re describing an iPhone. I just finished reading my first book on one, and I have to say that it was an very comfortable and pleasant experience. The screen is particularly detailed and sharp. The infinite levels of zoom along with the switchable orientation (portrait or landscape) make it quite compatible with PDF-formatted books.

    Once Apple or a third party releases software to allow for easy movement of files onto the device and it gets proper reader software with bookmarking, it will be an extremely good little ebook reader. At the moment, though, a lack of these tools makes it difficult for mainstream users to use the iPhone for this purpose.


  11. iPhone makes sense. So long as Apple does not stick with proprietary format ebooks like Sony. I’m starting to accumulate ebooks now and I would not want to see the ones I have not be readable on the device. Maybe iPhone and Microsoft Reader will work together. There really isn’t any reason not to let all the ebook softwares work on an iPhone, is there?


  12. Monty, some notes about the Sony Reader and PDF files… the Reader does display PDF files as long as they are not copy protected.

    The other problem with PDFs on the Reader is the limited zooming, which often makes the text too small to read in portrait orientation. Holding down the “size” button will cause the display to rotate to landscape orientation, and the wider display area allows the text to enlarge to a more comfortable size.

    If you’re looking for an inexpensive source of ebooks from major publishers, do be sure to check out WOWIO, which is the company I work for. The price is right — free — and the PDF files are not copy protected so you can read them on the Sony. I do this regularly on my own Reader.


  13. I really love my ebookwise ebookreader. It isn’t fancy or amazing, but it does do ebooks really well. It is also rather inexpensive.

    http://www.ebooklvr.com



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