Archive for September, 2007

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iSlate vs. iPhone: A Clear Reading Advantage

September 27, 2007
iSlate sketch

iSlate is said to be 1.5x larger than iPhone.

The long-dreamed-about iSlate is once again a hot topic, as fresh rumors claim that Apple has been working on such a device for 18 months and that it may hit the market sometime in 2008.

While some question the likelihood or even usefulness of such a device, the iSlate and its bigger display have at least one clear advantage over the iPhone — it would be ideally suited for reading documents like web pages or ebooks, while the iPhone is a compromise requiring changes in zoom or display orientation.

In the simulated displays below, a page from the pdf ebook Letters from St. Petersburg is rendered to fit on the current iPhone’s 480×320 pixel resolution (left). Even zoomed in to fit the full width of the display in portrait orientation, the text is small and difficult to read. The same page is rendered at right on the rumored iSlate‘s much larger 720×480 screen — the entire page fits comfortably with room for additional zooming, while the text is already rendered at a more readable size.

iSlate vs. iPhone screens compared

This display spec, if true, supports speculation that the iSlate would be the opening salvo of an Apple campaign to transform books and reading, just as it has already done for music.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps we’ll see in just a few months…

Related Posts

iPhone and eBooks: an Early Flirtation
iPhone and eBooks: the Video
iPhone and iPod: Dense Pixels, Happy Eyes
eBook Reader Technology Scorecard
iPhone + Mac = iTablet: the Ideal eBook Reader?
iPhone Reader: The Long Sessions

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iPhone Reader: The Long Sessions

September 25, 2007

I managed to hold out for almost three months. While I had done some testing on an iPhone, I didn’t buy one for myself — that is, not until my 5G iPod met an untimely death against unyielding hardwood and “necessity” provided the required excuse.

reading on the iPhone

In a fit of geekiness, I performed the required hacks on the newly-purchased machine to install third-party applications such as file transfer utilities and the Apache web server. This allowed me to directly move several PDF ebooks onto the phone and to read them from the Safari browser by pointing at its own web server (i.e., no Internet connection required). The one major limitation with this is file size: Mobile Safari refuses to load PDF files much larger than 8 megs or so.

Easy on the Eyes

iPhone text enlarged

Actual iPhone text, enlarged.

I’ve now had several multi-hour reading sessions on the iPhone, and I’m finding that it affirms my earlier impressions that its display and touch interface are quite well suited to the purpose of reading long, text-oriented PDFs. The ultra-sharp screen and flexible zooming — combined with easy rotation to landscape orientation — allow fixed-page (non-reflowable) PDFs to display at a comfortable reading size. While I’ve generally hated reading on small devices like PDAs in the past, the iPhone’s excellent display makes it not just viable but actually quite enjoyable. I read in a variety of lighting conditions, including bright outdoor sunlight, artificial light and total darkness, and in all cases, the display performed brilliantly.

Tactile Pleasures

scrolling a long ebook on the iPhone

Scrolling is pleasantly tactile.

Touching the slippery-smooth glass to scroll through the book made the experience pleasantly tactile, somehow better echoing the positive visceral experience of turning pages of a paper book than the mechanical, button-pushing motion used on most other reading devices. Since the touch interface permits for simultaneous scrolling in both horizontal and vertical directions, I expected to have some trouble with unintentionally moving diagonally instead of straight down, but the system seems to have built-in smarts to ignore such spurious motion off the main axis of movement.

Obstacles and Building Blocks

Lack of a bookmarking function for the book-length PDFs was a major problem. Each time I loaded the book into Safari, I had to manually scroll to the desired page — obviously not an ideal solution.

All in all, my longer-term experience with reading ebooks on the iPhone confirms my initial testing — its hardware and user interface show tremendous potential, but the lack of a readily-accessible file system and full-featured reader software will continue to hamper mainstream users. The building blocks are all in place. It’s now up to Apple — or the growing army of highly creative iPhone hackers — to put together all the pieces.

Related Posts

iPhone + Ebooks: Partial Solutions, July Dreams
iPhone and eBooks: an Early Flirtation
iPhone and eBooks: the Video
iPhone and iPod: Dense Pixels, Happy Eyes
eBook Reader Technology Scorecard

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A Personal Library for a Pixelated Future

September 24, 2007

a book dissolving into digital bitsFor the sake of argument, let’s say that the future of the book is cast — ebooks in some form will dominate, with paper books reserved for special works, as gifts and for hobbyist-collectors. Book stores and public libraries have already begun (or in the case of purely-digital stores like WOWIO, have already completed) the transformation from atoms to bits, and they will continue along their evolutionary paths paralleling those of the books.

But my wife — who has been using ebooks since her med school days in the 90s — brought up a good question the other night… what about our personal libraries? What will they look like once shelves lined with paper books become the exception? Today, guests can walk up to the book case to peruse the titles, whether to find entertainment, discover new titles or perhaps gain a little insight into the books’ owners. How does that work with a mostly-digital collection?

Part of the answer may be in front of us today, with iTunes and its shared media library. The software has already transformed the browsing and sharing patterns of mainstream music listeners, with its various visual and list-oriented browsing modes and its ability to share collections across a local network. This paradigm has spread to videos, audio books, podcasts and other media types as well. Even PDFs are partially supported. Extending the idea to full-blown ebooks is only a short stretch further, with listing options modified to support book-specific content.

iLibrary — the future of the personal book collection?

iTunes: one model for a future personal ebook and media library.
(click image to enlarge)

Extrapolating a bit further, all of the household’s books and other media could be shared on a primary household media machine with plenty of storage and a large, multi-touch screen for browsing or for more-focused use of music, video, games and the Internet. The ready access, sharable view and tactile experience would help retain the social and impulsive aspects of the book-browsing experience.

Casual page browsing in this scenario could be done on the large screen, but for serious reading, guests carrying iPhone-like devices could seamlessly join the local wireless network to access the household’s books (and other media). Alternatively, other types of devices in the household, like laptops or iSlates, could be borrowed for the purpose.

browsing the big-screen digital ebook library

Browsing the touch-enabled iLibrary.

This may sound suspiciously like a Microsoft fantasy home of the future. The difference is, aside from the big-screen touch interface, genuinely usable precursors of this concept are already in wide-spread use. Not just by those on the bleeding-edge, but by second-wave adopters like me.

streaming video from a central media server

House MD: from media library to kitchen.

I store music and video on a living room library machine — a relatively inexpensive Mac Mini connected to a big-screen HDTV — and access it wirelessly from other rooms on laptops and other devices. For example, the photo at right shows an iTunes-purchased episode of House MD streaming from the library Mini to a MacBook Pro in the kitchen as I cook dinner.

Even closer to the hypothetical scenario, I’ve also read ebook PDFs stored in the media library on an iPhone via OS X’s built-in Web sharing (this is a workaround for the iPhone’s current file system limitations which require somewhat kludgy hacks to store and access files directly on the iPhone).

All of this is done with no more technical knowledge than that required to set up a Wi-Fi network (a no-brainer with the Airport Express in my setup), along with the ability to use the simple sharing built into iTunes and the Mac.

So is this what a digital book library will look like? Will my mostly-linear extrapolation of existing technology be leap-frogged by something totally new?

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Star Trek Comics = Retro Geek Fun

September 21, 2007

If you’re a geek of a certain vintage like me, the otherworldly strains of the original Star Trek theme song can send little tingles up your spine — even 30+ years after those rapt childhood evenings watching the UHF-rerun adventures of Kirk, Spock and the starship Enterprise. For better or worse, those shows helped to define me. It’s no coincidence that I spent my first eight years after college working as an engineer on the Space Shuttle program.

When I spotted 60s-70s-era Star Trek comics on the WOWIO New Releases feed this morning (free downloads), I was there in a click. Back in the day, I watched the original series and the animated show, but I had never seen this comic.

The writing in the first book is a bit odd with, for example, Spock’s speech laden with uncharacteristic emotion and far too many exclamation points. Then again, the writers didn’t have the prism of decades of pop culture character development on which to base the dialogue. This settles down in the later books, though exclamation points don’t ever seem to really go away in comic-speak.

Bottom line: seeing Shatner and crew rendered in that now-retro comic book style is pure nostalgia.

Star Trek comic book panels

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New Sony Readers: Coming Soon!

September 10, 2007

ABT (via MobileRead) is listing two new models of the Sony Reader as “available for pre-order.” The new machines appear to have specifications similar to the current model, but with double the internal storage (160 books versus 80 on the previous model), improved control layout, and two color styles to choose from.

Sony Readers (small)

The current Sony Reader PRS-500 (left) and two new PRS-505 models in silver and blue.
click to enlarge

Judging from appearance, the new control layout seems improved over the current model. The menu (back) button has been separated from the cursor control, fixing the previous non-intuitive combination. The rough-edged and unpleasant-to-use cursor joystick has been replaced with a smoother-looking rocker switch. The numbered buttons are on the right, so they will align with corresponding menu choices when shown on-screen in the default vertical orientation. The secondary paging buttons are now positioned on the right, too, so they can be accessed without interference from the case’s left flap.

Sony Reader PRS 505 control layout

The software is still Windows only, so Mac users and others will still have to manage files via third-party software or a flash memory card. However, the Windows software is now listed as version 2.0 which presumably corresponds to improvements in the rather clunky 1.x software.

At first glance, these seem like nice incremental improvements. Unfortunately, the price remains $299. Sony’s experiments with reduced prices (I bought mine for $49) were apparently more about clearing old inventory than a precursor to a general price drop. The new units’ pricing remains steep enough to ensure that the Reader will remain a niche product.

According to the ABT web site, availability is expected in October 2007.

Update: The PRS-505 was apparently made public earlier than intended. ABT has since taken down the related product and search pages. The two models (silver and blue) are still viewable in the Google Cache.

Related Posts

New Sony Reader (PRS-505) Now Available
Sony Reader and the Mac: An Unfinished Story
Sony Reader: Mammal or Dinosaur?

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William Gibson

September 8, 2007

She looks after him, feeling a wave of longing, loneliness. Not sexual particularly, but to do with the nature of cities, the thousands of strangers you pass in a day, probably never to see again. It’s an emotion she first experienced a very long time ago, and she guesses it’s coming up now because she’s on the brink of something, some turning point, and she feels lost.

William Gibson, Pattern Recognition

Incidental treasures like this, thrown in amongst the flurry. With a handful of words, Gibson captures the essence of something I’ve long felt but have never quite articulated.

That is writing.

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iPhone and iPod: Dense Pixels, Happy Eyes

September 6, 2007

iPod TouchYesterday’s announcement of the third-generation iPod Nano and iPod Touch was another step in Apple’s accelerating march toward sharper displays and resolution independence. The third-generation Nano now has the highest pixel density in the Apple lineup, at 204 pixels per inch (ppi). By comparison, the iPhone comes in at 160 ppi with the new iPods Touch and Classic at a nearly-identical 163 ppi. Meanwhile, Apple’s high-end 30″ Cinema Display is at 102 ppi.

Subjectively, the iPhone’s display is clearly superior to any computer display I’ve ever seen. While this is a function of many factors, the high pixel density plays a huge part in creating the extraordinarily tack-sharp perception. While the Nano’s screen is too small to be useful for reading, it seems completely within Apple’s philosophy and technical capability to extend the high-pixel-density feature to other devices, including the Mac and the hypothetical iTablet. After all, multimedia and typography are in Apple’s DNA, while resolution independence is an announced feature in the next version of Mac OS X and perhaps a current feature in today’s iPhone/Touch OS X.

I wanted to visualize more objectively just how these increased densities are affecting the reading experience. The images below are enlargements of PDF text (from my latest WOWIO ebook project) rendered in Photoshop to simulate different pixel densities. Be sure to click on the image to see the enlargement so you can see the full effect.

Screen Pixel Density Simulation (small)

While rendering on the actual devices will be different, these images can still give an idea of the relative quality of the text displays. The smooth and crisp type renderings at the higher pixel densities correlate directly into perceived text clarity and reading comfort. Today’s common complaints about fuzzy, headache-inducing screen text — one of the most persistent obstacles to reading long-form text in digital format — are literally being smoothed away.

Related Posts
iPhone and eBooks: The Video
iPhone and eBooks: An Early Flirtation
Books v. eBooks: the Reader’s Experience