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E-Readers by the Book

These thin screens travel light, yet each packs a library stack.

By Michael Antonoff

A decade ago claiming to carry 10,000 tunes in your pocket would be met with guffaws. Today, it's yawns. Digital book readers are now about where MP3 players were before the iPod, though with a big difference. Unlike a recording industry ill-prepared to offer a legitimate alternative to anything-goes downloading, book publishers are relatively well-organized in putting digital content up for sale. In addition, there's an abundance of public domain content available, including many literary classics.

What's held back the eBook revolution until now was bulky design and lackluster screens. But today's readers are getting insanely thin and display 200 dots per inch, which makes for very readable text. While the contrast between characters and background of handhelds for the most part has not yet reached the level of black ink on lily-white paper, it is getting better with each generation. Keep in mind that though a computer screen or even a diminutive iPod Touch offers greater contrast, they're backlit devices. The electronic books here work with reflective light, which greatly extends reading time before recharging.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to adoption is that people are accustomed to print and aren't inclined to try something different. But time may be on the side of digital books as younger generations are born into a world in which text on paper bound between covers isn't the only way to enjoy reading fiction or non-fiction.

There are compelling reasons to use a digital reader, not the least of which is that unlike a printed book, the user can change the text size on the fly to fit an individual comfort level. How many senior citizens do you know who have curtailed reading because the type is too small? For them, an electronic book can be a boon. Also, despite the scores of books stored in the reader, the screen and player weigh way less than one bound volume. Portability is a big plus, especially for travelers and commuters.

The following survey compares four electronic books available from B&H that go a long way to making screen-based text eminently readable. They each connect to a computer with an included USB cable for transferring content from the Internet and recharging the player's battery. Each comes with a varying selection of books or excerpts as well as a case for storing the device. With models like these, the activity of consuming books digitally could well be on the way to becoming commonplace.

Sony Reader Pocket Edition

Smaller than a paperback, the Sony Reader Pocket Edition features a crisp 5-inch monochrome screen (600 x 800 pixels) and three font sizes you choose using a dedicated magnifier button. The eBook Library software stored in the Reader is the content management application that uploads to your Windows or Macintosh computer when you connect the device with the included USB cable. The cable also charges the Reader's embedded lithium-ion battery, which when fully-charged powers some 7,500 page turns. The Reader's 512 Megabytes of internal memory stores about 350 books.

As a memory aid, the Reader lets you electronically fold down the upper corner of specific pages by pressing the bookmark button and then call up a list of bookmarked pages. Beyond downloading digital rights management (DRM)-protected books you buy from Sony's eBook Store, you can transfer Portable Document Files (PDF), vanilla text files (TXT), and Rich Text Files (RTF) into the Pocket Edition. A colleague has even borrowed electronic books from the New York Public Library (NYPL.org) for free that he transferred into his Reader via his home computer.

Sony Reader Touch EditionSlightly larger and heavier than the Pocket Edition, the Sony Reader Touch Edition features a 6-inch display with pullout stylus that's more precise in controlling the touchscreen than your finger. You can swipe a finger across the screen to turn the page, but if you want to highlight a word to bring up the definition from the built-in New Oxford American Dictionary, you use the stylus. The stylus also enables annotations. You can bring up a touch-screen keyboard for entering text or making freehand notes.

Unlike the Pocket Edition, the Touch Edition includes a picture viewer and audio player. You supply your own earphones. I discovered that turning up the music is a great defense while reading on the Long Island Railroad. How else could I concentrate on the included excerpt of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on the morning that boisterous Yankees fans were Broadway-bound for a World Series victory parade? Beyond the same internal memory as the Pocket Edition, the Touch contains slots for an SD card and Memory Stick PRO Duo. I transferred an SD card from my Canon PowerShot and viewed a slideshow on the Touch Edition in eight gradations of gray.

Cybook Opus from BookeenAt only 5.3 ounces, the Cybook Opus from Bookeen may be the lightest reader in our group, yet it comes preloaded with more books than either Sony device – albeit all classics by such authors as Twain, Verne, and Melville. Moby Dick alone sops up 667 Kilobytes of the Cybook's one-gigabyte of internal memory. You can expand the memory, though I wasn't thrilled with the card type—micro SD. The Cybook Opus is the only reader compatible with saved HTML pages.

The Cybook is also the only one with a motion detection sensor that automatically orientates the screen to a landscape or portrait view as you rotate the screen. (With the other models, it takes a few button presses to change the orientation.) With 12 font sizes, the Cybook affords the most flexibility in letting you adjust the text to be as big or small as you like.

Like the Cybook, the Aluratek Libre eBook Reader PRO sports a 5-inch screen. However, it distinguishes itself from other readers by including a 2GB SD card with 100 books. It's an eclectic collection of classics from Aesop's Fables to Wuthering Heights. You can listen to music using the built-in MP3 player while brushing up on The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. The Libre eBook comes with earphones. The internal lithium-ion polymer battery is good for 24 hours of continuous reading or 30 days standby time.

A table comparing models featured in this article follows.

Sony Reader Pocket Edition (PRS-300) Sony Reader Touch Edition (PRS-600) Bookeen Cybook Opus eBook Reader Aluratek Libre eBook Reader PRO
Screen Size 5-inch 6-inch 5-inch 5-inch
Pixel Resolution 600 x 800 600 x 800 600 x 800 480 x 640
Weight 7.8 oz 10.1 oz 5.3 oz 7.6 oz
Text Sizes 3 levels 5 levels 12 levels 6 levels
Battery life from full charge 7500 page turns 7500 page turns 8000 page flips Up to 24 hours continuous reading
Internal storage 512MB 512MB 1GB 118MB
Expandable memory No SD card, Memory Stick PRO Duo Micro SD SD card (2GB included)
Built-in Dictionary No Yes No No
Note-taking capabilities Bookmarks Bookmarks, highlight, touch-screen keyboard text entry, freehand notes with stylus One bookmark per book based on last page viewed Bookmarks
Audio player No Yes No Yes
Picture viewer No Yes Yes Yes
Gray-scale levels 8 8 4 16
Motion-detected screen orientation No No Yes No
Formats supported ePub, PDF, BBeB, TXT, RTF ePub, PDF, BBeB, TXT, RTF, MP3, AAC, JPG, PNG, GIF, BMP ePub, PDF, HTML, TXT, JPG, GIF, PNG ePUB, PDF, TXT, FB2, MOBI, PRC, RTF, MP3, JPG, BMP, GIF, animated GIF
Model colors Navy blue, rose, or silver Black, red, or silver White Black

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