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I held the future in my hand!

May 23, 2010

It was my birthday a couple weeks ago, and I was given something I’ve been considering getting for a long time now—an e-Book reader.

The model I selected was the BeBook Mini (also known as a Hanlin V5).

This is sort of a review of the BeBook. And sort of not a review of it. In a way, it’s a review of all e-Book readers, and the experience of using one.

I chose the BeBook Mini due to a combination of price, size and features. It was a small model, yet the screen size was the same as other, larger readers. It handled the greatest variety of input formats, including .doc format, crucial for someone wanting to review other documents on the go, not just reading books. It was comparatively priced to its rivals in the market, but Foyles, the Bookseller of the Year in the UK, had a special offer on it.

Certainly, it lacks some of the further features of the higher end models (even its stablemate, the BeBook Neo). It isn’t touchscreen. You can’t make handwritten annotations. The internal memory is (relatively) low. It has no wifi connection. But I have no use for a touchscreen model. Anything I want to annotate I would be working on using a computer (infinitely more featured than even an advanced e-Reader). The internal memory may be low, but it is expandable with external memory cards, and I happened to have a 2GB card sitting at home doing nothing. And there is no book I would want so badly that I couldn’t wait to be at home on my own computer to buy it, thereby negating the need for the wifi connection.

I was pleasantly surprised to find it came pre-loaded with 100 “classic” books. Classic is clearly industry code for “out of copyright” as the selections ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. The complete works of Jane Austen. Wonderful. The Complete History and Encyclopaedia of Needlepoint? Bewildering. And whilst I accept the Dostoevsky is probably not as popular as Austen, which would explain not including all of his work, I still struggled to comprehend why you would include the less well known books like The Gambler, but omit to include his most famous work, The Brothers Karamazov.

But the selection is more than enough to keep me occupied for, at a conservative guess, the next couple of years. Not including the books I’ve since added to it, thanks to a selection of sites offering out of copyright work for free. These include BeBook’s own collection, the well-known Project Gutenburg, and the quite excellent ebooks@Adelaide.

So on to the experience. And overall it is enjoyable. E-ink technology is all that it is promised. The display is clear and readable without eyestrain, just like regular paper. I’ve used it in daylight, at night in well-lit rooms, in the dark with an LED reading light attached, and yesterday in full sunlight whilst lazing about in my backgarden. At no point was the text washed out due to screen glare, unlike with a computer.

Unlike with most books, I can read with one hand. The unit is light and just the right size, and the page turn buttons are located left, right and at the bottom to suit how you might like to hold it.

The whole thing is mainly intuitive, which is good. I was delighted to discover it even has a built-in MP3 player, so I can load up music to listen too whilst reading (or even add audiobooks!).

It is not at all unalloyed joy though. As with all things, there are cons to balance the pros. There doesn’t appear to be a way to quickly search for a book or an author, meaning you have to scroll through page after page to find the folder for your author. Fine if you have few books on the BeBook. I’m at 18 pages of authors so far, and rising.

Tables of contents are also awkward. This isn’t so much a complaint against the eReader as eBooks in general. Although the unit has a “go to page” function, that isn’t much use with a contents page. The number of pages in your book varies depending on the size of the text you display, so a contents page with fixed pages is useless. Many books instead use hyperlinked tables of contents, which the BeBook handles, but you have to rely on the ebook having been created with this hyperlinked table of contents. Not all have them.

I am conscious of “breaking” a book in a way that I’m not with regular books. With the e-Reader, I can fit an entire library in my bag. Carefully. With a solid cover. Making sure nothing is pressing too hard against it. I wouldn’t even notice if something was pressing on a paperback, but I’m terrified of breaking the screen. Durability is sacrificed to portability.

There is also an inconvenience with DRM protected purchased books. When I buy a book in a bookstore, I have it there and then to read. When I buy a book online, I have to wait for it to be delivered.

When I buy an e-Book however, I get a download link. Not for the book. For the DRM file, which then opens up an authorised bit of software, which downloads the actual book. Then I have to authorise it to be read on my computer. Then on my device. Then I have to transfer it to my device. The world of “instant access” isn’t so instant when you’re dealing with in-copyright work.

The comment I got most from people who found out I have an e-Reader is “won’t you miss the feel of turning pages, the smell of the paper, the feel of the cover?”. And my answer is no, no I won’t. I still get that. From books. There is a terrible misconception that somehow this will replace all books for me. It won’t and it can’t. On the e-Reader I have the complete stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and the complete Sherlock Holmes stories. These will never replace my hardback, leather-bound, gilt-edged illustrated editions. It can’t, ever. My hardback full-colour illustrated Winnie-the-Pooh? I can’t get that on my e-Reader.

If the feel of pages turning and the smell of paper was the reason I bought books, I’d buy a ream of printer paper and flick through that. It isn’t. I buy books for the story, for the words, for where it takes my imagination. An e-Book still has all the words, just like a regular book.

And that’s all I need to be happy.

For those afraid that the e-Book will signal the end of the physical book, worry not. It won’t, it can’t. This isn’t like the invention of the printing press rendering hand-copied manuscripts obsolete. It’s more like the invention of the mass-market paperback. It’s another innovation that makes books cheaper to produce and deliver to the consumer. Just as the existence of paperbacks didn’t destroy hardbacks, e-Books won’t destroy physical books.

The future is enhancement, not replacement. Embrace it.

Why yes, that is a copy of Chinese Whisperings: The Red Book on my e-Reader in the photo. You can order your very own copy from the bookstore now!
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5 Comments
  1. adampb permalink
    May 23, 2010 7:39 am

    *hugs books to chest and sighs* Love my illustrated 60th anniversary edition of The Hobbit, and my hardback Winnie the Pooh collection and my picture book collection of which my all time favourite is “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” Such an AWESOME book.
    I like the idea of a e-reader, but at the moment think that it is just one more gadget that I need to carry around. Might wait until there is a little cross pollination with readers.
    But I want one.

  2. May 24, 2010 1:16 am

    I agree that the popularity of eReaders won’t signal the end of the printed book. One way in which I think it might work (and I’m obsessed with this issue) is short fiction collections, like Chinese Whisperings or single author collections may become economically easier to produce and distribute digitally – and even single short stories.

    I could imagine myself downloading a short to my eReader for a trip home on the train for example, but less so a novel because I’d want to take the novel to bed once I’d gotten home.

  3. May 24, 2010 2:52 am

    I’ve had a great deal of use out of my Sony reader since getting it last year. So handy having a pile of books in your pocket. It hasn’t replaced buying ‘real’ books for me, but as you say, it’s a great enhancement to have.

    Check out feedbooks for loads of great out of copyright stuff – they have ePub format stuff and it’s all quality files.

  4. May 24, 2010 8:51 am

    just wondering if any of you read comics, either printed, web-comics or on e-readers? I’d love to hear what it’s like to read a comic book on e-reader. I’ve seen some web-comics, but I don’t know how something meant to come out in print would look on an e-reader. Can you see two pages at the same time, for those splash-pages so typical of some comic books?
    Thanks…

  5. May 24, 2010 11:01 am

    Barb, it’s been a while since I was a comic reader, but my feeling is that the current eReaders would not handle comics well at all.

    In ePub format, text can flow freely, so you can get a good font size for the size of screen, without having to deal with words being cut off at ends of the line/page. Sequential narrative art would really have to be displayed one panel at a time, or things would get hard to work, unless a good native pan and scan technology was built in.

    Although my eReader displays pictures well, the image is still grainy and grayscale. Black and white panelled strips could work, full colour with splash pages or where the action breaks through panels into others? I think we’ll need to wait for the next generation of eReaders (which are coming – colour versions should be out by the end of the year).

    Of course, I can’t speak for Tablet computers like the iPad, where I imagine the experience is a lot richer!

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