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Are digital books good enough to curl up with?

SoftBook is one of a few electronic books that will soon be available   

October 9, 1998
Web posted at: 4:45 PM EDT

by Joanne Robb

(IDG) -- More signs of the millennium: The first electronic books will hit store shelves this fall. By the middle of next year, consumers should have at least four of these Jetsonian devices to choose from, ranging in price from $200 to $1500.

E-books are basically high-tech reading tablets that hold the equivalent of thousands of paper pages. You download text into them, and they display it on built-in screens. Why would you buy one? Vendors say that instead of lugging a bunch of heavy books on your next business trip or vacation, you can carry the contents of a whole bookshelf in one slim e-book. Titles are expected to range from the latest best-sellers to professional journals -- all searchable and annotatable.

It sounds nice, but would you really want to hunker down with your morning coffee and an electronic tablet? After looking at two early e-books, I'd say the reality has yet to catch up with the potential.

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I examined prerelease versions of SoftBook's $300 SoftBook and NuvoMedia's $500 Rocket EBook. Both should be commercially available by the end of the year. Two other promised e-books--Librius's $200 Millennium Reader and EveryBook's $1500 EB Dedicated Reader--aren't ready yet: The first should begin shipping by the end of 1998; the second, early next year.

Obtaining E-Titles

To buy text for the SoftBook, you plug the unit into the nearest phone line, and it then dials into the proprietary SoftBook download server. When you buy the unit, you agree to pay a $20 monthly subscription fee, which is credited toward your text purchases. Buying for NuvoMedia's Rocket EBook is equally easy. All you do is place the Rocket EBook in a Palm Pilot–like cradle, connect the cradle to your PC, and surf over to an Internet bookstore that sells EBook texts. NuvoMedia has signed a partnership agreement with and expects to make deals with other resellers. Neither company will say how much the e-texts will cost. Both say prices are likely to be cheaper than for the paper equivalents.

Once loaded with text, both the SoftBook and the Rocket EBook act as single-screen tablets that let you use simple buttons and a stylus to select titles, "turn" pages, search and highlight text, and make notes. One big difference between the two: screen quality. The SoftBook uses a fluorescent backlit display, which has a distinct color cast; when you turn the page, you can see a faint ghost-image of the previous page. When I tried to read the SoftBook outdoors, the reflection of my face was as visible as the text. NuvoMedia, in contrast, uses its own "transflective" screen technology. I could read the Rocket EBook in bright sunlight, with no ghosting when I turned pages.

The SoftBook is also much larger than the Rocket EBook: About the size of an inch-thick stack of letter paper, it weighs a hefty 3 pounds. It delivers the same battery life as a standard notebook -- roughly 5 hours in our informal tests. By contrast, the Rocket EBook is about the size of a paperback and weighs only 20 ounces. According to NuvoMedia, the battery will let you read for 20 hours between recharges; we couldn't, unfortunately, test this claim.

The writing on the tablet

The biggest question facing e-books: Which technology will have the titles that you want to read? SoftBook and NuvoMedia promise lots of content -- including novels, magazines, and professional journals -- but at press time neither company could produce a firm list of offerings.

If compelling titles appear, e-books could be an easy way for travelers to keep up with their business (and leisure) reading. But before you rush out to buy one of these digital doodads, check the list of available titles at SoftBook's Web site for the SoftBook, and the Barnes and Noble site or other resellers' sites for the Rocket EBook (links below). After all, it doesn't make sense to buy the box until you're sure it'll carry something you want to read.

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