The E-Book Experience

A bit more than a month ago, I got a Sony Reader as a birthday present, upgrading my electronic book-reading platform from an old Palm Pilot. this is, obviously, not as sexy as a Kindle or a Nook, but then again, it doesn't involve me paying fees to use wireless services and further stoke my Internet addiction, so that's more or less a wash. Anyway, since I've been using this extensively for a month, now, I thought I'd post a few impressions:

-- First and foremost, the e-ink display is very nice. The one crippling flaw of the Palm Pilot method was that I couldn't read outdoors or in bright light. The Reader fixes that problem very well. The one catch to this is that it's slooooow-- even after a month of use, the lag between pushing a button and refreshing the page is long enough that I start to wonder if it missed me pressing the buttons. A small price to pay for being able to read outdoors on a nice day, though.

-- The books themselves are generally well done. The page counter may not correspond exactly to the page numbers in the paper edition-- I haven't tried to do an exact check-- but it's close, which is good. Moving back and forth between the table of contents and the main text is reasonably easy, modulo the long refresh time for any page change. Re-sizing the text to make it more readable works smoothly and without any major glitches.

-- There are some problems with elements that aren't standard text, though. I picked up the electronic version of David Mermin's It's About Time: Understanding Einstein's Relativity, and the equations are all rendered in some microscopic font. Figures are frequently two or three screens away from the text describing the figure, and there's no good way to flip back and forth between them. I don't anticipate doing a great deal of technical reading on this, but that's something to be wary of in the future.

The couple of fantasy books I've read on it that included maps (Ian Esslemont's Malazan Empire books) render the maps as single-page graphics, that can't be magnified. This is significantly less useful than it might be.

-- The text of official e-book releases is, I suspect, derived from the text of the bound galley proofs, without any additional copy editing. This is a guess based partly on the fact that, as a reader told me in email, the Kindle edition of How to Teach Physics to Your Dog includes some formatting problems that were present in the page proofs but fixed in the print edition. Whatever the reason, though, the text of the two short fiction collections I've bought and read included a lot of spell-check typos ("form" instead of "from," etc.), to a degree that was a little distracting.

-- I'm using the Sony software to manage the library, and have bought a half-dozen books directly from the integrated Sony Reader store, and my impression of it is that it's like iTunes designed by monkeys. The interface is not-quite-Windows-like, and the controls and locations of things are just non-standard enough to make doing anything for the first time a real chore. And the store combines the "Oh my God, could this page possibly load any slower?" experience of browsing iTunes with a recommendation and search engine that is much, much worse than iTunes.

The recommendation thing is partly a matter of not having the customer base that iTunes does. The slow loading is something that must come from not being a web browser because, as I said, iTunes does the same thing. I've long since stopped buying music from iTunes, because Amazon offers more or less the same selection of MP3 downloads with a vastly better browsing experience. I will most likely be doing something similar with e-books, once I figure out the best way to do this while still getting money to the authors of the books I would like to read. (Obviously, I could download pirated copies for free, but I have a comfortable income, and can afford to buy books.)

-- One non-technical problem with the browsing experience in the Sony store is that it's choked with vanity press books. Any kind of "I wonder if there's anything new in this subgenre" search turns up books from AuthorHouse and XLibris and iUniverse, as well as a whole host of stuff from Smashwords (which may or may not be a vanity press-- I've seen books from them by people whose names I recognize, but it's mostly stuff that reeks of self-publishing). It's awfully difficult to sort out the stuff that I might possibly want to read, and when you combine that with the really slow page loading...

-- I forget just how small books are, in terms of file size. I'm used to downloading music, which is about a megabyte per minute, so downloading a bunch of albums on Amazon is something I usually start before bed, and let run overnight.

The full manuscript of How to Teach Physics to your Dog, on the other hand, is just over 2MB, including all the figures. I can download ebooks in the time it takes to get SteelyKid's bedtime bottle together.

-- The model I got is the "Pocket Edition," which really makes me wonder whose pockets they used as a standard. My clothes, unlike Kate's, tend to have actual pockets, but the Reader only fits comfortably in the pockets of my baggier clothes. Anyone significantly smaller than I am (which is most people), or wearing women's clothes, is going to have an awfully hard time fitting this in a pocket.

Anyway, on the whole, I like it. There are still some significant issues to sort out (mostly involving platform-specific DRM type problems), but I like having the ability to carry a huge variety of books around with me, and the reading experience is generally good.

Anyone else have e-book reader thoughts, comments, suggestions? You know where the comments are.

More like this

A lot of pixels have been spilled lamenting the death of Borders books, a rather large fraction of them being used to say stupid things. Particularly in the "they killed off independent bookstores so good riddance to them" vein-- it's great that you lived in a place that had good indie bookstores…
In which we look at how the Brave New Publishing World makes it really hard to find something good to read. ------------ In a recent links dump, I included a link to this post about the current state of publishing, which is a follow-up to an earlier post about the current state of publishing.…
Many people have inquired as to whether there is or will be an e-reader version of Open Lab. The short answer is: yes. But because of various technological constraints, the only e-book format available is PDF, and its already available. Since the link for the PDF download is not especially obvious…
That's right, you can now get the full text of every Cognitive Daily post via RSS. There's just one catch: You must buy a $399 Amazon Kindle and pay 99 cents (per month, I assume) to subscribe to Cognitive Daily. I don't know if this subscription will allow you to view images, and I'm pretty…

Dr. Orzel,

I'm sorry that you've had a mixed experience with E-books. I've had my Kindle-2 for about 18 months and love it. So much that I've bought Kindle copies of dead tree books I already own. I've read books of several different genres (including 'How to Teach Physics to Your Dog') and have yet to find one that doesn't work on the Kindle (I currently have 98 books on it).

There are some statements in your post, however, that I would respectfully take exception with.

The Kindle involves no fees beyond the original cost of the machine and the purchase price of the books. In fact, the Kindle boasts a web browser that deals very nicely with "mostly text" web pages such as news sites and blogs with no additional fees.

As far as download speed is concerned, the largest single file I have downloaded (directly to the Kindle via "Whispernet") is a complete works of Conan Doyle. The time involved was on the order of 40 seconds, which, at the time, I thought was overly long. Most books, including yours, load in 15 to 20 seconds. I have literally been watching a talk show interview of an author on TV, decided I wanted the book and had it bought, loaded, and opened before the interview was over.

In regards to page load speed I almost think that there must be something wrong with your machine that could be fixed. I just ran a crude test on my Kindle: I turned ten pages in succession, waiting until each page had loaded before pushing the "Next Page" button. Elapsed time for 5 of these tests ranged from 12 to 16 seconds. Going in reverse, using the "Previous Page" button, took a little longer, on the order of 22 seconds.

I agree with you about the DRM issue. I suspect that we'll see a completely different compensation model emerge for authors and artists, although Amazon's policy of allowing a book to be read on up to 6 devices associated with the same account is a fair compromise and a good start.

I hope your experience with your reader continues to be positive and improves as time goes on.

Jan Koekkoek

"... it doesn't involve me paying fees to use wireless services ..."

Amazon's Kindle has free 3G wireless---no fees, etc. B&N's Nook (3G + Wireless edition) is the same (i.e., free wireless).

The Sony Readers seem to have some sensitivity to the way files are loaded on--I use Calibre to manage mine, and after the last major version change of that I wiped the device and reloaded everything, to significant speed improvements--but you'd think that using the _actual Sony software_ ought to prevent that.

There's also something about caching going on where at certain points in a book I get slowdowns in page turning, but popping into another book for a moment sometimes helps.

Quantitative comparison: Going ten screens forward in The Return of the Crimson Guard took about 22 seconds. Ten pages back was 25 or so. The backwards delay is longer when you're at a chapter break, but I'm not near one now, so that didn't enter in.

The real thing keeping me from getting such a device right now is the DRM. The hardware isn't everything it could be, but it's clearly reached a "good enough" stage for me.

But I stubbornly refused to get an iPod until I had a good way to get non-DRM material on to it, and until the solid state ones had the memory I desired. I stubbornly refuse to buy an iPhone... ever, because of their policies. And I'll stubbornly refuse to get a reader until their policies are sensible.

By John Novak (not verified) on 22 Jul 2010 #permalink

As a few have pointed out, there aren't any wireless fees with either the Kindle or the Nook. Internet addiction aside, it's great for when you're traveling and might want email but don't need a computer.

I'm a big fan of my Kindle DX. Big enough to read PDFs (my self-justification for buying it was to read journal articles on it), latest version is pretty high contrast, software is decent. Size is also a downside - although since (as you note) even the "pocket-sized" ones aren't tiny, I'm not sure how much that matters - it's still light enough to carry around. Cost, however, is the big downside. The Kindle, Nook, and Sony (Pocket or Touch) are all in the same basic price range - the Kindle DX is about twice as much.

But I stubbornly refused to get an iPod until I had a good way to get non-DRM material on to it,

By which you mean "to purchase material without DRM to put on it," yes? Because it's always been possible to put non-DRMed material on iPods. You couldn't get it from iTunes for a long time, but if you had the tracks for some other reason, loading them on was trivial.

The e-book situation is pretty much identical. If I want to buy stuff directly from Sony in the appropriate format, it comes with DRM included. But I had no trouble loading or reading the e-book files I got from the Hugo Voters Packet, for example.

I'm not a real purist when it comes to DRM. As a philosophical matter, I agree that it sucks, but as a practical matter, it doesn't really affect me noticeably. And I think it's likely that Amazon never would've been able to start selling DRM-free downloads had Apple not gotten the market started by selling DRM-ed tracks on iTunes.

The big question is whether somebody can or will step up to play the role for e-books that Amazon did for digital music. It doesn't look promising, but who knows.

Further quantitative test... 10 page turns on a latest generation Kindle DX took a very consistent 18 seconds regardless of whether or not there were chapter breaks involved.

By which you mean "to purchase material without DRM to put on it," yes? Because it's always been possible to put non-DRMed material on iPods. You couldn't get it from iTunes for a long time, but if you had the tracks for some other reason, loading them on was trivial.

I was purposefully a little non-specific to avoid turning your blog into my DRM rant. I'm basically referring to the whoel infrastructure chain: I want readily available purchase sources, I want hardware that I can control, I want non-interference from the vendors after I purchase, and I want common formats.

So for iPods, the main thing was waiting until Amazon committed to selling non-DRM music. They won't do that for books, though, unless somethign really changes. And no one in the rest of the industry has the heft to force a change, so far as I know.

I don't *want* to be a frothy purist about this, but as a practical matter, DRM sometimes means that Amazon takes back your download post-facto, and sometimes it means that after a company decides to stop supporting their DRM, your content dies.

By John Novak (not verified) on 22 Jul 2010 #permalink

but as a practical matter, DRM sometimes means that Amazon takes back your download post-facto

I'm with John on this point. Last year Amazon got some richly deserved heat for doing this with a certain novel. Triple irony points because the novel in question was 1984.

With music, there are workarounds. iTunes lets you burn audio CDs (there are limits to how many times you can burn a CD of a playlist with DRM'ed tunes), and one of the things I use this feature for is to create archival backup copies of my downloaded tunes (independent of their DRM status). I'm not aware of any comparable procedure for books (maybe if you have a "Print" option and a scanner with OCR, but that gets labor intensive and contributes to deforestation in northern Maine).

As for the iTunes Store interface: Yes, it can and should be significantly improved. Early versions of iTunes invariably sorted solo artists by their *first* names (e.g., Peter Gabriel ended up next to Peter Ilyich Tchaikowsky). They added fields for sorting as of (if not before) iTunes 8.0, so that now, e.g., you can have Peter Gabriel appear in the Gs without having his name appear as "Gabriel, Peter", but you have to do this for each such track. The default, and the browse feature in the iTMS, nevertheless continue to use the sort-by-first-name approach. It shouldn't be that hard to do this correctly, assuming (rather generously) that they set up their database properly in the first place.

Regarding download speeds: Are you still on a dialup modem, or do you simply buy music in much larger quantities than I do? My experience over DSL is that it takes 2-3 minutes for a single track to download, and average time goes down for multiple downloads because iTMS lets your computer do up to three downloads in parallel. That works out to three-ish albums per hour, if I'm buying that many at a time (more likely, I'm ripping them from the physical CD if I'm getting that many new tunes at once, because I'm old fashioned enough to prefer having the physical medium--that's also part of why I back up downloaded tunes to audio CD).

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 22 Jul 2010 #permalink

Regarding download speeds: Are you still on a dialup modem, or do you simply buy music in much larger quantities than I do? My experience over DSL is that it takes 2-3 minutes for a single track to download, and average time goes down for multiple downloads because iTMS lets your computer do up to three downloads in parallel.

I tend to buy new music once a month or so, and will get 5-6 albums worth of stuff at a time. That's a couple of hours of downloading, and it tends to slow everything else down while it's working, so I find it mildly irritating to web surf while downloads are in progress. Thus, I set up a bunch of downloads at bedtime, and let them run while I sleep.

I probably ought to back up the good tracks from my iTunes purchases onto CDs. Most of the purchased music in the collection, I wouldn't miss all that much, but the 4-5 star stuff I ought to back up. But I'm lazy.


Kindle files are ordinary binary files that can be downloaded and read on any computer; and can, therefore, be backed up to any appropriate backup media.

Ten screens forward in my Sony Reader took 14-15 seconds, in large and small files.

I have a hunch what might account for the difference--I convert all my e-books to a standard style and so I bet it doesn't require as much processing power to get the text to flow, as it might with a book that has margins or justified text or the like. We can experiment, if you want.


I think Eric means backup in a different way than just saving in case of hardware malfunction. If that's the only worry, Amazon/Kindle have that solved for anything you download from them - you can download it again any time for free.

I think Eric's referring to preventing something like what happened with 1984. If Amazon decided to delete a book from your Kindle, I don't know that having backup copies would do much good. I suspect that the restored versions would be deleted every time you activated the wireless connection on your Kindle.

I'm a big fan of my Kindle DX. Big enough to read PDFs (my self-justification for buying it was to read journal articles on it)

MRW - have you had good results with it? I've been pondering buying an e-reader for this purpose, since I often end up printing out hard copies of articles when I don't want to read from a computer screen. An e-reader might be a good replacement for that.

There are a number of possible problems with the e-reader and PDFs, though (screen refresh, rendering problems with detailed and/or color figures, etc.), so I am very curious to hear about your (or others') experience so far.


It handles pdf's well. All of this refers to the latest version ("Graphite"). There's an older version still for sale at Amazon ("2nd generation), and an even older version you might be able to find used. The main difference is that the newest version has a higher contrast screen (it's also higher contrast than the regular Kindle).

- It actually turns pages on PDFs faster than it does on ebooks.
-The screen is large enough that I don't have a problem reading articles on it, but it's smaller than the sheet of paper the PDF was intended to be printed on, so I'm sure it would be a huge pain for anyone whose vision isn't good. It has a decent zoom, once you figure out how it works. I use it to enlarge particularly small or detailed images, but it would be a pain to have to read the entire article that way.
-There's good amount of contrast. Color can be a problem, but mostly when the text refers to a certain color and the image is black and white.

If you've got good vision, I'd say it's better than a computer monitor but worse than a printout. I transfer PDFs to my Kindle DX to read them even when I'm sitting at my desk. If you have trouble reading small type, though, the panning and zooming would probably be too clunky to be worthwhile. And of course there's the price - it's about twice the cost of a smaller Kindle.

I've been using first a Kindle 1, then a Kindle 2, for over 2 years now, and love it. I have bought ebooks that I already owned paper copies of because the ebook experience was nicer (think old mass market paperback!) I would prefer that the books not have DRM, but I decided I'd rather be reading. I'd like to live in a world where I'm not presumed to be a criminal, but that doesn't seem to be the world I'm stuck in, because they're still making me take my shoes off at the airport.

I don't see how DRM is related to the 1984 thing, though; whether or not the book had been encrpyted with DRM, Amazon could have removed it.

@CTReader: As MRW said, it's about preserving access to my files. If the issuer of a DRM'ed file decides I should no longer have access to that file, then the fact that I have it backed up as a binary file makes no difference whatsoever. Here's one way that can happen with the iTMS with no nefarious activity on Apple's part: You are only allowed to authorize five computers to access your account. You are allowed to deauthorize a computer, but if you forget to do so (or are unable to do so because it fails suddenly) that computer counts against your limit forever. By backing up to an audio CD, I at least ensure that for the life of that CD I'll be able to listen to my music on an ordinary CD player. (It is also possible via iTunes to replace an audio CD that's going bad; the files are still readable on the computer even after the CD player in my stereo starts not playing it properly.) The only equivalent option I know of for e-books (and I'm not sure that it's actually available since I have never done the experiment) is to produce hard copy, which defeats the purpose of getting the electronic version--if I'm going to print out the bloody thing anyway, why not buy the physical book?

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 23 Jul 2010 #permalink

You are allowed to deauthorize {using iTunes} a computer, but if you forget to do so (or are unable to do so because it fails suddenly) that computer counts against your limit forever.

Not quite. You can contact Apple and they will deauthorize all computers associated with an account. You can then reauthorize a new computer or computers and start over.

One aspect you didn't cover is how green (or not) the eBook reader is compared with the traditional paper book.

For example, paper books use no power once produced (unless you're reading them at night and need the light on - the eBook reader comes with its own light!), but at what point does it take more power to produce quantity X of a paper book than it does to produce one eBook reader which can read many books?

And what of recycling? Recycling a paper book means that lots of others get to read it. You can't recycle an eBook that way, and when you're done with your eBook reader - what happens to it? Paper books are biodegradable - toss it into a landfill and it does no harm (although it would be better to recycle the paper). You can't be serious about tossing an eBook reader into a landfill.

These are not insignificant questions.