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Adventures in ebooks

It seems the must-have device of Christmas 2009 was the ebook reader. I’m seeing an explosion of information and happy post-Christmas reviews.

I myself was excited to find a Sony PRS-600 Touch Edition with my name on it underneath the tree, thanks to my wonderful partner Dave. To be honest, I hadn’t shut up about them for months and the size and shape of the package was about right, so I was pretty sure that’s what it was. Consequently I’d been planning my book purchases already.

I used to read a lot of fiction – ten years ago I used to absolutely devour books, often multiples at a time. But the internet did something to my ability to read books. I was reading so much online every single day, for both my job and for pleasure, that when I did switch off the machine the last thing I felt like doing was picking up a book. A neck injury also meant that reading physical books – say, in bed, where I used to read a lot – became more of a hassle. And reading on screen just got more and more comfortable and normal. I started reading ebooks a little, first on my Pocket PC and then later on my tablet. But the “user experience” of reading on a dedicated device that’s easy on the eyes is far superior to those.

So why the Sony Reader, and not the cheaper and more popular Kindle? Excellent question. Firstly, while there’s no doubt that Amazon have the biggest ebook store on the planet, I don’t like the idea of being limited to just one source for my books. The Sony supports EPUB, the open ebook format, as well as PDF and a whole ton of other formats, and you can load it up with books from any source. In fact, the only major ebook format it doesn’t support is Microsoft’s LIT format – a shame because I already have a (small) number of books in LIT format that I was reading on my tablet.

Secondly, there’s the issue of actually getting books onto the reader. Rather than requiring it’s own wireless provider, the Sony Reader connects up to your PC via USB and you can copy stuff onto it. No matter what they say about wireless providers and the international Kindle (check out the wireless coverage map of Australia here), I can’t get a reliable 3G connection on my own phone in my own living room, so I’m much happier with the syncing option. For a geek i think that’s the ideal situation, although it might not be as good for the less-computer savvy.

Also, there’s the touch screen. I haven’t used the stylus or note taking features much yet, but flicking your finger to flip pages is very cool and a very natural movement, much more so than using the buttons at the bottom.

Another pretty cool feature on the Sony Reader is expandable memory. It supports Memory Stick – no surprise there, it’s a Sony product – but also SD card, which is great because I have a ton of them lying around for my camera and camp MP3 player. So I could put together “libraries” – a tech library, a “current reading” fiction library, a classics library, whatever – on SD cards and have a ton of stuff on close standby when I travel.

Before I get too gushy, there’s also the serious side of privacy and DRM. The EFA have released a comparison of several of the major ebook players on various privacy issues which makes for interesting reading. Basically, if you use a reader that’s closely tied to one of the stores, they’re going to be able to track your purchases. They also include the Google Books service which is not an actual hardware device (at least not yet), but the privacy implications of that are more than a little scary.

As for DRM… I’m going to save that rant for another day. I purchased a title that uses Adobe Digital Editions and the process was a painful albeit interesting one. I’ve also ditched the Sony software (as much as I’m able, anyway) in favour of Calibre, a great open source bookshelf management package.

For the moment though, I’m absolutely loving the screen, the ease on the eyes, the convenience of reading on the device… the overall experience has been fantastic. Highly recommended!

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