Random Access   chris, kp & rob
In The Lab
eBook Evolution
by chris

I have mentioned eBooks before, back in January of 2005 ("Get more out of your PDA"), and I'm pleased to report that they are still out there. Software readers for computers, PDAs and mobile phones continue to make eBook reading portable and convenient to us gadget lovers. Meanwhile, eBook readers such as the Amazon Kindle have made the public more aware of the whole eBook concept.

Electronic readers for eBooks have been around before the Kindle, but Amazon has managed to make the name known through news articles, product reviews, and online advertising and promotion. Before dedicated eBook readers were available, you could still read your electronic publication on a computer or PDA. eBook reader software such as Microsoft Reader, Mobipocket Reader, and Adobe Reader, have allowed users to get their literary fix on the go for years now.

Unlike a notebook or PDA screen, most electronic eBook readers use E Ink® (AKA "e-paper") technology, so they can keep running for hundreds of hours between charges. Running time will be reduced if you use other features, such as the Kindle's wireless access over the 3G network or Sony's LED illumination. What makes E Ink technology better for these readers? E Ink is a brand name for digital paper - a thin, flexible, high contrast, and more important, ultra-low-power display technology with a look similar to paper. Since E Ink displays are reflective (not transmissive, like LCD), they are easily readable in a variety of lighting conditions, including full sun.

Even with the backlight on full, the PDA screen is hard to read in full sun. If anything, the PRS reader is easier to read in bright light. A 'How It Works' page can be found on the E Ink website

Combined with a decent amount of internal flash memory or an add-in memory card, it's easy to carry around hundreds of books in your reader at any given time.

In low light, the backlit PDA screen is very uniform and easy to read. The PRS-700 has built-in LED illumination with two brightness settings. Other readers require the equivalent of a book light to read in the dark.

I recently purchased one of the Sony PRS-700 (PRS stands for Portable Reader System). I selected this over Kindle or even the Sony PRS-505 for several reasons. First, The Sony reader supports both Memory Stick and SD cards (up to 16GB) which makes for quick and direct file transfers to and from the reader. The Sony PRS-700 has integrated LED lighting for reading in low light. I also liked that I could check out the readability and size in advance at my local Micro Center. And lastly, like most of the eBook readers, the Sony PRS-700 supports a variety of file formats including: BeBook (.LRF), Adobe (.PDF), Revisable Text Format (.RTF), as well as ePub, MS Word (DOC), text, pictures, and music files. The device is about the size of a paperback book, with a 6" diagonal grayscale touch-screen. You can use the buttons to change pages or a simple finger stroke across the touch-screen.

I still use my PDA smartphone to read eBooks anywhere and anytime, but the difference between reading a page of text instead of a paragraph is a pleasant change. My PDA with Microsoft Reader can display my list of eBooks by author, title, or date last read. The Sony Reader supports author, title or file creation date choices as well as a feature called "Collections." A collection is any series of books (or media) that you want to organize, using the eBook library software that comes with the reader. You can drag any of the book titles from their storage location into one or more of your collections. This provides a simple way to organize your favorites or a series of books by author, subject, etc.

So, what do you like to read? Amazon sells a broad selection of current best sellers, magazines, and other publications in eBook format for their Kindle, and a much smaller selection of "eDocs", (usually in HTML format), for immediate download. Personal documents and eBooks can be emailed to your Kindle device or directly downloaded through the Kindle's 3G wireless connection. Many of the traditional book publishing houses now offer titles in eBook form as well as their hard-bound and paperback versions. If you subscribe to magazines or newspapers, many of these publishers release electronic versions of articles in advance of their hard copy print appearance and offer online search capability. Google made headlines when they wanted to add search capability and post the full text of books online. In the Google Books section, you can search content to find limited previews of current titles or the full content of numerous books and magazines that have been scanned into a format you can view and read online. Maximum PC magazine is one of the titles you can search and read, but only through December 2008 issues.

You can purchase and download eBooks from a variety of sources on the Internet, although free eBooks tend to be predominantly what are identified as "classics." It all comes down to copyright and Digital Rights Management (DRM). When you purchase an eBook from MobiPocket.com, Amazon.com or some other online retailer, the eBook may be encrypted or tagged to your device or account. Mobipocket will allow you to maintain several product IDs for your digital devices, and encrypts your purchased books, locking them to these IDs before you can download. Except for the out-of-copyright titles, only a few sites release eBooks without some sort of DRM security feature. One notable exception is Baen Books, which releases eBook versions well in advance of the hard-copy publication dates. Baen publishing also maintains a "free" library of books from many of their authors, and provides links to read them online (HTML) or download to your device in one of several standard eBook formats.

GoldenAgeComics has numerous out-of-copyright comic books available for free download. Somehow, the grayscale screen makes these even more nostalgic. A free Python script / utility was used to convert CBZ and CBR archives into Sony-compatible LRF format, and makes these viewable on the PRS-700. The "ComicLRF" utility was tracked down through comments the mobileread forums.

You can find software to convert text and image files into standard eBook formats or obtain utilities and program add-ins to create your own titles. For example, Microsoft has a Word add-in for Microsoft Office 2002 and 2003 that lets you use a Save-As approach to convert your documents into a Microsoft Reader eBook. At Mobipocket, you can download a utility to create .PRC or .MOBI format files compatible with Mobipocket reader or the Palm platform. Check out the following links for more details and eBook content.

eBook Readers and Resources

eBook Reader Software:

eBook reader reviews and comparisons:

  • GeteBookReader.com - reviews of the top four eBook readers.
  • E-book Reader Matrix - a table comparing 13 (at last count) different eBook readers and the companies that make them.
  • mobile read - A series of reader forums that include eBook reader comparisons and reviews, conversion utilities, recommendations, book reviews and more.

eBook Conversion tools and utilities:

eBook downloads:

  • Baen Books - One of my long-time favorite eBook sites, Baen publishing maintains a books-for-purchase and subscription site. Baen Books also features a free eBook library containing many popular Sci-fi and Fantasy authors and in-print books. Their idea is to get you hooked on some of these authors so you come back and buy the entire series. It works.
  • FeedBooks.com needs to fix some broken links, but has a decent selection of eBook downloads. Check out their Creative Commons Science Fiction list for some current authors and titles.
  • Golden Age Comics is a site in the U.K. that features scanned archives of a number of out-of-copyright comic books from early-mid 1900s. The files are tagged with .CBZ or .CBR file extensions; these can be renamed to ZIP or RAR to extract the scanned page image files.
  • Bartleby.com has a selection of free eBooks available, and has many classic reference books available for online viewing as well.
  • Munseys.com - Find and download books by author, subject, title and more. Many pulp-fiction era books are available in several common eBook formats.
  • Planet eBook has a small selection of classic eBook files available for download. Most have come from the Project Gutenberg site.
  • mobileread.com - Includes a links page containing these and many other links to sites that offer free eBook downloads or eBook titles for purchase. eBooks can also be found on sites such as Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com
  • OverDrive Digital Media Services has free audio book software and commercial eBook conversion and formatting software available. Their site includes a search page that can track down eBook versions of specific titles or authors. The interesting part of their search results is that it often includes links to public libraries where you can download the eBook instead of purchase.

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