Is there an eBook in your future?

What is to become of words in the age of the Internet? Well, if you believe some folks, we're going to chuck all our paper books and start reading new eBooks.

What is to become of words in the age of the Internet? Well, if you believe some folks, we're going to chuck all our paper books and start reading new eBooks.

I was off on a six-hour plane trip from San Francisco to Boston, so I picked up each of the two shipping electronic books to find out if they really are as good as paper.

Nuovo Media's Rocket eBook is about the size and weight of a Tom Clancy novel. It holds a few more pages -- about 4,000 -- than even Clancy's latest potboiler. The $500 eBook came to me with "Alice in Wonderland" and the Random House Dictionary.

It's relatively easy to add new books to the Rocket eBook -- just go up to the Barnes and Noble on the Web, buy a book, and download it to your PC. You then copy the book over to the eBook via the supplied cradle. As a PC user, I like this approach, it means if the battery totally dies on the eBook, my books are still local. And there are no moving parts (besides the page-flip buttons), which made it somewhat less likely that I'd destroy this expensive computer before we crossed the Continental Divide.

I hadn't read "Alice in Wonderland" for a while, so I dug right in. The screen, although 105 dots per inch, and a touch-screen to boot, was very readable. There are two character sizes available -- I much preferred the large one, perhaps because I'm not 25 anymore. It's easy to hold the Rocket eBook in one hand and flip pages, which was nice when I was waiting in line for the overcrowded airplane-restroom. But, although the eBooks claim lots of battery life, I only got a few hours.

"Alice in Wonderland" even includes some nice illustrations, and those were faithfully reproduced on the Rocket eBook. Although it's only black-and-white, the backlight meant I could read even when the movie was playing. And the Rocket eBook display rotates in four different ways, so even left-handers can use it.

After a few chapters of "Alice in Wonderland," I picked up the Softbook. This electronic book is more like a tablet -- super-thin, with a tablet-sized screen the size of a trade paperback. The screen was also quite readable, with two different text sizes as well (guess which one I chose?). The Softbook display doesn't rotate, but that's OK, because it's so thin. Michael Wolf's "Burn Rate" is included, along with a couple of Guy Kawasaki's "Rules for Revolutionaries."

I had been meaning to read "Burn Rate," so I jumped right in. Unlike the Rocket eBook, which uses two buttons to scroll pages, the Softbook has a single, larger button that pivots in two directions. It's easy to read, although surprisingly difficult to navigate. A page marker at the bottom lets you move from page to page, and you can always set a digital bookmark, but I had trouble finding chapters, because there's no table of contents. I did like the ability to annotate the text by underlining, or drawing pictures with the included stylus. The doodle feature might captivate a two year-old for 10 minutes or more.

You don't need a PC to transfer books to the Softbook -- just connect up to the Internet with the built in modem. That means you must transfer books at 33.6 K-bps, which can be slow, but you get your own bookshelf on the Web, so you don't have to worry about filling up the 1,500 or so pages of storage in the device.

I wasn't so keen on the weight -- about three pounds, or the battery life. Although rated for about 5 hours, I ran out of juice after only about two-and-a-half hours -- probably because I had the backlight blaring. The Softbook is also even more expensive than the pricey Rocket eBook, at $600. You can get if for $300 if you promise to buy $20 worth of books for 24 months, though. At least you get a leather cover -- if you want a leather case for the Rocket eBook, it'll set you back another $120.

I liked the Rocket eBook a bit better -- the form factor was more comfortable, the battery life seemed better, and the text more readable. But the differences are not that huge. And both offer similar content -- you can download the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to each, and Stephen King's new novel was released for both simultaneous with the paper release.

But there are still drawbacks to these electronic books. They're computers, with glass screens, which makes them candidates for breakage. I didn't drop either one, but clumsy me is sure to crack the screen sooner rather than later. And they'll be difficult to use in my favorite reading spot, the beach. And I'd caution my wife from reading one in the tub as well. Neither of the two other electronic books planned for later this year, from Librius or Everybook will solve those problems.

Electronic Books make sense for carrying around lots of manuals, or for a college student. I can imagine a kind of electronic book that contains all the texts for a semester, along with notetaking ability. Reference works, like a dictionary, thesaurus and encyclopedia would also be good in this format.

But I'm still betting that paper books will be around for a long time. Paper is cheap, easy to read, and is surprisingly durable. Paper has another edge over the electronic too. As we were approaching Boston, the flight attendant insisted I turn the Softbook off. Paper, luckily, does not interfere with either avionics or navigation equipment.

What do you think about eBooks? Let me know in the talkback below.


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