After my initial negative reaction to my free Sony Reader, which I detailed in the blog post “When You Die, Can I Have This?” I promised not to give up too soon, not to dismiss the gizmo off hand. After all, I like books, I like reading, and I read books in multiple formats, so why not on an e-reader?
It only seemed fair that rather than fiddle with the software a little and jump around from book to book and page to page, then pass judgment, I should actually use the device in the way it was intended. I should actually buy and read a book—all the way through.
Here are the results of that experiment.
THE GOOD . . .
The book I bought from the Sony Library was Metropolis, by Thea von Harbou. This cost me $4.74, and wasn’t chosen at random. I’ve long been a fan of the old silent movie by (von Harbou’s husband) Fritz Lang, but I’ve never read the original novel. I’ve also long been a fan of classic science fiction, so this was a win-win for me: a book I was excited to read, in any format.
Sitting down to read, the device didn’t feel bad in my hands, and the book was interesting enough that after a few minutes each time I sat down to read I more or less forgot that I was reading an e-book on an e-reader and just enjoyed the book—kind of.
Sounds like a segue . . .
THE BAD . . .
Even with my new prescription reading glasses, the type was too small for me to comfortably read, so I had to bump the size up one click. That made it just fine, and the experience of reading it, in terms of the size and clarity of the type, was comparable to a tree book. What I just can not get past, though, is the utter lack of care or effort put into design. This is an engineer’s idea of what readers expect, which means it’s a stripped-down essential of what readers need. But what readers want is a book that looks as good as it is comfortable to read.
The ragged right margins, “what-were-they-thinking” font choices, line spaces between paragraphs, and editing acceptable only in a rough draft is just an insult to the reader, the authors, and the whole profession from Gutenberg on up. There’s more to a book than raw text, guys. Lots, lots more, and having had a chance to play with the iPad, I can tell you that whatever Apple’s doing, they seem to understand that, finally, and they will win because of it.
The screen on the Sony Reader is a dull gray I thought was too dark—much darker than even the cheap newsprint of a mass market book. There was considerable screen glare, too, even in muted, overcast daylight. That seems like something they could fix with some kind of anti-glare coating on the screen. But the battleship gray background I found depressing.
AND THE BATTERY
Sony’s web site says the battery is good for two weeks. I’m not sure what that means, but it will not operate for two weeks straight—as though someone is going to stay up for a marathon 336-hour Read-a-thon anyway.
Knowing I was conducting an experiment, I had a note pad next to me as I read, and kept track of the time I spent with the Reader actually turned on, as a real-time test of the battery life. One of my own initial complaints of the e-reader in general was that a traditional tree book doesn’t have a battery, and will never fail you on that score. But then in reality no one sits down and reads continuously for twelve, fifteen, or twenty hours, so I was curious as to how the Sony engineers approached battery life. What did they think was reasonably long enough before you set the Reader aside while it charged.
I began by plugging the thing into my computer. So, yeah, problems right away, which I won’t rehash from the follow-up post, but eventually I got the thing fully charged, so that all four of the bars in the little battery icon were full. With that full battery, I started reading.
While I’m writing this, I turned the Reader on and noticed that the battery was reading two of four bars. I spent a total of seven hours and forty-six minutes reading Metropolis, which is about the length of one long plane flight. For me it was a total of eighteen different sittings between May 17 and June 2. When I turned it off after finishing Metropolis, the battery still had three of the four bars, and since then I’ve had it on maybe another half an hour or forty five minutes. I suppose it’s reasonable to estimate maybe fifteen hours of battery life. Though I noticed that it went from four bars to three after six hours and sixteen minutes, which would actually average out to about twenty-four hours on one charge—but who knows how that imprecise little battery icon is calibrated?
Honestly, I think even the low end of that estimate (fifteen hours) is fine. As long as you have the USB cord and a computer handy, you shouldn’t have the thing crap out on you mid-sentence. It’ll require at least as much attention on that score as an iPod or cell phone, both of which I own and manage to keep charged—and only blame myself when they poop out on me.
My friend and editor Peter Archer told me he thought the dedicated e-reader was “a solution in search of a problem,” and I have to say I agree. I hold out considerable hope that the iPad will change my mind, once I’ve finished waiting through the first year—never buy a new Apple device in the first year. If you’re an Apple user, you know what I mean. The rest of you, just trust me.
But this funny little thing that only does one thing and doesn’t do it particularly well, can’t and won’t replace the 700+ books I still have on my shelves at home, and with the problems I’ve had getting it to work with my computer . . . had I paid almost $200—even the new lower $150—for this thing, I’d be pretty angry.
In the end, the cost outweighs the convenience.
Okay, it’s easier to bring this on an airplane than half a dozen books, but if you leave half a dozen $7.99 paperbacks on a plane, you’re out $47.49, but if you’ve bought those same e-books, and lose the Reader, you might still have the e-books in your Library, but the Reader ran you $150, so you’re still $150 in the hole. The risk doesn’t equal the reward—for me, at least. But I don’t tend to read that much when I travel, and I don’t stay away for long. One book and a magazine have always been enough for me.
That being said, there’s simply nothing this device does that a book doesn’t do better (and real typesetting and editing makes books better—they just really do), cheaper ($7.99 is always going to be cheaper than $7.99 plus $150), and easier (you never have to hope a tree book’s software is compatible with your computer—it isn’t, it never has been, and it never will be, so no time is wasted trying). And after all, you really only read one book at a time, right? Do you really have to carry ten of them around with you at any given time?