The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

A brief rant about ebook readers

Posted by Deliverator on March 24th, 2010

I’ve been reading books electronically in one form or another since 1996 (on a USR Pilot 5000). Since then, I’ve owned ~8 devices on which I regularly read ebooks. Several of those devices have been dedicated, purpose built devices, ostensibly for reading ebooks and little else.

I currently do most of my electronic reading on a Sony PRS-505 with a Sony front light wedge/leather case accessory. I’ve been enacting a boycott on purchasing Sony products since the Sony Rootkit Debacle, but received the reader as a gift. Since receiving the Sony reader, Sony has released 3-4 new readers.

This year, it seems like hardly a day has passed when the tech news sites haven’t covered the release of a new reader product from some company or another. In some cases, this latest batch of e-ink readers represent 3rd, 4th or even 5th generation products. One would expect a pretty fine degree of design refinement from a 5th generation product, especially one devoted to such a singular task. Yet, virtually all the readers, announced or on the market today, fail to address 3 fundamental user experience issues. I seldom see these issues brought up to any great degree in product reviews, either. Yet, for me, these issues are key to enjoying an electronic reading experience:

  1. An ebook reader should be comfortable to hold in one’s hand (notice the singular there) for an extended period of time and without risk of slipping or dropping the device due to positional fatigue, accidental jarring, etc. Virtually all the readers on the market are thin, rectangular shaped devices and are often made of slick plastic or metal that provides for an actively slippery surface when combined with sweaty palms. Additionally, the above should apply in both horizontal and vertical orientations for both right and left handed individuals.
  2. Regardless of screen orientation, the next page/previous page buttons should lie under one’s thumbs. Simple turning of the page is by far the most frequently accessed function on any ebook reader. It should just be there without need to reach or place the reader in a stressful/uncomfortable position. The next page button in particular should be over-sized. A D-pad is not an acceptable substitute.
  3. This last is going to be somewhat controversial. The vast majority of day to day recreational reading (novels and the like) is done in the evening and at night, often times in less than ideal lighting conditions, especially for those who share their beds with a partner. Ebook readers need to incorporate some form of front or back lighting into their designs or offer well integrated official lighting accessories. This is a somewhat unpalatable task with the current crop of E-ink displays, where adding front lighting generally consists of placing an edge lit piece of clear plastic in front of the display. Adding another layer in front of the display diminishes the clarity and contrast of the display. And the high contrast, paper-like nature of E-ink displays are a good part of the reason that ebook readers use this sort of display in the first place instead of LCD, OLED and other display technologies.

The only reader I’ve owned which has come close to satisfying these requirement was the Nuvomedia Rocket eBook.

Nuvomedia Rocket eBook

This was one of the first electronic book readers sold and yet in many fundamental ways it was more enjoyable to use than devices made over a decade later in a far more mature & technologically advanced marketplace. It had an ergonomic, curvy wedge shape that was easy to cradle in the palm of one’s hand. Later versions of the device included a rubberized backside to make it even easier to grasp. The page up/down buttons were over-sized and comfortable to actuate without moving one’s hands in the portrait orientation for both right and left handed users and weren’t too bad in the horizontal orientation, either. The screen resolution doesn’t really compare to modern readers, but it was a high contrast B&W LCD and had decent back-lighting for night reading. Astoundingly, 10+ years later, a variant of this original device is still being sold as the eBookwise 1150 for ~$100. My personal experience with the later revisions of the Rocket eBook (post Gemstart acquisition) is that they used much lower quality displays, but I would be interested in opinions from more recent users.

In conclusion, I would really like for Sony/Amazon/B&N or SOMEBODY to make a comfortable to use ebook reader.