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The Cutting Edge / Personal Technology | PC FOCUS

For Now, Book Devices Are Paper Tigers

May 03, 1999|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

There are certain product categories that on the surface seem like a dumb idea. But as a product reviewer, I try to keep an open mind until I have a chance to test the item.

For example, I was skeptical about WebTV, a device that lets you surf the Net from a television set. But after I installed it in my living room, I discovered that it actually provides a reasonably good experience.

The same was true about hand-held electronic devices that store and display book text. The mere idea of spending hundreds of dollars for a device that lets you read a book seems pretty ludicrous when you consider the alternative. Paper is portable, unbreakable, relatively cheap and works well in just about any environment, as long as there's enough light.

Yet after testing the Rocket eBook from NuvoMedia Inc. ( and the SoftBook from SoftBook Press (, I came to the conclusion that they do have their place. They're not for everyone, but they're better than I expected them to be.

Although several companies have announced development of electronic books, these are the first on the market. The two devices do roughly the same thing, but they are very different in design.

The Rocket is a 5-by-7 1/2-by-1 1/2-inch device that weighs 1.4 pounds. It has about the same dimensions as a typical paperback and is a bit heavier than all but the weightiest of novels. SoftBook, at 3.1 pounds, is considerably heavier and measures 10 1/2 by 8 1/2 by 1 inch, about the size of a fat magazine.

Both devices let you download books, newspapers and your own documents so you can read them anywhere. They come with software that lets you convert just about any computer document or Web site into a file that can be downloaded. But if you want to read a published book, you have to select one from a rather small list of titles that you can purchase.

In addition to being able to read text and graphics, you can search for keywords, place electronic bookmarks in text, highlight passages and attach notes to portions of text. The SoftBook lets you draw images over text. Of course, you can do that on a regular book too, but the electronic version lets you easily remove your scribbles.

Both products have touch-sensitive screens that let you control the units with a stylus or finger. Although the SoftBook has a much larger screen, the Rocket is a lot easier to read. It has a reflective backlighted LCD screen that works well in any lighting, from a dark room to sunny beach. The SoftBook screen is also backlighted, but, like laptop screens, it's hard to read in bright sunlight.

Also, the Rocket screen can be easily viewed from almost any angle, whereas the SoftBook is hard to read if you're not looking at it straight on. Even if you are, the text isn't as clear as it is on the Rocket. The Rocket displays pages instantly when you press the next-page button; the SoftBook takes about a second for the page to draw.

The Rocket may look like the superior product, but there are cases where it comes in second. While it would be my choice for recreational reading at the beach or on a plane, the SoftBook is better designed for complex technical manuals, maps and other documents that have a lot of graphics. The sheer size of the screen and the built-in software that displays text and graphics are optimized for corporate customers who might purchase the devices along with optional publishing software to create manuals, price lists and other materials for employees to use in the office or in the field.

The two companies have very different strategies for getting information into their devices. The SoftBook does not connect to a PC, but rather has a built-in modem that dials into the company's server via toll-free numbers from most parts of the U.S. Once online, you can purchase books from SoftBook Press' catalog. If you want to access your own content, you must first upload it to the SoftBook server via the company's Web site. You can also send Web pages or even whole Web sites to the server and later download them to your SoftBook.

Getting data into a Rocket requires a Windows PC. (A Mac version is under development.) The device comes with a cradle that connects to the PC's serial port. Free software lets you transfer text or HTML (Web format) documents directly from the PC to the device. You can also transfer entire Web sites, including graphics, from the Internet via your PC. The process can be time-consuming, but also useful.

At this time, the only way to purchase electronic books for the Rocket is from Barnes & Noble's Web site, which stocks about 500 electronic versions of popular books.

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