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A Novel Device, Electronic Books Are Still Far From an Easy Read


Someday, books printed on paper will be replaced by lightweight digital readers that can store hundreds of titles, download books from the Web that cost a fraction of the price of their pulpy ancestors, and even eliminate the need for a light while reading in bed at night.

That day is still far away.

I spent a couple of weeks testing two electronic books now on the market: NuvoMedia's Rocket EBook and the SoftBook Reader by SoftBook Press. They offer a tantalizing, but horribly expensive, glimpse of this paperless future and are far more frustrating than they are worth.

Among the shortcomings: It's hard to tell on a Rocket EBook how many pages are left in a chapter and how close you are to the end of a book. The SoftBook Reader prevented me from turning past a certain page because the book I was reading had "crashed." And the library of contemporary e-books available for the devices is extremely limited.

Then there's the high cost. If the Rocket EBook is a stretch at $199, the SoftBook Reader is absurdly overpriced at $599.95. (SoftBook's device is also available for $299.95 if you agree to spend $19.95 a month for 24 months at their SoftBookstore.) And you have to pay extra for the books, which can cost more than conventional books.

These and other problems will likely be solved within a few years, thanks in part to more powerful and less expensive computer chips. Gemstar International Group, the deep-pocketed Pasadena firm that created VCR Plus, bought NuvoMedia and SoftBook Press earlier this year and plans to invest in technology improvements for the readers. As the devices become cheaper and more widely deployed, publishers will presumably make more titles available to customers who prefer to read digitally.

For consumers who want an e-book today, the Rocket EBook is clearly the better of the two devices. It is about the size of a VHS video cassette--5 inches by 7 1/2 inches and 1 1/2 inches thick--and at 1.4 pounds, it weighs about as much as a hardcover book. The screen size is 3 inches by 4 1/2 inches, comparable to the printed page of a paperback but holds only about a third as much text.

It's easy to cozy up with the Rocket EBook. One of its sides is curved for easy gripping. The page-forward and page-back buttons are conveniently embedded there, and pages of text cascade onto the screen smoothly. The backlit screen makes it easy to read in almost any light, even complete darkness, without straining your eyes. Using the stylus that slips into the back, it is simple to change the orientation of the screen so that the page can be displayed vertically or horizontally.

Getting to this stage, however, takes considerably more effort than visiting a bookstore. First, I downloaded RocketLibrarian software from the Rocket EBook Web site ( The registration and setup process took about 20 minutes and was easy to follow. Then it was time to go book shopping at the sites that sell RocketEditions.

The digital bookshelves at and Powell's Books are crammed with writers such as Homer, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, whose works are in the public domain and cost about $5 apiece. But the selection of current books is decidedly more limited. The best-selling Harry Potter books are not available for the Rocket EBook, for instance. After much browsing, I finally settled on "Personal Injuries" by Scott Turow.

Then came the second disappointment. The electronic version of the Turow book cost $21.60 on, compared with $18.90 for a paper version. I had expected to get a deep discount because I wasn't paying for paper, ink, warehousing or shipping.

After buying the book, displayed a Web address where I could download the book to the RocketLibrarian program on my computer. Then I plugged the Rocket EBook Cradle into the back of my PC, slipped the Rocket EBook into the cradle and clicked a button to transfer the title to my Rocket EBook. The download took just a couple of minutes, and then transferring it to the device in the cradle was even faster.

Reading was easy, especially with the large, bold text. With a stylus you can set bookmarks, highlight passages and make notes using the on-screen keyboard. It comes with a handy leather case that zips shut and has a handle for easy toting.

But I still don't think the Rocket EBook is worth $199. The small number and high cost of current titles is a turnoff, but the most irritating thing was my inability to track my reading progress. I like to reach the end of a chapter before closing a book, but it was cumbersome to flip ahead to see how close I was. It was also disconcerting because I had no idea whether Chapter 10 was closer to the book's beginning or end.

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