A desirable and practical digital book?

Nothing is more satisfying, nor more wasteful of resources, than printing out some of the pdfs that land on my digital mat. Yet, if I’m to work on a train, I’ll quite often set the printer going while I hop in the shower. There’s no way I’m going to sit on the train with a laptop, squinting through the reflections, worrying about battery life and the remote possibility of being mugged. Remote because my laptop is definitely not at the sexy end of the spectrum.

Guilt-filled train trips are part of my life. Yet, I could change things at a stroke were I prepared to fork out a couple of hundred quid for a Sony PRS-505 electronic book reader when it hits the shelves – allegedly in September. Users of the existing model can upgrade their software from Sony and have the pleasure today. By the way, Macintosh users are out of luck, it only couples to Windows PCs

The new machine can hold the equivalent of 160 books. Many more if you add a memory stick or SD card. The device uses digital ink which is bi-stable and requires no energy to retain its state. Sony reckons you can turn 6,800 pages on a single charge. The screen is reflective, rather than back-lit, so can be read in normal book-reading conditions. The device is thinner and shorter than a paperback, but about the same width. The reading area is six inches diagonal with a display resolution of 170 pixels per inch showing eight levels of grey. Controls range along the bottom and down the right hand side and it comes in a tan leather-look cover. Very nice.

After a few false starts with copy protection schemes and lock-in to Sony formats, the company has announced that it now supports a variety of publishing standards: EPUB, BBeB, Adobe PDF, Word, txt, rtf, jpeg, gif, png, bmp and, for audio, MP3 and AAC. Both secured and unsecured formats are handled properly.

Most business readers are going to be very happy with the idea of reading native Word and pdf documents and, perhaps, playing their favourite music while reading. And, apparently, text-based Adobe documents can be reflowed to render them more readable. If, as I suspect, this means no more stupid columns of text then I will be thrilled beyond measure. Pictures get pushed to the end of the text, apparently, so it rather depends on the document whether you’d actually want to reflow. (Scientific papers and, probably, research reports would fall into this category.)

Noticing that Adobe Digital Editions is needed for getting Adobe eBooks onto the device, I installed a copy and what I saw pleased me very much. I could create libraries and folders and bookmark documents, as well as read them without any browser clutter. And, importantly for me, I could still select and copy text to the clipboard. (From whence it is collected by some software that I publish as a mad hobby – I’m not here to promote it, so no names and no links.) Digital Editions is now my PDF reader of choice on the PC. All the PDFs I need are now instantly on tap in the library – complete with mini preview icons. And they’re ready for transferring to the PRS-505, assuming I take the plunge.

I’m sure there’s a huge environmental angle to all this. The device is a low consumer of energy. My printer would become more or less redundant. All those pdfs can stay in digital form until I lose interest. And, instead of buying printed books, I can get the ’dematerialised’ versions instead (yes, I’ve checked the availability of some favourite authors).

It might take a while to compensate for the embedded environmental cost so it’s best to resist getting an upgrade until you’ve found a genuinely appreciative home for your cast-off, thus extending its life and salving your conscience.

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