Sony Reader Six Months On

I wrote about getting a Sony Reader with an e-ink screen almost six months ago. It's a second hand 500, as opposed to the more recent 505, which is now more widespread. I bought the older, cheaper version because I wasn't sure if I would still be using it after six months. And it's only after that amount of time you can really be sure a device has really made that much difference to your life. There didn't seem to be much point in buying something that might wind up lost in a drawer by the time six months rolled around. So this entry is the six-months-later entry: did the machine make a difference to my life?

The answer is a very vigorous thumbs-up. I love the bloody thing, despite its many faults. God knows there are enough of them; it crashed from time to time, necessitating sticking a pin in the back to get it to laboriously reboot. Changing pages can occasionally also be a bit slow. It doesn't come near the stated 7000-pages-before-needing-a-recharge stated in all of Sony's advertising. And that's just the hardware. There are endless problems to do with file formats - .lit, .mobi, .epub, and .on and .on and .on. Books sold on ebook sites can frequently be outrageously priced compared to the dead tree version (the fault of the publisher, not the retailer). Many of them are DRM-ed, meaning software has been used to 'secure' the book so it can only be read on one device. Which in the case of the Sony Reader rather limited your options, since until limited upgrades were made available earlier this year, you were pretty much stuck with books sold through their own site with its woefully limited selection.

Because of this, I've had to download software that allows me to 'crack' books I've legally bought before I can even read them. I've worked my way through a nightmarish morass of incompatibilities, software issues, hardware issues ... oh,I could go on and on ... and there are enough problems, indeed, to send most sane human beings running screaming back to their tactile, bound hardbacks and paperbacks that never need to be recharged and are never going to prevent you from reading them because, well, you might be a software pirate, mightn't you?

And yet, it's still the greatest thing. The words are an absolute delight on the screen. It's remarkably like reading words on paper. The text is clear and sharp. The machine is stunningly sleek and portable. And my reading has gone through the roof; I've read more books in the past six months than I'm usually likely to get through in a couple of years, if that. I only realised after purchasing the device that many of my purchasing decisions previously depended on whether I had anywhere to put the books I bought, and whether I would need to buy more and more shelves to hold them.

That's no longer an issue, and neither is the number of books I've accrued since coming to Taiwan when it comes to my future return to Scotland, either. If I'd bought the dead tree editions, I'd have needed an extra (large) suitcase to carry them home. I read waiting in restaurants, standing in trains, sitting in waiting rooms; the Reader fits perfectly in my jacket pocket, and I can whip it out in a moment and start off where I'd last left in seconds. In fact, I now find it distinctly hard to go back to reading paper books. They seem large, and unwieldy, and difficult to hold. I am, in short, a convert.

I've made a point of being the first to describe the many discouraging issues concerning the technology. I suspect machines like this are really for the hardcore reader like myself; critics are right to point out these are not devices for the kind of people who might read one or two books in a year while on holiday. But for people who like to read a lot, they're an absolute godsend. More recent devices manufactured by other firms - such as the Cybook and Bebook - have solved certain difficulties concerning battery life and file compatibility, and all the newer machines apparently have much greater contrast and legibility. It's clear the technology is still evolving, and is far from reaching a plateau. There are many issues - not all positive - to consider in the future; the way in which many of these devices are effectively hobbled both by publisher and manufacturers, for one. But for the moment, for this reader here, I can safely say I've renewed my addiction to reading, and you can prise my ebook reader from my cold, dead hands, and not a moment before.


Anonymous said...

There are endless problems to do with file formats - .lit, .mobi, .epub...

You can try this online converter
it mostly gets the job done.

Gary Gibson, science fiction writer said...

That's interesting. I'd never heard of that site. I tend to use the freeware program Calibre, however, both for file conversion and cataloging.

Nick Harkaway said...

Gary - apologies for not dropping by sooner; your comment hit my pages around the time I moved hosts and CMSs and I'm just catching up.

It's interesting to know that there's already DRM-cracking for eBooks - I assumed there would be, but I haven't seen it. Something like Handbrake for movies? Or more basic?

Yes, the eBook pricing schemes I've seen are a bit odd; they're based on the price of the available Dead Tree version, so my eBook when you posted was the, uh, eHardback edition...

If you check again now, you should find The Gone-Away World is out in ePaperback.

Er. Yes, that sounds as strange to me as it does to you, I think.

I think part of the reason for this somewhat counter-intuitive approach and the DRM model is that beyond the publishing companies themselves, which are of course used to and comfortable with rivalrous and excludable goods, there are parent companies which trade in solid commodities, whose infrastructures and cultures are really not set up to deal with slippery new business models which are content to allow a high degree of illegitimate copying etc.

Change is inevitable. The trick is to ride it, rather than get swamped by it - and in that, publishing may be at an advantage because music and film are already demonstrating the problems of building walls instead of surfing the waves...

By the way - I think I prefer Stanza to the Sony... I love flicking the pages across with my fingertip.