E-book reader

My gadget mania has struck again. As is my habit, I again selected basically the most expensive device on the market of some particular type. It started, pretty much, with finding a version 2 Kindle in a friend’s sofa. Neat device, I thought, and fiddled about with it for a while. It was tempting, but there are a few things I don’t like about the Kindle.

  1. Amazon control the device, not I. Sure, they have less control if I never go online with it, but half the point of a Kindle is their free data service.
  2. The resolution is too low. I read many technical documents, where 600×800 is just slightly too small to be practical.
  3. The contrast was just slightly disappointing. Not a showstopper, but annoying.

Still, I just couldn’t get the idea out of my mind – so I started looking about for alternatives. MobileRead hosts a wiki with a rather helpful overview. Turns out, there were a whole slew of promising demonstrations. Kindle DX exists, but has the same control issues and notably higher cost. Irex has closed. Nemoptic apparently went bankrupt. Brother SV-70 is apparently only for the Japanese market and only their own proprietary format. The Skiff reader had a clear advantage in resolution, but the whole company was swallowed by News Corporation (as yet not to be seen again) before release.

Somewhere along the line, the old idea that a stylus for handwriting would be nice resurfaced. The trigger this time was reading about the Onyx Boox, but for a measure of how far back the concept has interested me, I have an RS-232 connected inductive digitizer from Genius. It’s old, and not very flashy, but does work – although the last time I used it I had to patch the driver to work with recent Xorg. I’ve tried a few touchscreen devices since, such as the TuxScreen, Palm III, and Agenda VR3. There’s an important side effect of the most popular technologies (capacitive and resistive) – glare and reduced contrast, the very things the e-ink needs to avoid. The Boox 60 didn’t have a particular problem with this, because the inductive digitizers can be placed behind the screen. The downside is that a specific stylus is required, so these aren’t touch screens (apparently that’s what you have to call it nowadays to sell), but it makes up for it with higher precision and, again, no extra layer in front of the screen.

There’s one concern I haven’t yet mentioned. I’m a programmer, and like tinkering with all my gadgets to some degree. I absolutely loathe it when the manufacturer takes effort to destroy this option (hello, Sony), but if they elect to be helpful, that matters to me. One brand stuck out in this regard, a Ukrainian developer called Pocketbook. They have released SDKs and sources, and significantly, showed active efforts to maintain and enhance the firmware for existing models. The developer site, hosted at sourceforge, was filled with Russian discussion, but they are currently expanding – with offices all over the place, and a multilingual bookstore. They’re about to launch a few new models, and the top of the line – Pocketbook Pro 903 – is what I’ve ordered. The deal closer, really, was seeing no less than three active and helpful representatives on the mobileread forums.

So how well did this model stack up to my feature wishes?

  • Active updates from Pocketbook, flexibly overridable firmware, and an active developer community – they do have a DRM thingy, but they point out themselves that’s only because publishers demanded it. Control: Good enough.
  • Resolution: Turns out the nicer options (1600×1200) aren’t anywhere to be found. The 903 has the top E-ink model, at 825×1200 – same size as Kindle DX.
  • Contrast is, rumours have it, slightly worse than the new Kindles (“Pearl” is apparently the cream of the crop) but better than earlier generations, as the one I tried. It will suffice.
  • Inductive digitizer makes navigation easier and scribbles possible, without sacrificing legibility.
  • Connectivity is just overkill – Bluetooth, 3G+GPRS, WLAN. This thing can connect through my cellphone if its own SIM won’t do.
  • Memory is not shabby – 256MiB RAM, 2GB built-in flash, and a micro-SD slot for expansion, upgrades or experiments.

There are other details, such as a frankly impressive PDF reflow feature, but thus far it’s enough to excite me. Certainly there’s silliness about too, such as the “Pro” moniker present on all the new Pocketbook E-ink readers. By the way, the 603 model has the exact same features with a smaller screen, and the 902/602 differ by dropping 3G and the digitizer. All of them should run the same software, including all the add-ons.

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