Sony Reader: Part 3 (of 4)

October 25, 2006

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2

My Personal Enthusiasm

The main problem I have always had with ebooks is having to “turn on” a book and to use electricity to read it.

I don’t have to do either with a real book. I don’t have, in the back of my head, the sound of an electrical meter ticking away, reminding me that, in effect, I’m paying an additional “toll” each time I want to read. I don’t have to carry an AC adapter or worry about being near an AC outlet. These things are distracting. They’ve prevented me from ever truly enjoying an ebook.

Ebooks. I tried to read them on a monochrome Palm III screen and on a similar Sony S320. It just didn’t work out. MobiPocket was OK, but with the limited RAM and CPU power of these PDAs, it just wasn’t worth the effort. I hated Peanut Reader and every other Palm OS reading program of the time.

The first ebook I completely read was on my (now-dead) Toshiba GENIO Pocket PC, using Microsoft Reader. It was a free ebook from Blackmask Online. My pleasure — already tempered by my electricity objection — was entirely shattered when I discovered at least one, if not more, sentences or paragraphs were missing in the text. (An email to Blackmask Online received no reply; neither was the ebook ever fixed.) I loved Microsoft Reader; it offered a good book-like experience. I went on to read another ebook of the many I’d downloaded. Then the PPC OS crashed. And my Notes and Bookmarks went to Electron Hell. That ended ebooks for me.

Until the Nokia 770. I decided to give FBReader two chances. The second chance clicked and I began to read The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells. But guess what? The issue of using electricity came back with a vengeance. The 770 is primarily for web access. Every minute of battery life I use for ebook reading is at least one less minute available for being on the web. There was no contest here: No more ebook reading.

I’d like to say the same for RSS on the 770 too. I have 92 feeds. I’d have more, but even getting those onto the 770 was a hellish process, and trying to read those feeds is even more hellish. Scrolling through a feed with the included RSS news reader program is just slow; irritatingly, apoplectically slow. And yet I still use RSS on the 770, stealing browser minutes, because I’ve become addicted to RSS.

When I first encountered the refresh flashing on the Sony Reader, I didn’t think I could get past that. I think, like many people who love to read fiction, it will be a distraction. Some Reader owners have said they’ve gotten used to it, but I don’t know if I could. I tried reading Nineteen Eighty-Four at SonyStyle, but that’s not a reading environment to begin with. So, I remain skeptical when it comes to fiction.

But as for non-fiction, I think it will do very nicely, especially in two areas: RSS feeds and transferring reference Memos I have on my CLIE (and on my desktop PC, stranded in Palm OS 5-compatible Palm Desktop).

RSS: The included Sony software is already acknowledged as being worthless. But other solutions have already been developed, both of which transfer RSS feeds to PDFs sized for the Reader’s screen. See this thread at mobileread. See the news about RSSOwl at Teleread.

With so few Readers out there, this is an auspicious beginning comparable to the quick freeware and shareware developments that followed the introduction of the original Pilot PDA from Palm Computing.

And I don’t think that analogy is a stretch, either. See this forum at mobileread which lists the kind of hacking of the Reader that’s already begun.

As stated in Part Two, the Reader runs Montavista Linux Professional Edition over which software at least partly developed by Kinoma rests.

While the Linux-based Nokia 770 has not set any sales records (unless the metric is for Disappointing), hackers devised ways to gain root access to its Linux OS and bring additional (mostly Linux-y) functions to it. I think Linux afficionados will also make short work of the Reader’s OS too. I expect syncing with Linux to happen (and if that happens, syncing with Mac OS X will follow too).

So I’m sold on the Sony Reader just as a great way to read RSS. I’ll have a larger screen than the 770, my choice of text size, and I can dump as many feeds as I want into it via my desktop PC. And I will even use it at home! No more being stuck at the desktop to catch up on feeds. I can dump them into the Reader and lounge on the couch. And notice: I’ll be able to do that with a device that’s $350, not the $1,000-plus of a UMPC or notebook!

The second point that makes me enthusiastic about the Reader is its ability to accept PDF, RTF, and plain text. In Part One, I described trying to read most available PDFs as a disaster. But this is so only for currently available PDFs. You can bet that PDFs specifically for the Reader screen dimensions will be published. And they will look gorgeous. I wouldn’t be surprised if the creators of many of the extant PDFs start reformatting them very soon. In fact, if Adobe wants to do itself a favor, it would see about providing a special section on its website for creating Reader-compatible PDFs. (Although Adobe recently announced new software for handling PDFs, it would be foolish for it to ignore the Reader.)

RTF — Rich Text Format — is what opens the Reader to everyone immediately. Without waiting for Sony (or other parties) to issue ebook creation tools, anyone with a text editor — even Wordpad, included on every Windows PC — can publish documents with “good enough” formatting for the Reader. It can be private material — such as the hundreds of Memos I intend to move from Palm OS — and it can be public material too, which makes the posibilities as endless as the World Wide Web itself.

Let me give just a few (mostly geeky) examples:

1) Fan fiction. Take along all those stories written in the universe of Harry Potter, Star Trek, Babylon 5, Andromeda, Firefly, The Prisoner, and more.

2) Fanzines, club/user groups newsletters. Anyone reading this text on a backlit screen might be unaware of the extent to which publishing is still done on paper. Getting things like that onto the Reader will be a lot simpler for the average person than going through the hoops of registering an URL, locating and paying for a host, learning to use an HTML editor, et al, to get it on the net. Any periodical produced with a word processor and inkjet/laser printing is a great candidate for the Reader.

3) (Tran)scripts. Many TV programs are transcribed by their fans. The Reader is an excellent way to collect them in one place to read.

4) “Sitecasting” and “Blogcasting.” I made this one up. But think of it. Imagine, each week or two, blogs issuing a compilation of what they’ve published during that time in Reader format. I don’t know about everyone else, but I’d love to see that done for sites that publish a lot each day, such as JK on the Run, Teleread, and Palm Addicts. For sites that offer reviews (such as The Gadgeteer), a compilation of just that material could be offered. I think “blogcasts” could offer people a better way to sample more blogs than sitting at a PC and flailing away with search engines and links. I always feel pressured sitting at a PC. Sitting back with the Reader will allow me to read sites and blogs more. Along with all of the RSS, XML, digg, and other such icons now on sites, I’d like to see a new one added. One that in effect says, “Put this site on my Sony Reader.”

5) Recipes. Yes! Over twenty-five years ago, when computers such as the Apple ][+, Commodore 64, and Tandy Color Computer were being flogged to an ignorant public, one of the silly suggestions for actually having a computer in your very own home was to keep recipes! Well, guess what? The time for recipes has finally arrived! The Sony Reader is an excellent device for the kitchen! (Better than an iPod!)

6) Forum posts. When I want to research a possible purchase, I find a forum of owners and grab as many threads as I can. In the past I’ve used these two methods:

a) Find Printable Version option
b) Copy All
c) Paste to WordPad (and do font change)
d) Print on paper


a) Find Printable Version option
b) Copy All
c) Paste to Palm Desktop Memo(s)
d) Sync to Palm PDA

The Reader will do away with having to print anything I want to read away from the PC. And I can read on a screen that’s far better than any PDA. And I’ll be able to do it without the irritation of using electricty!

What else is possible? Calendar and Contacts. Why not? Both of those are offered on the iPod! Collections of song lyrics. Joke books. The weekly sales flyer from CompUSA (formatted for the Reader, instead of for wasteful printing!). Albums of weird flickr photos (the Reader can also display images, remember?).

Those are just six big(-ish) examples and several “minor” ones. I’m sure everyone reading this can devise more. But don’t just think of them! If you have the ability, go do them. Reader owners will be looking for lots of stuff to read. Give it to them! The early days of the internet made stars; this is another chance to get in on something early.

So, yes, despite my initial horror and disgust at the screen refresh I saw, I’m very, very excited by the Sony Reader.

I’ve read many reports and opinions about the Sony Reader. And I’ve found most of them to be just wrong. This is the “iPod of books.” What did I see that everyone else missed? All is revealed in (surprise!) Part Four. Don’t miss this. It will, no pun intended, open your eyes! Sony’s hardware design is ingenious — and I will prove it!

Sony Reader: Part 2 (of 4)

October 25, 2006

Continued from Part 1.

At SonyStyle

Not long after my encounter with the Sony Reader at Digital Life, I went to SonyStyle to get more, and concentrated, time on it.

I brought along an SD (well, actually the same one I use in the jWin!) with a sample TXT file, a sample RTF file, and sample BBeB files.

For text and RTF, I discovered that typesizes tend to look smaller on the Reader screen than they do when printed. Some experimentation with sizes and typefaces will be necessary for the best results. (More on RTF later.)

Of course, anyone who has read my past writings just knows I’m going to find a way to torture a device! And I did. I went to Manybooks and got a BBeB-formatted version of the Project Gutenberg text for Victor Hugo’s unabridged monster-sized classsic novel, Les Miserables. This is a 1.4MB file! Fun!

It’s important to note that most BBeB files will share these common elements in their main (individual book) menu:

Continue Reading
Table of Contents

This isn’t seen until after an individual book has been selected from the Books menu. Those who download a book and use the included Sony Connect software on their PC to transfer a title to the Reader will have just about instant access to the book.

Since I didn’t have the Connect software for this test, I just dumped the Hugo book onto an SD. This made a big difference in how the Reader initially handled it. It had to paginate it. This took quite a while. I didn’t time it, however, because I didn’t expect it to happen. Once the book’s main menu — as described above — appeared, I selected Begin.

No fun followed. Gutenberg texts all begin with a huge wad of text describing the Project, the license for the text, its creation, et al. Even with the small font, I had to Page and Page and Page before I got to the contents of the book itself — the Table of Contents — which was a simple text list, not interactive.

I exited to the book’s menu and chose Table of Contents. Nothing there. Apparently Gutenberg texts, even in Reader format, are still just texts despite being tarted up in BBeB form. Like I said: No fun.

I went back to the book’s menu and selected Continue Reading to pick up where I’d exited.

In Small type, Les Miserables was 4,109 pages.

In Medium type, it was 5,781 pages.

Switching from Small to Medium was not instant. This is because I opened the book direct from SD. I didn’t use the Sony Connect software to prepare the book. So there was a pretty big delay. Since I hadn’t expected this, I didn’t time it. But I did decide to time the next size change.

In Large type, Les Miserables was 8,523 pages!

And to go from Medium to Large type took an incredible three minutes and thirty-seven seconds (3:37)!

After all three sizes had been used, switching between them did not introduce any more delay. Les Miserables acted like any other BBeB.

I tried a second Gutenberg/Manybook file: Self-Help by Samuel Smiles. This was a 386.3KB BBeB.

Opening the book for the first time took a few insignificant seconds.

In Small size, it was 800 pages.

In Medium size, it was 1,178 pages. It took fifty seconds (0:50) to switch size.

In Large size, it was 1,804 pages. It took fifty-six seconds (0:56) to switch size.

Remember: Both BBeBs were placed straight on an SD that was popped into the Reader. The prep such files would go through on a desktop PC using the Sony Connect software had to be done on the Reader itself.

The RTF file could also switch through type sizes. No prepping of the file was needed for the Reader to use it immediately. It was a 150.7K RTF. I did not add any formatting of paragraphs or include any text attributes (Bold, Italic, etc). It used the Times New Roman TrueType face (bundled with Windows XP) at 10-point and was created in WordPad.

In Small size, it was 63 pages.

In Medium size, it was 80 pages. There was no delay in switching sizes.

In Large size, it was 100 pages. There was no delay in switching sizes.

Looking at the cache.xml file later revealed it be to 308KB! That was for, I believe, just the two BBeBs I had tried. That’s about one-sixth of their total size!

There’s a glaring bug in the Reader software that I want to see a firmware upgrade exterminate: listing books by author sorts them according to the first letter in an apparent Author field.

So, instead of being sorted like this:

Mike Cane
Andy Hardy

These two names are sorted as such:

Andy Hardy
Mike Cane

That’s bad.

There’s been speculation that the Reader is using a 200MHz Dragonball CPU (mobileread’s wiki says it’s a Dragonball too). I don’t know if this is true. We’ll most likely have to wait for some curious EE to open his unit and share the autopsy photos.

What is known for sure — because it’s right there in the User Guide on the Reader itself! — is that the OS is MontaVista Linux Professional Edition.

Additionally, it states “Application Software designed and implemented by Kinoma.” (An email inquiry sent to Kinoma about this got no reply.)

Also: “Bitstream is a registered trademark, and Dutch, Font Fusion, and Swiss are trademarks of Bitsream, Inc.”

Then: “Portions of this software are Copyright 2005 The Freetype Project (”

There are also credits for OpenSSL, CryptSoft, and a web page in which Sony, under the GPL agreement governing portions of the Linux OS, offers source code for utilities/modules used in the Reader.

Add these various credits — some of which are open source — to Sony’s use of non-Sony technologies (combo SD/Memory Stick slot, standard mini-USB port, MP3 and AAC file support — notice: no ATRAC!), and there’s a very big statement being made here: This is not a typical Sony product!

Despite my excitement for the Reader, I still have some concerns and questions:

1) The Reader can use up to a 2GB card (4GB is a real possibility). I’m a madman when it comes to text. My MemosDB on my (now-dead) Palm TE was 16MB (on a device with 32MB of RAM!). How long will it take the Reader to build a directory of hundreds of files?

2) How large is that cache file going to get on an external card that has hundreds of files on it?

3) Is the E Ink screen refresh rate governed by CPU speed? Will some wizard find a way to overclock the CPU?

So what was it exactly that makes me retract my original statement about the Sony Reader? That’s revealed in Part Three.

Sony Reader: Part 1 (of 4)

October 25, 2006

At Digital Life

In my first post from Digital Life, I wrote the following about the Sony Reader:

Sony Reader — Let’s get this out of the way first: you do not want to buy it. As impressive as the e-ink screen is (and it is damned impressive!), it has a fatal flaw: refresh. To move from one page to the next, the entire screen turns black and white — an ugly and distracting black and white that seriously deteriorates the reading experience. This is too bad. I kept wondering for hours afterwards if there wasn’t some sort of clever cross-fade animation Sony could devise to make it better. The Oh. My. God. Moment came in picking it up. This is a masterpiece of design and engineering. It is what a totable computer should be. This is what the Nokia 770 and all UMPCs should be like. Just this exact size and thickness. This is science-fiction come to life. It is worth your time to get to any store that has it just to hold it.

I am now formally retracting that first sentence:

Let’s get this out of the way first: you do not want to buy it.

It’s important for me to put that initial report in context.

(Anyone impatient for a full report about using the Sony Reader can go to Mobileread and read an excellent account here. Of all the reports I’ve read, this comes closest to grokking the Reader.)

I hadn’t expected the Sony Reader to be at Digital Life. In fact, I went to the show to see just one thing: the new Treo 680.

I came across the Reader in a display off to the side of Sony’s large exhibit. It was in a cradle on a display that included brochures about the device. That’s all I saw at the time. I marveled at the screen. When I went to change the page, that full-screen refresh hit me and my visceral reaction is the same as I think many non-tech people will have: horror and disgust. There’s just no getting around that initial reaction. I think it will initially be detrimental to sales. I picked up a brochure and left the show shortly thereafter.

I had no plans to return to Digital Life the next day. But that evening, looking over the show guide, I saw that Pepper Computer had given a presentation. Then I saw they also had a booth (which I had managed to miss!). Seeing the new Pepper Pad 3 was something I wanted to do, so I dropped everything for the next day to return to Digital Life.

Then I read the brochure for the Sony Reader and was brutally assaulted by a “Columbo Moment” — it mentioned the Reader could do RSS! How could I see that demonstrated?

During the course of that second day, I wound up at PC Magazine‘s large multi-part suite where they were exhibiting a great variety of products. One of them was the Sony Reader. And it had some demonstration RSS feeds on it: Lifehacker and Slate. I was warned that I wouldn’t like what I was about to see. These feeds were done by the Sony software bundled with the Reader. There are only two words to describe what those two RSS feeds looked like: absolutely tragic! The formatting was horrible; ads were included that took up a full page, yet which occupied only one-third of the vertical space — with the rest of the space remaining blank! Plus, the Lifehacker feed was over 500 pages! And that was for just a single sampling of one day. My heart was broken.

I’d also remembered from the Reader brochure that it could accept PDFs. It just so happened I had recently dropped close to twenty PDFs onto the 64MB RS-MMC on my Nokia 770 (it has a built-in PDF Reader). And I was carrying the adapter for the card! So we inserted the card and after a few spins of two arrows chasing one another in a circle, the PDFs were listed in the Books menu of the Reader.

Unfortunately, like all PDFs, these were formatted for an 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of paper. The text was very tiny. It also tended to be gray instead of deep black. The PC Magazine people told me it was possible to rotate the screen, but they didn’t recall how to do that. They suggested I go to the Sony exhibit.

Back at the Sony exhibit this time, I saw what I had missed the previous day: an entire row of Sony Readers set up for people to fondle! I was also introduced to someone from the group responsible for handling it in the U.S.

We talked. And talked. And talked. I asked many questions, he gave many frank answers (he was, I think, afraid not to: he’d read my past writings online!). I promised I would not quote him at all nor mention his name or position at Sony. Done.

We popped in my 770’s RS-MMC. He rotated the screen (by holding down the Size button for several seconds). The range of readability varied from one PDF to the next. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I wasn’t excited by what I saw. Unless a PDF is specifically scaled for the Reader’s screen (as its onboard User Guide is), PDFs on it will be just slightly less aggravating to use than on the Nokia 770.

He gave me a light demonstration of the unit. I didn’t intend to bang on it just then. I wanted to digest our conversation.

At home that night, I did some research online, following some of the bread crumbs he’d dropped into the conversation (who can spout full URLs off the top of his head?). I chewed on what he said some more.

I went back for the third day of Digital Life, armed with a bunch more questions. There was a lot more talk. I still wasn’t focused on the Reader, though; the Pepper Pad 3 was still taking up prime real estate in my head (I posted about it the previous night).

I said that I’d seen the SD slot (located at the top left of the “spine”) the previous day, but not the slot for the Memory Stick. It turned out to be one slot for both. That really impressed me: not only did Sony relent and let this group use SD, they also allowed SD to mingle with their Memory Stick! Anyone familiar with The Sony Way understands what a huge concession this is.

I was then told the Reader could also play music. Two sample tracks were already on the Reader. I was given a set of noise-cancelling headphones (the kind with the large cushioned cups) to sample the tracks. The audio jack is at the botttom right corner of the Reader. This is the first time a jack at the bottom of a device has made sense to me: the cord won’t dangle over the screen, blocking the text.

It was, of course, very noisy at the Javits Center, particularly near the Reader area. I didn’t care for the music, so I didn’t pay much attention to sound quality and I didn’t even check the volume level to see if it was maxed (a “Columbo Moment” I had later that night at home!). Music — or any MP3 or AAC audio file — can be played in the background while reading a book. In fact, this is the preferred method if audio must be used at all. Keeping the audio player open refreshes the screen each second as the Elapsed Time counter and Progress Bar are incremented, really eating up the battery. On the left side of the Reader (its “spine”) are two buttons to control volume (+/-); pressing both together pauses. What I forsee happening here are people — OK, maybe just me — eschewing the side buttons and just unjacking the earbuds when, say, a phone rings, and then forgetting that audio is still playing in the background. There is no indication while in a book that audio is playing. I suggested a tiny musical note icon be added to the status area.

Looking at my RS-MMC later that night on the 770 via its File Manager, I saw the Reader left a folder called “Sony Reader,” in which there was a folder called “Database,” inside of which was a 9K file called “Cache.XML.” (I did not have anything on the 770 to open the file.)

I returned for a third day to really test the audio again. This time I pulled my cheapie jWin MP3 player out of my pocket and popped out its 128MB SD and put it in the Reader. I had MP3s of Girls Don’t Cry demo songs on it and was eager to check the sound quality. This time I used the basic necklaced earbuds that came with the jWin; no noise cancellation to get in the way or skew the output. And I made sure the volume was cranked to max. Damn! Not only could I easily hear the Girls above the din, the quality was very fine. My reaction to audio in the Reader is that it’s probably something I’m unlikely to use unless I’m unable to carry the jWin for whatever reason (e.g., not wanting it in an outside coat pocket during frigid weather).

I looked at a full manga installed on one of the demo Readers. Its Info screen revealed it was a wee bit over 60MB(!). The Reader has 64MB of user-accessible memory (most likely Flash). Sony’s brochure, which is designed for non-tech buyers, touts an “80 book” capacity. Not when those books are manga! (Fortunately, manga afficionados tend to be tech-savvy otaku.)

Another wise move — if not yet another concession — by Sony is that the bottom port to link the Reader with a PC is a standard mini-USB connector (CLIE owners will tell you of their frustration due to Sony’s affection for proprietary ports!). And I do mean PC: like using the iTunes Store, using the Sony Connect online service to buy ebooks requires a Connect host program in the vein of the iTunes media manager. It will run on PCs only, and requires XP. No Mac, no Linux (and I don’t know if it can run on a Mac running XP, although in theory I see no reason it wouldn’t work). I think the lack of Mac compatibility is a mistake by Sony. iPod sales really exploded once Apple made iTunes PC-compatible. I think Mac compatibility, in a likewise manner, would make Sony Reader sales explode. Mac people would buy the Reader like mad.

The Reader can also display photos. Some people might dismiss this, but people have kept photos on monochrome CLIEs (and Palms) — myself included. Photos look surprisingly sharp. No need for another photo album? Then think maps. Or diagrams.

The last thing I wanted to see was the Reader’s AC adapter, Just In Case. It turns out to be one of those practically-weightless adapters Sony also produced for its CLIEs.

Finally, I tried something stupid. Yes, really stupid. I own a pen scanner, the QuickLink Pen, which I usually have with me. About five years ago, one of the then-WizCom Tech people recounted an absurd tech support call they got: A purchaser wanted to know if he could scan text off a computer monitor! Ha ha. Well, that popped to the top of my mind, seeing that paper-like Reader screen! So, I tried scanning. It didn’t work. I did this on the third day. On the fourth day, one of the Sony people was still curious about that, so we brought a Reader outside to try! Still no go. Two things worked against it: the reflective plastic surface of the screen combined with the bright sunlight. However, connect the dots.

I ultimately came away from Digital Life excited by the Sony Reader. But I wanted some uncrowded fondle time with it. I got that at SonyStyle. I discovered some things you’ll want to read about in Part Two.

It’s Sony Reader Time!

October 25, 2006

Near 11PM EDST. I’ll start posting shortly. There might be weird stuff in the Feed as I knit the links together between the parts.

Sony Reader: Tonight Or Else!

October 25, 2006

Fueled by MP3s of Morrissey, Rock Follies, and especially Girls Don’t Cry, with a big stretch of time, free WiFi, and recourse to emergency AC should this session go on and on, tonight will finally see the posting of my multi-part series about the Sony Reader!

I have a big incentive to finish too: I’ve been sitting on a new song Girls Don’t Cry recently finished — and I won’t allow myself to hear it until my backlog here is cleared!

I am so cruel to me.