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E-Readers: Maybe We Will Go Paperless (or Bookless, at Least) After All

In the past few months, I've been traveling with a Kindle, Amazon's offering in the so-called "e-readers" market sector. After having read over fifty books on it, I'm surprised to say that I'm addicted to the little thing, and it's got me thinking that perhaps paper's days are finally numbered.

For those who haven't played with one yet, e-readers are electronic devices that let you install various sorts of document files onto them and then read those documents. They're typically smaller than a laptop, so they're easier to carry around (my Kindle weights a bit over 10 ounces) and larger than a PDA, so they can include an easy-to-read display (the actual text appears in a space about 3.7" x 3.2" on mine). They're fairly expensive at the moment, but will probably drop in price as time goes on. The Kindle costs $259 for the small reader, $489 for the larger DX; Sony's models range from about $200 to $400, and e-readers from other manufacturers are on the way.

How They Work
Most e-reader screens employ something called electronic ink, a monochromatic type of display that renders and displays an entire page all at once, with the resulting benefit that once it's done the work to display a page, the e-reader requires no further electric power to keep the image on the page—in contrast, standard LCDs and CRTs must constantly expend power to re-paint even static images onto their screens.

That offers two benefits. First, I get an astounding battery life out of my Kindle—I've gone over a week without recharging while the built-in "Whispernet" 3G wireless network is disabled. Second, the Kindle's screen is quite readable in all light and tack-sharp in sunlight—that picture on the Amazon site of a woman sitting on a beach reading her Kindle isn't just hooey.

It's not all good news, however: some e-readers (Kindle included) lack a backlight and so require light of some kind to read them. Further, electronic ink screens only display 4-16 shades of gray, and unless a picture or graphic is converted to gray levels very carefully, it'll be unreadable. Any Kindle user can see this by comparing the crisp pictures displayed on the Kindle's screen saver with 99 percent of the images those users will find when reading Kindle books—even on the larger DX screen, I find most non-text images good for nothing beyond eyestrain. Amazon needs to do a much better job of converting book graphics to Kindle graphics and, come to think of it, they need to do a much better job of reformatting the text in books to Kindle.

Stepping Away from Books
I know what some of you are thinking, as I thought the same thing before life with the Kindle: "But I love the feel of books!" My friend Paul Randall says he'll never use an e-reader because he has a "pulp fetish," and I know what he means. But nearly a half-century of avid reading has left me the owner of literally thousands of books and little space in which to house them. Yes, occasionally I gather the strength to toss them out or sell them, but nearly always with trepidation: what if I decide that I want to re-read some book that I've discarded, only to find that it's nearly impossible to replace? (Or, as is more likely, I've enjoyed a book so much that I lent it to a friend, and the friend has never returned it? If I had a nickel for every copy of Jonathan Carroll's Voice of Our Shadow that I've lent and never seen again... ah well.) Yes, I like the feel of books and the fact that I needn't turn them off for takeoff and landing, but I like even more being able to pack 15 books with me on a long trip without having to figure out where to put all of them. I also like knowing that I needn't toss out boxes of Kindle "book electrons" to make some space in my attic.

But what about lending those books? Well, Amazon has dropped the ball here in a big way. I mean, they've demonstrated that they are capable of (and willing to) forcibly removing purchased books from a Kindle without its owner's knowledge, so how hard would it be to let me get online and say, "transfer this book to the Kindle owned by such-and-such person?" Not at all. But it's not possible.

I've got lots more to say about the Kindle, but let me pass along two tips for those thinking of picking up an e-reader of some kind. First, download the free application "MobiPocket Creator," which will convert PDFs and tons of other document formats into "PRC" format—the Kindle's native format. (I use it to import long Microsoft white papers into the Kindle so I can read them outside.) Second, visit and for a ton of great public domain books. Mark my words, trees everywhere are sighing a gentle sigh of relief!

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