What I want in an ebook reader

Today's iPad announcement reminds me to finish and post an entry I started a couple weeks ago.

There are now a bunch of ebook readers of various sorts out there, but none of them is yet what I'm looking for. Not even the iPad.

I should start by saying that I do read books and magazines from my iPhone. It's a fine experience. It's better than reading from the Treo screen (which I also did), but not as good as reading from a printed page. So I'm not exactly looking for an ebook reader in the first place; to get me to switch to a different kind of ebook reader, I'd have to see an experience that's better than reading from the iPhone. But if there were such a device, I might well get one.

Here is the single most important thing for me in that regard: I want an ebook reader that fits in my pocket. The American mass-market paperback trim size has demonstrated that it's a great size for reading; it fits easily in one hand, it has plenty of words on a page and long-enough line lengths for justification to work well, and if it's not too thick, it nearly fits in a reasonable-sized pants pocket. So let's say slightly smaller than that: say 4"x6".

And I want all or almost all of that surface to be screen. Little or no border/bezel around the screen; no built-in physical keyboard. This device is primarily for reading; I want to be able to take occasional notes on it, and to type in titles and authors and search words, but a software keyboard is just fine for that. Or an attached external physical keyboard. And it doesn't need much bezel because you can hold it in one hand.

I don't understand why nobody's doing this. Everyone who's making ebook readers seems to be aiming for significantly bigger physical dimensions. The Kindle 2 is 8" x 5.3", about a quarter again as big as I want an ebook reader to be. (And the screen itself is much smaller, due to keyboard and bezel.) That's the size of a trade paperback, which is a fine size for reading but not a good size for sticking in a pocket. The iPad is about 9.5" x 7.5"; kinda makes sense there, 'cause Apple already has the pocket-sized iPhone, and 'cause they want it to be more or less a computer, not just an ebook reader; still, a device that won't fit in my pocket is significantly less portable, for me, than one that will. I have to make a conscious decision whether to carry my laptop (and something to carry it in) everywhere I go; the iPhone is always with me, because it's in my pocket.

My ideal device also has to be thin, of course. The Kindle 2, at 0.36", is thin enough for my tastes, but even thinner would be better; I'd love to see it at credit card thickness, about 0.03". The iPhone is 0.48"; the iPad is 0.5"; both are nicely thin for a phone or a computer, but I want something even thinner.

I also want high resolution: 250 pixels per inch or more. The Droid and Nexus One are over 250ppi; they're the first screen I've seen on which I can't see pixels or blur when I look closely at text. Text on the Nexus One screen in particular is totally stunning—smooth and crisp. The Kindle 2 is 167ppi; the iPhone 3GS is about 165ppi; the iPad is about 130ppi; my 13" MacBook Pro is about 115ppi.

I want an ebook reader to be fast; no lag when turning pages. I would expect that to be a given, but I gather that some existing devices have a bit of lag.

I want an ebook reader to sync with a desktop and/or notebook computer—another thing I sort of take for granted as a base assumption, but not everyone does. (I'm not thrilled with Android's lack of built-in automatic syncing, for example.)

It has to have a touch screen in order to provide the onscreen keyboard I mentioned. I don't care so much about multitouch in this context, though.

If I'm really using the device entirely to read books on, then it doesn't have to be full color—but it sure would be nice to also be able to, for example, read magazines, and see full-color illustrations, and so on. But if I could have everything else I wanted but only in grayscale, I'd cope. (Especially if it were an ePaper-like screen: reflective and doesn't require power to keep display going.)

There are lots of other things it would be nice to have in such a device. WiFi, cellular data, downloading, a web browser, speech synthesis, speech recognition, a full-powered computer, etc. But really, size and resolution are the key things for me. Without those, I'll probably just stick with the iPhone for my portable reading needs.

(Side note: my favorite comment so far about the iPad: "If only they made a smaller version with phone features built right in. That would be awesome!"—ormstungu, on Gizmodo.)

15 Responses to “What I want in an ebook reader”

  1. jacob

    I agree 100%. Part of the point, for me, of an ebook reader is having a big library of books available wherever I happen to be — waiting for the bus, at the doctor’s office, whatever. That only happens if it’s in my pocket.

    I currently use a Nokia N800 Internet Tablet for this, which works well and offers many of the things you ask for — it has 225 pixels per inch rather than 250, and the screen does have a large border, which would be lovely to eliminate. It’s pretty thick though, and only fits in my pocket because I’m willing to cram it in.

    (On the other hand, it’s actually a real computer with an open platform that can run Linux, etc.)

    I was hoping the newer Nokia model would bring some of these things, but for the N900 they decided to turn it into a phone and make it smaller.

    I think there’s a widespread assumption that now that smart phones are possible we’ll each only have one gadget in our pockets, and so we’ll want that gadget to be a phone (and therefore small enough to hold up to our ear, use one-handed, etc). I hope that will be challenged — I think there’s a place for a really small phone plus a larger-screened thingie that still fits in the pocket.

    • Jed

      Interesting! You had mentioned the N800 before, but I hadn’t seriously considered it.

      The video review I just looked at makes it look really bulky. But the specs say that it’s only 5.7″ x 3″ x 0.5″—even smaller front dimensions than I was asking for, and only as thick as an iPhone. (But maybe that’s not thickness at its thickest point?)

      So I just picked up a 4″x6″ photo to make sure that size really is what I was thinking, and yep, it fits in my pocket fairly easily.

      So maybe it’s just the border controls that make the N800 look bulky to me? (Some math, combining your numbers with their specs, suggests it’s about a 4″ diagonal screen on a 6.5″ diagonal front.) I’ll have to take a look at one in person.

      Good point re one device in pocket. And I don’t really want a return to my old days of carrying around a PDA, a phone, a camera, a foldup keyboard, and maybe a couple other separate devices. (I do still carry a separate camera, but it’s a very small one.)

      But I had a thought yesterday while reading people talking about holding the iPad up to their heads as a phone: in the future, what if the thing we carry is a portable computer, with accessories that connect to it wirelessly?

      The “phone” becomes a headset of some sort—you never have to hold a physical object up to your ear, so the size of the handset no longer matters for that. The display could be a 4″x6″ flat or rollable/foldable screen like the one I described in this entry. And so on. The processing unit could be integrated into one of those pieces or could be a separate piece of its own.

      Bluetooth isn’t really good enough for this yet. But I can imagine a future in which this would be the standard approach.

      Though I suppose before we get to that point, we’ll probably have computers built into clothing, and everything will get so small that it may not make sense to talk about having one single unit that does all the processing.

  2. Vardibidian

    Interesting. I’m looking for a totally different item. But then, I’m not actually looking very hard, nor am I willing to drop a couple of Cs on an ebook reader at this point.

    Since I carry a satchel pretty much wherever I go, I don’t mind the idea of a bigger ebook reader. I do want something sturdy enough that I can fling it in the satchel without thinking about it much, and light enough (and thin enough) that I am not constantly taking it out to make the satchel more comfortable. And I don’t think I care that much about the ppi or the touch-screen keyboard. Certainly not enough to pay extra for them.

    What’s interesting is what you leave off–do you not care if it is connected to a data network? If it couldn’t download new stuff without being synched up to your dock, would that matter to you? Are you just assuming availability of new books at reasonable prices, or does that factor in? What about DRM? email capability? Special magazine subscriptions with stuff? That seems to be a lot of the sales stuff for these things, other than shiny!, which, of course, shiny. But it seems like the companies are assuming that subscriptions/networking kinds of things are important to people.

    There was a thing, a few years ago, about how people were upgrading to mp3 players with vastly more memory, but still putting only 100 songs on them. There was still a demand for more memory, though. So I’m wondering if there really is a demand for constant connectivity with these things, as well as a demand for a million new titles a day, even though almost everybody will download one book a month. Dunno.


  3. jacob

    I’m skeptical of a claim that the N800 is .5″ thick. I don’t have a ruler handy, but at the wide point (a bar across the back where the stylus is inserted) it’s as wide as a penny, which apparently is .75″. I guess the other parts are .5″ though. It definitely feels fatter than an iPhone. The specs say that the screen is 4.1″ diagonally, so your calculation is correct there. And I do find the screen pretty big — I can do things like use a terminal application and do real work via ssh, which, as I understand it, tends to be unpleasant on the iPhone.

    I should interject that I’m not really intending to recommend that YOU buy an N800; they’re now cheap enough that you might want to try one out, but I’m not convinced that Nokia is going to support this platform and form factor going forward, which is making me less evangelistic.

    I know people who use the N800 as a phone via Skype, with a headset (bluetooth or plugin), which doesn’t seem unreasonable. Sometimes I think the world is divided into people who think wearing a bluetooth headset makes you look cool, and people who think wearing a bluetooth headset makes you look like a dork. If you don’t mind the headset, I don’t see why a large-format pocket computer/phone plus a headset wouldn’t work fine (and be easy to build now) — but the fact that it doesn’t really exist currently seems to indicate that it’s not a choice people are looking for. I must say that I like to hold my phone up to my ear — call me old fashioned — and so have a small clamshell phone on my belt in addition to the N800 in my pocket. In theory they can talk to each other via bluetooth but I’ve never found a use for that in real life.

    Anyway — maybe in the future I’ll have a small hand-size thingy that can be a phone handset, a remote control for my music, the lens part of the camera, a “new message” indicator, etc, all in one and all talking wirelessly to the larger computer in my pocket. Ideally the little hand-size thing slips into a slot on the bigger thing so that I don’t have to juggle two things when I’m using the bigger computer.

  4. brainwane

    The successor to the N800 is the Nokia N900, running the open source Maemo operating system (successor to the N800’s OS). Dimensions: 4.37 x 2.35 x .77 in. Weight (with battery): 6.38 oz. It has two cameras, it’s a phone, it has a physical & a virtual keyboard, it can be a remote control, it has an FM transmitter & receiver, it does Bluetooth & Skype & Wi-Fi & tethering, etc., etc.

    Still not as thin as you want.

  5. brainwane

    Ah, to the question of an ebook reader specifically — the N900 can run FBReader (an ebook-reading app) and of course has native apps to read PDFs, HTML, and plain text. And the screen is, according to the Nokia specs, a 3.5″ touch display, 800 by 480 pixels, which calculates (thanks Joel Ingulsrud!) to about 266 PPI resolution.

  6. jacob

    I’ve just started seeing stuff about the Dell Mini 5, which looks like it may be the large format pocket computer plus phone that I was speculating about above — it’s got a 5″ screen but still looks like it will fit into a pocket. I don’t think they’ve released more specs; not sure how thick it is, and we don’t know pricing yet. I’m still happy with my N800 (and have no disposable cash at the moment) but I’m pleased about the Mini 5 as an indication that the just-barely-small-enough-to-fit-in-my-pocket form factor is still seen as viable.

    • jacob

      Just a quick note to add that the Dell Mini 5 is looking like reality; it’s now called the Dell Streak. Should be available in the US this summer. I haven’t looked into Android sufficiently yet to know if it does what I want (I want a command line!) but it looks very cool and should be a good ebook reader on top of everything else. No pricing info yet.

  7. Jed

    It occurs to me that, given my imagined credit-card-thickness 4″x6″ ebook reader, what I really want is one that folds in half to that size, or opens up to 8″x6″ for reading, just like a mass-market paperback. In other words, one that would be able to show two facing pages at once.

  8. Jed

    Oops—I entirely missed V’s comment on this; sorry about that, V.

    You wrote:

    Since I carry a satchel pretty much wherever I go, I don’t mind the idea of a bigger ebook reader.

    Yeah—a satchel or purse would make a big difference in this regard for me. If I regularly carried such, I might even go for an iPad.

    I don’t think I care that much about the ppi or the touch-screen keyboard.

    I’ve been saying for many years that I think ebook reading will only really start to take off when we get to 250ppi screens; I think once you have a high-enough resolution screen that looks like print-on-paper, people will lose a lot of their resistance to reading from a screen.

    As it’s turned out, a lot of people have already lost a lot of that resistance, and the ePaper non-transmissive screen is probably helping more than better resolution would. But have you seen text on a really high-resolution (>250ppi) screen? To my eye, it makes a huge difference.

    do you not care if it is connected to a data network? If it couldn’t download new stuff without being synched up to your dock, would that matter to you?

    Good questions. I guess I was just assuming it would have at least WiFi connectivity. But in fact, I don’t care about this all that much; if I could carry (say) 200 books in a device the size of an index card, then I would never lack for reading material, and the ability to download more books while away from home would not be something I cared that much about. Just like with music now: it’s nice to be able to occasionally buy a song the minute I hear it while I’m out and about, but I wouldn’t find it all that frustrating if I had to wait ’til I got home.

    Are you just assuming availability of new books at reasonable prices, or does that factor in?

    I’m assuming it. But then, I consider the current prices reasonable, so I may be in a minority of readers in this regard.

    What about DRM?

    They’re gonna revoke my Free Software License for this, but: I don’t really care much about DRM. All else being equal, sure, I prefer non-DRM to DRM. But for my purposes, DRM-with-reasonable-restrictions (like the iTunes Store used to have before they switched to non-DRM) is largely indistinguishable from non-DRM. The one big problem with good flexible DRM from my point of view is if there’s a central licensing server that might get shut down if the company goes out of business; that’s kind of scary, and it’s part of why I paid to upgrade my iTunes music to non-DRM. And, sure, in theory I philosophically am more comfortable having full control over the books that I own. But in practice, Apple’s music and video DRM has never even inconvenienced me.

    email capability? Special magazine subscriptions with stuff?

    Don’t care at all about that stuff. I just want a book reader. I mean, sure, if the next-gen palmtop/PDA/smartphone/mini-computer comes with the specs I described and also displays books, that’s great, and probably preferable to a standalone reader device. But if I could get a book reader with those specs but without any other computer-like features (no web browser, for instance), I’d be fine with that. And I don’t read magazines, except for occasional articles on websites.

    But of course the connectivity and subscriptions and such probably are important to lots of people; just not to me.

    So I’m wondering if there really is a demand for constant connectivity with these things, as well as a demand for a million new titles a day, even though almost everybody will download one book a month. Dunno.

    Yeah, good questions. I dunno either.

  9. Jed

    Interesting! I was just looking at an article about the Dell Streak earlier today (and thus thinking about this entry of mine and y’all’s comments), but didn’t make the connection with the Mini 5. So thanks for the note!

    The five-inch screen with not much bezel does sound like exactly what I was hoping for. It’s 10mm thick, which is about 0.39 inches; barely thicker than the Kindle 2, a bit thinner than the iPhone. Might be thin enough for my tastes.

    The screen is 800×480 pixels; a PPI calculator shows that that comes to 187 pixels per inch, better than the Kindle 2 and the iPhone GS but not as dense as the Nexus One or the Droid. …Rumor has it that the next-gen iPhone, likely to be announced in a couple of weeks, will have a 960×640 display, which (if the physical dimensions remain unchanged) means about 330 pixels per inch(!!!).

    Arguably, the Dell Streak is pretty similar to the EVO 4G phone, which has a 4.3-inch screen (and a pixel density of 217 ppi). I can’t find details of the Streak’s physical dimensions or weight, so I’m not sure whether it fits my other criteria or not.

    Anyway, it’s an intriguing entry into this space. I suspect it’s not quite what I’m looking for, but possibly significantly closer than anything else to date.

  10. jacob

    Back again with a new comment; this is a topic I spend entirely too much time thinking about.

    My N800 is finally dying (charger jack doesn’t work well anymore) and I’ve been looking for a replacement. I’m planning to get the Archos 43.

    It actually might be pretty close to what you’ve described above (although my sense is that you like your new iPhone 4). It’s got a 4.3″ diagonal screen; PPI is about 227, according to the calculator. It’s fairly thin; only .4″, and a lot lighter then, say, the Streak (4.6 oz. as opposed to around 7.8 oz. for the Streak). It will run Android 2.2 (Froyo).

    Downsides: 1) it’s not actually out yet; they’re saying end of October. 2) the Froyo update isn’t out yet; it may start out running Android 2.1. 3) the Android version is fairly locked down; no Google Market, etc. But if you’re willing to monkey with it (I am) there are folks who have gotten the Google stuff to run on it (in the Android 2.1 version). 4) the touchscreen is resistive, not capacitive, but it’s reported to be pretty sensitive.

    It’s not a phone, just a wi-fi tablet. Presumably one could do VOIP on it with a good wi-fi signal (and possibly some hacking). And it’s a lot cheaper then most devices that are phones; $199 with no contracts.

    • Jed

      Neat! Thanks for the info.

      I think maybe in a month or so I should go to an electronics store and look over all the available options in person.

      Yeah, I’m pretty happy with my iPhone 4 as an ebook reader at this point. So it’s fairly unlikely that I would switch. But not impossible.

      …There’ve also been rumors that a new smaller iPad is on the way; that might be really what I want, but a lot would depend on exact details of things like size.

  11. Jed

    Coming back to this long-ago entry to add two updates:

    1. The iPad mini did indeed become my ebook reader of choice–but it’s still way bigger than what I wanted in this entry; it doesn’t fit in my pocket, and barely fits in the small shoulder bag that I now sometimes carry.

    2. The new iPhone 6 Plus appears to be quite close to what I was looking for (though I haven’t seen it in person yet): 6.22″ x 3.06″ x 0.28″. And a 5.5″ diagonal screen. Nowhere near as thin as a credit card, but much thinner than the iPhone I had when I wrote this entry. Looking forward to seeing it in person and trying it out.

    …It just occurred to me to measure paper books, and I was surprised to learn that a mass-paperback has roughly a 7.5″ diagonal page size (including margins). In fact, it’s very close to the same physical dimensions as the display area on the iPad mini. (The bezels make the total physical dimensions of the iPad mini about the same size as a trade paperback.) But I already knew that a mass-market paperback won’t fit in my pocket. I’m thinking the iPhone 6 Plus’s 5.5″ diagonal screen may be nearly as big as will comfortably fit in my pocket.

  12. jacob

    Glad you updated this, because it’s fascinating to go back and read it. It was definitely something I thought about a lot at the time, but a lot has changed, hasn’t it. I think the prediction we batted around that folks might get interested in a large format phone/tablet type thing has indeed occurred.

    For myself, I actually ended up going smaller — I finally made the jump to a smartphone being the only device I carry (I carried a flip phone plus a Palm Pilot/wifi tablet/pocket computer for… longer than probably made sense) and as a result I now read ebooks on my phone, and so am reading books on a slightly smaller screen than I used to (4″ diagonal instead of 4.3 ” for the Archos 43). It works fine, but I do kind of want to get a tablet for the bedside table.

    I’m still on the fence, actually, about the idea of a big phone; thus far I haven’t gotten one because I’m cheap, but I’m also not sure if it would work well for, say, carrying around in shorts, or when jogging. This is the part I miss about having two devices — at times I could leave the pocket computer at home and still have the phone. Of course, now I’m addicted to the constant connectivity. 🙂


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