Electronic books have advantages over paper


I'm curled up in bed with Frank McCourt's hilarious best-seller, "Angela's Ashes." But this is no ordinary edition. I'm reading it on the SoftBook by SoftBook Press of Menlo Park, Calif., one of two electronic books due out this fall.

As someone who has always enjoyed the look and feel of books, I was skeptical at first: Could an electronic book offer the same pleasure? But after spending a few days with both the SoftBook and NuvoMedia's competing Rocket eBook, I think the answer is yes.

True, I missed the crinkle of real pages. But what e-books lack in tactile pleasure, they make up for in convenience and utility.

Both devices allow you to do everything a real book does and more. You can conduct text searches, annotate or dog-ear pages, insert bookmarks, highlight text, look up unfamiliar words in an onboard dictionary, and make the print larger or smaller. That's a great feature for those with dodgy eyesight like mine.

Both devices rely on touch-sensitive liquid crystal display screens and pop-up menus for navigation. The screens render text and graphics crisply. Because they have backlighting, you can read in a dark bedroom, a feature my early-to-bed wife certainly appreciates.

But the LCD is still no match for paper. Under direct light, the screens are susceptible to glare, which can make reading hard if not impossible.

The SoftBook is the larger and more book-like of the two. About the size of a spiral notebook, it weighs almost 3 pounds and has a supple leather cover. The basic model costs $299 and holds 1,500 pages of text. The page count is somewhat misleading, however, since illustrations and annotations can eat up memory. If you need more, the SoftBook's storage is expandable to 100,000 pages with add-on memory cards.

Once you buy the SoftBook, you're obligated to pay a monthly $19.95 subscription fee for the first 24 months. The fee - charged to your credit card - can be applied to the purchase of books from SoftBook's virtual bookstore, but this pushes the cost of the device to more than $700.

Loading the SoftBook with electronic books is easy. Plug it into the phone jack, press a button, and the built-in modem connects you to SoftBook's virtual bookstore. You can download a book, read it, delete it from the SoftBook, store it on a "virtual bookshelf" on SoftBook's computer, then download again later.

SoftBook expects to have about 300 titles available by the time it's launched later this month, but the company hasn't announced pricing yet.

The second gadget to arrive this fall will be the Rocket eBook by NuvoMedia of Palo Alto, Calif. While it offers most of the features of the SoftBook, the Rocket Book weighs 20 ounces and is about the size of a paperback novel. While it's considerably more expensive at $499, you don't have to pay a monthly subscription fee.

Another big difference: You need a computer to use the Rocket eBook. You buy books and download them over the Internet, maintain a virtual bookshelf on your PC, and transfer books back and forth to the Rocket through a docking cradle that connects to your computer.

Initially, books for the device will be sold through Barnes & Noble's Web site (www.barnesandnoble.com), with other vendors expected to sign up later.

The Rocket eBook comes with four megabytes of memory, enough to store about 4,000 pages (the equivalent of 10 novels), and like the competition, it will be expandable.

I found it easy to read both e-books and was soon so engrossed in my novels that I nearly forgot I was looking at bits and bytes instead of paper. But overall I liked the Rocket eBook better. Its smaller size and weight made it more comfortable to hold and use. The SoftBook was so heavy that my wrists gave out.

Both books may be too pricey for casual readers. But after prices come down, as they always do with new technologies, e-books should be a major step forward in the evolution of the medium.

The SoftBook will be available through the company's Web site (www.SoftBook.com) or by calling 650-463-1800. The Rocket eBook can be ordered in advance through book retailer Levenger at www.levenger.com or 800-667-8034.

Pub Date: 10/05/98

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