There’s an increasing amount of talk about eBook Readers, kick-started by Amazon’s Kindle series (currently only available in the US), and recent news that Plastic Logic, a UK leader in plastic electronics, is making one which the bookselling giant Barnes and Noble will start selling next year.
Available now, and for less than the Kindle, is the Cool-er eBook Reader, a 183 x 118mm gadget, just 11mm thick, with a six-inch E-Ink screen. Its all-plastic case is available in a range of candy colours. Complete with 1GB of internal memory, it can hold between 500 and 800 eBooks, depending on length, and in a good range of formats, including PDF, RTF, TXT and HTML.
Control of the Cool-er is fairly straightforward, with a four-way D-pad navigating menus, turning pages and selecting options. There are four buttons down the left-hand side of the case for sound, screen orientation – portrait or landscape – exit and menu.
The menu, which is also available from the central button of the arrow ring, offers bookmarks, font options and other settings. Several of these settings are dependent on the eBook files themselves, though. When we tried to range text left rather than justify it on a couple of Project Gutenberg files, the software claimed ‘this version does not support this feature’ and when we tried to change the display font, all requests were ignored. Both settings worked on a straight TXT file, though.
On the right edge of the Cool-er is a toggle for volume control – you can play audiobooks or music while you read – and at the top is a power button and an SD card slot. That just leaves the bottom edge and here lies a mini USB socket and a headphone jack. The lithium battery is good for 8,000 ‘page-turns’ per charge and a simple paperclip reset reboots the Linux OS.
The E-Ink display itself is remarkably clear, in comparison with LCD displays. Take it out in bright sunlight and it appears even clearer, as it’s a reflective display with no backlight. A whiter background would give higher contrast, but otherwise this is a remarkably readable screen, unless you’re trying to read under the blankets in very low light.
The Cool-er bookstore backs the machine with 300,000 titles. While this is a good collection, and many of the older titles are free, the prices on current titles are noticeably higher than from Amazon. Still, at least when you buy a title there’s no way it can be taken back, in the way Orwell’s 1984 was recently deleted from owners’ Kindles.
There are still a few problems with the Cool-er compared with a book, though; most are to do with speed and presentation. If you have a bookmark in a paperback, you can get to where you left off reading in a couple of seconds. With the Cool-er it takes 30 seconds to start up and load its operating system. Not long, but enough to irritate.
You then have to browse down to the appropriate media category, then select the right book. The reader remembers the last page you viewed, but even so, we’d be surprised if you could start reading in under a minute. It’s possible to disable the auto-power off, so the unit stays at the current page, but a suspend function would be more elegant.
Then there’s page turning, where the reader seems to redraw the screen three times, including once in reverse video, when it just needs to overwrite the contents of one page with that of the next. These aren’t hardware glitches, though, and it shouldn’t be difficult to get over them in the next firmware revision, which we hope won’t be far away.
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