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RCA eBook

eBook - Read it and Weep

By Jim Bray

I may have seen the future of the printed word, but I hope not.

eBooks are certainly nifty gadgets, so maybe I'm just an old stick in the mud when I say I'd rather have a real book or magazine on my lap.

RCA sells two models: the $150 REB1100 and the $400 REB1200. Of the two, I preferred the bigger REB1200, which looks like an etch a sketch with a leather cover that automatically turns the unit on and off when you open and/or close it. The 1100 looks like a PDA.

You can buy a lot of books and magazines for a couple of hundred bucks, so the eBook had better be better if consumers are going to dispose of their disposable income on it. Unfortunately it isn't, and it isn't going to replace paper the way it's currently designed.

Still, being a sucker for gadgets, I leaped at the opportunity to try the eBooks.

The big model 1200 weighs just a tad over two pounds, is 7.5 inches wide, nine inches tall and just over an inch deep, so carrying it around with you is no problem. It sports a 480 x 640 resolution 7" x 5" Color TFT LCD Touch Screen that's quite easy on the eyes, though you have to hold it straight in front of you to get the real benefit; as with other LCD's, if you move too far to the sides the brightness drops off considerably.

Standard memory is eight megabytes of compact flash, which is adequate for holding perhaps two typical novel-length books. You can upgrade the memory by adding a bigger card, and I'd recommend this if you're going to use the eBook all the time.

Why? When I received the eBook, it had the user's manual, two novels and a couple of periodicals installed. But since I wanted to test the eBook with a novel I was already part way through, I had to dump much of what was installed already to get the new book to fit.

Downloading a book's kind of neat. The model 1200 comes with a built in modem and a built in LAN card (the 1100 just has a modem), so all you have to do is log onto the eBook Catalog Service, which the book finds automatically when you plug it into the wire. Then you search the online bookstore to find the book you want, pay for it via credit card, and it downloads right into the eBook.

I bought Michael Crichton's Timeline for $6.95, then searched for the point at which I'd left off in the print version.

Thus came my first major complaint. It took the better part of an hour for the eBook to find the chapter heading I entered for the search, which is totally unacceptable - especially if you're on battery power (RCA says you can expect 5-10 hours of continuous use on a charge).

The interface isn't bad. You can use the included plastic stylus or your fingertip (if you don't mind marks on the screen) to tap your search parameters or credit card number onto the virtual keyboard you bring up. It's a tad clumsy, but I can't think of a better way to do it short of having it read brainwaves.

Multiple pages of what you're reading store into memory at once, but not nearly enough of them: it's SLOW! Sometimes it takes so long for the eBook to flip pages that you think you may not have tapped the page turning button hard enough and tap it again to make sure, which whisks you (when it finally catches up) farther than where you want to go.

Likewise, the eBook lost my place once while I was flipping pages (it usually remembers where you left off, and you can add a virtual bookmark just to make sure), and it took about twenty minutes of fiddling to find the proper page.

And that's the bottom line. With a real book you can flip ahead to see where the chapter ends or riffle through the pages to find a particular chapter or section. With the eBook you can't, without sweating blood. So until they figure out that human interface part, I don't think the eBook will be anything more than a relatively expensive curiosity.

Too bad. It sounded so neat!

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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January 31, 2006