Mar 22 2010 12:08pm

Tech News for Nerds: Living in the Future with Smart Phones and eReaders

Welcome to the first installment of Tech News for Nerds, a weekly peek into the crazy world of gadget and tech geekery from someone who knows, man. I'll attempt to cull some of the more interesting signal from the vast sea of noise you'll encounter in the typical Gizmodo feed.

So, a couple of weeks ago I asked a few SF writers to tell us about the tech, gadgets, and software that makes them feel like they’re Living In the Future. It’s fast becoming a cliché to say this, I know, but it was fun to see what John Scalzi, Tobias Buckell, Nisi Shawl, Jeffery Carver, Eileen Gunn, Charles Stross and David Levine had to say on the matter.

Several of them cited the iPhone as a future-tastic device, and in a poll on Laptop Magazine’s blog most users said that smart phones make this The Future, moreso than eReaders or credit cards. I would agree with that except I’ve seen more pretty snazzy eReaders lately (more on that in a sec). Here are the top 5 things that made me feel like I’m living the Star Trek lifestyle this week:

  1. Motorola Devour [Smart Phone] – Android-powered, flip out keyboard, awesome interface, cute.
  2. Windows Phone 7 [Operating System] – Because any improvement over previous Windows Mobile versions feels like a brand new day.
  3. Dell Adamo XPS [Laptop] – Thin. Thin, thin, thin. Thinnest notebook ever made. Yes, MacBook Air people, thinner than your laptop, too.
  4. ASUS Eee PC 1005PE-P [Netbook] – 10 hour battery. That is all
  5. ChatRoulette [Time wasting web game] – Nothing says “The Future” like being able to see random strangers doing random things from the comfort of my own home.

Despite the results of the aforementioned poll, I also think eReaders are future-tastic and I don’t mind saying so. It helps when the eReader in question does more than just read eBooks. We’ve had those old things around forever. I know some of you will say “But I have my iPhone,” or even wave some ancient Palm Pilot around. You have fun with that. But the future belongs to better devices.

Here’s a list of eReaders I’ve personally played with, ordered from my favorites to OMG stay away:

Alex eReaderAlex eReader – The coolest part of this device is that it has two screens that are both useful, unlike the Nook. Second coolest thing is that it runs Android, so you can load apps on it, surf the web, and email people in addition to reading books. Check the link for a video of the two screens working together. Now for the bad news: the eBook store isn’t open yet, the app store isn’t open yet, and $399 is a lot to spend.

Entourage EdgeEntourage eDGe – Coolest thing again is the two screens. However, this eReader is a combo tablet/netbook type thing instead of just a reading device. It also runs Android and you can load apps. The eDGe is aimed at students, so most of its features center around interacting with textbooks and other classroom-friendly stuff. A good choice for people who work with documents a lot, too. The bad news: the kinks aren’t all ironed out yet and it’s a little heavier than I like. Plus it’s overkill for someone who just wants to read books. And $499.

Sony Pocket EditionSony Pocket Edition – More of a traditional eReader, this device from Sony gets props for being inexpensive (for an eReader) at $199. Though the screen is smaller than most (5 inches) it’s not so small that it feels cramped. Think mass market paperback as opposed to trade paperback. The bad news: no 3G or wi-fi connection (for those that care), the interface isn’t intuitive, and it’s kinda slow.

NookNook – The coolest thing about the Nook is that it has a less closed and annoying eBook ecosystem than the Kindle. There’s lots of available content from Barnes & Noble and the device itself offers a good basic eReading experience. And the $259 price tag isn’t horrible. The bad news: the interface is a bit wonky and unintuitive and is slower than I’d like. The little screen on the bottom isn’t as useful as it could/should be. Plus, it’s not as ergonomically sound as the Kindle.

Sony Reader Touch EditionSony Reader Touch Edition – The coolest thing here is definitely the touchscreen. Everyone loves touch-enabled gadgets, right? And it’s simple enough to navigate/use. The news is mostly bad, though. That touchscreen comes at a price: readability. The display is a bit dull and has some glare. Not fun. There’s no wireless connectivity. And like the Pocket Edition, it’s slow. Far too slow for something that costs $299.

Sony Reader Daily EditionSony Reader Daily Edition – The Touch Edition’s big brother. Not only does it have a larger, touch-enabled 7-inch screen, the Daily also boasts 3G connectivity for over-the-air purchases. The big screen means more lines of text, which is always a bonus. The bad news is the same as the Touch Edition: dull, glare-y screen, slow response, hefty price tag of $399.

KindleKindle 2 – The one thing I like about the Kindle above all other eReaders is the ergonomic design. The Kindle just fits in my hand nicely, and can fit other people’s hands just as well. I love that you can turn pages with both thumbs, meaning I don’t get repetitive stress action in the middle of my favorite novel. Too bad Amazon’s closed system means that you’ll never be able to take your books off of the Kindle to some other reader should you want to. Nor read books from any number of other stores. And the DRM… arg.

iRex DR800SGiRex DR800SG – I wanted to like this one so much. It has a nice, 8.1-inch screen and flip bar for page turns and 3G and it’s light. However. You need the included stylus to work the device in a way that isn’t convoluted or Stone Age. The stylus does not have a port in the device itself. It will get lost. There’s no note-taking even though the screen is touch-enabled. Trying to navigate the bookstore is like pulling teeth. All this for just $399.

Click the links to see full reviews, pictures, and all the gadget porn you can handle.

So there you have it, eBook lovers. The future of reading… until the iPad comes along. But that’s a post for a different week. Two weeks, to be exact. And yes, I promise to tell you all about it before the official launch day.

Kate Nepveu
1. katenepveu
I have a Sony Pocket Edition Reader. I love the size, the weight, the screen, and the price. I'm not crazy about the slowness, which I find to mostly be an issue when I add books & then disconnect from the computer: it takes quite a long time for it to get itself sorted out and workable after that. I also wish I could highlight things, but not enough to want a bigger, more expensive reader.

(Also I have used a freely-available online hack to add a clock to the status bar and to repurpose two of the buttons on the side into page turners, which is great. I can look up the URL when I get home if people are curious.)
Marcus W
2. toryx
I know it's politically incorrect these days given the politics behind it, but I love my Kindle. I love it so much that I'm actually having a hard time buying physical books anymore, which I never imagined I would actually say.

There's just something to be said for being able to access a bookstore just about anywhere I am, and having easy access to a light, comfortable reading surface. Better yet, I can literally lie in the sun (now that it's spring) and enjoy my book on the Kindle screen without glare. It's a beautiful thing.

Now if they'd just make one that's the size of an iPod, it'd be even better (and yes, I do have the Kindle app for my iPod touch which is the next best thing).
Chris Meadows
3. Robotech_Master
Technically, you can take your Kindle books to your PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad (assuming Apple doesn't kibosh it), and soon other devices—anything for which Kindle has made a reader app. (I forget whether it already has Android and Blackberry apps or is just working on them.) It'll even keep track of where you stopped reading across all your devices.

And also, there are tools out there that will deal with the DRM. Not that I've used them, as that would be illegal in the USA. On the other hand, if I were to use them, it's not as if it would send up a beacon to the DRM Police to come and arrest me…
Ken Walton
4. carandol
I've got a Bebook Mini, and I must say, the last thing I want is more features. If I want to check my emails or browse the web or listen to music or take photos I've got my phone in my pocket, if I want to do some serious work I've probably got my laptop nearby, connected to my phone by bluetooth. An ebook reader, no matter how clever, is not going replace my phone, because it's too big, nor my laptop, because it's too small. And when I'm reading for pleasure, I don't want to be distracted by who said what on Facebook and how many emails need my attention.

What I *would* like is a reader with a paper-like display where I can riffle through the pages as quickly as I can with a real book, and find that page I noticed yesterday that mentions both Oliver Cromwell and cheddar cheese. It would be nice too if manufacturers cottoned onto the fact that an e-book reader is not just a reader, it's a library, and ought to be organised and catalogued like a library.

And please, book publishers, get rid of this DRM rubbish. If you sell me a book and tell me I can't lend it to my friends, it doesn't make me inclined to want to buy more of your books. Most of the authors I buy now I discovered because friends lent me books by them and I got hooked -- get rid of that mechanism and you're doing yourself out of a valuable stream of free advertising, which should probably be matched up against the potential piracy losses.
Jason 1110
5. Jason 1110
I'm using FBReader (which is great) on a Nokia N800. I get my public domain ebooks from and most others from Baen. I won't buy DRMed ebooks, even though it limits my selection. I buy paperbacks and donate them to my library when I'm done if I can't get a DRM-free ebook. (That that, foes of fair use!)

I like to read in bed in a dark room, so all the reflective screen devices are out. Be warned - although the N800 is cheap on eBay, and is a versatile WiFi handheld computer with an amazing 4.3" hi-res LED backlit LCD screen, most of its programs feel like they were coded by your teenage brother in a basement. The future, it isn't. 10 out of 10 for FBReader, though.

Obligatory linux xkcd reference:
Bradley Beek
6. beeker73
I have an Astak EZReader (bebook). I chose it because I have no intentions of letting some corporation tell me which books I can read or where I can get them from. (You hear that Amazon, huh, do ya?!)
While researching the different ebooks available I discovered that the Astak is compatible with the most different types of available software. I can read anything from or The Gutenberg Project by downloading .mobi files. I can read anything from the public library as ong as it's available for download as Adobe EPub files. Sadly, there aren't as many of those as I would like.
The only thing I don't like is that I can't read anything that is DRM'd (which is why I have to get EPub's from the library).
The Astak is now available in Canda, which is unfortunate because the cheaper American distributors don't ship to Canada anymore.
K Tempest Bradford
7. ktempest
@Kate: I would love to know that hack, actually. And any others you know. Would make a nice blog post.

@Robotech_Master: yes, you can take Kindle books to devices that have the Kindle reader, but none of those devices have an e-Ink screen, which is what really matters. I don't mind reading books on my smart phone for a little while, but when I settle in for hours-long reading sessions, I need an EPD.

@carandol: I like having extra features if they make sense for the device and enhance the eReading experience. eBooks with extras like links and videos embedded are trending up, so I'm glad there are readers that can handle them.
Evan Langlinais
8. Skwid
Just chiming in to say that I'm glad to see this as a feature here! I loved BoingBoing Gadgets for doing signal-to-noise filtering for me, and have missed it sorely. This might take its place quite well!
Kat Hooper
10. Kat_at_Fantasy_Literature
I love the look and feel of my Kindle and it's easy to use, though a touch-screen would be a nice improvement.

Kindle books can be moved to a computer and some PDAs with one of the Kindle Apps (and I bet they get more open in the future) and it's the publishers who control whether or not their books use DRM.
Kate Nepveu
11. katenepveu
Here's the link to the firmware hacks for the Sony Reader. There are a number of variants; I use 1.03p from here with no trouble on my Pocket edition.
Kate Nepveu
12. katenepveu
Also: Calibre is a fabulous, fabulous thing if you need to convert files from one format to another. I highly recommend it.
Jason 1110
13. Pete100
Your favorite is the Alex, although the review by Engadget ( was much more mixed. For me, these dual screens (Alex and Nook) are a distraction and take away valuable real estate from the reading screen. After all, the key part is the e-ink screen, the rest is secondary. The proportion of time reading the e-ink vs. the LCD screens is much higher for the e-ink. So, I want something 8 or 9" -- the size of the print page on most of the books on my shelf. 10" is too large/heavy, and 6" is too small. So, I'm eagerly awaiting word on the Asus DR-900/950 and the Copia Ocean 9. Not sure why 6" screens became the standard.
K Tempest Bradford
14. ktempest
@Pete100 You speak of taking away the real-estate of the e-ink screen but then you mention that 6 inches is the standard. It is. Thus, the LCDs have nothing to do with how big or small the e-ink screens are.

6 inches is probably the standard because you can fit about the same amount of lines as a trade paperback depending on how big the text is. Plus, 6 inches means pocketable and portable. 8 or 9 inch readers may not fit easily into a purse, say.

But I like the larger screened ones as well. Just waiting for them to impress me overall.

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