Review: Rocket eBook Pro
Company: NuvoMedia, Inc.
Price: $269 (Pro version—16 MB); $199 (standard version—4 MB)
Weight: 22 oz
Dimensions: 5 x 7.5 x 1.5 inch (12.7 x 17.8 x 3.8 cm)
Requirements: Power Macintosh, Mac OS 8.5 or higher, 10 MB of RAM for Rocket eBook software, one available serial port (USB machines require USB-to-serial adapter), Internet access and Web browser.
Reading has not changed much since the invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg in 1455. Sure, you can read texts on your computer screen, but most people agree that it is very awkward and are happy to get away from their screens and relax with a good book. eBooks, or electronic books, are the digital age’s answer to the last realm of civilization that so far seems to have been spared the intrusions of computers and electronics. To me, it is amazing that they have not appeared sooner, given the many advantages of digitization. But before we get to the Rocket eBook, here’s a short discussion of the current state of electronic books.
Currently, there are two major electronic book producers in the US: NuvoMedia (makers of the eBook) and SoftBook Press (with its SoftBook Reader, also reviewed in this issue). Their two formats are incompatible at this time. Well, it turns out that on January 18 both companies were bought up by Gemstar Ltd., known to some through the “VCR Plus+” and “TV Guide” brands.
What does this mean for eBooks? Not much is publicly known, but I dare to guess that it will be positive in the long run. Both companies are working with publishers on the Open eBook standard (OEB), a planned international standard for electronic books. This will likely limit the appearance of different, incompatible readers, a phenomenon that would split the market further and worsen a major problem right now: the lack of electronic titles.
On March 15, Gemstar announced a “long term strategic agreement” with Thomson Multimedia “to jointly pursue the digital electronic book...market worldwide.” Here is an excerpt from the PR:
Under the agreement, Thomson will license eBook technology from Gemstar, and commit to a multi-year product shipment plan aimed at placing tens of millions of eBook devices into consumers’ homes and establishing eBook readers as the preferred choice for reading novels and periodicals.
Both companies said they planned to release new versions of the Rocket eBook and SoftBook Reader “later this year.” Gemstar is also contemplating the addition of some PDA-style features such as a calendar or e-mail.
Of course, they are not quite without competition: Microsoft is trying to add its touch. Currently, however, Microsoft is a member of the OEB initiative. Adobe is also active, getting PDFs onto Palms. Everybook is working on a next-generation “Reader.” The current burst of activity is good for customers in the long run, when hopefully the best format will win.
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But back to the Rocket eBook. What is it? A relatively light-weight (22 oz.) and small (about the size of a larger pocket-sized novel) electronic device with the sole purpose of displaying electronic text and allowing you to work with the text as you would with a regular book. How does it stack up? Pretty well. But as with most nascent technologies, there are some problems.
Some technical details first, though. There are actually two versions of the Rocket eBook. The regular eBook has 4 MB of flash memory, which is enough to store about 10 “regular” books or 4,000 pages. The Pro version has 16 MB of memory, good for about 40 books or 16,000 pages. I find those estimates rather optimistic, especially if you have a publication with lots of pictures.
Speaking of pictures, the eBook is capable of displaying them, but the screen is only black-and-white. The screen is 106 dpi (as compared to about 72 dpi or more on a regular Mac display), or 480 x 320 pixels on a 4.5 x 3 inch touch screen. Although the resolution is higher, it still feels as pixelated as text on a computer screen, probably because you view the pixels from a shorter distance. However, it is much easier on the eyes, especially for longer reading periods. There is also a little speaker that supports the playback of .WAV files, but neither the documents I read nor the operating system used it.
The enclosure of the eBook is a beautiful grayish black plastic with a high-tech style, complete with buttons for next page, previous page, on-off. It is designed for a tight grip, with the left side of the device thickened to fit well into your hand. Unfortunately, I find that the next/previous page buttons, located in the middle of that thick side, are too low. In a comfortable position, my thumb rests on the previous page button, not the next page button. It’s a detail, but nevertheless annoying. The second way of moving between pages is the “navigation bar” on the right. Similar to a Macintosh scroll bar, it displays the location of the current page within the document. Using the integrated stylus or your thumb, you can move around on that bar to jump to different pages. Although it is a nice idea, it still feels worse than just turning the pages of a real book.
This pattern repeats itself throughout the product: good idea, less than perfect execution. Above and below the display area there are four soft-buttons that act as extensions of the touch screen. On the bottom right is the bookshelf, which allows you to jump between titles, delete titles, change settings, and get information about the eBook. The eBook can display the current time, too, but it turns out that the clock is hidden in the “About Rocket eBook” item that appears in the menu when you press the Bookshelf button. “About Rocket eBook” also displays the status of the battery and the memory.
Next to the bookshelf, on the bottom left, is the Book button. Its menu houses the Lookup, Underline, Add note, Set bookmark, Previous Location, and About This Title commands, as well as the submenus for Bookmarks and Go To. Where is Find? In the Go To menu, of course; where else? Another thing that feels unnatural at first are the different modes, which operate a bit unlike a regular computer application would. If you want to underline something, you choose the underline command and then select what you want underlined or not underlined (to clear an underline). For a lookup, it works the same way: select the lookup command, and then the word you want to lookup. At first, I tried to select a passage and then the command to work on it, as I am used to from my computer.
Anyway, what are all those commands? Underline works just like it would in a real book. Same for Add Note, which displays a little triangle to indicate that a note is present. Clicking on the triangle recalls your note, which you can then move, edit or delete, unlike in a real book. Bookmarks work similarly. They appear in the bookmark menu together with the first few words of the paragraph you bookmarked. They also appear on the bookshelf. Should you wonder what a word means, just use the Lookup feature to find the definition in the built-in dictionary. My favorite feature (after finally finding it) is Find. I often recall a certain passage by a few keywords, but don’t remember where exactly it is. Find will locate those passages for you, just like the Find command in a regular application. How often have I wished for something like that when I was trying to find a selection in a regular book...
The next button is Page Orientation, on the top right. Pressing this button displays four arrows on the screen that let you switch the eBook between four orientations: portrait, landscape, and their reverses.
The last button, on the top left, is the Shortcut button. Pressing it executes the one function you need most. It comes preprogrammed to change font sizes, but you can reprogram it to whichever function you want. How? I was looking for such an option in the Settings submenu of the Bookshelf menu. Nope. Nor was it in the included configuration software for the Mac. Instead, what you do is open the menu that contains the desired command, then press the shortcut button, and then select the command. Hmmm, who came up with that idea? There are a few more surprises like that, so it pays to read the manual.
The manual, of course, is included just in electronic format. There is however, a short QuickStart Guide. It ignores the Mac entirely, but fortunately it talks mostly about the eBook and not the PC software. In the back of the QuickStart Guide is a CD with the Mac and PC software. The main purpose of the software is to get new content into your eBook. There are different ways to accomplish that. You can either download an HTML document from your computer or download a Web site (with pictures and even with links within the site). I tried it for an entire issue of ATPM, and that didn’t work too well. However, it worked great for a single article. For the PC, there is also the RocketWriter, which allows you to upload text files and Word documents. Let’s hope that will makes it to the Mac soon. Of course, you can just use another Mac program (like BBEdit) to create an HTML file from your texts, so it’s not that crucial. The other advantage of the RocketWriter is that it allows you to read unencrypted texts on your computer screen, should you want to do so.
The other way to get new texts is to buy a new book from Barnes & Noble or Powell’s. At the time of this review, B&N had 2,754 Rocket Editions. This is one of the drawbacks of electronic books. You can’t just get any book. It has to be available in a compatible format. The Rocket Edition format is actually a subset of HTML, so it is relatively easy for publishers to transform their work to electronic format, but many haven’t done so yet. So better make sure your favorite books and authors are available. Some authors have actually started to push the format. For example, Stephen King’s newest story, Riding the Bullet, appeared exclusively in electronic formats (aside: Mr. King supposedly is a big Mac fan himself). As a promotion, the download was even free for a while, and because there is no Macintosh software reader yet, Mac users might still be able to get the eBook for free until one is released. Some newspapers are also published as eBooks, such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
Availability of titles isn’t the only problem. Pricing is another. Given the marginal cost of publishing a book electronically, you would expect that eBooks would be somewhat cheaper than real paper books, especially given your up-front investment in the reader. Well, it seems they are a bit cheaper, maybe 20% on average; but in some cases they are actually more expensive! Take Oprah Winfrey Speaks, which sells for $11.86 on B&N.com. Well, the Rocket Edition costs $13.56. No comment. On the other hand, Riding the Bullet (after it’s free promotion) is priced at a reasonable $2.50. At least electronic books can never go out of print! Three titles are already included with the eBook: the electronic manual, eDictionary 2.0 (which is also used for the lookups) and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
So how do you connect the eBook to your computer? It comes with a cradle that connects through the serial port (newer Mac users will need to get a USB-serial converter or an internal serial port card for the G3/G4). Putting the eBook into the cradle starts charging the internal battery and allows you to connect through the Rocket Librarian software. Besides uploading content into the player and downloading your markup information (underlines etc.), it also allows you to change the fonts of the eBook (you can switch between two fonts on the machine), change the AutoTimeout interval (to preserve battery life), synchronize the clock, or upload new firmware (for example, to accept the OEB format in the future). The battery is supposed to last for 20 hours with backlight turned on at the default setting (you can make it lighter or darker if you want) or about 40 hours with backlight turned off. Given my experience, those estimates are rather optimistic. I also found the eBook unusable with backlight off, except in very good lighting conditions.
Although the eBook is a bit heavy, I found that it is actually comfortable to hold. You don’t have to worry about keeping two pages apart all the time, something that is especially hard with some new paperbacks. To guarantee copyrights for the authors, each Rocket eBook is registered to a single owner. You get a Rocket ID, which you use on the Web site when you purchase a book. The book can then only be read on your eBook, not somebody else’s. Because the eBook format uses HTML, hyperlinks are possible, another advantage over traditional books.
When you start your eBook, there is a slight delay of a few seconds. Although it isn’t long, it can be a bit annoying. Luckily you always end up at the last page you read, even when you switch books. Another notable feature is the support for Allegra, an input method similar to Palm’s Graffiti, that allows you to enter text by writing characters onto the screen. If you don’t want to learn it, you can simply use an on-screen keyboard, and if you don’t want to use the stylus, the touch screen also reacts to your fingers, albeit a bit sluggishly.
So what makes the Rocket eBook so great? For the technophile, it’s just plain cool. Heavy travelers will find it useful because it can hold many books in a single compact package. The power supply accepts international voltages and detaches for easier transport. The batteries are non-standard and not exchangeable, so forget your two-week literary trip through the wilderness. The powerful backlight means you can read at night without disturbing your companions. Electronic features like find, lookup, and hyperlinks introduce the convenience and power of computers. People who have problems with their eyesight will find the customizable fonts to be a life-saver. Just switch to the built-in large font or upload an even larger font. By default, the eBook comes with Verdana 10 and 14, and you can upload fonts up to 28 point.
Despite its many advantages, I am not fully sold on the Rocket eBook. The Mac software seems very buggy. I had tons of errors and problems uploading HTML files and fonts. It would even refuse to reupload built-in books, giving me errors until I deleted the library database. Currently there is also no infrared support for Mac, but they are working on that. Uploading a 16-point font caused some parts of the letters to be chopped off. The last thing that irritated me was the sluggishness of the LCD screen, which made quick browsing through pages impossible.
Users of a Palm or Visor might try the Doc format for their devices rather than investing in yet another gadget. While their screens are somewhat smaller, the bigger screen alone might not justify the current expense of a separate eBook reader for them.
It was hard to arrive at a single rating for the Rocket eBook. While the idea and potential are excellent, its current technical problems, the relatively high price of the device and titles, as well as the lack of the latter force me to give a Good (three out of five) right now. I hope to be able to give future generations of the eBook higher ratings. Potential buyers might want to wait for the release of new models later this year.