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Improvement suggestions for Sony ebook readers

Sep 23, 2009 1 comment

I’ve been using a Sony PRS-505 ebook reader for several months now and, as I said in my post Pleasantly surprised by Sony ebook reader, its ergonomics are unexpectedly good. There are some things that I’d like to see improved, and I discuss these in this post. The PRS-505 has been superceded by the PRS-300 (pocket sized ereader) and the PRS-600 (ereader with touchscreen). Most of my suggestions for improvement apply to these devices as well (judging from a quick browse of the manuals); the exceptions being bookmark comments and search, which have been implemented on the PRS-600 but not the PRS-300.

My suggestions can be divided into software improvements (which hopefully could be provided by an upgrade sometime in the future), hardware improvements and new accessories. These are listed below and explained in more detail in the following text.

Software:

  1. Add option for half-page ‘turn’.
  2. Allow user to mark books as read, and to give books a rating.
  3. Improve ‘book lists’.
  4. Allow the user to add comments to bookmarks (text input on PRS-300 to be via numeric keys, as on phones).
  5. Add search facility (text input again via numeric keys). Users need to search within a given book or across all books.
  6. Add text to speech, so users can listen to books (no restrictions are required for public domain books).
  7. Improve display of PDF documents, especially improve the reflow algorithm.

Hardware:

  1. Add a solar cell to improve battery life
  2. Make ereader smaller and lighter (implemented on PRS-300)
  3. Retain audio output (lost on PRS-300, retained on PRS-600)
  4. Retain SD card slot (lost on PRS-300, retained on PRS-600)

Accessories:

  1. Produce a cover that contains a notepad and penholder, so the user can make notes while reading.

Software Improvements

1) The most frustrating thing about the Sony ereader is the amount of time that it takes to ‘turn’ a page: almost two seconds. This is sufficient to interrupt the flow of reading and is a constant minor irritant. The problem is not unique to Sony, it is inherent in the electronic paper technology used in the majority of ereaders. There is a solution though: add an option for half-page ‘turn’. That way when you get half way through a page you can press the page-turn button, the top half of the page ‘turns’ and you and continue reading the bottom half of the page. Once you get to the end of the page, the top half of the next page is ready and waiting for you. At this point you press the page-turn button again so when you get halfway through the page the second half of the page is ready for you.

2) An ereader is not only a book reader, it also has some of the functions of a library. A user needs to be able to browse the books in the ereader to decide what they might want to read next. They need to be able to keep books and documents they have read for reference, but don’t want these read books to get in the way of the day to day use of the device. These needs would, to some extent, be serviced by the ability to mark books as read and to give books a star rating (zero to five stars).

3) The ‘book lists’ are reasonably functional, but they can be poorly formatted and they could display more information. Here’s an example of a part of the Books by Author book list:

PRS-505 book list

  1. The page title is incorrectly capitalized and prematurely truncated. It reads A – Arthur con instead of A – Arthur Conan Do
  2. The book titles are displayed in different sized fonts: this looks sloppy. Instead if a reduced size font is require for any title, then all the titles on that page should be displayed in the same reduced size font.
  3. Book titles are unnecessarily truncated: An Inquiry into the Nature and Ca… Instead this title should be wrapped into the next line, where there is ample room.
  4. The number of pages in a book should be displayed. This is very useful when browsing the list of titles.
  5. If the ereader supported ratings, then the star rating of the book should be displayed.

4) The PRS-600 already allows the user to add comments to bookmarks, so Sony have implemented the functionality. I think the only reason it was not added to the PRS-505 or the PRS-300 was that Sony overlooked the possibility of using the numeric keys for text input.

5) The PRS-600 already implements search. Again I think Sony overlooked the possibility of using the numeric keys to enter search text on the PRS-505 and the PRS-300.

6) Sometimes it’s preferable to listen to a book rather than read it. The light may be failing. The reader’s eyes may be tired, or they may have forgotten their glasses. The reader may be blind or have very poor eyesight. Text to speech would be a valuable addition to the PRS-300 and the PRS-600. I realise there are some issues with copyright works, but there is no problem implementing text to speech for works in the public domain.

7) Ereaders are useful for reading published documents as well as books. White papers, scientific papers, documents, manuals and so on. Most of these works are published in PDF format and A4 or letter size. They need to be resized to be read on a ereader, but unfortunately this resizing normally does a poor job of reflowing the text. The text reflow algorithm needs to be improved.

Hardware Improvements

1) A quick Fermi calculation shows that a solar cell would be a worthwhile addition the PRS-505. According to solarbotics a small solar cell can produce about 0.12mW/mm2. There’s space on the front of the PRS-505 for a 20mm by 40mm solar cell, this should have an output of about 96mW. I don’t know what kind of battery is in a PRS-505, but let’s assume it’s similar to a camera battery, about 1000mAh at 3.5V. That contains 12600 joules and it will power 7000 page turns, so that’s 1.8 joules per page turn. So the solar cell will take 1.8/0.096, say 20 seconds to generate energy to turn a page. How beneficial this is depends on how fast you read: if it takes you more than 20 seconds to read a page, then you’ll never need to charge your ereader. If you read at 10 seconds per page then the battery life is extended to 13,500 page turns. What’s more you can charge your ereader just by leaving it on the table.

2) Smaller and lighter. This is implemented on the PRS-300. Unfortunately in the process Sony have removed the SD card slot which seriously restricts the number of books you can take with you. The loss of audio output on the PRS-300 is also regrettable.

3) Retain audio output. This is necessary for text to speech.

4) Retain SD card slot (or at the very least add some serious memory capacity: 8GB or more). Although the 512MB and 350 book capacity of the PRS-300 may seem a lot, it’s not. There is a fundamental difference between being able to keep all of your ebooks on your ereader and being only to keep some of them. As soon as your ebook collection exceeds the capacity of your ereader you incur the overhead of having to manage your collection. You need to transfer books on and off the ereader. When you go on a trip you have the worry “do I have all the books/documents I need/want?”. You need to waste time checking what books are on the ereader. You run the risk of accidentally deleting books.

Accessories

Ereaders are not just about reading books for leisure. They are for reading documents and textbooks. They may be used when doing serious study. It’s essential to be able to make notes while reading an ebook. A cover that can include a notepad and pen is essential for some users. The cover needs to come in two variants: notepad on the right for right-handed users and notepad on the left for left-handed users.

Public domain

I’m placing all these ideas in the public domain: I’d be more than happy if any ebook manufacturer adopts them – indeed that’s the whole point of stating the ideas.

Pleasantly surprised by Sony eBook reader

Aug 26, 2009 3 comments

About two months ago I bought a Sony ebook reader. I had two main reasons: I was going on holiday and wanted to take a few books to read, but did not want to be encumbered with their weight and more importantly I have a book storage problem. I like to read and I read a lot; as a result I have too many books: over 30 meters of them. Books storage has become a problem. Well, it’s been a problem for a few years.

So I bought a Sony PRS-505, at present the most widely available ebook reader in the UK.

I hate reading documents on an computer screen, so I wasn’t expecting much from an ebook reader. I’ve been pleasantly surprised – the ergonomics of reading on the Sony ereader are unexpectedly good:

  1. The ereader screen closely approximates paper. The contrast is not as good as black ink on new white paper, but it is as good as an old book where the pages have yellowed a bit. Because the screen is passive reading is bright sunlight is not a problem.
  2. The page-turning buttons are conveniently placed. There are two sets of page-turning buttons, so it’s easy to turn the page whether you are holding the ereader in your left or your right hand.
  3. Battery life is about 7000 page turns, so you don’t need to worry about the battery running out.

Sony made some good choices with the design: the ereader can be charged via a USB cable, so you don’t need a separate charger (although you can buy one if you want) and the ereader supports SD cards.

In short, once I got some books onto my Sony ereader, I had a pleasant reading experience.

And there’s the rub: it’s a pain to get books onto the ereader. There are two reasons for this:

  1. The ebook Library software supplied by Sony is truly awful.
  2. There aren’t many suppliers of ebooks for the Sony ereader.

ebook Library software

This software is designed to allow you to manage your book collection on the ereader. It’s equivalent to iTunes, however it’s nowhere near as easy to use. Moving books on and off the ereader is not intuitive and it’s easy to get duplicate copies of books on the ereader’s internal memory and SD card.

ebook Suppliers

In the UK Sony seems to have done deals with Waterstones, WH Smith and Borders. Although these stores have large selections of books, their selection of ebooks is limited. And their ebooks tend to be very expensive. Ebooks bought from these stores have disadvantages over paper books: you can’t lend them to a friend, you can’t sell them second hand (or give them away). What’s more ebooks are cheaper to produce and distribute than paper books. So they should be cheaper than paper books. Yet often ebooks are more expensive than paperbacks. Anyway, I refuse, as a matter of principle, to pay more for an ebook than a paper book. I hope you do too – if no one buys the ebooks at inflated prices the publishers will have to reduce the price.

An honourable mention goes to O’Reilly, they have a no-nonsense policy for their ebooks:

“When you buy an O’Reilly ebook you get lifetime access to the book, and whenever possible we make it available to you in three, DRM-free file formats—PDF, .epub, and Kindle-compatible .mobi—that you can use on the devices of your choice. Our ebook files are fully searchable, and you can cut-and-paste and print them. We also alert you when we’ve updated the files with corrections and additions.”

You can also get ebooks for free. One of the best places I’ve found so far is feedbooks. Free ebooks include out of copyright books (mostly published before 1920), books published under a creative commons license (Cory Doctorov and Lawrence Lessig are pioneers here), and authors giving away taster chapters of their books, hoping you’ll buy the whole book.

Since getting my ereader, I have become quite interested in the issue of copyright. I’ve learnt a lot and will write about it in a future blog post.

Update 23 Sept 2009: I’ve made some suggestions on how the Sony PRS-505 can be improved at Suggestion for improvement to sony ebook readers

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