With premium eBook readers still being expensive,
December 2009 -- This is a review of the jetBook-Lite by ECTACO that, with a list price of just US$149, is a less expensive alternative to the likes of the Amazon Kindle or the readers from Sony and others. Using and playing with the jetBook brought up all sorts of thoughts and commentary on electronic books, and so this article ended up being both a review and an opinion piece on the state of eBooks.
ECTACO offers a less costly alternative with the jetBook-Lite
It's a funny thing with eBooks. Pretty much everyone agrees it's a concept with enormous potential, and that a wholesale move to eBooks is going to happen sooner or later. It just has to. Cutting millions of trees to make paper that is then discarded makes no sense. Having kids shlep around 30 pounds worth of textbooks make no sense. Making 2-pound newspapers that land in the trash largely unread makes no sense.
Just look at the numbers (gleaned from a variety of reputable websites): Four BILLION trees are felled each year to make paper. Considering that a single tree absorbs about 50 pounds of Carbon Dioxide per year, the trees cut down to make paper would absorb 100 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. Though that's only a small fraction of the 28 billion tons of CO2 we're spewing into the air each year, we're still using far too much paper, and going electronic with our reading makes eminent sense.
People have known that for years. eBooks and eBook readers have been available for at least 15 years and yet none ever caught on until the last couple of years when first Sony and then Amazon got into the game. Sony, in particular, has been doggedly persistent with pushing its elegant, albeit expensive, eReaders. Last week when I stopped by Borders, they had a representative there explaining the eReader and its capabilities at a special Sony display.
Despite Sony's big push, Amazon has arguable been more successful with its Kindle. The Kindle isn't a particularly good-looking device, but the seamless way it downloads books has really resonated with readers who like things simple and do not want to download files and then copy them onto a reader. It's probably fair to say that if eBooks catch on this time around, it's largely because of the Kindle. However, whether eBooks will catch on now or whether it'll take yet a few more years until they reach some sort of critical mass is anyone's guess.
What are some of the eBook caveats? Why haven't they taken over yet? One problem is the file formats. There are dozens of them, and there is very little consistency. Many eBook download sites offer the same book in several different formats, ranging from just basic text all the way to more sophisticated formats that may include extensive formating, color and pictures. Another is aesthetics. As we know from printed books, typestyles and formatting can make a huge difference in making a book readable and pleasant to read, and eBooks have always struggled in that arena. Then there's cost. As is the case with all electronic media, the conventional pricing models do not necessarily apply, and there are many different opinions as to how much an eBook should cost. Unlike with paper books, there is, after all, no cost for printing or materials at all, so eBooks should be considerably less expensive. Another problem is the fact that electronic media can easily be copied. If everyone simply copied eBooks, there would be almost no incentive to engage in taking the time to write a book.
Lastly, there's the price of the reader. While the ever-rising price of hardcover and even paperback books do not seem to impact book buying patterns much, a lot of people balk at paying several hundred dollars for an eBook reader. This really has been Sony's problem as its early models were priced above what video game console makers have long known as the "threshold of pain," the very sensitive price level above which people will simply not buy a product in quantity, no matter how goood it is.
eBook reader pricing is a bit of a mystery to me as I'd expect the readers would be priced using the same model that's used for cellphones: you get the cellphone at a heavily subsidized price in return for signing a contract with the phone company. That model, obnoxious though it can be, has generally been accepted, so why hasn't it been tried with eBook readers? Probably for two reasons. One, while everyone needs (or thinks they need) a cellphone, not everyone reads books. Two, the general level of eBook delivery and reader quality just isn't quite there yet, even with the high end models.
So where does that leave us for now? In essence, there's great opportunity to grab eBook reader market share with innovative products that offer something extra and, perhaps more importantly, are reasonably priced. Which finally brings me to the subject of this review, the jetBook-Lite by ECTACO.
The ECTACO jetBook-Lite
Who is ECTACO? Well, they're a world leader in electronic handheld dictionary products and other linguistic tools, and they've been around for about 20 years. So it's not surprising to find the company exploring the eBook reader market. Unlike some of the competition, ECTACO seems to know that pricing matters, and so the jetBook-Lite costs just US$149.95, a good deal less than just about anyanythingone else.
The jetBook measures 4.25 x 6 inches and most of it is only about 3/8th of an inch thick. I say most because there is a powerbulge in the back that houses the unit's four AA batteries. The display itself measures five inches diagonally, an inch smaller than the 6-inch displays on some of the Sonys and on the Kindle. Weight is about nine ounces and close to the competition, mostly due to the four AAs. The jetBook is a fairly elegant unit, albeit one that feels a bit plasticky.
What makes the jetBook-Lite lite as compared to the standard jetBook that costs US$179? The major difference is that the Lite version uses four AAs instead of a rechargeable battery pack. The advantage is the easy availability of inexpensive AA batteries everywhere, the disadvantage that the bulge in the back adds thickness and weight and the unit feels a bit unbalanced (though some felt the power bulge made it easy to hold the unit). Battery life is a formidable 23 hours.
While the Sony and Kindle models use a proprietary display technology called e-Ink that's supposed to mimick the contrast of paper, ECTACO went a different route and uses a reflective TFT. Reflective TFTs offer excellent contrast and are superb performers even in direct sunlight. The jetBook's display has a matte finish that makes it almost immune to reflections. There is, however, no backlight, so you need ambient light to use the jetBook (which is really no different from a paper book).
There is no conventional keyboard or touch screen; the jetBook is operated via 10 vertically aligned tabs, a PDA-style five-way navigation pad with four function keys, and two sets of page-flipping controls.
In terms of software, the jetBook's main screen uses a representation of a spiral-bound book with access to three items, books, pictures and settings (see picture above). Here's what the three main categories do:
This provides access to the eBooks present on the jetBook. You see a graphic representation of eight folders per page, entitled with labels such as "Detectives," "Mystery," "Novels," "Fiction," etc. Select one and you see contents, which may be eBooks in numerous formats and PDF files. To start reading, you push the side tab that corresponds with the book you want.
It's always difficult to get an accurate picture of an electronic display, so the below is just an approximation of what you actually see on the jetBook's screen. The image was taken outdoors on an overcast morning. Click on the picture to bring up a larger version, though even that does not truly represent the crispness and sharpness of the jetBook display.
You can view pictures on the jetBook, but it's not a rewarding experience as images load slowly and display in grayscale with just a few levels of gray. These days, we're so used to quickly flipping and zooming through hundreds or thousands of color pics on iPods, iPhones and the likes that it seems to make little sense to offer anything less. As is, the jetBook's "Pictures" function lists items the same way as books, i.e. eight per screen. You see the file name and file type, but that's it. No date or size or preview. Once loaded you can rotate the picture in 90 degree increments, but each rotate takes four or five seconds. Overall, I am not sure the jetBook needs, or benefits from, this function.
There are four categories here:
- Languages lets you select from Russian, Polish, Spanish, German and English.
- Auto Power Off can be set anywhere from never to 30 minutes.
- Auto Turn Page can set set from never to 60 seconds. That is perhaps one of the more peculiar settings as most people will turn a page when they are done as opposed to letting the eBook set the pace.
- Fonts lets you pick either Arial or Verdana.
Internal File Manager:
- Serial number
- Battery (shows a graphic representation of a battery with charge)
- Memory: Shows total and free capacity. In ours, that was 101MB and 21MB
- Card Capacity: Shows total and free capacity of the SD card, if inserted
- Firmware version
- Restore defaults
- Upgrade Patch (installs upgrade if found on the system)
SD Card File Manager:
- Books (shows eBook folders and files)
- Pictures (shows picture folders and files)
- Books (shows eBook folders and files)
- Pictures (shows picture folders and files)
Using the jetBook-Lite
A small recessed button at the bottom edge of the jetBook turns the unit on. Loading a book for the first time can take 20-30 seconds, but loading it again only takes a couple of seconds. If you go back to a book, it'll get you to the page where you left off.
While reading, you can use the Font button to select one of six font sizes, from 12 to 32 points, with 12 looking like fineprint and most users probably feeling comfortable with font size 16 or 18. Font size 16 shows 20 lines, font size 18 18 lines, font size 24 14 lines, and the largest font size, 32, displaying 10 lines per page. Overall, everyone will find a font size to their liking. It would have been nice to also be able to vary line spacing, but perhaps that's asking for too much.
When you view a PDF file, hitting the magnifying glass button brings up a menu that lets you select one of nine zoom levels ranging from 50% to 6400%. This provides good flexibility, but it also means you must scroll up and down and left and right quite a bit. Flipping between PDF pages is almost instantaneous, but scrolling can be a bit disorienting. Also, I found myself wanting a zoom between 100 and 200%, so that step is a bit large.
If you don't know a word, you can hit the Options button, select Dictionary, and then pick a word you want explained. You can also use the Dictionary function to find a word in the text. Since the jetBook doesn't have a keyboard, you have to use the 9 vertically placed access keys. To do that, you can select numeric mode, alpha mode, or T9, with the latter two available in each of the five langauges. The nine keys have white letting for the numbers 0 to 9, and blue lettering for symbols and alpahbet, with the Western alphabet on top and the Russian alphabet below numbers.
You can use the Options menu also to bookmark a page or open up a list of bookmarks. This comes in handy to quickly go to a particular page in a book when you're working on more than one at a time, or when you want to mark something interesting. You can also jump to any given page with the options menu and there's access to settings (alignment left or justified, auto page turn, encoding, dictionaries). You can ask the jetBook not only to use a dictionary to look up definitions of words, but you can also select dictionaries that translate between the five supported languages.
How to get books
The jetBook can read many formats. It supports ePub, Mobi, PRC, RTF, .txt, .pdf, .fb2, .jpg, .gif, .png, and .bmp file formats, and also supports the DRM format used by Barnes & Noble. There are a large number of sites where you can download or buy eBooks in all those formats. Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.com) alone has over 30,000 free ebooks.
If you have an account at Barnes & Noble, you can buy eBooks there, download them to your computer, copy them onto a SD card, stick the SD card into your jetBook (or connect the jetBook via USB and copy the file that way), and then authorize the purchase. To do that, you need to enter the name of the credit card you used and a code, which so happens to be the credit card number; not exactly my preference. I tried the process and it worked, though the Barnes & Nobles confirmation email promptly got snagged by Yahoo's spam filter. Once installed and authorized, the book was there for me to read, but, sadly, I was not able to justify the text or change the font size (according to ECTACO, font adjustment will become available for the B&N format in the next update). So apparently the price you pay for eing able to read all those multiple formats is that some of them work better than others, and not all functions may be available for each format. Also, turning the page did not actually bring up a new page, it simply jumped forward by so and so many lines, making it difficult to pick up as the last line read was now somewhere in the middle of the page. So at least with the Barnes and Noble book I purchased (Time's Eye by Arthur C. Clarke), things just didn't quite as they should.
Is the jetBook-Lite a contender?
With interest in eBooks picking up but eBook readers generally still expensive, the US$149.95 jetBook-Lite from ECTACO will likely attract a good deal of attention. It's a competent unit the size of a small paperback that runs for over 20 hours on simple AA batteries (or you can use rechargeables). There's no wireless download, so you either copy books to the unit via USB cable (supplied) or put them on a SD card. The 5-inch display is a bit smaller than the competition and it uses a different screen technology (reflective instead of e-Ink used by Kindle and Sony), but it is very crisp and sharp. The unit feels a bit plasticky and unbalanced due to the four AA batteries (the US$179 jetBook uses an internal powerpack that makes the unit lighter and thinner). The jetBook-Lite supports many eBook formats, but not all of them well. Viewing pictures is possible, but slow and low quality. Overall, the jetBook-Lite definitely fills a market niche for an inexpensive, yet very competent eBook reader. for more info, check www.jetbook.net.
Not so much:
- Inexpensive, versatile eBook reader
- Very crisp and sharp reflective display
- Long battery life with standard AA batteries
- Supports numerous eBook and other text formats
- Useful dictionaries for lookups and translations
- Small and handy (size of a small paperback)
- SD card slot
- Supports reading in landscape orientation
-- by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
- Plasticky feel
- Power bulge for the four AAs make unit heavier and a bit unbalanced
- Some operations slow
- No wireless download like on Kindle and others
- Picture function slow and displays in just a few grays
- Choice of languages (Russian, Polish) more suitable for European markets
- Cumbersome page advance for some formats (like Barnes & Noble DRM)