With all the buzz about Amazon's new Kindle 2, you'd think this revamped e-book reader was the most advanced piece of technology this side of designer babies. After all, for $359, you get a color screen, Wi-Fi and full-function Web browsing, video playback, 60GB of storage, and a reasonably usable keyboard.
Oh wait, you don't get any of that stuff. No, that's what $350 can get you if invested in even a low-end Netbook, such as the new 10-inch Acer Aspire One. Not only is there a wide range of PC software available for buying and displaying e-books (and tons of free content as well), when you're done with all that highbrow readin', pop open a Web browser and rot your brain with some Hulu videos.
Unlike the closed-loop system on the Kindle (it generally only works with e-books from Amazon, and Amazon e-books only work on the Kindle and the related iPhone app -- although there are some Kindle conversion tools out there, and Amazon will convert your personal docs for Kindle use at 10-cents a pop), at least you have a variety of different software and content provider options with my proposed $350 Kindle alternative.
We'll be the first to admit, none of these options are as seamless or easy to use as the Kindle (especially with its always-on wireless digital download store), and companies like Microsoft and Adobe aren't exactly known for building great software user experiences.
We tried installing and using a couple of e-book reading software packages on our Acer Aspire One, with mixed, but not wholly unsatisfactory results. First up was Microsoft Reader, which uses .lit files, available from several online e-book retailers (although not Amazon). Originally released in 2000, the software has a dated, inelegant interface, but displayed our e-book files cleanly. Like the Kindle, Microsoft Reader also has a built-in text-to-speech feature, although the results are just as robotic.
Adobe's Digital Editions reader, not to be confused with its PDF reader, was similar, albeit with a less dated-looking interface, split between a virtual bookshelf and a reading panel. Both programs can display a full-screen image of a single page of an e-book, and use the page-up and page-down keys to move forward and backwards. In addition, we were able to use the space bar to flip pages in Adobe Digital Editions, and the Microsoft Reader has a progress bar along the bottom of the screen, called the riffle control, for dragging through the pages quickly.
Both programs share a similar flaw -- a surprising inability to rotate the view by 90-degrees. Surely I can't be the first person to think of flipping a Netbook around for reading purposes? I'm actually not -- user forums for both programs are full of requests for this feature.
Fortunately, a solution is at hand. While some PCs have simple controls built into their video drivers for screen rotation, most Netbooks do not. We downloaded a free app called EeeRotate, obviously originally intended for use with an Asus Eee PC, and after running it, we were able to rotate the display by holding down CTRL+ALT and the right arrow key (the same combo, but with the up arrow, returns the screen to normal).
Of course, none of this is useful if there aren't any books available in these formats. Amazon has put considerable effort into getting as many best-sellers as possible online, with over 240,000 titles available, while ebooks.com, which sells books for both the Microsoft and Adobe readers, claims to have 130,000 titles.
We checked the current New York Times best sellers list for e-book availability.
1. THE ASSOCIATE, by John Grisham:
Not available as an e-book.
2. RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge:
3. HEART AND SOUL, by Maeve Binchy:
4. THE HOST, by Stephenie Meyer:
5. FOOL, by Christopher Moore
In this case, it seems as if the Kindle has a slight edge in availability and big advantage in pricing for top-selling books. On the other hand, free e-book content for our Netbook is plentiful and over 100,000 public domain books are easily available as basic HTML or txt files from Project Gutenberg and other sites (resourceful users can port public domain content to the Kindle as well). Besides our Microsoft and Adobe software, there are also plenty of free and open-source e-book readers out there, although most current books are locked up in one DRM format or another.
In the end, our Netbook was not a perfect substitute for the $359 Amazon Kindle 2. The Acer Aspire was heavier and harder to hold onto, and while the screen was bigger, unlike the Kindle's muted grey-on-grey, the bright glow of the LCD is tiring to the eyes after a while. Still if you're looking for a single mobile device that reads current books (even if they cost more), has access to a huge library of free public domain works, and also offers full Web-surfing and play online videos, it's worth considering as an alternative to lugging around both a Kindle and a laptop on your next trip -- at least until Amazon makes the Kindle a $99 doorbuster for its growing digital book business.
Have you tired using your Netbook as an e-book reader? What software worked (or not)? Let us know in the comments section below.
Related: Here I am discussing Kindle 2 hype on G4TV's Attack of the Show last month:
Also: More about Netbooks, Kindle, and other fun topics every week on the Digital City Podcast.
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