A new category of PC, the so-called ultramobile PC (UMPC), is creating buzz in ebook land as it potentially provides an alternative to the dedicated ebook reader (a la Kindle or Iliad). The UMPC has more features but still retains book-sized portability and a decent battery life.
It’s something to watch while the jury is out on whether the killer ebook reader will be a purpose built device dedicated to reading, or a multi-purpose device that lets you read books, listen to music, surf the net, make phone calls, write your great novel and make your coffee.
I’ve just had my first hands-on look at Asus’s entrant in this category, the Eee PC, newly arrived downunder. Apart from making your coffee, it does all of the above things. But I wanted to see if the buzz was justified from the point of view of ebook reading. My quick answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’ but mostly no.
The whole field of hardware suitable for ebook reading is having something of a renaissance. It had quietened down after the initial flurry of activity in the early noughties that came to, well, nought. So perhaps the current wave of devices and announcements is a sign that we’re set for another shot at it. Certainly it’s not unusual in technology-driven markets to have occasional false starts, usually caused by “great idea, lousy timing”: technology that’s not quite there and customers who are even slower to the party.
Ultramobile PCs are meant to be PCs with screen sizes under about 5″ (13cm). The idea is that they’re pretty much fully-featured PCs that you can fit into your pocket. This makes the Eee PC a little on the large size given its 7-inch (18cm) screen but it’s still only about the size of a trade paperback, weighs just 1KG and is impressively compact for a real notebook PC. I don’t know who invented this size definition because most early entrants don’t seem to fit it.
Asus wants to make the Eee PC a simple, inexpensive consumer device. To this end its price is a moderate NZ$699/US$399. It’s quite well spec’d with a 7-inch colour LCD display, full (albeit it small) keyboard, reasonable battery life claimed to be up to nine hours, a 4GB solid state hard drive (the technology found in memory cards for which there’s also a spare slot), webcam, WiFi (802.11b/g wireless internet), and 512KB of memory. And it comes loaded and ready to go with a host of applications. These cover the main areas of internet, email, office applications via OpenOffice (a free Microsoft Office competitor) and ebook reading, all in a simple-to-use tabbed interface.
One reason Asus has probably been so keen to provide a full suite of pre-installed applications is that the Eee PC does not come with Microsoft’s Windows operating system. Rather it comes with Linux, a free operating system which has a large and growing following but is generally regarded as a bit “techie”. This means you won’t be able to run your current Windows apps on it but there are high quality Linux alternatives to most of them and the good news is that mostly they are free. The bad news is that you will probably need to be a bit of a techie to make them work.
FBReader, the software that’s installed in the Eee PC for ebook reading, is one of these apps. It’s come out of the Linux open source world but is now available on a number of platforms including Windows. It should do the e-reading job well, especially with the good and growing list of ebook formats its supports. But the main drawback is an ergonomic one. Despite its compact size, the Eee PC is still a notebook with PC controls to do things. You won’t get engrossed in a novel when each page turn requires a scramble to find the page-turning keys or mouse cursor position. And despite the fact that FBReader allows you to switch the screen orientation to a more book-like portrait view, you’ll probably find you don’t use it because there are no additional controls to support this view. Essentially, because you’ve also rotated the keyboard 90 degrees in this mode, you have an even more daunting job to find your page turning keys.
Interestingly, another new contender in this space, the OLPC XO from the One Laptop Per Child initiative, thoughtfully adds a set of controls to the screen edge to solve this problem. Take a look at this YouTube demo of the OLPC XO as an ebook reader to see this. And here’s a more detailed video demo of the OLPC XO showing this feature. The design objectives of this PC are very different from the Eee PC. It’s been built for the education market so that it’s usable even in remote communities in third world countries. As yet there’s no distributor here. As it turns out, one of the most significant innovations from this project, as it relates to ebooks, might be its screen technology. A separate company has been established to commercialise it.
So it’s probably fair to say that if your primary use is reading ebooks, you’ll look past the Eee PC. But a more interesting question might be whether having reasonable ebook reading on such a portable device might help to spur the market along and open it just a bit wider. While the Eee PC itself won’t transform the ebook world, there’s enough promise in the category to keep a close eye on it.