Almost as good as paper

In 1998 we purchased an electronic book, or e-book, reader called RocketBook manufactured by Nuvomedia. It had a great design (very comfortable to hold with good heft), a reasonable display (albeit limited to office lighting conditions) good battery life and could render files created in the company's proprietary format as well as text and limited HTML.

Sales of the device were lukewarm and the product was sold to Gemstar in 2000. Gemstar created a new version, the REB1100, then canned the product line in 2003.

So when we heard about the Sony Reader last year we were excited. The Reader is the same concept as the RocketBook completely rethought eight years later. And being rethought by Sony means the hardware is likely to be cool.

We tried to get our hands on an early release, but Sony sidelined us because we are an enterprise publication. So we pointed out that Network World readers also are consumers and, lo and behold, last week a Reader turned up.

We were right! Sony created a really slick piece of hardware. The Reader is a paperback-sized (6.9 by 4.9 by 0.5 inches) device that weighs a minuscule 9 ounces without its cover, which when in use makes the Reader feel rather like a Moleskine notebook.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Sony Reader is the display made by E Ink. The 6-inch diagonal screen has the closest visual characteristics to paper of any display system used in any consumer device.

The first thing you notice is how sharp it is, the result of a resolution of 800 by 600 pixels (SVGA) with a pixel size of 151 by 153 microns - extremely fine compared with typical LCD monitor pixel sizes of around 220 microns. To put that simply, there are no "jaggies" even without anti-aliasing.

The display is reflective and the device doesn't provide any kind of lighting so, just as with a book, you need to get enough light on the screen to see the image. That said, the reflectance of the display is so high that it is much like paper and has excellent low-light visibility.

The display's background is a very pale gray while the image is a solid black, and what will absolutely amaze you is that when you take the device from office lighting into full sunlight you will still be able to read the display completely. No washout at all! Brilliant!

The display has an excellent viewing angle of 170 degrees and provides 2-bit grayscale (that's four gray levels) with a one-second image update time in grayscale mode and a half-second update time in black-and-white mode.

The technology behind E Ink is fascinating. The display is a sheet covered in millions of 100-micron-diameter microcapsules (that's about the width of a human hair). Each microcapsule is filled with a suspension of positively charged white particles (titanium dioxide, which is really, really white) and negatively charged black particles in a clear fluid.

By applying a negative electrical field to an electrode on top of the microcapsule the white particles are pulled to the top and a simultaneous positive field is applied to a bottom electrode, pulling the black particles to the bottom. This produces a white pixel, while the opposite polarity produces a black pixel. What is even more amazing is that once the fields are removed the microcapsule's state doesn't change, which means it is extremely energy efficient.

The result is an amazingly readable, low-power display that works over a huge range of lighting conditions and reduces eyestrain.

So the Sony Reader has one of the finest displays on the market, but what of the rest of the device? For that, you'll have to wait for next week.

But before we sign off, we end with yet another UWP (Unfathomable Windows Problem): How does Windows and its Start menu get screwed up to the point where opening the Start menu and clicking on Programs or Settings results in the playing of the Windows alert sound and nothing else? First good answer wins, uhh, oh, we'll think of something.

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