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An Introduction to eBooks and eBook Readers

By Bob Kruger
Last Updated: 3/18/2006

Top Reading Software
Adobe Acrobat
Microsoft Reader
Mobipocket Reader
Palm eReader
Our Pick for Best Devices
Palm Tungsten TX
Compaq Ipaq
REB 1150

When people learn that I’m involved in publishing and selling eBooks, the conversation generally follows a predictable line. First they state that they could never read books on a desktop computer. I protest that I don’t read books that way myself, but they tune out when I try to explain PDAs and other devices. Once in awhile, having encountered an article about digital paper or the Rocket eBook, a person asks me to recommend a reading device. The request seems pretty straightforward, but answering it requires giving some background.

Popular Misinformation

I’ve read many articles critical of eBooks that make some strange objections to them. Recently, one self-appointed eBook expert stated that she doesn’t like eBooks on a PDA because she has to wield a stylus to scroll down the screen. No PDA I know of has this limitation. You press a button or toggle switch and the device instantly displays the next page of your document. It isn’t like reading on a Web browser, more like turning the page of a print book. Some reading software programs, like eReader (formerly called Palm Reader), offer an autoscroll feature at adjustable speed so you can read continuously with your hands free. I suppose this could be useful if you’re disabled or using a treadmill, but normally you don't scroll text to read an eBook.

In the aforementioned article, the author also said that unless you only have a two-hour attention span for reading, eBooks won’t work for you, because you’ll have to recharge the battery. This is true of many laptops, but with a Palm Pilot or Rocket eBook, you’ll get ten to twenty hours of reading on a charge. I’ve even taken a Rocket eBook on a hiking trip for several days, and it never ran out of power.

What I Use

These are my two devices for reading eBooks: an original-model Rocket eBook with four megabytes of nonexpendable RAM, and an eight-megabyte Palm m125 handheld – both of which have black-and-white screens.

Together these devices cost me about five hundred dollars, but you can now get much better versions of both for half that, total. I download and store eBook files on my desktop and then transfer them to one unit or the other. In combination with my PC, these readers give me access to more books than you could find in most bookstores, and the public-domain ones are free (more about that later). The Rocket eBook has a nice big high-contrast screen (black against white), an adjustable backlight, and a built-in lithium-ion battery that goes for a whole weekend on a charge. It’s a great reading device. The m125 has a tiny little screen, poor resolution, and a bilious green backlight. What’s more it takes AAA batteries, and sucks down a pair of them in about twelve hours. (I’ve tried rechargeable nickel hydride batteries, but they don’t work for some reason; they overpower the device and wipe its memory.) I bought the m125 because I wanted a lowest-common-denominator Palm Pilot for looking at eBooks we’d created. Even so, it turns out the m125 beats the Rocket for reading eBooks.

On the surface, the only thing the m125 has got over the Rocket eBook is a memory card slot. On a card that’s lighter than a nickel and the size of a postage stamp, I’ve got just about everything Neal Stephenson and George R.R. Martin ever wrote, plus a lot of other books, and I haven’t come close to filling its 64MB of memory. However, what makes the m125 my preferred eBook reader is its small size and versatility. I keep all my contacts on it, so it’s with me all the time. I got used to the small screen and low resolution early on. The small screen is a minor tradeoff for being able to hold the reader and turn its pages with one hand.

Fortunately, you don’t have to settle for my Palm Pilot, a discontinued model. All the PDAs worth mentioning are cheaper than the m125 was when it came out in 2001 yet have much higher-resolution screens, full color, and lithium-ion batteries that go a long time on a single charge, not to mention faster processors, a lot more RAM, and the ability to play MP3s. These devices now include the Pocket PC, which can read almost any type of eBook software. And finally, the Rocket eBook itself has come back, in the improved 1150 model, which has expandable memory.

Reading Software

I’ll get back to the hardware soon, but first, you’ll need to consider the software offerings in eBooks, because the device you choose will limit the software you can run. The basic versions of these eBook reading applications are all FREE, and you can install them on your desktop computer to preview their features.

Adobe Reader (PDF): A few years back, Adobe bought the Glassbook Reader and transformed it into the Adobe eBook Reader. Soon after, they rolled the eBook Reader functionality right into Adobe Reader, which is more commonly referred to in publishing by its filename extension, PDF. PDF is first and foremost a prepress format, that is, a format used to make the final plates for paper printing. It’s not the best eBook reader for handhelds, but I recommend it for certain books meant to be read on tablet and notebook PCs where the PDF is an exact duplicate of the print book. http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readstep2.html

Mobipocket Reader: The Mobipocket Reader program works on almost any device and platform: Windows, Pocket PC OS, Palm OS—even cellphones. On the ElectricStory.com site, we offer both unencrypted Mobipocket and copy-protected, “secure,” Mobipocket titles. Many international bestsellers are available in Secure Mobipocket format. Mobipocket has many great features, including support for embedded dictionaries. While you read any book, you click (or tap) a word and the dictionary launches itself and looks up the word. The VOX Spanish dictionary is extremely smart about finding the infinitive form of a conjugated verb. No more thumbing through a paper dictionary!

The following link will take you to a page where you can download the latest, free Mobipocket Reader for both unencrypted and encrypted books. You can also get a free emulator program that will show you what Mobipocket looks like on various handhelds, and you can obtain either a personal or professional package for creating your own Mobipocket eBooks. http://www.mobipocket.com/en/DownloadSoft/default.asp

Microsoft Reader: The Microsoft Reader program for Windows and Pocket PC operating systems emulates the feel of a print book better than any other eBook-reading software. The Reader engineers did extensive usability testing on the program and developed a technology for it called ClearType that uses subpixels in LCD screens to make the text extra sharp. As of October 2004 all the Reader eBooks we sell on the ElectricStory.com site are unencrypted, that is, not copy protected. Reader doesn’t work on Palm OS devices, only Pocket PCs and Windows systems. If you do own a Pocket PC, we encourage you to use Reader. There’s no better eBook software. To read encrypted Microsoft Reader eBooks, you associate Microsoft Reader with a Microsoft Passport account. Go to http://www.microsoft.com/reader/ and then choose Downloads.

Rocket eBook: eBookwise, a Fictionwise imprint, is now selling the REB 1150 version of the Rocket eBook, which I’ll discuss in the next section. The REB reads Rocket-format titles, which you get free along with MS Reader and Mobipocket when you buy one of our unencrypted-format titles. If you don’t own a Rocket eBook but are curious about what the device and the books look like, you can use Google to find a free emulator program for Windows called eRocket (use a reputable site like CNET to get it). Actually, the emulator displays an older version of the Rocket, not the REB, but it’s close enough that you’ll get the idea. Note that eRocket goes a little overboard in its fidelity to the original Rocket eBook: in addition to looking just like the device, it can hold only as many eBooks at a time as the original model, and you can’t resize the program window. Check out the REB 1150 at the eBookwise beta-test site: http://www.ebookwise.com/

eReader: eReader, which until recently was called Palm Reader, is a proprietary format of the Palm Digital Media company. Many eBooks are available in eReader format, and you can install eReader on your handheld—either Palm Pilot or Pocket PC—right alongside Mobipocket, no problem. It’s a nice stable reader with cool features like autoscroll. We don’t yet support eReader, but probably will soon. http://www.palmdigitalmedia.com/

Basic Hardware

You can pay over a thousand dollars for tablet PCs, phone handhelds, and various other minicomputers that display eBooks, but I don’t think you gain anything by going over 300 bucks (U.S.) for a dedicated eReader, with 200 being plenty for a decent setup. Here are some eBook devices priced between $100 and $350.

eBookwise-1150 eBook Reading Device: The Rocket is back! When Gemstar, Inc., bought Nuvomedia, the makers of the Rocket eBook, there was a lot of misplaced optimism that they’d do great things for eBooks. Instead, they priced their successor to the Rocket eBook, the REB, higher than the Rocket—$250 if memory serves—and crippled the REB so you couldn’t put your own content on it, a limitation that alone ensured the its demise in the market. Gemstar’s eBook program is dead, but the REB 1150 has been resurrected in a saner form. Fictionwise, Inc., under their eBookwise imprint, has acquired the right to sell the back inventory on the REB, which reads both encrypted and unencrypted eBooks, including all the old Rocket eBook-format titles. For full directions on putting unencrypted and personal content the device, see this page.

They’re selling the units for $124.95, with a 64MB expansion card thrown in, which is a decent price. You can actually plug the device into a phone port, buy encrypted eBooks from Fictionwise, and never have to use it with another computer, but that’s just silly. An eBook device isn’t much good unless you can download files into it from your computer. Fortunately, the REB can hook up to a computer, and it’s Mac and PC agnostic. The REB takes SmartMedia cards, so you can put a huge library on it, and the big lithium-ion battery packs enough juice for fifteen hours of reading on a single charge. Also, it appears that a new version of the REB is in production now, so the Rocket format will be supported in years to come. The Fictionwise guys aren’t offering any affiliate program to people who recommend their device, so we’re telling you as a public service. Of course, we hope you buy one and then come back here to purchase your eBooks. http://www.ebookwise.com

HieBook Reader: I don’t know much about this device. It looks pretty decent but has a proprietary format and costs a good deal more than the new REBs. If anyone owns one and would like to send in comments, I’d be more than happy to post them. http://www.ebookad.com/hardware.php3

PDA Devices

Minimum requirements for an eBook reader include an expansion slot so that you can carry around a practically limitless number of eBooks on Secure Digital (preferred), MMC, or other cards, a backlight so you can read in bed without disturbing your partner, and a rechargeable battery. I’d say color vs. grayscale is not really that important, but nowadays you can’t get a decent PDA that doesn’t have color, so the point is moot. The following devices all conform to these requirements and play MP3s, too.

Palm Pilots

$300: Palm Tungsten TX Has 128MB non-volative flash memory (even if it loses power, you won't lose data), Bluetooth wireless, an ARM 312MHz processor, SDIO expansion port for multimedia cards, and a big 320x480 screen, nearly the size and resolution of a paperback.

$250: Palm E2 Has 32MB non-volative flash, Bluetooth, and a 200 MHz ARM processor. The screen is 320x320 transreflective, which you should find nice and crisp.

$129: Palm Zire 31. Has 16MB ram, and a 160x160 screen, which is one-quarter the resolution of the other two Palm models: 320x320 = 102,400 pixels; 160x160 = 25,600. Still, I read on a device at this resolution, and it doesn’t bother me at all.

Don’t get the b&w Palm Zire or Palm Zire 21 if you’re serious about eBooks! They’re cheap, but neither model has a backlight, and you’ll want one.

Pocket PCs

The nice thing about Pocket PCs is that they run the widest range of eBook reading software, with Microsoft Reader, eReader, and Mobipocket probably being the best. They’re a bit battery-hungry, so you might want one that lets you replace its rechargeable battery. A replaceable battery port not only gives you the option of backup power but also ensures you won’t have to send your unit in to be rebuilt if the primary battery stops holding a charge.

$300: HP iPAQ rx1955 runs Windows Mobile 5.0 and has a 300MHz Samsung SC32442 processor, 32 megs of SDRAM, integrated wireless, a 3.5-inch transflective display, integrated microphone, speaker, and headset jack, and a 1,100 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable/removable battery.

High-End Hardware

Tablet PC: If money’s no object, you might consider laying down a grand for a tablet PC, a device that’s a full-fledged computer – albeit about half as powerful for the money as a notebook PC. With a tablet PC you get a large display area, full color, and multimedia power. You can control the device with a stylus just like a giant PDA, except the handwriting recognition is by all accounts way better. You can run MS Reader, Mobipocket, PDF, and a cadre of lesser-known eBook-reading apps on them. If you’ve got enough money to buy a tablet PC as a dedicated eBook reader, you might as well buy a REB 1150 and a nice PDA, too; then you’ve got the form factor for every reading situation. If we had deep pockets, we’d do it.

Cybook: The Cybook is basically a modestly powered tablet PC that just does eBooks. It looks suspiciously like the MyFriend reader that came out a few years back in Italy and tanked due to its $1200 price tag, so I'm not sure whether it's really new or just back-inventory. The MyFriend was an attractive-looking device, and at $399, the Cybook is three times as attractive, but still pricey for a dedicated reader: http://www.bookeen.com/home/Default.aspx

(Note: The price on this unit has gone up and down in the last six months: first $500 at debut, then $700 a month later. They're obviously struggling for the right price point. As of April 2005, it was down to $399, which for the form factor makes it a pretty good deal.)

Hardware Summary

I'd recommend the Palm Tungsten TX at this point. You can listen to music on it, manage your contacts, and more, and between using eReader and Mobipocket software, you’ll have access to the full range of eBooks on the market, including all the current bestsellers by New York publishers. The screen resolution is nice and high, and the Palm sucks juice more slowly than a Pocket PC. However, the Pocket PC is pretty cool. It’s a close call whether to go for the Tungsten TX or a low-end Ipaq for $300 and pick up an essential secondary battery for another $50. These are full-featured PDAs that do MP3s, office software, MP3s and even movies. If you just want a dedicated eBook reader, you might do the Palm Zire 31 or a Palm Tungsten E (the predecessor to the E2), but if so, I'd try to get one used (you can compare all the Palm Pilot devices at www.palmsource.com).

The REB is a nice supporting device. There are many books available for it, though not nearly as many as for a Palm Pilot or Pocket PC. With its large screen and adjustable backlight, it easily beats print books with a clip-on light for reading in bed. This may seem like a minor selling point, unless, like me, you read in bed as a nightly ritual and have a spouse who can't get to sleep with even a flashlight on next to her.

How to Build Your eBook Library

No, I’m not going to say “Buy our eBooks!” Not yet. Instead, start out by getting some conversion software for your favorite eBook reader so you can put together your own eBooks. Here are a few packages:

Microsoft Reader

Readerworks http://www.overdrive.com/readerworks/software/standard.asp: The standard edition is free!


Mobipocket Publisher  http://www.mobipocket.com/en/DownloadSoft/DownLoadPublisherStep1.asp: Mobipocket Publisher is free for personal use and $150 U.S. for professional use. It also creates Microsoft Reader files.

Rocket eBook

GEB eBook Librarian http://www.breeno.org/eBook/: If you have a Rocket eBook or one of the later REB models, you might want to use this program to create and organize your eBooks.


You can create a few pdf files online for free at https://createpdf.adobe.com/index.pl/4257047277.39533?BP=IE&v=AHP. However, if you’re serious about pdf, you’ll need to buy Acrobat: http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/main.html


Palm Makebook and Dropbook http://www.palmdigitalmedia.com/dropbook: Free utilities for creating eReader titles. I'll explain these later, but first some background on HTML, which you'll need to know something about to make eBooks.


The Importance of HTML

Most eBook conversion packages understand basic HTML. If you don’t know HTML, it’s time you learned. I know I’m probably about to lose you here, but please don’t go away. This is easy. Bear with me for four paragraphs, and I’ll really make it worth your time.

First, here’s all the HTML you need to know to enjoy a lot of eBooks:

<html></html> — Tags to identify your document as an HTML file. They go at the beginning and end.

<p></p> — Paragraph start and end tags.

<br> — Line-break tag.

<i></i> — Italics start and end tags.

<b></b> — Bold start and end tags.


Here’s a very basic HTML file that puts it all together:


<p><b>BASIC HTML DEMO</b></p>

<p>It was a dark and stormy night, and this is the beginning and end of this paragraph. Well, not quite. How about we put in another sentence? Or a fragment?</p>

Here are some books any fantasy fan should read:<br><br>

*<i>A Game of Thrones</i> by George R.R. Martin <br>

*<i>A Clash of Kings</i> by George R.R. Martin.<br>

*<i>A Storm of Swords</i> by George R.R. Martin.<br>


Copy that text, from "<html>" to "</html>," inclusive, and paste it into a Notepad document or other very basic text editor program that won’t try to format it (not Word!). Then save the file, with “.htm” on the end of it so your browser will know it’s HTML. Then double-click it and check it out. It should look like this. (For more information on HTML, I recommend you go to www.w3schools.com. They’ve got excellent tutorials.)

You can use HTML with Readerworks, Mobipocket Publisher, and other eBook programs to make eBooks. Here’s the big reason you needed to learn how to create a basic HTML doc:

http://www.projectgutenberg.info and, more specifically, http://pgcc.net/.

There are thousands of public-domain eBooks out there for the PERFECTLY LEGAL taking with the HTML already written. Go to http://pgcc.net/ (they keep changing the domain for some reason, so you may have to find this site from projectgutenberg.info at the time you read this article). Type "Doctor Jekyll" in the HTML search. You may have to search a bit in the result set for what you want, so just to make my point, here’s what I found with this search in about ten seconds; go ahead and open it:


If you’re using Internet Explorer on Windows, select View from the menu at the top of the screen, and then select Source from the dropdown. This will open the page in Notepad, showing you the HTML. (In Netscape, the menu listing is called "Page Source" instead of “Source.”) Then select Save from the text editor’s File menu, and save the file with an “.htm” extension, for example, "Hyde.htm." You’re now ready to run it through an eBook creator, and you’ll find instructions for doing that with the eBook creator you chose.

Man I wish I’d had access to this stuff when I was doing my English degree over fifteen years ago!

At this point, you’re probably wondering why you see a lot of public-domain eBooks for sale if they’re this easy to obtain. Probably because most people don’t know what you know. Here’s another thing most people don’t know: there's a lot of incredibly good copyrighted fiction out on the Web that can be converted to eBooks this same way. You can practice with the online stories we have listed at left. (They’re all really good, but check out “A Dry Quiet War” — it rocks!) I don’t know if the major Webzines frown on your making eBooks of their articles and fiction, so I won’t name them here, but you can find some great sites in the link lists of eBook retailers (hint, hint).

eReader/Palm Reader deserves special mention. You can create eBooks for it free of charge, but it doesn’t use HTML. It uses a set of proprietary tags called PML that are very similar. You don’t really have to learn PML. There are tools at Palm Digital’s site for making Palm eReader eBooks from word processor files:

Here is the link again for Palm Makebook and Dropbook: http://www.palmdigitalmedia.com/dropbook.

Already-Prepared eBooks

You can get already-prepared eBooks from us. We’ve got a few free ones and will offer many more soon. Of course, we’ve also got quite a few for sale. There are no hidden gotchas on our site. If something’s free, it’s free — no strings attached. You need to create an account, but we won’t share your personal information or pester you with e-mails. If you opt not to get our newsletter, the odds are great that we won’t ever contact you at all. The only time we would is if there were a question with your account.

Here are the steps to getting eBooks.

1. Create an account. You can get to the account-creation page here. We only need a few things from you: login name, password, first name, last name, e-mail address, state and country.

We need your e-mail address to verify your identity. Once you create an account, you can do a lot of stuff on our site, like write book reviews, so we send you an e-mail with a link to click to verify your address. We need your state and country to assess any taxes on books you purchase. Right now, we only collect sales tax on residents of the European Union and Washington state. Of course, free books are not assessed tax.

2. Add eBooks to your cart. The formats you get for each eBook appear as icons under the Add to Cart button. If you buy 2020, for instance, you get Rocket eBook, Microsoft Reader, and Mobipocket formats with your purchase. Click Add to Cart to put the item in your shopping cart.

3. You can examine your cart at any time by clicking the cart icon at the top of the page, or you can simply click “Proceed to Checkout” – a link that appears on many pages when you’ve added at least one item to your cart.

If you’ve just got free eBooks, you’ll see your shopping cart with no charges listed and a “Download Free eBooks” button underneath. Click the button. (If you need to pay for eBooks, you’ll see a dropdown for choosing a credit card type.)

4. Download your books. Click My Library at the top of any page to go to your personal library. Once there, choose a format next to your book from the pulldown menu; then click Download.

If you ordered a secure Mobipocket title and you don’t yet have a Mobipocket ID on file, instead of a dropdown and a download button, you’ll get a link that takes you to a page where you can enter one or two IDs. The page explains where to look for your Mobipocket IDs (PIDs).

If you’ve already got an ID on file, you’ll simply get a link, like this:

Click "Download Secure Mobipocket" to download your book.

Other Sources of Free eBooks

Many regional public libraries offer eBooks online for their patrons to check out over the Internet. How’s this possible? The copy you download has a timestamp on it, and your eBook becomes unreadable at the expiration of the checkout period. You simply delete the file when you’re done. As an example, the local King County Library system offers a wide range of good eBooks.


Unless you live in King County, though, you can’t check out these eBooks, but look into your local library system. Also, there are some eBook subscription libraries, where you can borrow books for a membership fee, like this one at Knowbetter.com:



eBooks aren’t going to replace paper books anytime soon, but they’ve got big advantages in certain areas. You can get them on demand anytime day or night without leaving your home, the public-domain ones are free, they don’t take up any physical space, and you can read them in bed and the light won’t disturb your partner. Although it’s a topic for a later article, I’d also argue that you might as well start building an eBook library now for the day when eBooks do replace print books. There’s a thing called digital ink that will erase almost all remaining boundaries between print and eBooks: