First thoughts on the Cybook Gen3

I bought a second-hand Cybook Gen3 ebook reader from my writing partner last month, and I’ve been using it long enough now to have some initial thoughts about it. This isn’t a proper review, as I haven’t been exploring all its features. What I *have* been doing with it is simply reading some of the books she’d loaded on it, mostly on the bus to and from work.

And the obvious question is — do I regret spending one hundred pounds on this thing? After all, I could buy quite a few paperbacks for that money. To which the answer is “no”, and for a specific reason I’ll get to at the end of this post. And it’s not one of the obvious reasons, like saving shelf space or being able to carry a hundred books with me at all times, although I can see the advantages there.

Would I buy one at full market price? (Currently 269 pounds if shipped to the UK.) Probably not, but mostly because the wee beastie is physically fragile, and I fully expect that I’ll manage to break it within a year or two given my current usage of it. I can see why other people would pay that for it, and why I might in other circumstances.

So, the pros and cons I’ve found so far:

I mostly *like* eInk. I like it a lot. In particular, I like it a lot better than trying to read an ebook on a backlit TFT screen on something paperback book or PDA sized. It really is like reading from a piece of paper, albeit a rather grey piece of paper. I know many people prefer backlit screens, but for me, eInk is much easier on my eyes. The contrast and brightness is more comfortable for me, and the resolution is excellent. It’s also much easier to read in bright sunlight than backlit TFT is, and I’m in that situation more often than ones where having a backlight is actually useful rather than a necessary evil. Apart from anything else, if there isn’t much ambient light, staring at a glowing screen is probably going to give me eyestrain anyway.

What I don’t like about eInk is the reverse polarity flash when you turn a page, and how long it takes the thing to turn a page after you’ve pressed the button. Alex told me I’d get used to it, and she’s right — with a bit of practice you automatically press the button a couple of lines before the end of the page, and you get used to the second or so of negative image as the screen refreshes. But it’s still slightly annoying.

The epaper technology is currently greyscale only (and the Cybook has fewer grey levels than the Sony eInk device, so you don’t even get full greyscale reproduction of art). So you’ll miss out on pretty colour covers, and if the book has a genuine use for colour you’re going to have trouble. But for most uses, this isn’t really going to be an issue.

It can also function as an MP3 player, but one point to watch is that it has a 2.5mm headphone socket rather than the more usual 3.5mm, so you may need to get an adaptor or a set of phones specifically for it. I haven’t tried it out yet, in part because I don’t have an appropriate jack. Using it as an MP3 player will drain the battery much faster, so you might want to use a separate dedicated player in many situations anyway.

I don’t like having to wait while the Cybook boots. It’s *slow*, at least as compared with a) turning on my Palm IIIxe and tapping the ebook icon or b) picking up a paperback and opening to the page with with bookmark. And I’d probably find this less annoying if the Bookeen website didn’t try to tell me that it’s no slower than pulling a dead tree book out of my bag and fumbling for the right page. That is a *lie*, chaps, and an annoying one.

And speaking of my Palm — it took me *ages* to get used to the fact that the Cybook doesn’t have a touch-sensitive screen. That’s not a serious criticism of it, of course, just a reflection of the fact that I’m used to a small hand-held screen responding to being touched, and I keep wanting to drag at the slider bar instead of using the page navigation system that relies on pressing buttons. It works, but for skipping through chapters it’s slower and more tedious than the Palm’s system, and more inclined to aggravate my RSI.

The RSI was one of my main worries when deciding whether to buy the Cybook. Until now I’ve never got into ebooks as a reader, even though I’ve done well out of ebooks as a small press author , and the reason why is that ebooks are physically harder for me to read. Having repetitive strain injury is a significant factor in that, as too much key-pressing and button-pushing *hurts*. The Cybook isn’t ideal from that point of view, as the type of button-pushing required is the sort likely to cause a problem if I do too much of it. On the other hand, the screen size means more words per page than on a PDA screen, and so I’m having to refresh the page less often than I would on a PDA, though a bit more often than on a 17″ monitor. I couldn’t use this device as my only means of reading a book, but it’s definitely something I can use for entertaining myself on the commute to work on days when I don’t have a bad RSI flare-up.

A couple of ways in which it actually helps on the RSI front — It’s very thin, very light (lighter than a typical adult fiction paperback), and you don’t have to hold it open.

However, the thinness and lightness tie into a specific problem — a naked Cybook is delicate. If you want to cart it around with you on a daily basis, you’re going to need a cover to protect the screen, and you’re going to need to put it inside something rigid to protect it from bending. Mine had sprung one section of seam after a week of being carried in my backpack — and it was in the padded pocket intended to carry a laptop, not rattling around loose. You can buy a leather case from Bookeen, but that immediately negates the weight and thickness advantages it has over dead rainforest, and I’m not convinced that the leather cover will add enough rigidity to protect it from bending under pressure anyway. My solution was to pick up a cheap semi-rigid CD wallet with sleeves for 40 CDs. It makes for a lot more bulk in my backpack, but the empty CD sleeves provide just enough padding to stop the Cybook rattling around, and the outer shell is stiff enough to absorb any likely bending pressure, while still being fairly light.

A definite pro is the battery life. It uses effectively no power while you’re reading the page, only when you actually change something on the screen. The claimed battery life is 8000 page changes, and I’ve found that I can use it for two or three days on my commute without recharging, and still have it showing 90% charge. I can see this being a gadget that’s practical to use on a long trip. It uses a standard mini-USB port both for charging and for synching with a computer, which means that even if you lose or forget the supplied cable, it would be easy to get a replacement, and it cuts down on the number of different cables you have to carry with you when travelling.

One niggle with the charging is that if you hook it to a computer’s USB port to charge, you can’t use the reader function, as it automatically switches into file transfer mode. This is reasonable enough, but the manual is rather confusing on this point, as it recommends keeping the reader on the charger cable when possible to keep the battery topped up, even when you’re reading a book, and only later mentions that this is only feasible if you have paid the extra for the optional wall charger.

So far I’ve found file transfer works well on my XP box, with the computer seeing the Cybook as an external drive and allowing drag and drop of files. How good the books look depends on how well they were formatted to begin with. I’ll probably have to do some re-formatting of plaintext files I’ve pulled from places like Project Gutenberg, but commercial ebooks formatted for a dedicated ebook reader have worked pretty well.

One of the first things I did was go out and buy an SD card for the expansion slot, as the Cybook I have is from the first release of the Gen3, and has only 64 MB of internal memory –the current version has 512. The expansion slot takes SD cards up to 2GB, so it can hold a *lot* of books on just one card. It was fiddly to install the card, but that has more to do with my never having used an SD card before.

Something I’d like is a facility for password-protecting folders or individual files. As far as I can see there isn’t one.

Really, really serious niggle, although this may be just my unit rather than the model in general — it often forgets which page it was on when I switch it off. It’s not consistent on this — sometimes it will come back up at the page where I left it, and sometimes it comes back at the page where I finished the previous session. I haven’t had time to get to the bottom of this, but it is annoying as hell, because I then have to spend a minute or so paging through trying to find my place, which amongst another annoyances involves a lot of button-pressing in a short space of time. I don’t want to have to explicitly set a bookmark each time I switch off, because that’s fiddlier than doing it with a dead tree book, and sometimes I need to stuff it back in my bag and go rather than messing about with it.

But in spite of the annoyances, and the cost, and the sure and certain belief that I’m going to break it sooner or later, this is the first time that I’ve felt that an ebook wasn’t a very poor substitute for an ink-on-paper book. It’s mine now, and I’m not letting go of it.

And the killer app for me? I can read it on the bus without feeling car-sick.

If I try to read a dead tree book on the bus, I start feeling sick after a few minutes. I can read if I’m careful, but it requires a certain amount of thought and stopping as soon as I feel in the least bit queasy. I took the Cybook with me on the bus the first week I had it, mostly because otherwise I’d have to wait until the following weekend to have time to play with it — and was still reading at journey’s end. By the end of the week, it was clear that this was not a one-off. In the month since, I’ve found that if the bus is *really* bumpy I need to put the Cybook down for a minute or two, but I can usually read it without problems. I don’t know why there’s a difference (my guess is that it’s at least partly to do with the Cybook being completely rigid), but since I spend around an hour a day on the bus at the moment, something that lets me read during that hour is *well* worth the hundred pounds I paid for it. While I’m doing that commute, you will have to prise my Cybook from my cold dead hands…

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3 thoughts on “First thoughts on the Cybook Gen3

  1. It’s always good to read the experiences of someone using an eBook reader. I favor the Sony Reader myself, but glad you’re pleased with the eInk reading experience. You’ve also raised points I’ve not seen elsewhere.

  2. I didn’t have any particular preferences on model before getting one — I ended up with a Cybook because I had the opportunity to get a second-hand one cheap, and to try it out for a few days before having to decide whether I wanted it or not. My writing partner was getting rid of it because she wanted to switch to a Sony (for Mac compatibility reasons), and I know a couple of people who’ve been very happy with the Sony machines.

    But one thing I was reasonably sure of, and that was that for a dedicated ebook reader (as opposed to a PDA) I wanted to look seriously at a book-sized eInk device rather than a PDA sized TFT device. My main issue was getting hold of an example so that I could see it in the flesh, as I’d heard bad things about the negative image flash on page turn. It is annoying, but not nearly as annoying as I’d feared.

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