Thursday, March 26, 2009

Move Over Kindle! eSlick Has Arrived!

The revolution in ebook readers is finally beginning to come within our reach. For over ten years, readers and writers of ebooks have dreamed of an inexpensive, easy to use, pleasurable reader. We've been sure it's possible, yet sometimes it seems the manufacturers were not just ignoring what we wanted but outright flaunting what we didn't want. Under a hundred dollars, we said. Okay, we'd be reasonable- under two hundred dollars. Instead, we got four hundred and above. We could see possibilities in the new offerings, but still, what we said we wanted just wasn't there.

Still, I think we should be grateful that the gadget guys of the world kept trying to turn something we saw as rather ordinary into something else. While we waited for the latest installment of the can-opener-cell phone, there were others seeking a great low-energy using screen, tinier but more powerful memory, and the things that mattered to us.

Some of the reasons I haven't bought an ebook reader up to now:
1. Too expensive.
2. Icky dull green screen.
3. Clumsy to use.
4. Proprietary software that would force me to buy my books only from the e-reader manufacturer.
5. Bells and whistles I don't want.
6. Better screen, but not well lit.
7. Formatting loss in larger fonts.

So why did I change my mind and buy one now? Especially why did I stick my neck out and buy a newly developed one with no track record? Is Foxit's eSlick worth the risk I took?

A little history here: Like a lot of people, the lack of a decent, inexpensive ereader held me back on buying ebooks, and probably on reading them, too. The early readers were in the "okay" range, I guess, but I hated the dull gray-green screen. Reading on my laptop was far better, but it wasn't a very portable arrangement. When Kindle and Sony brought out their readers, they made a giant leap forward with the use of the eInk screen. But two things stood in my way, and they tied together. How could any company justify such a high price but give me no other choice except to buy books only from them- and usually over-priced as well? Kindle had the advantage in book selection and ease of download, but Amazon is the one company in the world I don't want to have dominion over all my reading material.

Things started looking up recently when Sonys began to appear at discount prices. That usually means a new model is about to debut, and sure enough, they resolved some of their drawbacks like buttons along the side that were frustratingly easy to trigger, and a screen that needed more light. But instead of becoming cheaper, the price jumped up another hundred dollars. Holy cow! All I wanted was a book reader! I didn't need a built-in microwave!

There were others around and some looked pretty good, like the JetBook, which has built-in translators. Astak reader kept promising to come out, but as it delayed and delayed, the projected price went up. $299 to $349 seems to be what manufacturers think they ought to get, while those of us down here on earth dream of finding a nice reader with decently new and workable hardware and software under $200. I've only seen that once, very recently when JetBook's original model surfaced at Fry's Electronics for $179.99. At such a giveaway price for a model that was originally $299, you could be pretty sure the next model was lurking in the wings. Sure enough, it's here, at MSRP of $349! Bargain today available for that magic number, $299. And those cheapie, now-obsolete models? Almost all gone now.

I signed up to buy eSlick last December, and my biggest concern then was whether it would follow Astak's track and just never get off the ground. Maybe I'd lose my deposit. But the initial "investment" price was $229.99, $70 under that bottom line price manufacturers seem to aim for. Sorry, you can't get it for that now, but the current intro price of $259 keeps it in the ballpark.

What else? It's slim and lightweight-lighter than any of the others. eSlick is actually a tad taller than Sony, making reading on it in landscape mode just a wee bit better. Fonts are enlargeable, and it can be read in both portrait and landscape mode, meaning I could enlarge the print and read something in bed that didn't strain my eyes. It has an MP-3 player, which means nothing to me, but might impress some people. It doesn't have those annoying side buttons like Sony. No mini-keyboard like Kindle. No proprietary software like Kindle (at least t looks like Sony may give up on this dumb idea). No language translator. It doesn't talk to you. No cell phone. No calculator. No built-in GPS. No kitchen sink. It reads ebooks. Its basic format is PDF, although it will also read TXT. And images such as JPG book covers, GIF etc. With the PDF converter, I can even read my own manuscripts on it.

Although it has its drawbacks, eSlick lives up to its major promises, and I'm willing to guess there will be future versions with most of the bugs worked out. The screen is the same type and quality as any other eInk model, since they're all made by the same company. The case and navigation button lack Sony's sleek sophistication, being plastic and looking like it, but I remind myself I want to read books, not look cool, and the extra hundred dollars is best not spent on sleek surfaces. Still, for plastic, it looks pretty slick. It ought to have a cover. Doesn't need one, really- still, it ought to have one.

The navigation button interfaces with the software to accomplish eSlick's basic features. "Go To" is surprisingly primitive, yet very operable, and it eliminates those expensive annoying number buttons that irritated Sony buyers. Clicks get you where you want to go.

See the photo with those tiny little metal buttons on the side? At first I didn't like them, until I realized they're not easy to press, yet not hard. They're actually out of the way of accidental touch, and just hard enough to press that you aren't likely to be sending yourself astray all the time. But I can't read those indented symbols, can you? The symbols need to be indented on the front of the case beside the buttons where they're easily visible.

ESlick is also a little clumsy in getting to certain modes (like the landscape view I like) without losing standard formatting, but it can be done. Takes a few more clicks. But think about it: are we so afraid of losing a few seconds that we can't deal with a few extra clicks? Once there, it's set. You don't have to keep re-setting every time you go back to that book.

I decided to try putting one of my manuscripts on it to see how it read, and was surprised at how easy it was to do. In TXT format, it loses all formatting, which I expected. But converting to PDF is as easy as printing, but without the paper. Can your read it? Click on the photo to enlarge it, and see what you think.

It's also easy to download books from the internet and just move them to the eSlick, or if you want, to the SD chip that's included in your order. Kindle touts its wireless delivery straight to the reader, and that's nice. But it probably doesn't even take half a minute longer to move the download to the reader. Is that really worth Kindle's high price? We're pretty used to saving our work to a second file, and that's all we're doing with the eSlick.

The manuscript here is from my WIP, Sidhe. I learned that if I enlarge my font from 12 pt to 15 pt, I can keep standard formatting without having to use the "Reflow" which re-position words when using larger fonts. Reflow is a nice feature, and I will use it when having to deal with books that have an initial font that's too small for my comfort. But I have to give up format to do it. That's going to be true for any ereader, I think. Something, at least, you can't do with any paper book.

By the way, don't feel you have to purchase Foxit's PDF Creator software. And you don't have to agree to accept one of their "Advertisers'" promotions to get their license free for a year. Why would you do that? Their software does seem to be perfectly good, but so far I see no advantage over other PDF software that can be obtained free. And besides, you can go on using the Foxit PDF Creator in "Evaluation Mode". Who cares if they mark it that way?

I'm not pleased with the battery, which for some reason took no charge last night, and didn't have enough juice even to reach the welcome screen this morning. But it might actually be a software glitch like the kind Windows so frequently has- yet the OS of this device is supposed to be Linux. I ran the reader down completely before re-charging, which might have triggered something that kept it from charging. I re-set and plugged it in again, and after about twenty minutes the opening screen lit up and it worked fine. It could all be just fine now, but I'll be watching it.

All of these readers need a light in low light situations because they're not backlit like a laptop screen is (the new Sony fixed that). But it doesn't justify an extra hundred dollars. Looking around the house, I discovered a Mighty Bright light. You can see it in the photos- it's purple, and clipped onto the reader. To give it a good, non-jiggly fit, I padded the clip. Any foam tape would hold something to pad it. Put the padding only on the lower side of the clip and it will fit better. I have another much tinier light by Book Owl, and it will probably be nice for traveling, but the Mighty Bright has two bulbs and illuminates the whole screen better.

And did I really need to buy a cover? No. Why did I? Well, I thought it was cool. What I bought doesn't belong with my reader, but it works well. It's a day planner cover from At-a-Glance, for $9.50. You can see I'm getting gadgety here: Large rubber bands hold the reader in place on the back cardboard of a small tablet- I'll replace all of that with something classier- black elastic or strap tape with Velcro.

So will the eSlick hold up well? Don't know. It is plastic, but it's a pretty tough plastic. There re some cheap things about it. But for the most part it seems durable enough for what it needs to do. What about other questions like warranty, software updates and the like? Well, they're a pretty small company. On the other hand, that could mean they have their feet on the ground like the rest of us, and maybe that's good.

Still not satisfied? Are there more changes coming for ebooks? Well, it looks like the manufacturers are sensing the needs of businessmen. Document. Paper, briefcases. That's good for the rest of us, at least in terms of coming innovations.

There's a letter-size e-reader in the offing from Plastic Logic, in the UK.

iRex, in the Netherlands, is making advances in iLiad. But they're really expensive, in the $700-800 range. You can write information into it. Qualcomm and eInk are both on the track of color screens. One manufacturer in Europe even has a flexible screen that rolls up into a fairly small roll. An entire newspaper can download to it. And the good news is, the more they find things that appeal to the working guys, the more likely we insignificant readers will reap the benefits in terms of better design and cheaper prices. In the meantime, all we need is the simple little Foxit eSlick.

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I write write write. Sometimes I travel. Then I write some more. And I have a great family who understand that I write write write.