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Getting a Good Read on E-Books

Generations of children who were once reprimanded for slouching too close to the TV now spend their grown-up days an eyelash-width from their computer screens.

We get our international newspapers off the Web and spend our days scrolling through emailed missives. Once again, people's need to find nonproductive things to do at the office drives us to overcome adversity, in this case the bright lights and fuzzy print of computer reading. Now that we've overcome our initial displeasure with scrolling and reading from screens, why not take the next step and get our books electronically?

E-books don't deserve the brushoff. Paper books provide the ultimate in convenience and portability, but e-books have their time and place. It doesn't make sense to buy a bulky, dedicated e-book reader device. But if you're a person who lives by the laptop or who is addicted to your Palm (PALM)-based PDA, e-books can help you while away the time. The software and books are easy to download and install, but you'll just have to be prepared to adapt to even more scrolling and clicking than usual.

Try out an e-book on your PC before you even think about buying an e-book reader. RCA offers a black and white REB 1100 device that lists for $299 and a color-screened REB 1200 model for $699. They're too big to slip in a pocket or purse -- the 1100 weighs 18.5 ounces -- and they are just beginning to offer other uses such as MP3 playback and organizer tools. You have to love e-books to want such a device. Franklin Electronic Publishers sells three reasonably priced eBookMan models that include address books, music and the ability to read books aloud with Audible software and a subscription to Audible's service. The devices range in price from $129 to $299 and download material from a cradle hooked to a computer, as Palm devices do. The RCA products need to connect via a phone line to a proprietary network to download Gemstar-brand e-books. If it sounds reminiscent of AOL Time Warner (AOL - Get Report) in the pre-Kournikova years, it is. Hold off, there are better things to come.

Reading on your computer is a little more convenient because you can get set up to read over the Internet for free and you've already got the machine. You'll need to download and install either the free Microsoft (MSFT - Get Report) Reader or Adobe (ADBE - Get Report) Acrobat eBook Reader applications, an easy process.

Be aware that Microsoft Reader won't let you get books unless you sign up for the dreaded Microsoft Passport, the software giant's Web-wide password and credit-card management program. Adobe also has an activation process to get you ready for transactions. Once you get over that squeamish step, you can buy easy-to-read e-books from familiar spots such as Amazon.com (AMZN). Major book outfits offer a select array of popular titles that can be highlighted, searched, converted into large print or stored in your personal library.

Rating the Readers
Reading device Pros Cons
Dedicated e-book reader Adjust print size on the fly. Too pricey for limited functionality. Can only access titles prepared for the platform.
PC Snap to download and install; major outlets sell e-books for PC reading. Only as portable as your computer.
PDA Easy to set up; lots of titles; fits on your existing device. Tiny screen makes for lots of scrolling.
Paperback Easy to read; doesn't need backlighting; no software to install. Boss knows you're reading Stephen King's latest on company dime.

If you're willing to do a little squinting, handhelds that run Palm OS and Pocket PC can be souped up for e-book reading. Palm users will need to download the Palm Reader to be able to access content ranging from The Wall Street Journal to Fast Company magazine to more than 25 categories of books from Peanutpress.com onto your Palm OS-based handheld. Customers with PDAs running Pocket PC 2002 can download Microsoft Reader 2.0 and get e-books from traditional retailers. After your reader's installed, magazines, papers and e-books are transferred from your computer to your handheld by hot-synching. You can only do so much with font size and the amount of text shown on small PDA screens, so you'd better be an acclimated gadget lover.

On the content side, you'll have to pony up almost the print amount for e-books. Don't expect to get bestseller titles for half price just because there aren't the hard-copy costs of printing and distribution. Additionally, the measures taken to thwart copyright abusers and keep them from reprinting or emailing e-books mean that, typically, you can't print e-books, pass them along to friends and/or even send a new e-book as a gift.

If you assumed you'd have to buy an unwieldy faux-computer to read e-books, you were wrong. E-book readers and content take a minute or two to download to your desktop computer with a speedy connection. While e-books won't live up to the versatility, form factor and readability of paper books, they take up only digital space, can be handily stored and yet still convey the excitement of printed material. If you're looking to get rid of that pile of coffee table books between you and your TV, give it a try.

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