Sony e-book a lightweight revolution for the eyes

By Yuri Kageyama of Associated Press

TOKYO – The text on Sony’s new Librie electronic book reader doesn’t quite equal ink on a page in clarity, but it comes remarkably close.

It’s easier on the eyes than any electronic display yet.

The Librie is the first major consumer product to feature a long-in-the-works display technology that is designed to replace printed words on paper – so-called electronic ink.

Whether such lightweight digital ink-based tablets eventually supplant newspapers, magazines, paperbacks and hardcovers, we’ll have to see. In the meantime, the Librie is a dazzling pathfinder. It could easily be the first electronic reader to catch on.

The 190-gram (7-ounce) gadget, at 20 centimeters (8 inches) by 13 centimeters (5 inches), fits in your hand much like a paperback and runs on four AAA batteries that last for 10,000 page turns. Except for being slightly gray instead of white, the display has no backlight and the characters don’t fade even in a bath of reflected light or with the reader tilted an angle.

The characters are a lot like newsprint, strictly black and white. Yet reading on a Librie easily beats squinting at the best liquid crystal display on the market even though the screen resolution is only 800 by 600 pixels.

Librie is now sold only in Japan, where it costs a hefty 42,000 yen US$380), with Sony saying it has no plans to offer the gadget in the United States, where the core technology originated.

Its creator is E Ink Corp. of Cambridge, Mass. The other chief partners in developing the gadget, apart from Sony, are Royal Philips Electronics of the Netherlands and Toppan Printing Co. of Japan.

E Ink’s technology relies on tiny capsules, each about half the width of a strand of hair, that switch between black or white depending on whether they are positively or negatively charged.

Reading Librie isn’t anything like flipping through a paperback, but it is a breeze. You just push a button on the side of the display to go to the next page, and the button above that to go back.

Skipping around a book is easy. A cursor button featuring a picture of a dog is scrolled at the bottom of the display. The Librie has a memory function that can place up to 40 bookmarks.

But you can’t copy and paste passages to another computer or device. And copy protection built into the software garbles your books into useless data after two months. There’s no way to digitally archive texts for later reference. That’s a lot of restrictions, though the books available for this first Librie do cost only 315 yen (US$3) per download.

Librie’s features include 200 percent enlargement of the text, an installed dictionary that looks up words while you read and a voice reader. It will read texts aloud and also offers foreign language lessons.

I found Librie fascinating in the several hours I played with it, mostly for its utter lack of cool-gadget appeal. It doesn’t do e-mail or show movies or pretend to do much else than be an e-book reader.

To download content, the machine connects to a personal computer via a USB link. The digital books are obtained from a service in Japan called Publishing Link that was set up with capital from Sony and major Japanese publishers. The service currently targets businessmen with a collection of 800 books whose topics range from business and sports to health and travel, mysteries and best-sellers.

The Librie ships with 10 megabytes of onboard memory, which translates to about 20 books numbering 250 pages each. It accommodates flash memory in the Sony Memory Stick format for additional storage, more than enough for anyone who likes to lug along a library on long trips.

I’m not wild about buying books that self-destruct after 60 days. But the idea behind Librie makes impeccable sense.

It’s not that far-fetched to imagine receiving our morning newspaper of choice – call it the Daily Download – into an upgraded version of such a gadget. We’ll save a lot of trees.

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