My little low-tech e-reader

As we all know, e-readers are all the rage right now. E-books are flying off the virtual shelves, and according to reports, there is hardly a Christmas tree in the world right now without an e-reader under it. This is definitely the year e-books went mainstream. My library is lending out Kobos and even my murder mystery-loving landlady has a Sony Reader now. I resisted as long as I could but as a lover of both techie gadgets and books it was only a matter of time before I jumped on the bandwagon.

I resisted in part because I did not want to get trapped in a corporate walled-garden where I could only buy e-books from one particular store in one particular format. Not that I had any intention of paying to rent an e-book (one never really owns a commercial e-book), but devices like that tend to be unfriendly to public domain and library e-books. Yes, the various vendors offer bazillions of free e-books and you can download programs to convert public domain e-books into the appropriate format, but that’s just not good enough. The big name readers were out of the question.

Much to my surprise, I found that there are quite a lot of alternative e-readers out there. These are e-readers with no strings attached—no exclusive affiliation an e-book store, and better support for different formats. I won’t even try to name them because there is such a variety, and that is not even counting the alternative tablet and mini-tablet computers that can be used as e-readers. The powers that be would like us to think that we must choose between two or three megabrands, but that is not the case.

After much sleuthing and comparing features and reading reviews, I finally settled on a humble but able e-reader that does exactly what I want without making me work for it. I chose the Ectaco jetBook. Never heard of it? Neither had I until I went on a quest to find jetBookevery available e-reader. The jetBook is more popular in Europe because of its multilingual ability. That is one of the main reasons I bought it. It can display a plethora of languages including right-to-left languages such as Hebrew and Arabic. Since I am interested in learning languages that was important to me. No other e-reader supports as many languages as the jetBook; indeed I could not find any others that supported non-Latin alphabet languages, and I gather that many of them have trouble with anything other than English. Ectaco is a company that specializes in translation devices and software, so language support is naturally a priority for them.

The other main reason I chose the jetBook is its pragmatism. For starters, the hardware is generic. Aluratek also makes an e-reader using the same device but different firmware. For me the “design” or “style” of my e-reader is irrelevant, so if they can keep the price down by using an existing technology, that’s fine with me. The screen is a 5” reflective LCD, which means it does not have the annoying page-turn flash of e-ink readers and does not cause eye strain like the backlit tablets. The pages turn instantly, and I can read it outside without glare. The buttons, of which there are many since it is not a touch device, are crisp and intuitive. Just about anyone could start using it right out of the box without much trouble.

As for the firmware, the jetBook is incredibly flexible. It supports more e-book formats than any other e-reader, including Adobe DRM, which many libraries use. I especially like the fact that it can “reflow” PDF e-books, basically reading them as text files, though it does preserve tables and figures. Not all e-readers can handle PDFs that way (or any way, for that matter). As I mentioned before the jetBook can display many languages, and it also includes a few language dictionaries, but they can only be accessed while reading a txt file and are limited to common words. An advanced language learner would still need a conventional dictionary standing by, but that would be true of any other e-reader as well. The jetBook also supports mp3 audiobooks (or music), but it lumps all the files together in one menu so it’s not quite as slick as I might wish if it were my primary audiobook reader. As it is my Zune (with the help of Overdrive) does a great job of playing audiobooks so I don’t need the jetBook for that.

Managing books on the device could not be simpler. There is no software to install; one simply connects the jetBook to the computer and uses the computer’s file manager to move files around. The jetBook only has a small built-in memory but you can add an SD card of up to 16GB, which is enough for several lifetimes’ worth of books. On the SD card you can create as many folders and subfolders as you like, arranging and rearranging them in any way that suits you. I really like a device that does not tell me how to organize my files.

As you can see, simplicity and openness are the hallmarks of the jetBook. It lacks some of the bells and whistles of the big name e-readers, and costs a little more since it is not subsidized by e-book sales, but if you are looking for a device that does not put any obstacles between you and your e-books, this may be the e-reader for you. When I bought mine I was not even sure that I would get much use out of it. I do not travel or commute so when would I need such a thing? As it turns out, it has many uses even at home. I’ve used it to read e-books from the library, online PDF e-books and articles that I did not want to read on the computer, and public domain books that the library does not have or that are simply more convenient to load on the jetBook and keep for as long as I like. I still do most of my reading from paper books and audiobooks, but there are many cases where the jetBook is the best way to read something and then I am very glad to have it.

If you’d like to know more, check out the Ectaco website, and to see the jetBook in action watch the video tour below. Just note that you can get a better price than this reviewer did by buying directly from Ectaco.

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5 comments on “My little low-tech e-reader

  1. Stefanie says:

    Very nice. How is for highlighting and taking notes?

  2. Ah, well, those would be some of the missing bells and whistles. 😉 It is possible to bookmark any number of pages, but I can't highlight or annotate text. If I want to blog something I just note down a few words and search the text when I get back to the computer. I have to go there anyway to blog so it's not an inconvenience. I think I prefer making notes on paper anyway. It's quicker than thumb-typing and according to the latest studies its bette for remembering things. Still, it would be cool to be able to annotate the books in a way that stayed with the file and was not platform-dependent. I think the next version of epub is going to try to address this, so we'll see if that gets added in the future. The cool thing about the jetBook is that Ectaco keeps upgrading the firmware. Instead of making people buy new devices they just improve the existing one. I really appreciate that.

  3. Long live jetBook! 🙂

  4. Matt says:

    Although it's the first time I've heard about the jetBook eReader, from what I've read, it seems to be a great eReader.

    I also went to the the jetBook eReader website by clicking your link, and I what I like about it is that it supports a lot of formats. I may be mistaken, but from what I know it seems to be the only eReader that supports both .epub & .mobi formats among other things!

    A great alternative to the other eReaders out there. Thanks for sharing, Sylvia…

  5. Yes, Matt, the jetBook seems to be alone in supporting all the major formats. I'm afraid it won't get much attention in a market that is more interested in looks and cachet, but for pure functionality and versatility I don't think it has any rivals.

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