- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 27, 2009

You remember that kid in high school who tried really, really hard, but never quite got it? I think I’ve found his digital cousin.

There’s a new e-book reader in town that’s good, but it still needs some work before it can take on Amazon.com’s Kindle platform.

The Cool-er e-book reader will set you back $249 for a device with a screen roughly equal to that of the Kindle 2, which costs $359. It’s almost as thin as the Kindle 2, and both use the same E-Ink Corp. Vizplex technology to display texts. Both also have an audio component of some stripe: The Kindle will “read” certain e-books back to you; the Cool-er will play audiobooks and other MP3 files.

So why do I think you should spend the extra $110 for the Kindle? The Kindle works better. The Cool-er works; it just doesn’t work as well as it could. Some problems may be resolved with a promised update to the device’s “firmware,” the fixed programs that operate computing devices at the most basic chip level, but problems seem built in.

On the plus side, if you find a book in the Adobe Digital Editions format the maker prefers, it’ll read quite nicely on the Cool-er device. I also could page through Acrobat PDF files with ease. The Cool-er, however, lacks the micro-keyboard of the Kindle 2, so you can’t type in a reference; if your e-text isn’t e-indexed, you’ve got a long, long way to go.

Which brings us to my rant: Why is one of the most-suitable-for-an-e-reader books so difficult to read on an e-reader? I’m speaking of the Bible. Whatever your views of religion, the King James Version, at least, is a literary classic. For millions, the Bible is far more meaningful than just being a great read; the same can be said of the Koran.

These books - and useful reference titles such as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the Physician’s Desk Reference and the World Almanac, to name but three - strike me as crucial texts for e-book use. Instead of carrying around big, hulking volumes, the 1 gigabyte of storage found on the Cool-er (expandable to 5 GB with an optional SecureDigital memory card), and the 1.4 GB on the Kindle 2, lend themselves to having such books handy.

But if I can’t easily find what I’m looking for, with good indexing or type-and-search capabilities, it’s worth less than if I could do this. I don’t think such searches are impossible to achieve technically. But on the Cool-er, which lacks an input mechanism, it’s more difficult than on the Kindle 2, which has its own challenges.

This version of the Cool-er, Interead Chief Executive Officer Neil Jones told me in a recent interview, is the first of several. The next may well have the kind of search capabilities I’m looking for. That’s fine in the long run, but as Hubert H. Humphrey once said, “People don’t live in the long run, they live in the everyday.”

While impressive overall, there are some remaining issues. Like the Kindle 2, the Sony Reader e-book device and every other e-reader out there that isn’t the Apple iPhone, you’re stuck in monochrome for now. This is part technology, part “bill of materials,” the latter a fancy way of saying how much all the components will cost a manufacturer. If the BOM is too high, the manufacturer’s retail price will drive away consumers and thus risk not catching on. So, we shall have to wait for color to come around to the e-book reader.

The other issue I foresee with the Cool-er is Mr. Jones’ strategy of selling e-books. Prices range all over the lot, and while one user can put a Cool-er e-book on as many as five related Cool-er readers for one price (great for family reading, I guess), it’s not as attractive (to me, at least) as Amazon.com’s $9.99 for most Kindle titles. (That’s “most” as in “definitely not all,” by the way. Some are way more expensive, which is an issue for another time.)

To be fair, Coolerbooks.com, the Cool-er e-book retail site, is offering 25 percent off on all titles for Cool-er e-reader buyers, but how long that’ll last is not clear.

What to make of all this, then? Mr. Jones and his companies offer an interesting alternative to the Kindle, and perhaps the second edition of the Cool-er reader will be worth the effort and expense. For now, however, I’d stick with the Kindle 2, however unresponsive Amazon.com can be to some user questions.

Of one thing I am increasingly certain, however. The future of “print” will be more and more digital. When it will be truly possible (and intelligent) to cross the chasm from print to pixels is anyone’s guess, but digital is where we’re headed, no ifs, ands or buts.

E-mail Mark Kellner at mkellner@washington times.com.