- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2001

Curling up with a good book is one of the pleasures of life; curling up with an electronic book can extend that into a digital form.

RCA's $299 REB 1100 e-Book reader, made under license from Pasadena, Calif.-based Gemstar, is about the size of a paperback book and in the monochrome version claims a battery life of 20 to 40 hours, enough to satisfy even a student of the collected works of Harold Robbins.

The RCA e-Book is one of several competing for your attention and dollars. Microsoft Corp. has its "Reader" publishing format for both handheld devices, such as Pocket PCs, and desktop/notebook computers. Adobe Systems Inc. offers its Acrobat e-Book Reader as another option; it plays off the firm's long-established Portable Document Format, or PDF, file system for sharing printed documents. Franklin Electronic Publishers, arguably the "king" of electronic books with its many single-use devices (dictionaries, Bible versions and other references) has yet another e-book reader format.

Behind all these products is an intriguing notion, that you and I will want to pick up a book digitally instead of on paper, and that we'll want to keep on doing it, in the case of dedicated devices such as the RCA product. Unlike a personal digital assistant, such as a Pocket PC, the RCA device does one thing and one thing only: present content you download and store. As is, the REB 1100 can hold about 8,000 pages of text; add extra memory and storage zooms to 70,000 pages.

That's all the RCA e-Book can do, however. It's not a substitute for a PDA. And while it does what it does rather well, there are several limitations that make me wonder about the ultimate potential for such a device.

My test unit arrived fully charged there's a lithium-ion battery to provide power and it can connect to a Gemstar computer via a telephone line. Dial in and you can select from several catalogs of books by category. Ordered titles are downloaded to the device and you're ready to read.

Of course, the books, by and large, aren't free: prices can range into the mid-20s, dollar-wise, and there is the bit of connecting to the computer and downloading. The REB 1100's modem runs at a top speed of 33.6 kbps (a more expensive RCA model, with a color screen and shorter battery life, has a 56 kbps modem and an Ethernet connection as well). A lengthy book could take eight minutes to download.

Once delivered, paging through a book in this case, "1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion" by Morgan Llywelyn was a straightforward process. Two buttons on the left side of the unit can be pressed to go forward or back. There's a dictionary and you can have an interactive lookup of a given word in the text, using a menu option.

Navigating the menus is easy, although I found the note-taking process a bit cumbersome: either you used an onscreen "keyboard" that made for a lot of work, or you utilized a handwriting recognizer that's quite good, but that accepted only one letter at a time. I'd hate to have this as my method of marking up a law text or something similar for a college course.

There's a headphone jack on the unit and the promise of sound at some point, but no audio is available at present. The display screen is generous and backlit, which helps at night or on a darkened airline flight.

But I'm still trying to figure out a compelling reason to buy the RCA e-Book. And I can't find it. Costs for the e-texts are not markedly lower than equivalent print versions they're somewhat cheaper, but not cheap enough (in most cases) to make me want to switch. A spokesman for the product's maker says there are no plans to expand the number of formats the RCA device can read, or to make "authoring" software available to individuals.

By contrast, Microsoft, via a third party, allows users to create texts for its Reader software. Adobe's Acrobat is a very widely known document creation tool, as well. And as noted here recently, the Aportis "doc" format for which converters are widely available on the Internet is another popular e-book mechanism for the Palm platform.

The reason such conversions matter, frankly, is that there's a lot more I might want to read digitally than just what Gemstar wants to sell. There are thousands of public domain books out there the Internet's Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.net) has over 31,000 for starters. I might have company manuals or other documents I want to carry around. The possibilities, particularly in a digital age, truly are endless.

Yet an "end" is found in the RCA e-Book, since it is a platform closed to the end user. For that reason and because a $299 device should do a bit more than just display text I don't see the e-Book as earning a place on my library shelf just yet.

• Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; send e-mail to [email protected], or visit the writer's Web page, www.kellner2000.com. Talk back live to Mark every Thursday from 8 to 9 p.m., Eastern time, on www.adrenaline-radio.com.

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