Martes 7 de Mayo de 2002, Ip nš 14

Lighter loads for traveling readers
Por Bob Tedeschi

For a lot of people, the best thing about traveling isn't the food, or the sights, or the chance to immerse oneself in another culture. Rather, it's the opportunity to buzz through a series of books, knowing there will be no knocks at the door, no ringing telephone, and none of the 4,000 other obstacles that separate you from a good read.

But for the book lover, plotting such a binge can be an exercise in angst. Do the reviews of the latest best-seller justify the three pounds and 64 cubic inches of space the book will eat up in your luggage? Are you really fit enough to add ''Anna Karenina'' to the other six books in the suitcase?

Electronic books, which so far have been a boon mostly to ophthalmologists and other ministers to the weary eyed, have improved to become useful tools for some travelers.

Not only can you read books on the current devices without developing a permanent squint, but publishers are also offering a growing number of titles. Meanwhile, thanks to Internet sites that serve this market, you can load volumes into a device before leaving for vacation and reload quickly while on the road.

I recently tried out several different gadgets that either are dedicated solely to so-called e-books or can be used to read paperless tomes. These included the Gemstar REB 1200 eBook from RCA ($700), the Palm m515 color handheld ($400) and the Compaq iPaq 3835 PocketPC ($600). These are all list prices; a Web search is likely to find lower ones. I also tried the Otis ($120), an audio book player from, which provides it free or at a reduced price to people with monthly subscriptions ($13 to $16) to its service.

The object was not so much to evaluate models against others in their category, but rather to test hardware that fairly represents what's available in each category, and measure that against what different users might like.

The device that will look most familiar to book aficionados is the REB 1200 eBook, which is about the same size as a large hard-cover release -- including the weight, 22 ounces. The unit itself is about 7.5 by 9 inches and is a little more than an inch thick. The screen is about 6.5 by 5 inches, with a backlighted color display.

The book can hold dozens of titles, as well as daily and weekly issues of publications like Time and The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition. There are some 10,000 books to choose from on the eBook Web site (, with titles broken out into 32 categories, including children's books, world literature and travel.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the prices are frequently comparable to those of real books. For example, ''Bridget Jones's Diary'' is $10.36 in electronic form from the eBook Web site -- exactly the same price as the paperback on Amazon before shipping. Other times, you can find a bargain. Elmore Leonard's ''Tishomingo Blues'' sells for $15.96 at eBook's online store. offers the hardback version for $24.47.

It's a bargain, that is, if you consider the downloaded version of a book as valuable as the printed version, a physical object that you can easily lend to a friend or donate to a school's book drive. You can do neither with electronic books, which are encrypted to prevent copying. (The eBook Web site does provide buyers a virtual library in which their purchased books can await eventual second readings without tying up capacity in their reading devices.)

But, judged as a piece of technology alongside Gutenberg's progeny, the REB 1200 eBook performs nicely. The type is fairly easy to read, although the characters are slightly less sharp than those on the printed page. You can adjust the light and contrast to your liking, and you can select from two different sizes -- one that's about the same as the type you are reading now, another that is about one-third bigger.

You can also easily mark pages that you want to revisit, and, with a stylus, write notes on the page or highlight passages. The rechargeable battery lasts between five and 10 hours, depending on how brightly the screen is lighted.

Which brings up one of the more useful aspects of these devices. Thanks to the backlighting of color handheld devices and the eBook, you don't need to fumble with an airplane's overhead lights or adjust the hotel's bedside lamp or keep your spouse awake while you push through the last chapter of a legal thriller.

There are marketplace worries to consider when purchasing REB eBooks, however. The eBook's manufacturer, Thomson Multimedia, recently said that it would stop making the slow-selling devices. But Gemstar, which makes the software, says it remains committed to the product and that another manufacturer will step in. Meanwhile, you can still find eBooks for sale on the Web at, among other places,

For those who like to read on their backs in bed, and who can't hold an eBook aloft long enough to read more than a sonnet or two, a handheld is a good choice. They cost hundreds less, but they give you much less screen space. That leaves readers a choice: hold the device closer to one's face or increase the type size considerably.

The Palm gives a host of font and type-size options; on the small side of the range, you can fit hundreds of words on the screen, which is 2 1/4 by 2 1/4 inches. People with less than extraordinary vision can increase the type size. Those who prefer large print can increase it so much that just a dozen or so words fit on the screen.

For both Palm and PocketPC (which also allows users to adjust size and typeface), one of the Web's biggest selections of downloadable books is at www.PeanutPress .com. Palm bought PeanutPress, a publisher of electronic books, last year, but still supports gadgets that are not based on the Palm operating system.

The divide between lovers of the Palms and the Windows-based PocketPC handhelds is vast, and there is no room here to outline the arguments from both camps. But it is worth noting that unlike Palm devices, PocketPC's can run audio books as well as software for e-books, which can be handy while driving.

James Levine, who runs a literary agency in New York, bought his Compaq iPaq 3600 in August 2000, largely because it could switch between audible and readable formats. Mr. Levine reads constantly for both business and pleasure, he said, and when he isn't reading, he's listening to books.

Mr. Levine said he got e-books from Barnes & Noble ( and audio material from ( .com), where he downloads not just books but also radio programs like ''Fresh Air'' and ''Science Friday,'' both on National Public Radio. (He hooks his iPaq into stereo speakers in the office, and uses a car stereo adapter to play audio files while on the road.)

The Audible Web site includes more than 4,500 books and about 14,000 other programs, from the radio programs mentioned here to university lectures and comedy bits. The Otis audio player I tested was light enough, at just a few ounces, to carry while working out, and compact enough to slip into a shirt pocket. It's about the size and weight of the pack of unfiltered Lucky Strikes your grandfather might have carried.

Downloading files from the site is easy and fast, and the sound from the player, while not great, is certainly good enough for the spoken word. Just as with the reading devices, the key feature is that you can tote many books at once, in a small package. ''I'm always having lunch with editors, who ask 'Have you read such and such,' '' Mr. Levine said. ''And I tell them, 'Not yet, but I have it in my pocket.' ''

  05/05/2002. The New York Times.