Who would have thought that the biggest buzz on the floor at the Consumer Electronics Show (held January 7—10 in Las Vegas, Nev.) would be about reading? For a while, digital reading may have been the only story coming out of CES, as every blogger and tech journalist highlighted one e-reading device after another. If nothing else, e-books have made reading and the future of reading very cool. Now the hard part—sorting out the good devices from the overpriced, misconceived ones.
E-Leaders at CES
Plastic Logic's Que proReader really turned heads. Among several e-readers endorsed by Barnes & Noble, the Que is sleek and super-thin with 3G/Wi-Fi and a b&w 8.5-inch e-ink touchscreen that reads everything from EPub to PDF to PowerPoint presentations. It's aimed at professionals—not surprising, considering the pricing—and comes in 4GB ($650) and 8GB ($800) models. It's available beginning in April through Que.com and will be sold by B&N later in the year.
The Skiff Reader, a similar but slightly larger device (11.5-inch screen), aimed at consumers, was developed by a consortium of newspaper and magazine publishers looking to transition to digital channels. Equally thin with a touchscreen and 3G/Wi-Fi, the device still attracted a crowd although no pricing or availability date was announced.
The Alex Reader looks like a typical e-ink device—like the Nook, you could say—but offers much more. It's a dual screen device with 3G/Wi-Fi and an e-ink screen for straight text reading situated above a full-color, high-res LCD screen that allows full Web browsing. The producer, Spring Design, also thinks it looks like B&N's Nook and has a suit pending against the bookseller that charges B&N stole the Alex Reader's design. It will be on sale in February for $359.
Technology visionary Ray Kurzweil showed off Blio—e-reading software developed in conjunction with Baker & Taylor—and observers at CES were impressed. Blio is software that can be downloaded to any device, from a Mac or PC to a smartphone (iPhone initially, with more to come) and will be offered for free download beginning in the spring. Blio replicates the look of the original print titles; it supports EPub, offers full color, 3-D animation, and a very cool text-to-speech function (where rights are enabled), with multiple voices, and highlights each word as it's spoken.
Tablets for One or Two (Screens)
While the world anxiously awaits Apple's Tablet computer (likely to be unveiled January 26), Microsoft trotted out its own version; a single-screened multimedia device tentatively called Slate—but didn't offer a lot of details, like pricing or availability. Its touchscreen plays video and games and apparently runs the Kindle for PC application.
Nevertheless, two-screen tablets were all the rage—even if they weren't always quite ready for prime time. The eDGe device from Entourage looks ready to go. It offers two facing screens—e-ink panel for straight text and a backlit color LCD screen, essentially a netbook, for full computing—arranged in a booklike configuration. Entourage offers about 200,000 books and just inked a deal for about 7,500 Oxford University Press titles to get a foot in both the trade and educational book markets. It will sell for $490 and ships in February. In addition, electronics manufacturer MSI showed off a prototype two-screen (backlit) device that could be folded into a tablet or used in a typical fashion as a netbook, with one screen serving as a virtual keyboard. Chinese computer manufacturer Lenovo showed a prototype netbook with a detachable screen that can function as a stand-alone tablet/e-reader. Dell (five-inch, called Streak, and runs Android) and Archos attracted attention with handheld tablet devices that offered everything from reading applications to full-color Web browsing and computing.
A number of devices and prototypes appeared at CES without much prior notice or preview information. Bookeen, which produces the sturdy Cybook Opus reader, offered the Orizon e-reader, a Cybook upgrade with Wi-Fi and touchscreen. Barnes & Noble is offering content through yet another device (with the Nook, IREX, and Que, the company now has four), called Lexi, a grayscale e-ink screen device developed by RCA. It's unclear if it has 3G/Wi-Fi; it will sell for $229 and ship in May. Copia, a book and social networking platform, unveiled a suite of about six e-ink devices at different sizes, priced from $200 to $300 and offering 3G/Wi-Fi. The devices are integrated with Copia's social networking platform (and e-bookstore), and users can comment, browse, and share reading lists. It will be available online in April. Samsung offered up two somewhat pricey wireless enabled devices, with six-inch ($400) and 10-inch ($700) screens, that caught everyone's attention. The devices offer stylus-touchscreens and handwriting recognition, and will be available in early 2010. And Chinese manufacturer Pixel Qi presented an impressive netbook screen technology that offered full-color backlit display for full computing, but could also be switched to a low-power b&w e-ink display for text reading. Very cool.