I’ve been trying out a couple of e-book readers today, and thought I’d post a few thoughts. My previous experience of e-books has largely been limited to reading them on desktop computers, which is okay for short stories, but not really for anything longer, and hardly ideal in any case. How would handheld devices fare?

First, I had a go with the iPod Touch. To be fair, this was not really designed for reading e-books, so it’s no surprise that it was very awkward to use. Trying to do almost anything using the touch-screen interface was such a fiddly job, and moving to a specific page with the ‘page meter’ (don’t know the official name) was practically impossible. It’s not very comfortable to hold for purposes of reading, either.

The Sony Reader was better – and, indeed, much better in general than I expected. You can actually hold it like a book; and there’s no screen glare, so it’s quite comfortable to read (though the unit itself is a little heavy). The controls took some getting used to, and I could do without the brief inversion of colours that comes with each transition between pages. But I could certainly see something like this becoming a viable alternative (price notwithstanding)) to lugging around 800-page novels (if I felt like reading many).

And yet… I still feel that e-books are not about to supplant the paper variety any time soon – and not just for relatively superficial reasons like ‘printed books look nicer’ (although they do). I think there are real practical concerns; I’m surely not the first person to suggest this, but it strikes me that there are key things that printed volumes do well and e-books don’t – and that the best kinds of electronic book are those for which the traditional format is too restrictive.

For example, a dictionary you can search online is far more practical than a huge tome you have to pick up and flick through. But when it comes to reading fiction, where you don’t want to be concerned with the mechanics of how you’re reading, a printed book is an ideal format – you just pick it up and read. This, I think, is the real sticking-point for e-books and e-book readers – they have portability on their side, but their current format is inferior to what they’re competing directly against. And I’m not sure whether refinements to the technology I saw today are going to address that.