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All of these facts point toward the same trend. Writing-the procession of little black marks that miraculously convey ideas from the mind of the author to the mind of the reader-is breaking free from its traditional medium, ink on pancakes of cellulose. Printing on paper is a highly evolved technology; the magazine you are holding is a marvel of forestry, chemistry, photography, typography and graphic design. When it comes to efficiency, economy and convenience, however, the electronic book is beginning to give paper some serious competition.

From a technical point of view, the new electronic book readers aren’t spectacularly innovative.Graphical interfaces making it easy to manipulate words on the screen have been around since the 1970s. Electronic editions of books have been available on CD-ROMs and the Internet for years. And thanks to high-resolution monitors and software such as Adobe Acrobat, type on the computer screen has become nearly as readable as type on paper. But now these technologies, as well as batteries, touch-sensitive CD displays and microchip memory capacity, have matured to the point that designers can use them to construct a plausible imitation of a book.

What’s really new about today’s electronic book readers, then, is that they are so “retro,” looking backward to the traditional book for design inspiration. Deanna McCusker, a user interface designer for the Rocket eBook, writes that NuvoMedia’s goal in building the eBook was “to figure out how to preserve a book’s bookness.” They have succeeded.

The first thing I noticed about the eBook was its shape. One side is flat and about an inch thick, similar to an Etch A Sketch, but the other side bulges outward like a paperback book with its spine folded back. The bulge fits in the curve of the palm and makes the device easy to grip with one hand. The screen measures 7.6 cm by 11.4 cm (3 inches by 4.5 inches), the size of a small paperback, and the whole package weighs 616 grams (22 ounces), about as much as a 400-page hardcover. The overall feeling is highly booklike.

The eBook’s most impressive features, however, are inside. The display’s adjustable backlight emits a pleasing white glow that’s the brightest I’ve seen in an LCD screen. The resulting contrast between text and background rivals what you would see in a newspaper or paperback. Pressing the eBook’s “forward” and “back” buttons, positioned under the thumb, takes no more thought than turning the pages of a real book. Navigating within a text is simple, thanks to a bookmark function and a progress bar that lets you jump to any point in the narrative. And by pulling up the touch-sensitive keyboard, you can even add your own notations and search the text for specific words (for example, the first mention of a character in a novel).With the display at a medium intensity, the rechargeable batteries last about 20 hours. For people accustomed to laptop and cell-phone batteries that die in less than half this time, that’s a strong selling point. (According to McCusker, the designers considered using smaller batteries to reduce the eBook’s weight, but usability testers said longer battery life was more important to them than lighter weight.)

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