Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Bookeen's Cybook Opus Hands-on

The public libraries network where I work is considering the possibility to lend eBook readers and to allow patrons to “borrow” eBooks. In order to get some feedback, the network has given different models of readers to a few librarians and technicians for evaluation. A colleague who received one of those readers wanted to get my opinion and lent his to me. I couldn't miss this opportunity to have my first hands-on experience with one of those ePaper readers.

I wish I could have had in my hands a Sony Reader or an Amazon Kindle instead (I've never seen a Kindle up-close and have handled a Sony Reader only for a few minutes in a book fair), but the model I got was the Bookeen's Cybook Opus. If a little disappointed, I was nevertheless quite happy with this opportunity since the Cybook is quite an interesting reader despite its shortcomings.

The Cybook Opus uses monochrome ePaper technology. It is rather small (108 x 151 x 10 mm / 4.2 x 6 x .4 in) and ultra light (150 g / 5.3 oz). Its 5“ (125 mm) display offers a resolution of 600 x 800 pixels in 200 dpi with 4 levels of grey (in comparison Sony's models offer 8 to 16 levels of grey). It runs on a 400 MHz Samsung ARM chipset and has 1 Gb of memory (which is enough to store a thousand books!). Its battery charge is good for two weeks or 8000 page flips and its accelerometer or G-sensor allow to automatically switch from landscape mode to portrait mode when we turn the Cybook. It has a micro SD slot for extra memory and plugs into your computer through a mini-USB connector. It reads digital editions (ePub & PDF formats), basic eBooks (HTML & TXT formats) and pictures (PNG, JPG & GIF formats). It works in 12 languages and comes preloaded with 75 books (44 classics and 2 Harlequin in English, 31 classics in French). The suggested retail price for all that is $215 CAN ($200 US).

I must note that the model I had for evaluation was an older model (released in August 2009) that was not running the latest firmware and was available only in white. The newest model, Opus v. 2 (released in May 2010), comes in 8 housing colors and (according to the company's press release) runs much faster and smoother—as the new firmware offers many bug fixes, 9 more languages, and a new Table of Content function. It also comes preloaded with 125~150 books!

As I said, the Cybook Opus has many shortcomings: during my reading I experienced a couple of crashes (the new firmware is supposed to improve that); the screen is not backlit so you cannot read in the dark; it's not touch-screen so the navigation is rather inefficient (without a table of content, at least in the version I tested, you can only use a “go to” option in the contextual menu in order to jump to a specific page); it doesn't handle graphics too well (which is not good to read comics or magazines in PDF format); there's no WiFi or G3 connectivity so you cannot use the internet and need to use a memory card or a USB cable to transfer the eBooks you downloaded on your computer; it doesn't play MP3 (although the Gen3, Bookeen's higher model, does); finally, you cannot change the settings or the interface besides the number of menu items viewed per page, the languages or the fonts (12 font types & 12 text sizes) and the operating system (Linux based) is not accessible at all via a shell interface. Conclusion: it's a VERY basic model and, if it's one of the cheapest readers, it is still too expensive. For what it offers, it would be better priced at $100~$150.

However, despite all that, I still consider the Cybook Opus as an excellent reader. Of course, the ideal reader for me is something like the Apple iPad, or the iPod touch, because it's much more polyvalent (full internet access, ability to work on files, multi-function reader, the perfect screen to read comics & magazines, etc.), but, if you want a device ONLY to read books and nothing else, the Cybook Opus is very good for that. It might have limited functions (no advanced functions besides using hyperlinks & bookmarks — even that doesn't work for all formats), but offers enough possible settings to make e-reading more accessible (many languages, different font sizes). It is also one of the least expensive and lightest reader on the market. The ePaper technology provides the best reading experience (particularly in full sunlight, where the iPad is not performing well) and is quite energy efficient. Its screen is small (not much bigger than the 3-inch screen of the iPod Touch) compared to the heavier Sony Reader (Pocket Edition: 5“, 8 oz, $170 US; Touch Edition: 6“, 10 oz, $250 US; Daily Edition: 7“, 13 oz, $300 US) or the Kindle (Standard: 6“, 8.5 oz, $140~$190 US; DX: 10“, 19 oz, $380 US), but it's big enough to offer a good amount of text per page and yet still small enough to fit in a pocket. It's not sophisticated, but a simple, compact device, perfect to carry an entire library without feeling the weight of the books.

I am not very warm to the idea of lending $200~$400 devices to patrons (considering in which state we often get books and Dvds back, doing so would be looking for trouble!), but if we were to lend eBook readers I would consider the Cybook Opus as the best model for that, because it's relatively inexpensive, basic and easy to use. Furthermore, I would recommend to lend it already charged and preloaded with a certain amount of “free” books (and therefore without the power & USB cables) in order to reduce the device manipulation by the patrons. Of course, there's always the risk that neglectful or malicious patrons would use the “erase” function of the contextual menu to remove documents from the reader or try to tamper with the device in some ways (by trying to copy documents to their computer for example).

It would probably be safer (avoiding the devices being lost or broken) to make the readers available only on site and to put the emphasis on “lending” the eBooks themselves either from an on-site terminal or downloadable from the internet (i.e. the library's webpage). The library could offer a large selection of DRM-free classics (already available for free on the internet anyway), but the technology now allow to also offer titles with DRM (Digital Right Management) with an expiration date (for example: after forty-five or sixty days the eBook deletes itself from the reader — Apple is already doing that when you rent movies on iTunes).

I might soon get the opportunity to also review a Sony Reader, so that will allow me to draw a better impression of each device by comparing them. Of course, personally, I still prefer to read on my iPad!

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