We still can’t have Kindles in Australia, and the price Dymocks is charging for their e-paper based reader is outrageous… so lately I’ve been reading a lot on my iPod.

I didn’t expect it at first, but ebooks are very convenient. You can have a wide selection in a small and light device (real books are heavy), you get the ability to search, you never lose your page because the bookmark fell off… one downside, of course, is that battery life is not that great.

Another is the screen size. The iPod Touch has a relatively small screen (which, of course, can be a good thing — it makes it very easy to carry it everywhere), but I found that you get used to that. Granted, you’re turning pages every few seconds, but that is not that much of a problem. What is a problem is that you do need books that are stored in a way that can be reformatted for your device, and that rules PDF out, as that file format was not made with reformatting in mind. There are PDF readers for the iPod, but you can’t realistically read a PDF file formatted for A4 on that screen; it’s ok for a quick glance on a reference manual, for example, but not for continuous reading. And that has some implications for content availability: lots of free content is distributed in PDF format (ebooks, scientific papers, e-magazines etc.), but that is not an usable format for the iPod.

I have been using two different applications: eReader and Stanza (see screenshots below; click to enlarge). They are both very similar, and they both offer the ability to easily download books straight into the iPod from a variety of sources, with both paid and free content; Stanza does seem to offer a much larger selection of sources, including technical books from O’Reilly, while eReader is more tightly connected to their own bookstore, (which includes the mostly SF-oriented; both are owned by Barnes and Noble).

The free content, which makes up the bulk of what I’ve been reading, include mostly out-of-copyright classics and Creative Commons-licensed books, but you do get the occasional surprise, such as Random House giving away free copies of Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Red Mars”. As an aside, Stanza offers a desktop companion application that supposedly can convert PDF files into something readable on the small screen; my tests show that this definitely does not work well for most PDF files, even those that are text-only.

Both applications are very comfortable to use, and as a whole the experience is very good (although I have to say that I like eReader’s interface better, and I really like the little “progress indicator” for each book in the main window). Without a doubt, what I like the most about reading in this way is the portability, even if that means that the screen is significantly smaller than a typical book page; unless the book has relevant illustrations, that is not a problem at all. Battery usage does worry me a bit, though, since the backlight needs to be on at all times while reading (that is the main difference with electronic paper devices; in those, you only use power while changing pages); this is not a problem in normal day-to-day usage, but it may be if I try to read during a long flight (does any airline offer USB power on their seats?).