Me and My Iliad

A few weeks ago I went to France and took along the Pan Mac iRex iLiad. I had wanted to take a picture of myself, cocktail in hand, on the beach, with the iRex, and thus make a statement along the lines of "Look, you can read an eBook on the beach and it’s as easy and nice as reading a print book". Unfortunately I drank one to many said cocktails and so didn't even manage to finish the book I was already reading, although admittedly it was a 700 page "global history of empire". Upon finishing the tome, under the iron skies of London alas, I went to www.fictionwise.com to get me an eBook. The iLiad is primarily designed to read Mobipocket files and although it can take pdfs the reading quality is generally poor. So the format was pretty much pre-determined. As for the title I chose William Gibson's Pattern Recognition seeing as a) I have wanted to read it for a while, and b) Gibson is suitably cutting edge and digitally minded to give a sense of aptness to the experience of reading him on a cutting edge eBook device. Only the US edition was available, cutting the books UK publisher Penguin out of the deal entirely, and was reasonably priced at $14. After going through the standard internet check out, as easy on fictionwise as amazon, you then have to navigate the dreaded Mobipocket DRM before you can read the book you have bought, which initially comes in the form of an email link to a secure page on fictionwise from which the title can be downloaded. Mobipocket DRM basically means that you can download the eBook to four Mobipocket registered devices (like the iLiad or the Mobipocket reading software) which each feature a unique ID for you to input on fictionwise or where ever you happen to buy the eBook. Following the instructions was far more simple and painless than I had feared and before long the eBook was comfortably ensconced on the iLiad.

Andrew Marr's article on the iLiad gets it broadly right. The right size and the right weight, the iLiad is an immediately comfortable object to hold, its dimensions and weight equivalent to a handsome trade paperback or slim hardback. What is immediately impressive is the E-Ink display: forgetting about colour and functionality for a moment and focusing on pure reading experience it really is fantastic, indistinguishable from print type in its ease and flexibility to read. From almost any angle and in any brightness the display remains consistent and suffers no more environmental distortions than would a print book. Pretty soon you forget it’s an electronic page and get lost in the words.

Marr is right in saying that the iLiad's tactile elements, like the flickable side bar used to "turn" pages, are nice touches that add some warmth and engagement to the reading experience. I even found myself becoming attached to the iLiad in a way you wouldn't immediately expect and isn't replicated in most technology.

There are some downsides. Reading a print book you don't wait for the thing to charge up. It’s quite annoying when you are in a queue and fancy just reading a couple of pages to pass the time, as by the time your book’s loaded your at the front. Ok, loading time is probably a minute maximum from turning it on to reading but still, its something you notice. You also wouldn't expect your print book to run out of batteries mid read. This is doubly annoying as the iLiad's screen just freezes, turning it on and off does nothing and so you begin to think "Have I just broken £400 worth of iLiad? Crap...." Luckily it just needs to be plugged in, then turned on and off, but still. It may be that the system just crashed and it wasn't a lack of batteries, hard to say, but it doesn't effect the overall negative hanging over the iLiad. One other thing worth mentioning was also highlighted by Marr: the fact that after each page turn you have a one or two second delay before the following page materializes. After a while your mental and scanning flow re-adjust and you pretty much anticipate the momentary pause, even if the slight weirdness of it never quite leaves. While you would read the iLiad on the beach, the tube, in parks, you probably wouldn't want to try the Margaret Atwood test and read it in your bath.

My overall experience though was thoroughly good, as was the novel, which suffered no harm at all in the transition to an electronic medium. One's sense of a novel undergoes some tweaking as you no longer have the physical pages, which indicate position in a story arc, to hand but soon you get used to this and it almost forces you to focus more deeply on the text and the plot (plus bar on the display indicates your position). Despite acting as an electronic tablet the iLiad doesn't have the range of functionality (or the price tag) to truly take off. Still, it’s a nice device that offers an interesting and very pleasurable read.

So next time I am on a beach…expect pictures.