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News & Reviews for Electronic Bookworms

First, we’ve got two great bits of news on the e-book frontier:

In the left corner: It looks like photos of the second revision of Amazon’s Kindle electronic book device have hit the web.  Of course, as with any “Internet leak” you have to take it with a grain of salt.  Amazon tried (with mixed results) to buzz up the original Kindle,  but if you’re not familiar with the original device, I can’t really blame you – but you can check it out here.  Could this leak be another attempt at generating some buzz?

The Boy Genius Report has a photo gallery with photos of the purported second version of the device.  It seems to be merely an incremental update: some cosmetic changes, new controls and keyboard layout, and USB charging instead of relying on an AC adapter.  Of course, there’s only so much one can infer from looking at photos, so we’ll have to wait for more official word to hear what other features may be built in.  No word on when this might be available; Amazon has previously claimed there wouldn’t be a new Kindle this year.

The new kindle is rumored to still use EVDO wireless as the first edition did.  This wireless functionality is pretty cool: it works with Sprint’s cellular EVDO network, so you can pick up a signal in nearly any populated area and find and download content to read on the go.  Amazon foots the bill for this; so there’s no need to be a Sprint customer or to pay any monthly access charges.  (Content however, often comes with a cost.)

In the right corner: Sony has announced their new e-book reader, the PRS700, at a press event this past Thursday.  It’s a follow up model to their acclaimed PRS505 reader, and it adds some really cool features.  It’s got a sleek look, a touch screen that lets you flip through pages with the swipe of a finger, more memory, more processing power, and a front light to allow you to read in low light situations.  It has five different font sizes and a new zoom feature to make reading easier on the eyes.  The biggest news out of the press event however isn’t even the device itself, but rather Sony’s new commitment to the e-book market.  They will be carrying the device at 3,000 locations U.S. wide (up from 700 currently), have hired a sales force of 1,000 to give in-store demos, and plan to have 100,000 titles available for download in their digital book store by year’s end.  The device is slated to be available in November, so with Sony’s new marketing position, you can expect to see this around when you’re out shopping this holiday season.

Both of these devices are of course based on electronic ink display technology.  Electronic ink is a ground breaking technology using actual ink particles to display text and graphics on amazingly thin (and even flexible) screens, and the ink particles are controlled by means of the electronics in the device.  It makes for outstanding battery life – the only time power is needed is when you change the page.  You can keep text on the page indefinitely however, without sucking up any more juice.  That means these devices have battery life on the order of days or weeks, rather than hours.  This does means you still need to read under comfortable lighting.  While there have been add-on accessories akin to book lights, the new Sony device brings a built in light to the game (expect battery life to decrease while you’re lighting up your screen.)  Electronic ink displays are black and white only at this time, though the readers out there are getting pretty good at displaying images in grayscale with many shades of gray.

They’re still a niche product – probably because of price – with the current Amazon Kindle clocking in at $349 (no word on pricing of the new version yet), and the Sony device expected to be $399.  This will hopefully change as years pass and electronic ink advances.  Industry experts have been predicting that electronic ink will take over old fashioned paper and ink for years now, but with each new device it seems we’re taking a step closer.  The time is near when Universities will likely mandate or provide these for students, and they’ll be able to carry an entire college career’s worth of textbooks in a single device, with the ability to note-take and annotate as well.  Just think of all the trees we’ll save…

While we’re on the topic of electronic books, I thought I’d give a shoutout to two new software applications I’ve been trying out recently that I’ve found particularly useful.  (Note, my “daily driver” is a MacBook, so these are Mac OS X applications – sorry Windows users!)  More after the jump…

The first is Yep!:

Yep! bills itself as the “iPhoto for PDF.”  I think it’s more like an iTunes for documents… but either way, you get the idea.  Yep! will scour your computer for PDF files, and gather them all in one place, regardless where they are on your hard drive.  It has powerful tagging functionality that allows you to not only find your documents quickly, but can automatically show you which documents are related or similar to the one you’re looking at.  It has search capabilities similar to the already built in OS X Spotlight, and includes a number of ways to organize, categorize, and preview your documents.  My favorite feature (simple but important): it remembers what page you were on, so if you’re reading a document and stop only to come back later, it will open up right to where you’ve left off.  You can try Yep! for free, but the full version will run you $34.

Combine Yep! with a document scanner, and imagine the possibilities.  Take all the paperwork and clutter in your life and turn it digital, allowing you to find anything at the touch of a button.  Imagine being able to check your home theater manual, find an invoice or recipe, check out last year’s water bill, etc, in seconds.  (Remember to back up though!)  There’s dozens of document scanners on the market with some pretty affordable price points these days, so this combination could be a godsend for some folks.  We use a Fujitsu ScanSnap S510M here at the office which will eat a thick stack of papers alive, front and back simultaneously, churning out an indexed and searchable PDF file in a matter of minutes.

Second, we have Audiobook Builder:

This is a super simple to use app that will turn any type of existing audio file, or audio CDs, into “m4b” files.  An m4b file is like a regular AAC audio file, with some extra features thanks to meta-data that can be stored in the file.  An m4b lets you combine multiple files/tracks into one single file that includes markings to delineate chapters.  When played on a supported device, like an iPod, you can then skip around between chapters in a book, view the cover and illustrations in the book, and save your place to pick up listening where you’ve left off.  iTunes and iPods treat these as separate types of media, so you won’t have to worry about transitioning from an upbeat dance tune to chapter 7 of a philosophy book when you’ve got your device on shuffle.  The killer app for me: iPod’s speed feature.  An iPod allows you to speed up playback of m4b audio files by 25%.  Listen to 75 minutes of an audiobook in 60 minutes time.  Don’t worry about the reader sounding like a chipmunk; this is pulled off without changing the pitch of their voice.  (You can also slow down the speed if you’re really trying to absorb the material, but the speech unfortunately sounds a little weird when you do this.)

The speedup feature is pretty little known, and that’s probably because it only works with m4b files.  m4b files are little known, probably because the typical means of acquiring them is to buy commercial audio books through a store like iTunes’.  Audiobook builder bridges that gap and lets you turn anything into an m4b.  Now you can turn any MP3 podcast for example, recorded lectures, radio show recordings, et cetera into an m4b file, and fill your head with 25% more information.

Another plus?  Registering your copy of Audiobook Builder will only set you back $9.95.