Not even a die-hard computernik likes to curl up in bed with hardware. But two companies want you to do just that. They produce what are essentially read-only devices in book-like form.

SoftBook Press Inc. and NuvoMedia Inc. initially targeted the consumer market. Now both are actively touting their products to government and business. The two companies say they believe -- correctly, in my opinion -- that specialized computers optimized for downloading and displaying text could be useful for carrying around documents such as the Federal Acquisition Regulation, aircraft documentation -- you name it.

As computer hardware, SoftBook Press's SoftBook and NuvoMedia's Rocket eBook have elegant but flawed designs that do a couple of things really well. Each also has software to translate your documents into proprietary format for distribution to other users of electronics. Don't confuse either product with a notebook computer or oversized personal organizer.

When I brought home the SoftBook for a long weekend, friends and neighbors who held it were generally awed and didn't want to give it back. The tablet measures an inch thick at the left edge, tapering to a half-inch thick at the right. It comes fitted with a thick leather flap that protects its vertical, monochrome LCD display.

With the flap closed, you carry the SoftBook around like, well, a book. The wide spine rests comfortably in your hand. Flipping the flap back automatically turns on the unit.

Controls are as minimal as on a 3Com Corp. Palm computer. Three flush tabs along the top activate the menu, close the book and display its cover page, and return you to the main menu. A long, two-way rocker switch along the right edge turns pages back and forth. Two tiny thumbwheels control screen brightness and contrast. Each page displays as in a book, with no scrolling.

The SoftBook has a stylus that you use to jump rapidly to a particular page or to navigate to selected words or phrases.

Also included is handwriting-capture software you can use to annotate anywhere on the page.

The SoftBook has one of the best displays I've ever seen, bright and sharp with even illumination corner to corner, though its reflective surface can be tricky in bright ambient light or under fluorescent lights.

My main complaint about SoftBook is about its weight. At 3 pounds 1.2 ounces, it's heavier by 8 ounces than my copy of David Herbert Donald's 714-page biography of Abraham Lincoln. Much of the weight comes from the lithium-ion battery that powers the SoftBook for nearly five hours, longer than for most notebook computers.

SoftBook is also rather large, but whether it is too big is a matter of taste. Its display type is larger than that of the Rocket eBook, and it stores 1,500 pages in its standard 2 megabytes of memory. With optional flash-memory expansion cards, you can store up to 50,000 pages.

A Smaller Alternative

If SoftBook is equivalent in size and weight to a hardcover book, the 22-ounce Rocket eBook is the paperback. Shipped in a thick leather case, Rocket eBook measures 7.75 inches by 4.75 inches. Its grip edge is 1.5 inches thick, tapering to about 0.75 inches. The viewing area measures 3 inches by 4.25 inches and is surrounded by a narrow frame with navigation icons that you tap, like SoftBook's, with a built-in stylus.

NuvoMedia says the eBook can store 4,000 pages of text.

Although it's as sharp as SoftBook's, eBook's screen has less contrast even in backlighted mode. You can switch off the backlighting to double battery life to a claimed 40 hours, but that makes lengthy text as difficult to read as on a Palm.

You navigate eBook page by page using two thumb-activated buttons. Despite its dimmer screen, I preferred eBook's form because the page-turn buttons are on the thick end -- the one you hold it with. SoftBook's page bar is on the right, but you hold it with your left hand, making it a less convenient, two-handed device.

One nifty feature of the Rocket eBook is that, with a couple of bangs of the stylus, you can flip the type around for right-handed control. The navigation icons are designed to be read upside down, as it were. Being left-handed, I appreciated this feature. A company spokesman said one of the machine's designers is left-handed and insisted on it.

One eBook drawback concerns navigation. Whereas Softbook assigns a page number to each screen, eBook's stylus-activated slider bar lets you move only to a specific percentage, from beginning to end of the text.

A better way to navigate both devices is to annotate text you might want to return to and then search for the annotation, or simply use a keyword search. Both units' software includes a pop-up keyboard where you can tap out the word or phrase to which you want to bounce.

One annoying eBook characteristic was the insensitive touch screen. I had to tap so hard with the stylus I was afraid of cracking the glass. That eliminated using its software keyboard. I had to tap so hard, it was difficult to choose the letters precisely. In contrast, SoftBook's screen was highly sensitive, and because the unit is twice as big as eBook's, tapping out a phrase was easy and sure. Company representatives said the eBook's problem may have been specific to my test unit.

Downloading books into eBook requires an Internet-connected PC. EBook comes with a cradle to connect to a serial port; a USB (universal serial bus) version is available for Apple Macintosh users. SoftBook Press operates a Web site for downloading published books. You connect the built-in SoftBook modem to a phone line, and it automatically connects you to the Web site.

But what about publishing your company's own material? Unlike computers, electronic books don't simply store files that you can read. To build a book for display, you must first convert the document text to clean hypertext markup language and transform any images to JPEG, GIF or BMP files. You then use software supplied with each reader to convert and, optionally, compress and encrypt documents to prepare them for downloading. Encryption is machine-specific, meaning the files can be read only by the specific machines you want. An authorized user of an encrypted document cannot share it with an unauthorized user, short of handing over the machine.

I didn't test the book-making software, dubbed RocketLibrarian for the eBook and BookMill for the SoftBook. But there is an important difference: With the SoftBook system, once you create a book you must upload it to the SoftBook Press Web site for downloading to readers.

With RocketLibrarian, you can publish right from your PC and, shortly, your Mac, or from your organization's Web site.

Ironically, the electronic book format will probably be more useful as a data-distribution and reading device than as a consumer-oriented book holder. A whole summer's reading could fit into either model I tested, but both are expensive and lack book features that the online frenzy tends to ignore. The spatial orientation of paper leaves makes the spine-bound book one of the greatest user interfaces of all time.

Although I prefer SoftBook's more refined interface, navigation tools and slightly better readability, I give the overall nod to Rocket eBook for its compactness, better ergonomics and value.


Manufacturer: SoftBook Press

Weight: 3 lbs., 1 oz.

Capacity: 1,500 pages

Price: $599

Rocket EBook

Manufacturer: Nuvo Media

Weight: 1 lb., 6 oz.

Capacity: 4,000 pages

Price: $349