If you enjoy reading books and are also in the market for a PDA, Franklin Electronic Publishers believe its new eBookMan is the ideal solution for you.
Franklin’s approach to the electronic book reader market is certainly unique. Rather than developing a relatively cumbersome dedicated reader, or a small-screened PDA that also allows you to read e-books, Franklin opted instead to create a PDA-sized e-book reader with a big screen that can do much more than just read books. The result is the eBookMan, which enables you to play music and audio books, record voice notes, and do all of the standard PIM functions. But the focus of the eBookMan is first and foremost as a reader, targeting the 20% of the U.S. population that buys 80% of all books.
I recently purchased the Franklin eBookMan model EBM-911 (US$229.95), which is the top-of-the-line device with 16MB RAM and a backlit LCD screen. For those of you with more limited needs and budgets, Franklin offers two other eBookMan models: the EBM-900 (US$129.95) and the EBM-901 (US$179.95).
I’ve been using it for a week now and have found it to be a capable book reader, but unfortunately below par when matched against other devices as a PIM or a handheld computer.
So, let’s take a closer look at this interesting new product and see whether it might be the device for you.
What’s in the box?
Here’s what you get with the Franklin eBookMan:
- Franklin eBookMan
- USB synchronization cradle and cable
- Plastic protective fliplid for screen
- Two AAA batteries
- User Guide
Installation and set-up
The eBookMan is the first PDA I’ve used that comes without an operating system or standard software preinstalled. Don’t bother looking around for an installation CD either, you won’t find one. To get started with your new eBookMan, you must first connect to the Internet and download and install the desktop manager software (which takes approximately 20 minutes using a 56kbps modem) from Franklin’s website, then download and install the operating system and software. And depending on which model you buy, you can also downloaded free content and applications.
While this method has its advantages (you’re ensured the most current version of the operating system), it’s certainly not a user-friendly out-of-box experience. That’s surprising from a company like Franklin, which is known for making easy-to-use products for everyday consumers.
So, if you anticipate buying an eBookMan at your local computer or office supply store, popping in the batteries and testing it out in the car before you return home, you’ll be sadly disappointed. You must have an Internet-connected PC at your disposal to get started.
I won’t go into all of the details of the multi-step setup process, but figure on spending up to an hour getting your device ready to go.
Some would say that this approach makes sense; Franklin is positioning the eBookMan as a reader for encrypted content that is sold online. So, having to connect to the Internet as a requirement (one which is plainly stated on the front of the box) seems reasonable
But it just may turn off a lot of consumers.
On the outside
Basically, the eBookMan is about the size of a Palm III, albeit slightly longer and heavier. It weighs in at 6.5 ounces and measures 5.17" x 3.39" x 0.67", giving the eBookMan a somewhat flat appearance. Still, it fits comfortably and securely in your hand, thanks in part to the rubberized trim along its sides and bottom.
Front and back views of the Franklin eBookMan
But the thing you notice most about the eBookMan is its screen. It seems huge, easily larger than any other PDA Screen I’ve used, save for the Newton MessagePad 2100. The eBookMan’s 16-level grayscale screen measures 240 pixels by 200 pixels, compared to your typical Palm screen, which is 160×160.
Unfortunately, while the screen certainly has quantity, it lacks quality. Its reverse backlight (only available on the EBM-911 and EBM-901 models) is good in relative darkness and its reflective screen is good in well-lit places and outdoors, but in low-light conditions the eBookMan’s screen is a struggle to read. As I’ve mentioned in previous Brighthand reviews, black (actually dark gray) text on a green background will never win a readability test in my book. And to make matters worse, if you flip on the backlight you’ll find that you’re draining the batteries at an alarming rate. I got only four and a half hours of battery life with extensive use (including listening to MP3’s) on a cross-country red-eye plane flight with the cabin lights dimmed.
The eBookMan claims that you can record a voice memo, and indeed it has a built-in microphone on the front of the unit. But for the life of me I couldn’t find an application that would allow you to record messages.
There’s also a speaker (on the back) and a headphone jack (on the top).
The USB cradle is quite unique. It connects at the top, rather than the bottom, and is angled less than most PDA cradles. It appears to rest at a 25 degree angle rather than 40 degrees or more like other Palm and Pocket PC cradles. And the cord is built into the cradle.
The eBookMan is somewhat expandable. It has a MultiMedia Card slot on the back (although I’m not fond of the removable door, as these tend to get broken or lost), so you can expand its memory with tiny postage-sized cards.
Or can you?
I quickly discovered, when I tried to use a 32MB SanDisk MMC with it, that the eBookMan only allows unencrypted MP3 files to be stored on the MultiMedia Card. This seems like an incredible oversight that needs immediate addressing.
That’s it on the hardware side. How about the applications?
On the inside
There are a number of things that will prevent the eBookMan from winning the hearts (and wallets) of a lot of potential PDA buyers.
Let’s start with the operating system. The Franklin eBookMan uses a proprietary operating system from Franklin that claims to be multi-tasking. But try listening to an MP3 music file while reading an e-book and you’ll soon discover that it can’t be done.
Overall, the eBookMan is slow in launching applications for the first time and after that it is only average when it comes to performance.
Next, while you can use a soft on-screen keyboard for entering information, a big selling point is the eBookMan’s natural handwriting recognition. But does this means that you can just start writing anywhere on the screen like a Pocket PC? No. The eBookMan’s handwriting application, ART’s simpliWrite, requires you to write in the handwriting area at the bottom of the screen. And it’s not so natural either. It took me a couple of days to get used to its idiosyncracies.
Another issue involves syncing. The eBookMan’s desktop software uses Intellisync for synchronization with Microsoft Outlook and includes the ability to drag-and-drop files from your PC to your eBookMan. Very nice. However, while Palm and Pocket PC have simple ways to synchronize (for Palm, you pop the device in the cradle and push the sync button; for Pocket PC, you simply pop the device in the cradle and it automatically syncs), the eBookMan forces you to launch the desktop app to sync. Not very user-friendly.
But one of the biggest disappointments with the eBookMan came when I tried to use my 32MB SanDisk MMC card in it. Since the OS and basic apps take up almost half of the RAM, it seemed a necessity if you want to carry around several books, reference manuals and music. But as I mentioned earlier, the only content you can currently store on the MMC card is unencrypted MP3 files. This makes the slot next to useless, at least until Franklin offers a software fix for this.
Finally, if you’re considering the eBookMan for playing MP3’s, don’t bother. The sound quality using the included Music Player app is poor, overwhelmed by non-stop hissing. This affects listening to Audible audio content as well.
On the positive side, the user interface is simple and easy-to-use. The launcher lets you launch programs, songs and documents, which are shown as icons and can be sorted and filtered using categories. There’s also a battery indicator at the bottom left that accurately displays the juice left in your device.
The menu icon on the touchpad displays a list of commonly used settings and a few additional settings can be adjusted from the My eBookMan control panel. There’s a file manager app that lists all of the files in the eBookMan (not on the MultiMediaCard, however) and allows you to view details about them and even delete them.
As far as bundled applications, there’s a basic calculator, a full-featured address book, a ToDo book, a Date Book, a Memo Book, an MP3 player, Franklin Viewer, Franklin Reader, and a couple of games.
The two feature apps are Franklin Viewer and Franklin Reader. Franklin Viewer is a small application that displays HTML, text and Palm .pdb files. Franklin Reader displays Franklin-formatted eBooks only. Some publishers offer these eBooks for free, others offer them for online purchase. The Franklin encryption system ties them to your device based on its serial number, so you can only read it on your device.
Microsoft Reader software for the eBookMan is not yet available.
There is a Software Developers Kit (SDK) for the eBookMan that allows third-party developers to create free and commercial ebooks, either protected (i.e. encrypted and tied to the serial number of a single device) or unprotected. And there is a Content Development Kit (CDK) that enables you to convert content to the Franklin Reader format, but it’s a complex and confusing process.
Overall, the eBookMan is a solidly built device built around the concept of downloadable pay-to-play content. But its low-price, big screen and solid feel did not make up for its shortcomings, of which there were several.
Maybe Franklin can correct the flaws and release the ebook reader we’d all imagined and hoped for. I can’t wait for eBookMan II.