L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

Bookeen Cybook Review

Bookeen Cybook Library ViewI've had my NAEB delivered Bookeen Cybook for a week now. Enough I think to write a review that is slightly better than "shiny".

First comment. If you are European you are stronly recommended to buy from the NAEB store rather than direct from Bookeen because with the current weakness of the US$ you save a LOT. Choosing the cheaper USPS shipping rate I paid NAEB US$403.80 for my Cybook which works out at €256.00 at current exchange rates. Adding the €57.15 duty I had to pay the French customs we have a total of €313.15.

By comparison if I attempt to buy a base Cybook (and the NAEB package is closer to the deluxe Cybook) for postal shipment in France then the price is €358.30 which works out at €45 (or about 15%) more. Given that the deluse pack is €450 (plus shipping) and NAEB doesn't include the spare battery (€44.95) the actual price of the NAEB package if shipped from Bookeen would be over €400. In other words
In fact if you buy now you are even more strongly recommended to buy via NAEB because Bookeen are sold out for new orders right now!

Getting started and setup

OK commercial break over, back to the product review. The first thing you notice when you pull the Cybook out of its box is that it is thin, and, for a piece of electronics, remarkably light. Breadth and length are between a mass market paperback and a trade paperback, but if it were a book it would be a slim 100 page book as opposed to the more usual 250+ although the weight is closer to that of the standard paperback. For reference it is just too big to fit in most of my pockets but I do have some coats and jackets that it fits in. I say for reference because I sincerely doubt I personally would want to put it in a pocket anyway, especially because the NAEB package includes a neat leather carrying case (see photo above and click on it to enlarge) which I'm using all the time.

Bookeen Cybook booting upWhen you switch it on the Cybook takes about 20 seconds to boot up before showing you your library screen (boot screen to the left). If you had been reading a book then that book is highlighted but the Cybook doesn't automatically reopen the book. Pressing the big square navigation button does reopen the book and return you to where you were before.

The Cybook has a number of buttons on the sides as well as the power button on the top. Also on the top is the SD card slot. Some users have reported that the SD card included in the NAEB package does not work out of the box with the Cybook. I have no idea whether mine did or not because the first thing I did was stick in my laptop and format it as FAT32. Other people have reported that inserting the SD card into its slot in the reader is tricky. There are two potential issues. Firstly the card is inserted "back to front" and if you don't realise that card has to be put in with the label towards the bottom of the Cybook you can struggle a lot trying to make it go the other way. Secondly you have to insert the card slightly further in than the edge of the Cybook for it to catch the retaining mechanism which is an action that is easier to perform if you have long fingernails. However the benefit of this requirement is that the card remains flush with the Cybook when inserted and hence hard to accidentally eject. No doubt some users will have multiple SD cards that they wish to use but I personally expect to stick to just one and thus I anticipate leaving the card in the reader more or less permanently.

On the bottom right hand corner a rubber cover blocks the USB port and the headphone jack. The USB port is not only a way to get content onto the Cybook, it is also the only way to recharge its battery. If the reader is switced off but connected to a computer using the USB port it automatically draws power to charge the battery and while it does the the little LED at the top right (hidden by the leather cover) turns red. If you switch the Cybook on with the USB cable attached the LED turns yellow and it appears as two external USB drives to the computer - one is the internal flash memory of the reader and the other is the SD card.

If you have a windows PC with a recent version of Mobipocket Reader installed then when you do this and start up Mobipocket it automatically detects the Cybook and offers to sync data. I did this once but, unless I buy some DRM crippled mobipocket books I doubt I will bother doing it again because as far as I could see the syncing only used the internal flash memory, which about 50MB spare space, as opposed to the SD card with 2GB. If you decide to simply copy content onto the SD card manually the only catch is that you may have to create the eBooks, Music and Pictures directories manually first and copy content to those three locations as appropriate.

My first customization was to copy my favourite Palatino Linotype font on to the Cybook. This went into the fonts directory on the internal drive but it wasn't recognized until I had deleted the file /system/.fonts.cache-1 (note this is a hidden file under Linux) and then rebooted the Cybook.

The Cybook in use as a reader

Bookeen Cybook - closeup of the eink screen Bookeen Cybook and real paper indoors Bookeen Cybook and real paper in the sun
So enough with setup. How about using it to read things? Quick answer - its great. The contrast and resolution are magnificent - see pictures above. The screen resembles glossy magazine paper in its shineyness but the contrast is somewhat worse - a little worse that a newspaper I think. Furthermore the reader is usable in all the same light conditions as paper so while you won't be reading it in the dark without a light you can read it in full sunlight, which you can't do with most LCD displays as the photo below illustrates.
Bookeen Cybook and Asus Eee in the sun Bookeen Cybook and Asus Eee indoors
Indoors the difference is less obvious (see other photo) but still the contrast, and the utter stillness, of the eink display make it far superior for reading. The only complaint I have is that there seems to be no way to modify the line spacing, which seems to be fixed to a fairly generous 1.5 lines. For a fast readed like me it would be nice to cram a few more lines onto a page.

The square button at the bottom is used for most navigation and control and I found it to be almost intuitive both while browsing the library and in the reading. The buttons on the left edge can be used for a few additional commands as described in the manual but I have found that I rarely need to use them. The only complaint I have, and it is one that I have seen others make, is that sometimes the page down press doesn't register and you have to press it again. Allegedly this gets easier over time and it isn't really a big deal. As for text size, I started off using quite a large font but I have reduced the font size a couple of times since as I have realized that I really don't need the large print. I'm currently reading in what I think is 12 point (though it might be 10), a size comparable to most paperback books. The Cybook at this resolution gets some 30 lines to the page (and could get 40 if the spacing were altered) and over 10 words per line. This is a little less than the average book page but not massively so. I have no idea what the actual battery life is - even playing music (see separate section) I have yet to get the battery below 70% before I plug it back into a computer to copy something else onto it.

I have, for the most part, been reading professionally prepared mobipocket books on the Cybook. These display very well indeed. I have also read some plain text (from Project Gutenberg), tried to read a Plucker format (failed - obviously not a "PalmDoc" format supported by the Cybook) and a few PDFs, the latter primarily for test purposes. The gutenberg plain text with linebreaks illustrates the advantage of a reflowable format very clearly as, well, it doesn't reflow and
hence you have
oddly spaced lines with orphan words on the
line below
PDF display is mostly good - for regular PDFs, although PDFs with colour tend to lose all the colour details. PDFs which consist entirely of scanned images of pages do not display properly - the scanned images seem to be too big to fit on the page and are not rescaled correctly. However PDFs of powerpoint presentations can be displayed in landscape mode and (assuming a limited amount of colour) look very good. The only gotcha is when the background and text are in different colours that get mapped to the same greyscale on the Cybook...

I have only tried displaying one HTML page on the Cybook so I cannot comment on its HTML support beyond a very basic level which is just fine. I expect it to be acceptable for static HTML but probably unable to support more complex stuff. The HTML I read was a cut and paste (removing hyperlinks and junk) from this version of the Greek New Testament. To my extreme pleasure the Cybook correctly displayed all the greek characters including the accents, breathings and iota subscripts while using Palatino Linotype (a font that includes these characters). I'm not sure whether Asian Characters (Kanji etc.) are supported and I can't quite be bothered to check but it seems likely that they will be if the right fonts are installed. One clear omission is the lack of support for RTF. RTF files have to be converted into HTML or Mobi format - this isn't a big deal but it is a bit irritating.

Using the Library

Bookeen Cybook Shadow ImageIf I have one gripette about day to day use it is the library. First problem is that the library screens include all music and still pictures as well as books in one list by default although you can hide them. This is silly, especially since the Cybook has to render a blank graphic for the music - a graphic which, BTW, occasionally illustrates one problem with the screen - ghosts from previous images. This is not a hardware issue because the ghosts go away when the Cybook is switched off and on and when you start reading, but in the Library the cover images sometimes seem to overlay previous cover images as in this image. I think it is simply an issue wth the library not blanking the screen properly between pages.

The second problem is that even in my prefered 20 items per page layout you quickly end up with a lot of pages. I have over 300 Baen ebooks as well as a dozen or so non-Baen books which works out at around 20 pages - and of course the books will not necessatily be sorted in any sensible order (the ordering choices Title, Path, Date, Size are only moderately useful). I would prefer to be able to have a folder structure that I could collapse and expand and, ideally, I'd prefer to have a library document (that I could create manually if need be) which would display my books in the order and categories I want. Hence I am, for the moment, simply downloading a selection of books and expecting to replace them with others later.

When playing Music, the Cybook displays the musc part of the library in a text only format. I would think it ought to be possible to display books in that format too and I would prefer that as I expect one could get a lot more book per page. It should be possible for Bookeen to publish some sort of library API so that third party developers could create alternative library views including categization, sorting by author / series and so on.

Comparison with the eee

Since I have an Asus eee and have read a number of ebooks on the eee it is worth comparing the two. Actually there isn't really any comparison. The eee is a great computer and you can read ebooks on it in a variety of formats (HTML, mobi, PDF etc.) and you get a roughly comparable number of words per screen on it's little LCD screen. But so what? Battery life on the eee is 3 hours if you're lucky and the screen is almost unusable outdoors. Further more the eee is a little bit bulkier and not as easy to carry around the house with you. I find myself taking the Cybook into the kitchen with me when I want to make a cup of tea and I read on it in bed. I wouldn't think of doing either of those things with the eee. Of course the eee costs less than the Cybook and can do a lot more so if I had to pick one device it would probably be the eee.

One clear advantage that the eee has is that it is possible to organize one's ebook library in the way one wishes. I have a HTML page that has all by ebooks sorted by author, another that has (some of) them by series/universe and I've been thinking about adding other versions too. I can't do that on the Cybook without a great deal of effort and probably have multiple copies of books in different folders for those books by multiple authors etc.

I am however using the eee to download books on to the Cybook. This works very well. I expect that the eee/Cybook combo is going to be what travels with me most of the time. Between them I will be able to do just about everything I used to do with my regular laptop but they are considerably more portable.

Playing Music

If you wish to play music it really really makes sense to sort library content by path and to have copied the MP3 files into separate directories within the Music subdirectory. Otherwise what happens is that the music played is track 01-abc.mp3 then track 01-def.mp3 and so on (or if sorted by size from shortest to longest). Apart from the randomization caused by listing the tracks in a non-sensible order there is no shuffle capability which is a pity, the player starts at the track selected and continues sequentially. The Music section is the area that seems to weakest and I probably won't use it much - it's a nice to have for travelling but not a must have and the manual states that it severely impacts the battery life (you get ~3 hours with music apparently). Playing Music led to my identifying two problems in addition the lack of shuffle. The first one is a hardware one, the earphone jack seems a bit sensitive to precisely how you insert it into the socket. When not quite correct you get either the left ear or the right ear only. Wiggling the jack solves the problem until you accidentally wiggle it again.
Bookeen Cybook Screen Bug Bookeen Cybook Screen Bug
Worse however is a screen display issue where, as the two pictures above show the music list gets confused about where it should put things on the screen. Bookeen Cybook Screen BugThe first time it happened it was not something I thought was a big deal as it did not seem to affect anything but the music menu. However the second time it happened, I discovered that it was not quite so benign. When I returned to reading my book I discovered that the misplaced bits of screen were partially displayed in the book as the image to the right shows.  Numerous page refreshes failed to clear the screen so this is clearly a display bug. I am raising a support trouble ticket with Bookeen about this.

The good news is that this screen issue disappeared when I stopped listening to music and powered the reader off. I can't say whether just stopping listening to the music cleared it because what happened was that I stopped the music, went off to do something and came back to discover that the Cybook had auto-powered off.


The eInk display technology is magnificent and the Cybook's support for multiple open formats means that it is the perfect reader for someone like me. The gripes I have (and the bug I found) should all be fixable with a software upgrade and none of them seriously impacts my ability to read. The battery life, size and the speed of power up means that this reader is perfect for travelling, you can read it while standing in line for security theatre and expect to have just the one device for the entire trip. With a suitable font, the Cybook seems able to display any text which is impressive and means that the Cybook can be used by people from all over the world not just Europe and America. It may in fact be possible to download foriegn dictionaries and phrasebooks onto it which would be a further boon for the traveller. My hope is that Bookeen will open up the interface a bit so that third parties (e.g. me) can create alternative library displays and other add ons that would enhance the reader and build a community. If they don't manage to build a loyal community of users then the hardware will no doubt become commoditized (it already appears to be available here) and Bookeen as a company will go bust.