The best e-reader for Manga?
As both a lover of gadgets and a reader of manga (Japanese comics), e-readers have always appealed to me. A quick search online for the best e-reader for manga however, often brings up the same complaints, the screens are too small and zooming plus scrolling is frustrating. The JetBook Color however has all the makings of a perfect manga reader; huge screen, high resolution, and even color! Can a device primarily aimed at the educational market actually provide what we dream for though? Let’s see…
Starting off with the physical design, while the box and website show a black JetBook, at the time of writing (Feb 29th 2012) only the white version is available. That’s a shame because the actual e-ink screen is quite dark, and it seems even darker with a bright white surround. Overall though, the device feels very solid and well built, with the exception of the roughly cut “JetBook” sticker on the top. I particularly like the textured back of the unit, which unlike the rear of all metal or plastic e-readers, adds some real grip.
The unit itself is quite heavy, weighing in at 662g (23.4 ounces). Taking its size into account too, this isn’t something to hold with just one hand like any 6” e-reader. The dimensions are 188 x 270 x 11.5mm (roughly 7.4 x 10.6 x 0.5 inches). To compare, 2009’s Kindle DX is 183 x 264 x 9.6mm, and 540g (18.9 ounces). That’s almost the same physical size, but nearly 20% lighter. For reference, the iPad 2 comes between them, at 600g (1.33lbs) but with a smaller design of 186 x 241 x 8.8mm (7.3 x 9.5 x 0.34 inches).
Screen wise, each of those three devices mentioned share a 9.7” screen. Where they vary is in the resolution. The iPad 2 has 1024 x 768, the Kindle DX steps it up with 1200 x 824, but the JetBook Color packs a whopping 1600 x 1200 pixels in its screen. This makes it, by a huge amount, the highest resolution e-reader ever produced. No doubt the iPad 3 will put that to shame this week, but that’s an LCD screen, not e-ink. To put this into perspective, the JetBook Color has nearly the same overall number of pixels as a Full HD TV, only tightly packed into a sub 10” screen.
That high resolution screen is a winner when it comes to reading manga. Without having to zoom or scroll, you can comfortably read even small text on the pages. I never felt like it would be nice to zoom a little closer, or make things a bit sharper. This is a relief, because zooming around a PDF is anything but ‘zooming’. Having to refresh the entire screen with each button press as you scroll around is just agonizingly painful. With e-ink’s slow refresh rate, scrolling simply isn’t practical, but furthermore since you have to use the arrow keys instead of the touch screen, what once seemed a cutting edge piece of technology suddenly feels like something that belongs in the early 1990’s.
For those few who do try the zoom feature, an odd quirk is that the menu button only works when you zoom out, not in. But let’s just be thankful once again for the high resolution 9.7” screen, and never touch that zoom again. And that is why we don’t read manga on a 6” screen.
Images (jpg, gif, bmp) seem to respond better to zooming at first, with the up and down arrows giving you quick zoom control. Then you realize that you can’t pan around the image unless you go into the menu and enable panning mode, which of course takes the zoom feature away from the arrow keys. It’s back into the menu yet again to change the amount of zoom. Then, after you’re all done, it resets itself when you go to the next image. Sadly, so does rotating the image to landscape, which is an option with images (but not PDFs). Considering the $500 price tag, it’s a shame it doesn’t automatically detect which way you’re holding it and rotate things for you. Especially given that the included case, which turns into a stand, is a landscape one. As all the menus are stuck in a vertical direction, a case that turns into a horizontal stand seems like an odd choice and won’t get much use.
If you’ve ever used an e-ink screen before, you’ll know you can sometimes see a faint after-image of the previous page. How much of an after-image seems to vary between e-readers and whether the screen fully or partially refreshed. A partial refresh, where only the part that changed is refreshed, is great for menus as you move your cursor around, but seems to worsen the after-image problem.
From what I’ve seen of the Kindle, the after-image effect seems a bit stronger on the JetBook Color, but generally as you’re reading, it’s not a problem. It just spoils the view as you look at the cover, seeing a faint imprint of the book selection menu across the image. Again though, rarely did I think this was a problem while actually reading manga. The full screen mode is a handy option for manga readers, and if you’re resizing images, you know exactly 1600 pixels high will produce the sharpest results.
The JetBook Color’s claim to fame is of course, in its name. Despite the brightly colored images you’ll find of it on some websites though, e-ink colors are quite pale and dull. That’s just the nature of the technology, without a back light to brighten up those colors. Understanding that, what color it does add is a fantastic step forward to e-ink based e-readers. Even though it’s more of a touch of color, it makes a big difference over the usual grayscale images. In fact it makes me wish more manga was produced in color. To get the best out of the color display, view it outdoors under some good strong sunlight. Outdoors, where the iPad struggles, the JetBook Color shines.
Above: JetBook Color vs a regular LCD screen
Storage wise, with 1.6gb of usable on-board memory, you’ll quickly want to get a MicroSD card to hold more manga. With support for up to 32gb, this is a giant advantage over the Kindle DX. Amazon’s reader includes 4gb of storage, 3.3gb of which is usable, and no option to add more.
Navigating through your content can be done either with the buttons below the screen, or through the stylus (no finger touch support). When you remove the stylus from the unit, an icon automatically changes to enable stylus control. I guess (but can’t confirm) this is because it disables the touch screen when the stylus isn’t in use, and saves power.
Below: Color vs B&W, sorry about the distorted photos I took
Working in a retail store where I see Kindle’s come in with broken screens every so often, I’m nervous to jab at this display with a piece of plastic. The tip does have some give on it, but unlike the iPad which has a layer of glass over the screen, e-ink readers leave the screen exposed.
The menus are simple and intuitive enough. With such a large screen, it would have been nice to fit more titles on each page, but as they are the menus do work fine. When moving your cursor, it can feel slow because of the slow refresh rate, but you can actually press the arrow keys multiple times and it’ll jump to where you wanted to go. A handy bar to the right of each file shows you how far through you are, and thankfully it remembers which page you’re up to in all documents even after a restart.
You’ll probably want to disable the auto-off timer, given that the reader takes 30 seconds to boot up. Given that e-ink should only use power when changing and that there’s a physical wi-fi on/off switch, I’m not quite sure why such an option even exists.
With its 800Mhz CPU, it took a full 10 seconds to load a 110mb PDF file, and 4 seconds to load each page as I read through it. To compare, a small 10mb PDF file took 6 seconds to load, and about 3 seconds to load each page. A typical 250kb JPG image was fairly speedy at roughly 2 seconds to load.
Overall the JetBook Color feels like a prototype that the brass forced out the door well before it was finished. This is quite likely not far from the truth. Many of the listed features, such as wi-fi and a web browser, simply aren’t here. The box comes with a sticker on it stating that updated software will add more features on March 1st and April 1st. The first update adds these features: http://ectaco-global.blogspot.co.nz/...or-update.html
So we assume the April one will enable Wi-Fi and the browser. After that, I look forward to seeing how well reading manga online works.
Running Windows CE instead of Android, and not being one of the very top few brands, I’m not sure the chances of someone hacking and creating their own software for this device are very high. So here’s hoping those two firmware upgrades do add what was promised. Other things need fixing too, like the Time Zone option being in Russian. I found a very unusual bug myself too; if your folder has a dash in it in it, JPG images inside that folder will only load as a blank screen.
Despite its flaws though, the JetBook Color does a genuinely good job as a manga reader considering it’s not aimed at that market. If you are after a very high resolution e-ink reader with color, this is your only choice right now, but no doubt more options will appear later this year. If you’re after a very smooth, polished device to use however, do yourself a favour and stick with paper books for just one more year or so. If you have $500 to spend today though, and you won’t mind buying a new e-reader next year (I’m sure whatever improvements the next 12 months will bring will be enough to temp us into upgrading from this first-gen feel product), you’ll be reading your manga in style, and you’ll probably be able to impress your friends too. Perhaps wait until the black version actually hits the market though.