I’ve had a chance to test two different eBook reader devices recently thanks to my friend, Paul Klipp. He is a fan of e-readers and has been trying to “convert” me for some time. Finally, he he gave me his two readers to try them out.

I did get the FoxIt’s eSlick first and I immediately liked it. The device is very light and therefore easy to carry around. It supports SD cards, but has enough internal memory to hold dozens of books. It connects to any computer with a standard USB cable and is visible as a USB drive, so it is easy to manage books stored on it on any operating system. And of course it loads its batteries from USB too.

But what I liked most about eSlick was its display – very crisp and paper-like, with characters clearly rendered in a very print-like manner. It was a pleasure to read in any light and I did read a lot over those few days I had it.

I tried it with some books and articles I had on my computer in PDF form, but I was mostly reading Peter Schiff’s “Crash Proof” which I have in both electronic and paper form. I was able to get a hundred pages further into this great book within just a few days – while the paper version has been collecting dust on my bookshelf for some time now. The reason is simple – eSlick is lighter and smaller than even this one book and therefore so much easier to carry around and get those quick reads while waiting for a bus, taking a break from work etc.

However, eSlick did have one annoying quirk with advancing pages. The device has just a few buttons (probably to reduce costs) and they are laid out in such a way that only the biggest square selector button is comfortable to use. This main button also serves the purpose of advancing pages – again, not very comfortable but enough to serve its purpose. However, the problem was the device was like falling “asleep” during the time it took me to read a whole page of my book. When usually just one press got me to next page after reading through it I had to tap the button a couple of times to get any reaction. This was distracting, because I had to mentally disengage from reading and keep on looking at the LED at the top of the device while taping the button to see when I’ll get the device to react. And it also did hang badly a few times – once I had to press simultaneously reset and power buttons to get it back to life.

Also, eSlick can only do PDF and text. And it can’t handle password-protected PDFs, so my attempt to read my copy of the PMI PMBOK failed with “corrupted file” error message.

But even with all those quirks and limitations I was starting to like the idea of having an e-reader after those couple days with the eSlick. So, when Paul handed me his Sony PRS 505 I expected an even better experience. After all Sony has been into ereaders for some time now and PRS 505 is a very popular reader.

The PRS 505 is much sturdier than eSlick thanks to its metal casing and – frankly – has a way better design. It is also significantly heavier. Keys are laid out in a way that makes it much easier to operate even with one hand and the navigation software is also superior to eSlick’s. However, I was utterly disappointed with it.

First, the display is much worse than eSlick’s, which was a surprise as it is based on the very same e-ink technology and I think made by the same company. While eSlick’s screen was crisp and sharp Sony’s looked dull and grey. The background was light grey and characters dark grey – not black on white paper-like display of the FoxIt’s reader.

But even worse, the Sony’s software can’t handle PDFs properly and above all fails utterly at zooming in any format maybe except plain text.

Only after trying PRS 505 I was able to appreciate way eSlick handled PDFs – and especially zooming in on them. eSlick zoom is what you expect it to be: when you zoom in it is the same page, laid out in exactly same way, with same typeface, same diagrams, pictures and sidebars only bigger. Not so with Sony – there zoom means reflow, that is a crude attempt at extracting plain text from the file and displaying it with built-in fonts. So on my “Crash Proof” PDF I had the option of either trying to decipher minutely small print of the 100% zoom or suffer with the reflowed version, without diagrams, with sidebars text just messed up with the main text etc.

Paul suggested that Sony’s zoom may work better on books from Sony’s ebook store which are specifically optimized for the device, so I tried “The back of the napkin” which Paul had on the device (great book BTW, will have to read it one day). Again, zoom failed miserably – while it zoomed text nicely it completely failed to zoom the images, so again it was hard to decipher them – and in this book they are quite an important part. Maybe there is a way to zoom them that I was unable to find, but certainly not by just pressing the zoom button as one would expect.

So, for those two reasons I didn’t read much on the Sony and in fact look forward to giving it back to Paul to get rid of it. To my utter surprise eSlick offered an overall better experience, especially thanks to its way superior display and better PDF handling. If they only fix the software glitch with advancing to new page I think I would be happy with it. In any case even as is it’s the clear winner in this comparison.

Also, after considering it I think that I like some design decisions Foxit made to keep eSlick reader simple. The fact that it handles only PDFs and not dozens of ebook formats like other readers maybe a very good design decision – after all almost anything can be converted to PDF and it is definitely the most popular format for books, articles – any written material other than web pages. The fact that it doesn’t have connectivity means you are kind of forced to focus on reading and are not tempted to browse the web, check blogs or download new content as would be the case with other readers.

Overall Paul did succeed to converti me to the idea of having an ereader and I think I’ll be buying one myself pretty soon. I’d just love to test hands-on (or, rather, eyes-on) the BeBook before I finally decide.

Anyone out there willing to lend me one for a week? :)