American College of Physicians: Internal Medicine — Doctors for Adults ®

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Electronic books you can read on the train—or the couch

From the March 1999 ACP-ASIM Observer, copyright 1999 by the American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine.

During lunch breaks and at the end of the day, Catherine A. Henry, FACP, frequently goes to textbooks on the Web like Harrison's Online and MD Consult to look up patient information. Dr. Henry, a general internist at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and president-elect of the American Medical Women's Association, likes being able to tap into medical textbooks whenever a computer is nearby, and she likes knowing she has easy access to the most recent clinical data.

What she doesn't like, however, is that she must usually be glued to a computer screen, which means sitting at a desk, to read the text. One of the biggest downsides of electronic textbooks, Dr. Henry said, "is that you can't curl up on the couch with them."

It's a common complaint: Reading long texts on a computer screen is uncomfortable, which is why most people simply print them out and read them on paper. Slowly, however, a number of vendors are coming out with new devices known as E-books that promise to combine the huge amounts of data offered by paperless text with the ease of reading offered by print books.

E-books allow online readers to enlarge text, underline entire pages with the touch of a finger and add notes and drawings to the text. Users can either buy electronic versions of print books to read on the devices, or they can download text from a Web site and view it on the machine.

While only four E-books have been introduced, two are expected to be of interest of physicians. (The other two are designed for beach-reading material, not lengthy medical text.) Both aim to replace the technical books and journals that professionals like physicians currently carry around—and allow users to curl up on the couch while they pore through electronic textbooks and journals.

SoftBook (www.softbook.com) weighs 2.9 pounds and displays text on an eight-by-six inch black and white screen. The unit is basically a flat tablet with a switch that allows users to move from one page to another, much like you would turn the page. You can make notes in the text using an electronic stylus. Units with extra memory can store up to 100,000 pages of text, pictures and graphics, the equivalent of about 250 books.

SoftBook is also working with publishers to make textbooks and journals available electronically. Users can either buy electronic titles directly from the company or download information from publishers' Web sites. SoftBook sells for $299 if you agree to purchase $19.95 worth of material a month for two years, or $599 if you buy it outright.

Another product that may attract the attention of physicians is Everybook's EB Dedicated Reader (www.everybk.com). The device, which weighs 3.7 pounds, lets users view two color pages of text at a time. To choose a title or turn the page, you simply touch various parts of the screen. The EB Dedicated Reader boasts that it is the only E-book that displays text exactly as it appears in print versions.

The device can hold 500,000 pages, or the equivalent of about 1,000 books, on each removable memory card. The model aimed at professionals costs about $1,500; a $1,000 version that will be aimed at students is scheduled to be on the market later this year. Users can buy electronic titles from the Everybook's Web site.

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