An e-book reader as a mobile research library?

Is an e-book reader a suitable tool for carrying your research library with you? Like most scientists, I have a large collection of research papers (as PDF files) and want to have them with me, so that can read when I'm on the bus, in a café, waiting for a lecture to start, or in the evening in bed. At conferences or meetings, I often want to look up details or show a figure to a colleague. Here are my experiences using an e-book reader: in short, it didn't work. Instead, an inexpensive tablet computer is a better choice.

What a scientist needs

Before I detail my experiences, let me make clear that this is not a review of any particular e-book reader, and I'm not going to express an opinion on the advantages or disadvantages of e-books or printed books in general. I'm writing about the specific needs of researchers in the hope that it is helpful to other scientists who consider buying a reader. When I was shopping for one, I found plenty of reviews about the technical quality of different devices as well as the systems for buying and downloading e-books.

However, only few reviews mentioned the specific needs of researchers who work with PDFs from research journals rather than e-books. I have hundreds of papers, and I often read several at the same time to compare their findings. Even within each article, I rarely read them linearly from the beginning to the end like a novel, but have to jump backwards and forwards to compare text to figures or find some details that were mentioned earlier. I assume that many researchers will use the literature in a similar pattern.

I am not looking to replace my office computer. For studying important papers in detail and other serious literature work, it is still much more efficient to sit at a desk with a big screen, possibly with printouts of the papers, and the ability to take extensive notes both on computer and on paper. The mobile library, on the other hand, is most useful for background reading and for quickly looking up information when I'm out of the office.

Experiences

How useful was the reader for me, and what were the problems? For the record, I have an "iriver story" - it has a 6 inch touchscreen e-ink display and uses Adobe Digital Edition to display PDFs. However, my comments are very generic and should apply to most e-ink readers. Here are the issues:

Therefore, in my experience, using an e-book reader for scientific papers was much more awkward and much less useful than I had hoped, and for several months I had the reader in my bag without ever using it. Again: this is the specific experience of trying to use it for my research library. I do see that an e-book reader can be great for reading linear books, whether fiction or non-fiction. Perhaps researchers with different habits or in different fields will also find e-book readers more useful. But for the way I use scientific papers, they are not the best choice.

A tablet as better alternative

As an alternative, I tried tablet computers - successfully. My first one was a no-name Android tablet that I got very cheap a few years ago, but now I've moved to an Arnova 8b G3, an Android tablet that one can get for less than €100. In summary: the no-name tablet is ok but limited, but the newer Arnova is perfect for my needs. Again I don't want to write reviews about the individual models, just summarize the experience for the specific use as a scientific library, and these comments should be valid for most tablet computers in the lower price range. If you want to buy one, it is advisable to consider what else you want to do with it - use it just as a basic reader, or as a full mobile office - and choose appropriately; there are numerous tech sites that will review individual models.

Both tablets have adequate software ("OfficeSuite") for reading PDFs, with all the zoom and page navigation options that one needs. The Android system also comes with a reasonable file manager, so all the navigation problems that I described above are no issues at all with the tablets. Also, one can install other file managers with more features or other programmes if needed. A big advantage is that Android comes with a (basic but adequate) internet browser (and you can install several others, including Opera and Firefox). If you use an internet service like CiteUlike to organise your references, you can access it directly to find the paper you're looking for, and then read the PDF that you saved earlier on the tablet's SD card.

The screen sizes (7 inch for the no-name, 8 inch for the Arnova) and resolution (800*600) are also perfectly adequate, and as you can zoom in and out easily, the size is much less an issue than it was for the e-book reader with its full or half page display. The brightness of the screens is high enough for most situations, except bright sunlight.

In other words, even basic tablets already have everything that's needed for a scientific library. I chose the Arnova not because it's special, but simply because I happened to find one at a good price. There are, however, a few practical things I would look out for when buying:

When I got the Arnova, I had intended to use it mainly as a mobile PDF reader, but it now also acts as a RSS reader (very good for journal alerts!), a digital picture frame, an internet browser, a mailer and a few other things that are handy when I'm out. Nonetheless, it also serves its main purpose very well: to act as a very capable scientific library.