Find out if the Rocket eBook or Softbook is right for your electronic reading needs

By Noah Robischon
Updated July 23, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Seaside-reading picks speak volumes about your personality. Escapists retreat into romance novels with embossed covers. Intellectuals tote weighty recommendations from The New York Times. Only a workaholic nerd, however, would be caught on the sand with an electronic book. At least, it felt that way recently when I took NuvoMedia’s $349 Rocket eBook and SoftBook Press’ $599 SoftBook out of my beach bag and elicited a technophobic shriek from one blanket babe in my party who begged me to put them away.

I did so, but not to appease her — it turns out the sun’s glare makes an e-book’s reflective screen all but impossible to read. That’s only one reason paperless novels aren’t likely to outsmart paperbacks in the near future. Still, these gadgets do have features (like the ability to search an entire text by keyword) that make printed pages seem antiquated. Here’s a primer on how the e-books stack up.

Between the covers
The ergonomic Rocket eBook, weighing in at just 1.4 pounds, holds 4,000 pages (roughly 10 paperback novels) and is about the size of a VHS cassette. The 2.9-pound SoftBook holds 6,000 pages in a computer the size of a letter and thickness of a European fashion magazine. If you buy more books than the e-reader can handle, Web space supplied by the companies can be used for up- and downloading your collection, replacing those dust-covered bookshelves once and for all. Drawback: Neither the SoftBook, with its leather cover, nor the Rocket, which comes in a faux-cowhide carrier, gives me the aura of a beachfront highbrow the way a hardcover copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon would.

New to you
There is no such thing as a used e-book. My SoftBook copy of Angela’s Ashes can’t be given to a friend with a Rocket — the devices are incompatible. Electronic texts can, however, be highlighted or scribbled on (using a stylus) without ever becoming worn. But no one cares about ruining a $7.99 paperback, whereas I didn’t dare drop these pricey units in the sand.

Paperless bookstore
The SoftBook’s built-in modem lets you browse a selection of titles online by simply plugging into the nearest phone jack. But the Rocket, which connects to a PC, has better choices, since NuvoMedia has partnered with to create an electronic outlet. Unfortunately, while digital novels are cheaper to distribute because there are no printing or shipping costs, those savings have yet to be passed on to e-readers: The Rocket eBook version of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, for instance, was $2 more than the paperback at

Future as prologue
These devices deserve to be runaway best-sellers among doctors, lawyers, students, and other folks who pay high prices for heavy tomes that have to be updated regularly — all problems neatly solved by digital books. Everyone else, however, may want to await the arrival of a more rugged, waterproof e-reader that isn’t a beach-blanket blunder.
Rocket eBook: C
SoftBook: B