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When my writing class started discussing ereaders last week, I mentioned that I actually had one, and the professor said something along the lines of, “But you don’t use it for serious books, right?”

When my Sony Reader PRS-700 bit the dust, and I decided to switch brands because of Sony’s lackluster warranty service, I found myself asking this question all over again.

What reading “serious books” requires

For me to be able to read serious books (by which I primarily mean books for academic classes) on an ereader, I need to be able to take notes, highlight, bookmark, search inside books, etc. Essentially, I need to be able to keep up with paper book readers during dicussions in a literature class.

I decided on the PRS-700 because it had all of these features, a touchscreen, and the ability to quickly flip through pages to look for highlighted passages. It was also open enough to let me borrow library ebooks, which is a huge bonus.

However, the PRS-700 has a couple of very significant drawbacks. The screen is the worst among any current ereader, the Sony software is horrific, I got a lemon, and Sony wouldn’t even pay to ship the Reader in to be repaired.

The other options for serious book reading are equally bleak. The Kindle’s physical keyboard and joystick combo would be agonizing for taking notes and highlighting, and simply isn’t nimble enough to keep up in a class.

The new iRex 1000s (pictured above) has a great-looking note-taking system, it’s allows a tablet-like interface (which is to say, a pen and paper-like interface) with digital books, which is probably the precursor of great things to come for ereaders. The problem, though, is that it’s not perfect, and for $859 I want a perfect ereader. Even then, I’d wait a little while.

The conclusion I came to, today, is that ereaders are simply not currently capable of intense content interaction, which prohibits using them for serious books. So if that’s out of the question, what’s left?

The current state of ereaders: Accept it

There are a number of ereaders (the eSlick, the BeBook, the CyBook, the PRS-505) that have everything you’d want except a keyboard. They work quite well for taking a bookshelf’s worth of casual books on vacation.

All of those except the eSlick can also borrow library books (the BeBook and CyBook in Mobipocket format, the PRS-505 in PDF).

This is probably enough for most casual readers, and enough for most ereader makers not to bother making a deluxe edition. I can understand that, but the first company to make a serious ereader will be able to crack into a massive student market, so there’s definitely motivation.

When I accepted this reality–that I’ll never be able to use an ereader I buy today in a class, ever–it was actually pretty liberating. I like books, and I’m willing to pay the price of an iPod to have a bunch of them with me, all the time. But ereader producers should know that most people will not pay that much for such a stripped-down device.

I think the ereader will split in two directions: the cheap, easy, casual ereader that just shows you books; and the more expensive, value-added ereader that will eventually replace paper.

One major problem with the current state of ereaders is that such a distinction has not yet been consciously made by producers, or explained to customers. That needs to change.

Conclusion: So which ebook is next?

So my new expectations for my ereader are simple. First, I want to borrow library ebooks (I already lost 5 books when I returned the Reader; until publishers abolish their digital restriction measures (DRM), my goal is to buy 0 (zero) new ebooks). Second, I want a wide variety of format support. Third, price.

Out of the four “casual ereaders” I listed above, the eSlick was out immediately because it can’t read secure PDFs or Mobipockets (or anything secure, I believe). The Astak Mentor or EZ Reader, was also out, because their website is a mess, and the device turned out to be $300, instead of sub-$200 as originally advertised.

The CyBook and the BeBook (sometimes called the HanLin V3) are pretty similar. The BeBook reads more formats, but mostly foreign formats I’ve never heard of, like WOLF, and DJVU, and CHM, and FB2. Their technical specs are pretty much similar, much akin to the current state of netbooks.

Ultimately, the BeBook was almost $80 cheaper than the Cybook, including shipping, so it’s currently in the lead. After reading this comparison of BeBook and PRS-505, though, I have to decide whether to go with BeBook or suck it up and come crawling back to Sony.

Whatever ereader I get, I’m planning to just chock it full of library books and take it on trips. If it lasts until a serious book ereader comes along, I’ll be more than happy.