eBooks finally come of age

[intro]Anyone who's tried to read a book on a PDA or smartphone will know it's no fun. But a new generation of Ebooks will finally give paper a run f

It came as something of a shock to the Stuff team when we learned that the story of the Russian Space Pen was an urban myth. But the moral of the story remains - why spend billions developing ink that will flow in zero gravity conditions when you can just use a pencil? (Just ignore the smartiepants in the corner who says 'because the lead might break off and float into the shuttle's control system').

The same logic could be applied to the development of the electronic book: why does mankind spend so much time and money to replace one of the finest technologies in existence: paper. Yes, paper comes from trees - but it's a renewable resource. And one that promotes the development of forests. Unlike, say, the power you'd need to drive an electronic book.

Personally, I've long subcribed to this view. But last year, I began to change my mind when I saw an early prototype of the iRex iLiad (bet the name seemed like a great idea during that initial brainstorm but, like the Beatles and the Be Sharps, it gets less amusing the more you think about it).

The iLiad, like the Sony Reader that's available in the US, uses electronic paper technology that is incredibly legible - as easy on the eye as newsprint, in fact, and isn't backlit. The viewing angle is 179 degrees, just like paper. In fact, when you first pick up the iLiad, it seems like it's a mock-up, with a print-out instead of a screen. Then you flick the long page-turning button on the left hand side and the screen duly changes. It's one of those all-too-rare 'wow' moments.

But is it better than paper? In some ways, yes. For a start, it has two memory card slots in it, so you can carry your entire library with you (though that doesn't sound quite as appealing as carrying around your entire music collection, it's true). Plus you can download loads of out-of-copyright books for free. And then there's the PC and Wi-Fi connection that allow you to view RSS feed, so you can use the iRex as a newspaper (surely better than the Telegraph's bonkers scheme to encourage you to print out an afternoon edition to read on the way home).

There's more: the iLiad comes with a stylus so you can write and draw on the screen, too, or make notes about the text your reading. And thanks to speakers and a headphone jack, you can use it to play audio books too.

The thing that I really like about the iLiad, though, is that it only consumes power when you change what's on the page, so battery life is measured in days rather than hours.

The iLiad won't change the world, and nor will the Sony Reader. But With flexible electronic paper screens in development, it may be the first step towards a post-papyrus world. Which is lucky, because we're gonna need all those trees for biofuel...