While the Barnes & Noble Nook adds more fuel to the eBook reader war, I recently completed two weeks of putting Sony’s latest eBook readers, the Reader Touch Edition (PRS600) and the Reader Pocket Edition (PRS300) through their paces. The conclusion? If you’re in the market for an inexpensive (relatively speaking) portable eReader with an excellent display and aren’t put off by lack of wireless, supporting features or expandability, the Reader Pocket Edition may be the solution for you. The Reader Touch, while packing a load of functionality into its stylish chassis, is likely too expensive and hobbled by a screen that suffers from low contrast and serious glare issues. The Daily Reader, due in December includes wireless connectivity and a bigger screen, but we’ll have to wait a few more weeks to see if glare remains a factor.
As a parent, I quickly found the convenience of an eBook reader is tough to beat. I spent many hours last week in various waiting rooms and grabbing a Reader loaded with books was much easier than picking out a novel to pack. I could also bring PDFs and Word documents for review without having to lug a laptop, which was a major convenience. This is going to save me some space for extended camping trips as well. While my kids were interested in the gadget, I think eReaders are still expensive enough (and lacking in ruggedness) to make them a little too dear for most children, although there would be some definite pluses: no damaged books or fights between siblings over a single copy of a popular book, for example.
Detail on the Readers after the jump:
Corrina posted an overview of her experience with Sony’s 505 eReader a few weeks ago and, as in her piece, I found one of the strong points of Sony’s eReaders is support for the ePub standard, which gives access to borrowing eBooks from public libraries. A few quick words on this functionality, though, as I’ve run into some misconceptions about how it works. First of all, the process still has a way to go before I’d call it seamless. Two pieces of software are required: Sony’s own eBook Library software and Adobe Digital Editions (which takes care of the DRM component of borrowing). It’s an annoying complication that can be off-putting to the less technically inclined, and eventually this is something the hardware and content providers are going to need to streamline to support mainstream adoption. The second is the fact that just because the copies at the library are digital doesn’t mean that they’re available in unlimited supply. Each library buys a set number of digital copies (just as they would physical copies) and once the digital copies are all out on loan, you can place a hold to reserve a copy when it’s returned, but this is not borrowing on demand, as some people might have assumed. Format support in general for the newest Sony Readers is good, with the ability to load up either device with PDF, Word, BBeB Book, ePub, TXT and RTF files. Purchased books can be shared among a combination of six devices at a time.
With the Touch and Pocket readers, Sony introduced Mac support and I found things worked reasonably well on my iMac. The eBook Library software is relatively intuitive but needs a little more polish. For example, trying to transfer a book that had been deleted to a Reader fails to trigger an error message that the title has been deleted; it just hangs there in “processing” until you manually stop it. Why would the book be deleted, you ask? Well, it appears that the Sony software only stores a local copy of an eBook if you’ve purchased or borrowed it. Import a PDF or a free public domain eBook you’ve downloaded and it retains a path to the source file, so if you delete that file, the title remains in your library but the copy of the book has gone. This takes some getting used to, especially for someone accustomed to iTunes, which copies any file you import, saving its own version in an iTunes library folder so deleting the original does no harm.
The final issue is wireless, or lack thereof. I live in Canada, so no Kindle or Nook for us (just yet), and therefore I have no wireless functionality to compare against. Regardless, I found it no hindrance. I can’t see myself impulsively buying books while travelling with only a Reader and I’ve grown accustomed to buying music or movies through iTunes via my computer or AppleTV, then transferring content to my iPod next time I plug in. The same holds for recharging the battery. Like iPods, Sony now sells the power adaptor for its Readers separately, so USB to a computer becomes not only the content conduit, but the default recharging method as well. Being tethered may be a deal breaker to some, but it was no biggie for me.
First the Reader Touch Edition (PRS600). I really wanted to love this device. I’d been eying one for months, but after spending time with it in all sorts of situations, I decided it’s not the eBook reader for me. It’s a good looking object, with a metallic case available in a red, black or silver that makes the Kindle look decidedly cheap. My tester was the metallic red version that drew many appreciative glances when I brought it with me to various waiting rooms. The touch functionality took a bit of getting used to after being accustomed to an iPod Touch; the Sony screen requires a bit of pressure and the Touch ships with a stylus for easier input. Features include expandable storage (the expected Memory Stick, but also SD cards), an onboard dictionary, the ability to add notes and take text memos as well as MP3 playback capability. The Vizplex E-Ink screen measures 6 inches, with 8-level grayscale at 800 x 600 pixels. The Lithium-ion battery is estimated to last for two weeks or 7,500 page turns between charges -I got about eight days of pretty heavy use from a charge. In perfect lighting conditions the screen was perfectly readable (although noticeably gray tinged) and the ability to switch between five different font sizes would virtually eliminate the need for large-print books. Page turning was snappy, with a slight pause while the screen was redrawn. But in many light conditions, glare was a major issue. Indirect lighting wasn’t too bad, but any sort of direct illumination (like a reading light) would make it very difficult to read and require convoluted poses in an attempt to minimize reflections. If Sony could address this flaw and drop the price (currently a hefty $399.99), they’d have something.
Wired: Touch functionality makes navigation and text entry easy and stylish case makes other eBook readers look dowdy.
Tired: Lack of wireless will annoy some while screen glare under many lighting conditions kills the user experience.
The Reader Pocket Edition (PRS300)
seems like a winner to me. Just squeaking in below the $200 barrier, it’s relatively inexpensive; people have no problem spending that much for an iPod, so I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable for a decent eBook reader. While I initially thought the 5 inch screen would be too small, I quickly changed my mind. Because of the slightly smaller screen, the Reader Pocket Edition truly is compact enough to slip in a pocket. Memory is not expandable, but the 512 MB is sufficient for up to 350 books. There are no extras like notes, music playback, or a dictionary and font sizes are limited to three, but none of those is a deal killer. At a slim 10 oz, it’s perfect for holding in one hand. Navigation is easy, thanks to a directional pad and a series of buttons on the right side of the screen (corresponding to numbered menu options). The screen doesn’t refresh quite as quickly as the Touch does, especially with PDFs, but it’s still hardly noticeable. And the display is amazing. Like the Touch, it’s an 800 x 600 pixel, 8-level grayscale E-Ink display, but without the the extra layer required for touch capability, the Reader Pocket’s screen has great contrast (the page is a very light gray and the text a crisp black), suffers none of the glare issues and looks even better in full sunlight than indoors. This is a screen that made me forget I wasn’t reading an actual paperback. Battery life is rated the same as the Reader Touch, but with daily use of 1-3 hours, after 10 days I still have 3/4 of a charge remaining. With its compact size, excellent screen and great battery life, the Reader Pocket Edition seems particularly well suited for travelling and carrying around. It worked well for my treadmill sessions too -no worries about bending the cover when using the book holder. I couldn’t part with the Pocket Reader after the two weeks was up and ended up buying the review model (in the name of disclosure, this was at a nominal discount equivalent to the pricing of open box display Readers I found at Best Buy).
Wired: Compact size, excellent screen, low price and a battery that keeps going.
Tired: Screen is a little smaller than most eReaders. Lack of wireless and limited extra functions make it a single-purpose device.
Just as I have different iPods for different purposes, I expect to eventually have several eBook readers. A (currently mythical) Apple Tablet or some equivalent with a big screen, multimedia support, web browsing capability and full color experience would be a candidate for a primary device. However, I think Sony hit the nail on the head with the the Reader Pocket Edition for the portable version of eBook reader that goes everywhere with me.