It was nearly a year and a half ago that I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks with Sony’s Reader Pocket Edition and Reader Touch e-book readers. You can read the results here (relevant mostly if you’re interesting in picking up a previous generation model on the cheap from eBay). Sony’s been selling new versions of these models for a few months now and just sent loaners for another extended test run. Read on to see how the newest models fared.
When it comes to e-book readers, there are two players that most people think of: Kindle and NOOK (maybe Kobo on a good day). Of course the iPad has also made significant inroads into e-reader territory, but I still prefer a dedicated e-reader in most cases to reading on an iPad (portability, battery life and eye fatigue being among the reasons). What many people don’t realize is that Sony is one of the pioneers in e-reader manufacturing: the current line of Reader models rolled out in the US starting in 2006 (the Kindle appeared in 2007), and they had earlier e-reader models going back several years before that. The Sony line has had years (and many iterations) to evolve, and the company has firmly targeted users looking for a premium e-book reader.
In general—and as would be expected—Sony has made evolutionary improvements to both the Reader Pocket Edition and Reader Touch models. Both have been upgraded to an E Ink Pearl display, which means a modest improvement in contrast (the text stands out more against the background) and there is a noticeable speed boost when it comes to turning pages. Screen responsiveness has long been an LCD advantage over E Ink, but the current generation of E Ink Pearl displays have virtually eliminated lag when flipping pages. I wouldn’t be playing a video game on them, mind you, but for this application they work well. On-board storage on both models has been upped to 2GB, which should hold well over 1,000 e-books. Both models have shrunk in size compared to their previous version, while maintaining overall display size. Both models continue to support EPUB as their primary file format (meaning they can be used to borrow e-books from public libraries) as well as other common formats including PDF, BBeB and TXT.
On the downside (at least to many people), both reader models still forgo wireless connectivity options, relying instead on a computer and USB cable for buying books and managing your e-book collection. This is no biggie to me, but for some people it will be a deal killer. In their review of the devices, GadgetLab references a report that Sony’s Reader Library management software is a nightmare and makes e-book management incredibly slow and difficult. I’m running the software on a Mac, so maybe things are different on a PC, but I don’t find it difficult at all. In my experience, getting a book to one of the Sony e-readers takes roughly 20 seconds from the time the device is connected to the time the book is loaded. There are things I would change about Reader Library, but I really don’t think it’s all that horrific. My daughter has a Kobo e-reader, and I can tell you—that is a nightmare to manage. Fortunately, in either case there are also alternative third party management applications such as Calibre.
Reader Pocket Edition
Most of Sony’s revamping dollars seem to have been lavished on this model, the entry level Reader. While it was compact before, this round it is positively tiny. At 5.71 inches by 4.11 inches and one third of an inch thick, it’s the smallest mass market e-reader to my knowledge (not counting smartphones, which are not dedicated e-readers). You can see in the picture how it stacks up to an iPhone 4. The reason why Sony was able to shrink the Reader Pocket Edition so radically was the introduction of touchscreen capability, allowing most of the buttons to be eliminated. You can still click to flip pages if you’re so inclined, but the touchscreen responds brilliantly to finger or stylus control and it looks great: high contrast, no glare, no finger smudges. A welcome upgrade from the previous model is 16-level grayscale capability and 6 font sizes, making text more legible on its compact 5-inch display. The touchscreen also supports notes and highlighting, and two dictionaries are included. Battery life is rated at two weeks. The case is still an attractive and durable brushed aluminum, but color choices have been narrowed down to pink and silver.
Sony Pocket Edition
Wired: Easily pocket-able (and that’s not just marketing speak), responsive touchscreen, high quality display, very attractive design
Tired: No wireless option, premium price tag, no memory storage expansion, no MP3 support
When I tested this model out last year, I really wanted to like it. It was a one of the more visually stunning pieces of kit around, with the red painted brushed aluminum case and minimalist approach, but that display just killed it for me. Glare and a muddiness introduced by the touch layer was that model’s downfall. This time around, Sony has nailed it, though. The screen pops and the touchscreen is much more responsive. It’s also shrunk slightly so that it’s now just slightly bigger than last year’s compact Pocket Edition was. Thankfully, they kept the aluminum case and it’s still available in red (I’m pretty sure I can read faster with a red e-reader). If only they’d cut the price just a bit. At a $229 MSRP, it carries a $90 premium over a Kindle WiFi with a similar 6″ E Ink Pearl display and $80 over a NOOK. There’s a reason why my daughter has a Kobo e-reader…
Sony Reader Touch Edition
Wired: Compact, responsive touchscreen, high quality display, very attractive design, expandable storage (SD and Memory Stick Duo)
Tired: No wireless option, premium price tag