Editor's note: Sony released the Sony Reader PRS-505 with a brighter display and 8 grayscale levels rather than 4 in Oct. 2007 and the PRS-500 is discontinued.
Sony has been very adventurous in the handheld computing department this year. First we were wowed by the Sony Vaio UX180P, then surprised by the Sony mylo and now we've got the Sony Portable Reader System PRS-500 (Sony Reader) to read our favorite books. Score one for Sony for keeping a diverse device portfolio in the increasingly challenging handheld computing market. The Sony Reader made an early appearance in January 2006 at CES and was released (after delays) to market in late September of 2006. It has that “Wow Factor” as an eBook reader thanks to a thin and light body and amazingly readable screen, 64MB internal memory plus a memory slot that supports both SD cards and Memory Stick cards. Throw in the Sony eBook store to get the latest titles, support for other text formats, PDF documents, JPEG images and music playback, you’ve got the Sony Reader.
It’s good looking and it will inspire you to do things you couldn’t or wouldn’t do before if you've been a traditional printed book person. How about packing several dictionaries, an entire collection of Shakespeare books (which may require some help from those dictionaries) and all of Stephen King's books for late night delightful reading? At 9 ounces and a half an inch thin, you can easily carry it on the road. But will it render the ole paperback hopeless passé? Read on.
Lay of the Land
If James Bond had an eBook reader, the Sony Reader might make the cut. At 4.9 x 6.9 x 0.5 inches, the Sony Reader isn’t as thin as the datapads on Star Trek, but it’s thinner than most paper books. It weighs about 9 ounces without the protective cover and is about a size of a paperback, which make it easy to hold for long period of time. The included soft case will protect it from scratches and give the Reader a discreet look if you don’t wish others to see what you are carrying. You can get optional covers in other colors. It’s definitely cooler than an "analog" book!
The Sony Reader comes in matte black with silver siding and accents. On the left side of the large display in the front, you will find the page up and down buttons conveniently located where you can easily push them when holding the reader. Below these buttons is the font size button, which toggles between three font sizes. The Sony Reader also has a bookmark button (you can have multiple bookmarks), an additional page up and down control below the display that’s larger than the side controls and a 5-way directional joystick with menu control below the display. The content list on the Sony Reader is numbered and the Reader offers 1-9,0 number keys just below the screen for you to select content or input numbers using these keys. They can also help fast forward pages in a book.
To extend the collection of books you can carry, the Sony Reader offers not only 64MB of internal memory but also an expansion slot, which lives on the left side of the Reader, and can take either SD cards or Memory Stick cards. If you want to play some music to accompany your reading, the Sony Reader offers a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack on the bottom of the device and volume up and down controls on the left of the Reader. You will also find a USB port for getting more books to your Sony Reader, a multi- connector that works with the optional docking station and a power charging port on the bottom of the Sony Reader.
Electronic Ink Magic
After the initial “Wow! A cool looking reader!” reaction, the next thing you will notice is the screen. The Sony Reader has an impressive 6” grayscale display that’s 600 x 800 resolution (approximately 170 pixels per inch). It has a paper-like high contrast that makes you feel you are reading a paper book. What’s even more amazing is that in direct and bright sunlight, the contrast gets better, not worse. And the viewing angle is just about 180 degrees. So what makes the screen look so good? The technology is called EPD (Electronic Paper Display) developed by E-ink. The EPD is a reflective technology that’s paper-thin and requires no front or backlight yet is very readable (see photo on the right). It also requires no power to maintain an image once it's drawn on screen, thus enabling long battery life. The lack of backlight prevents eye strain inducing flicker, and there's no annoying screen refresh since digital ink prints on the screen's film when you turn the page. But in order to refresh the image when you turn a virtual page, the Reader's screen flashes black for a second which is quite annoying. Another issue with no backlight is that you can't use it with the room lights off.
In addition to zooming (changing font size), the display also offers landscape orientation and screen lock with a pass code. It’s worth noting that this is not the first time Sony has used the EPD for their eBook readers. The Sony LIBRIe released back in April of 2004 in Japan also featured this technology.
A Bookworm’s Handbook
Sony has done a good job with the UI on the Sony Reader and it's easy to use. The navigation and controls are intuitive and you shouldn’t have to read a manual to read books on it. To see what’s on your Sony Reader, use the Menu key that’s on the lower right part of the joystick circle. Table of contents in the menu are numbered and you can either use the number keys below the screen to select the content or scroll to highlight it using the joystick and press the joystick down to select it.
While you are reading a book, you can flip pages using the page forward and backward buttons (there are two sets of them on the Sony Reader), use the bookmarks to go where you wish to go or fast flip through the book using the number buttons.
To get books onto your Sony Reader, you will need to purchase them and download them from Sony’s own eBook store (ebooks.connect.com). Like music and PSP downloads on the Sony CONNECT, the eBooks also have DRM and supports BBeB format (Marlin). Sony includes a USB cable and software to make downloading books to the Reader easily.
The Sony Reader displaying a page from the pre-installed help book.
Danielle Steel Books Never Looked So Cool!!
Not that you read Danielle Steel books on your eBook reader often. In fact, most eBook stores prefer Anna Quindlen and Joyce Carol Oates to Danielle Steel. I was very happy to see that the great Margaret Atwood’s new book Moral Disorder available on the Sony Connect store. Sony debuted its own eBook store to provide over 10,000 eBook titles for you to download to the Sony Reader. The more mainstream eBook stores such as eReader.com and ebooks.com offers more titles but the Sony store prices are generally lower on the same eBooks which rang from $3-$14.36.
Sony is working with major and independent publishers of popular, professional and academic titles to bring more eBooks to its online store. The publishers include Penguin-Putnam, Simon and Schuster, Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group USA, Holtzbrinck, TOKYOPOP, Hyperion, McGraw-Hill Professional, Cambridge University Press, Harlequin Enterprises Limited, National Geographic, Kensington Publishing and Regnery Publishing to name a few. This is great news for people who have just started building their digital book library with the Sony Reader. But what about the folks who have already built a large library in eReader, Micosoft Reader and other eBook formats and wish to read them on the Sony Reader? Then, you are long way from plug and play as the Sony Reader doesn’t support these formats. What it does offer is support for RFT, MS Word, TXT and Adobe PDF formats. So you will need to covert your existing eBooks to these formats in order to read them on the Sony Reader.
Would You Like Some Music To Go with That?
Music and mobile devices are like fries and burgers, they go hand in hand. The Sony Reader is no exception. Along with eBooks and text, Sony has also added MP3 playback and JPEG photo viewer. The MP3 playback sounded decent on the Sony Reader and comes in handy if you have audio books in MP3 format or like to listen to music while reading. The storage card slot comes in handy for music as well as for storing books. The JPEG viewer can view black and white photos and images in books.
I Need to Charge My Book, You Say?
The Sony Reader comes with a rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery that lasts roughly 7,500 continuous page turns, according to Sony. You can easily read several books before you need to charge the Reader using either the included AC charger or charge over USB when plugged into a running computer (it takes longer to charge via USB). While it might seem an additional step to charge you “books”, for folks who are mobile phone and PDA users and have gotten used to charging devices on a daily to weekly schedule it's very easy to adapt to the habit. If you opt to buy the desktop cradle (Sony sells it for $49.95) for syncing books and files, you can use the cradle to charge your Sony Reader as well.
We applaud Sony for bringing the Reader to the US market. For some folks, it’s been long time coming after watching the Sony LIBRIe released only in Japan. Apparently there are quite a few fans-- Sony can’t make the Sony Reader fast enough to fulfill the demand. But will the Sony Reader replace paper books? Not for $350. If it were under $100 then it might have a chance. Sony realizes this and they do not intend to replace traditional books, but to supplement them. Though for the technology minded folks who read books on their PDAs or notebooks, the Sony Reader might have a special place in your gadget bag. Its larger and higher resolution display makes reading more pleasureable than on a PDA. Though in these days of convergence, it might be hard to convince folks to carry one more gadget in their bags.
Pro:Like all eBook devices, the Sony Reader can carry more books than you usually do when globetrotting or just visiting the coffee shop. Great for the environment by saving trees. Amazingly readable screen and easy to use. Device has good design that makes the Reader look cool and chic, comfortable to read and light enough to carry and hold. Sony has a good start on the eBook store with lower prices compared to other major eBook stores. Great battery life.
Con:Too pricy. No backlight option for those who want to read in the dark. Users who've purchased titles from other online book sellers won't be able to read them on the Sony Reader.
Display:6” 4-level grayscale display, E-Ink Electronic Paper technology. 800 x 600 resolution. The PRS-505 has 8 grayscale levels.
Media formats: Unsecured Text: BBeB Book, Adobe PDF, TXT, RTF, Microsoft Word (Conversion to the Reader-requires Word installed on your PC)
DRM Text: BBeB Book (Marlin)
Unsecured Audio: MP3 and AAC
Image: JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP
Battery:Rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery, not user replaceable. Up to 7,500 page turns per charge. Approx. 4 hours to charge via AC and 6 hours via USB from powered PC.