Reviewed August 27, 2009 by Lisa Gade, Editor
If you've followed our site, you know that I'm an avid reader and have been using a digital ebook reader since November 2006 when the Sony Reader PRS-500, the first mass market reader with an ebookstore in tow, hit the market. Since then we've reviewed every Sony Reader that's shipped as well as the Kindle 2 and Kindle DX. Nothing caused as much of a fuss hardware-wise, as the Sony Reader PRS-700, their first touch screen reader that launched in late 2008 to ambivalent reviews. The touch experience was marvelous, the side-lighting appealed to those who read in bed and it handled PDFs better than older Sony Reader models (the Amazon Kindle and Kindle 2 don't natively support PDF, though the Kindle DX does). But, and here's a big but for a device that's supposed to provide the reading comfort of a printed book, it had poor contrast and lots of glare, mostly due to the raised layer of plastic over the display that covered the side-lights (eInk can't be backlit). Digital bookworms cast a very cautious gaze at the new Sony Reader Touch Edition PRS-600, fearing more of the same readability issues. These folks were weaned on non-touch eInk displays that are matte and have high contrast. These displays look uncannily like a book rather than an LCD, though the background is light gray rather than the whiter page of a book.
Tap any of those very large icons to use the various Reader functions.
There are small hardware buttons for page forward, page back, home, font size change (5 font sizes) and options (content sensitive).
The Sony Reader 700 lasted less than a year and is now discontinued. The venerable Sony Reader PRS-505 lasted almost 2 years (an eternity in consumer electronics) and is replaced by the Sony Reader Pocket Edition PRS-300, a 1" smaller version of the 505, also sans touch. The PRS-600 Touch Edition replaces the 700, at the original price point of the 505: $299. And there ends our story. The short-lived PRS-700 will likely fade from our readers' minds and those completely new to the eBook reader experience won't worry about it at all. Why? Because Sony has finally gotten it right, or very close with the Sony Reader Touch Edition. Gone are the sidelights whose additional screen layer killed contrast. And Sony managed to reduce glare while they were at it. I'm a picky reader who likes her eInk to look like eInk, and the PRS-600 does the job well.
The Touch Edition's features are excellent and should be captivating enough to tempt Sony Reader 500 and 505 owners to upgrade. Even some Kindle folks might consider defecting given Sony's more open format support (PDF, ePUB, TXT and RTF are native), easy touch screen UI and advanced note-taking features. New for the PRS-600 is a dictionary (the New Oxford American Dictionary for US users), a first for Sony (Amazon's Kindles have always had a dictionary). The Reader is available in black, red and silver and it's smaller than the Kindle 2 and the same size as the PRS-505. It weighs 10.1 ounces. Alas, a book-style cover is no longer included (those cost about $30), though my old PRS-505 cover fit. Sony includes a neoprene slip case instead. Sony also sells a book cover with integrated book light for $55. Like most ebook readers, the Sony can play MP3 and AAC non-DRM music files and it has a stereo 3.5mm jack.
Comparison close up of text on the PRS-505 and PRS-600.
The Sony Reader Touch Edition is a 6" ebook reader with an eInk display. This is the same display used in older Sony Readers, the new Sony Pocket Edition and the 3 Amazon Kindle models. It uses incredibly little power, so the reader can go 2 weeks on a charge. In fact, it only uses power to turn the page. There is no backlight (the screen technology is too opaque for that) and that means you must read with decent ambient lighting or a book light, just as you would with a print book. Sony is the only company currently offering a touch screen reader (there are very expensive readers that use a Wacom digitizer and pen that haven't reached mass market status in the US). That's why the Kindle models have keyboards: there's no other way to input text for searches and note-taking. The Kindles also have a 4-way controller to navigate the screen, and that gets the job done but it can be mind-numbingly tedious to move through the page line by line, word by word, especially on the 9.7" Kindle DX (lots more words and lines per page).
Display Quality and Touch
Like the PRS-700, the touch screen interface is very intuitive and well done. Swipe your finger left or right across the screen to move forward or back a page. Swipe and hold to move through several pages quickly. Double-tap a word to look it up in the dictionary, double-tap the page to create (or remove) a bookmark. Miraculously, the screen doesn't get murky with fingerprints. Page turns are quick thanks to the 532MHz Freescale CPU (same as the PRS-700) with Sony native BBeB format being the fastest, followed by ePUB then PDF. Like all Vizplex eInk displays, you will see a screen refresh when turning a page, but it's very short-lived and is less intrusive than the PRS-500's obvious refresh.
Close up of text on the PRS-600.
Glare is there but minimal-- it's nothing like the PRS-700 or a notebook monitor. One could almost use the PRS-700 to spot a crumb between one's teeth while the 600 lacks that mirror-like quality. Words are clear and crisp and the touch screen layer does not create a parallax effect. It's not quite as rich with contrast as the PRS-505 and Kindle, but it's close enough. The reader displays 8 shades of gray, which is more important for graphics display than text.
Desktop Software, Syncing Notes and the Wireless Future
What the Sony Reader Touch Edition, or any other Sony Reader for that matter, lacks is wireless. That will change in December 2009 when the Sony Reader Daily Edition with 7" display and AT&T 3G wireless ships. Amazon pioneered wireless in their Kindle readers and each has a Sprint EV-DO wireless modem inside so you can buy and download books and periodicals from Amazon. With the Sony Readers you'll use your desktop and the included USB cable to download and transfer books. You can also put books on a Memory Stick Duo or SD card (the Kindle 2 and DX don't have card slots). Sony's desktop application, now available for both Windows and the Mac, works much like iTunes: you'll use it to copy books to the device, sync notes and purchase books from Sony's reasonably large selection of titles (if you wish). The desktop software also handles getting Google books which you can download for free using the desktop software (or you could do it manually via Google's site but why work so hard?). You can also read books using the desktop software on the PC and any annotations you've made on the Reader are transferred to the desktop. If you wish to print your annotations, you'll use the desktop software to export each annotated page as RTF. These aren't the most useful though: any text you've highlighted is saved as text excerpts (time and date stamped with the original book's page number too) and there's a mini graphic of the page with markings intact. However, the graphic is too small to be readable. It merely gives you the vaguest idea of where you marked the page. Each RTF has the book title, author and publisher at the top.
Sony Reader desktop software 3.0 on the Mac (Windows looks the same).
You can annotate several adjacent pages if you wish, just turn the screen rather than closing the note-making interface.
In addition, there are two applications: text notes and handwriting. Text notes is similar to notepad in Windows; you'll use the on-screen keyboard (large enough for fingers) to type your notes/document/grocery list. This is stored as actual text, not a graphic. Handwriting is stored as a graphic and you can draw and write scribbled words using the stylus or finger (the stylus works best). Both text and handwriting notes appear under "Notepad" in the desktop software. You can view them and transfer them to the computer but you can't edit, export or print them. You can however copy the text in a text note and paste it anywhere you like.
Here's our 10 minute video review of the Sony Reader PRS-600. It covers a lot of ground, including the dictionary, drawing, page turn speed, PDF rendering and zooming, and comparison's with the Sony Reader 505 and Kindle DX.
Dictionary and File Format Support
The Reader comes with a built-in dictionary (watch the video to see how it works). The New Oxford American Dictionary is available if you select US English at first start or in settings, and the Oxford Dictionary of English is active if you selected UK English. The US Reader supports other languages (French, German and Dutch) but there are no dictionaries for these languages.
Let's hear it for openness and standards, something we'd never expect from Sony given their past behavior in the music industry. Sony Readers are compatible with the million public domain books offered for free by Google (forget paying for George Orwell's 1984!). It's also compatible with any non-DRM book in TXT, RTF, PDF, ePUB and Word format (only Word files require conversion through the desktop software). That means you can put these files (except Word) on a storage card and read them without using the desktop software. For DRM books, the Reader supports Sony's own BBeB (.lrf) file format. If you buy a book from the Sony storefront, it will be in BBeB format. Sony will be moving to ePUB format and all Sony Readers (except the original Reader PRS-500) can read ePUB books. Adobe Digital Editions ePUB books are becoming the closest thing we have to a standard for commercial digital books. Libraries with digital lending facilities mostly use ePUB and the desktop software has a digital library finder (that uses Overdrive.com) and built-in support for ePUB DRM, making it easier to check out ebooks (or buy them from online stores that sell ePUB books). Library books automatically expire and disappear when your loan period ends (typically 14 days). Thus no late fees. Just as with print books, libraries pay for ebooks and can only lend the number of copies they've purchased. That means you may have to wait for a certain book to become available for loan.
The Reader natively supports PDFs, and the touch screen allows for a zoom function that's much more useful than font size changing since zoom leaves the PDF layout intact. Just drag your finger along the zoom bar to get a better view of the PDF (see it in action in our video review). The Reader supports both landscape and portrait modes and landscape mode is generally better for viewing PDFs since they're usually formatted for 8.5" x 11" print rather than the smaller ebook reader screen. You can make annotations in PDFs just as with other book formats. The zoom feature does wonders for viewing: even though the Reader supports PDF reflow, it can only reflow PDF pages with no images. That means font size changes (using the font size button on the reader rather than on-screen zoom) on the average image-laden PDF lose the original layout. If you don't mind zooming (not always necessary) and want to annotate PDFs, the PRS-600 is an excellent choice. If you merely want to view PDFs, especially those with images, the Kindle DX is still the top choice since its 9.7" display is large enough to display a PDF in readable fashion in landscape mode (though the text will be small).
The Sony Reader has both an SD and Memory Stick Pro Duo slot up top.
ePUB books work very well on the Reader Touch Edition with fewer layout quirks and faster page turns compared to the 505. ePUB books are apparently more complex than BBeB and it takes more horsepower to decode and display them, so page turns are a hair slower than on BBeB books and Sony claims 6,000 page turns per full charge cycle for ePUB vs. 7,500 for BBeB (that's a lot of reading, either way).
eInk books offer fantastic battery life, as we've mentioned. The Sony Reader is good for approximately 2 weeks of reading (6,000 to 7,500 page turns). It supports USB charging and charging via the optional AC adapter (same as prior Sony Reader models and the PSP charger). The battery is sealed, which means you either have to send it to Sony or take it apart yourself if you need to replace the battery. Given the immensely long battery life and how seldom it needs charging, the Lithium Ion battery should be good for at least 2-3 years before runtimes are significantly diminished.
Sony has done a very good job this time and the Sony Reader Touch Edition is a pleasure to use in terms of touch interface and screen readability. For $299, the Reader offers a great array of features including native PDF support with zoom, ePUB and Adobe Digital Editions compatibility, the responsive 6" eInk touch screen with natural page turn gesture support, both text and graphical note taking applications, text annotation (both highlighter and pencil style) and Google book compatibility. We love the dictionary and how easy it is to use, and have already found a few libraries to borrow ebooks from thanks to the library finder built into the new desktop software. Sony's selection of commercial books is very good, though they still don't offer as many titles as Amazon. They've lowered their prices and are now closer to Amazon's pricing. The industry has a ways to go and grow, but Sony is heading in the right direction with their support for not just commercial storefront titles but public domain books and digital library books.
Display: 6" eInk (Vizplex) display with touch screen. 8 levels grayscale, 800 x 600 resolution. Has 5 font sizes. Works in both portrait and landscape modes.
Size: 6.9 x 4.8 x .4 inches. 10.1 ounces.
Memory: 512 megs internal memory with 380 megs available for your use to store books (approx. 350 books).
Processor: i.MX31L Freescale CPU.
Expansion: Memory Stick Pro Duo and SD card slot to store books, music, images and etc. Supports cards up to 16 gigs.
Native book formats supported: Sony BBeB (LRF) books, ePub, PDF, RTF and TXT. Supports MS Word via conversion using Sony desktop software.
Music player: Yes, MP3 and AAC format.
Image viewer: JPEG, BMP, GIF and PNG.
Power: Lithium Ion battery (device must be opened up to replace battery, no easy access). Uses the same 5.2v PSP style charger as other Sony Readers. Reader automatically sleeps after 60 minutes (unless music player is playing). Reader turns completely off after 5 days of inactivity. Supports USB charging, AC charger isn't included. Estimated page turns on a charge: 7,500 for BBeB (Sony's original book format) and 6,000 for ePUB.
In the box: Reader, stylus, USB cable, neoprene sleeve and quick start pamphlet. Software installers are pre-installed in memory on the Reader so no CD is included.