Saturday, 22 November 2008

Review: Sony Reader

About a month ago I took the plunge and bought a Sony Reader after having used an iRex iLiad as a test device in work. All in all I've found the shift from paper to e-ink mostly trouble free. In Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series (disclosure: Big fan!) books are just one type of ImaginoTransferenceDevice   and once you get past the initial oddity of reading off the e-ink screen you quickly become immersed. 

After a prolonged period of reading on the device I've tried to sum up my experiences in three key areas: build, interface and content.


The screen of the Sony Reader is considerably smaller than the iLiad (6" vs 8.1") and, as a result, so is the device. The weight is also considerably less and all in all the reader is as easy to handle as a paperback book.

The case is metal, and the buttons etc are really nicely placed for my style of reading (right hand on the right edge, left on the bottom-left corner). I've had no real problems using the buttons but the forward/back buttons on the right edge do feel slightly flimsy and I've got my fingers crossed that they stand up to long-term use.

In general the device feels very stylish (unlike the iLiad I had no fear of using it on the train) as well as sturdy. No doubt the screen would suffer from any direct knocks, and I doubt it would like being used in the rain but the leather cover provided with the device helps to give some protection, and to ensure the device looks more like a designer accessory than a mini computer.


This is an area where I fully expected the Reader to lose out to the iLiad - but I was totally wrong. Firstly, the difference in boot time (from flicking the switch to reading a page) is astounding. With the iLiad I would turn it on, and then settle in to read (and even make a cup of tea) - with the Sony the delay from "Switch" to "On" is undetectable unless you've added some content, in which case it briefly indexes the content.

Unlike the iLiad, the Sony doesn't have a touch screen which means that there's no capacity for notes or other advanced features (although Sony's new PRS-700BC offers similar features). For me this isn't a problem, and in fact the limited '0-9' menu buttons work very well and disguise the lag which exists in all e-ink interfaces.

Changing pages is easy, and I prefer the placement of the buttons to the iLiad's 'flip' - which requires that you keep your left hand on the side of the reader continuously. There are additional features (MP3 playing, bookmarks etc) which seem to work well but are really secondary to the 'reading' function which is simple and elegant.

One down side is that the reader only offers 3 levels of zoom, whereas with the iLiad you're able to dynamically zoom using the stylus or use up to 5 levels of zoom for text files. 


The reader copes with PDF, ePub, TXT, RTF, LRF & LRX formats (see here for more info). You can also convert from additional non-DRM formats (for which I use the free Calibre software). One annoyance is that often material (both free and purchased) is poorly formatted, with one 'page' taking a screen and a half on the Reader (leading to a half-blank page every two page-turns). I can't understand why this is as the formats and reader clearly allow re-pagination, it seems like a lack of effort on behalf of the ebook publishers.

 Free sources like Gutenberg are great places for content and you can buy books from Sony's partner - Waterstones (who have a truly awful ebook site) - along with other sites like Fiction Wise, W H Smith and Penguin.

It's in the content that the Sony falls down (to be fair, as does any ebook device). The range of ebooks available from online stores is tiny in comparison to print and it's common to find that only one book from a series is available online. The pricing is also, to put it mildly, insane! Commonly the ebook versions cost more than the paperback's in-store price, never mind Amazon or the used market.

As a quick example, here's prices for Tom Holt's book "Falling Sideways":

Waterstones Online e-book: £7.99
Waterstones Online Paperback: £7.99 Price: £5.99 Cheapest New Price: 38p Cheapest Used Price: 1p

To me, ebooks should cost considerably less than the printed copy - surely?

One final note: Annoyingly, the Reader doesn't support Mobipocket format ebooks which means that all the DRM'd books bought for the iLiad won't work on the Sony device. There's a lesson here I feel...


The good and bad in brief:
  • The choice of content is (at least for now) disappointing and, unless you're willing to go down the route of bit torrent material of dubious quality and legality, you'll be paying more for it.
  • The device itself is lovely, and you'll soon wonder why books seemed so special
  • No back light is a good thing - you don't get tired reading the e-ink screen.
  • No. You can't read in the bath - and you'd have to be brave to take it to the beach. But as soon as you count the weight difference between 2 paperbacks and this you'll still pack it for travel.
  • I definitely read more - especially as finishing a book on a Sunday afternoon doesn't mean I have to wait until I get to the shops next Saturday. A few clicks and I've got a new book ready to go.
  • Shopping is an unpleasant experience. Remember online book shopping before Amazon? Just like that, but with a range of incompatible formats to deal with as well. And non-net savvy users will probably stick to Waterstone's (poor & pricey) selection.
So, would I buy again? Absolutely. Would I recommend it? Well, that depends. If you're an avid reader it's a great way to keep content without filling up your spare room, but it's pricier and less flexible than dead tree. Who would get the most out of the Reader? If you're the kind of person who travels on trains and planes a lot, or carries loads of books this will be a great buy. Similarly, if you tend to constantly read and don't plan ahead (like me...) you'll appreciate the convenience of instant delivery. Oh, there's a lot of pulp lit as well by the looks of things if you're a fan.

For £199, the Sony Reader is a great buy but buy with your eyes open. This is an area ripe for growth and Amazon's decision to launch the Kindle platform has in many ways left them out of the more general eBook sales world. I'm not sure if that situation is sustainable, but if they don't start selling other formats I'm sure some other vendor will combine a breadth of stock with a simple interface and corner the market. Maybe Fiction Wise could do this with a sleek interface and brand growth.

1 comment:

Ian said...

Hi there. I have just received the Sony Reader for Christmas and I have to say it is a wonderful piece of kit. So glad I put it on my 'wishlist'!

I written a post on my first impressions over at Thoughts of a [wannabe] librarian. I will add your blog to my blogroll forthwith!