Hands on with Sony's new PRS-700 digital reader

Sony announced the PRS-700, a new digital reader that features a touch-screen display and built-in light. It will go on sale in November for $400.

When we found out a couple of weeks ago that Sony was going have a Reader event in New York on October 2, we assumed--but weren't entirely sure--that the company would be announcing a new electronic book reader. Well, Sony has introduced a new Reader, the PRS-700, and I got to play around with it at the event.

Before I get into impressions, let's start with the highlights: As rumored, the PRS-700 has a built-in LED "reading" light (though it's not a backlight). There are no wireless capabilities, but Sony's moved to a 6-inch touch-screen display. Also, the new Reader has expanded built-in memory (up to 350 books) while retaining its Memory Stick Duo slot.

The new Sony PRS-700 has a touch-screen and built-in light. Sony

It's zippier, too--when you turn a page, the e-ink on the screen refreshes faster (we were told the PRS-700 has a faster processor than the earlier PRS-505, but we're waiting to confirm what the processor is). All of these upgrades add up to a higher price tag: the new Reader will retail for $400 when it comes out in November. That's over $100 more than what you can get the PRS-505 for today.

If you can ignore the high price for a second, the PRS700 is definitely a step forward for Sony in the digital-reader arena. If ever there was device that would benefit from the switch to touch-screen navigation, it's an e-book reader (Irex was the first with an e-ink touch-screen display, but that device was prohibitively expensive).

Like the iPhone and other next-gen touch-screen phones that have been appearing lately, the Reader incorporates some gesture-based commands. You can swipe your finger across the display to page forward or back (you can choose between a left or right swipe to advance pages in the settings menu). Swiping and holding your finger down at the end of the swipe allows you to advance or rewind through pages at a fast clip.

With the included stylus or your finger you can highlight words and add annotations via a virtual keyboard. The Amazon Kindle offers this feature via a Blackberry-style keyboard. However, the Kindle doesn't have a touch screen.

It's also worth noting that Sony is continuing with its effort to brand its Readers as "open" devices that are capable of reading multiple file formats. The press release says: "With the included eBook Library 2.5 PC software, you can easily transfer Adobe PDF documents with reflow capability, Microsoft Word documents, BBeB files and other text file formats to the Reader. The device can store and display EPUB files and work with Adobe Digital Editions software, opening it up to almost a limitless quantity of content."

Sony's also redesigning its eBook Store. "This month, a redesigned page layout with more prominent book cover art will improve the overall visual appeal of the site," the release says. "A streamlined checkout process along with updated search and discovery make finding and purchasing an e-book a breeze."

Interestingly, at the event Sony also announced that it had moved its Reader operations from Japan to San Diego, Calif., and the Reader team will be run out of the U.S. We're not exactly sure what that means, but Sony execs indicated that the company is going to be making a big push with the Reader in North America (it's also been released in Britain and is heading into stores in France).

So, after playing with the thing for a few minutes, what did I think of it? Well, the new Reader, as advertised, is visibly zippier than the PRS-505. The touch screen is also a significant improvement in terms of ease of navigation, and the interface seems simplified and improved.

And while the swiping does give you a more tactile approach to turning a digital page (instead of just pressing a button), I did get the feeling that the screen was not as touch-sensitive as the screen on the iPhone. In some cases, turning a page required an extra swipe or two to get the e-ink to refresh. But I should note that these are not final production units, so I'll reserve final judgment until we get a shipping unit.

As for the lighting, it's a little funky. As I said, it's not backlighting. Rather, it's more like side-lighting (some call it front-lighting but the LEDs are placed on the sides of the display), and you can increase and lower the intensity between three levels of brightness. The lighting isn't terribly uniform over the display but it will allow you to read your Reader in the dark--I just don't know yet if the LED lighting will lead to eye strain.

We look forward to testing the PRS700 and shooting a First Look video soon. In the meantime, feel free to comment on whether you think the new Reader is superior to the Amazon Kindle or whether the omission of a wireless component is a big strike against it. I was hoping Sony and Amazon.com would pair up on an electronic reader with Amazon doing the digital book delivery service and Sony doing the hardware (each playing to their strengths). But at least for this year, that doesn't appear to be in the cards.

 

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