Sony Reader felled by the classics

It takes a long time to get into a good book, particularly if it's electronic.

Sixty-five seconds.

That's the amount of time it takes for the Sony PRS-505 Portable Reader System to let you into War and Peace. You click the book title from the Reader's library, wait one minute five seconds while the book loads, and you're back to the Napoleonic era.

Actually, you're not completely back. You have one more click to go. With a paper book, this process takes about a second.

The delay is one of the many kinks in the software of the Reader. For the past few years, critics and even company executives have complained about the quality of the software in the company's MP3 players, the Connect media service, and other products. Mostly, I chalked up the complaints to garden-variety Web 2.0 whining from the tech community. One of the reasons I ordered a test unit of the Reader was to see how far Sony has come in improving its navigation.

Sony Reader

I also think that electronic books represent a huge opportunity. Books consume paper and weigh a lot. Despite the decorative appeal of many books--who doesn't have an unread copy of Moby Dick prominently displayed on their shelves--many could go digital. And right now, Sony is letting users download 100 classics (Animal Farm, The Inferno, and so on) for free. It's the best deal I've seen since I got two grocery bags full of Signet Classics for $20.

Unfortunately, the electric library remains a work in progress. Here are a few other surprises with the Reader and the Connect service:

• The load-up time
The load-up time, I've discovered, depends on the length of the book. At 3,423 pages with the smallest font (4,757 pages in the medium font, and 7,269 in large font), War and Peace takes more time than any other book I've tried. Our Mutual Friend, the Charles Dickens classic at 2,678 pages, comes in at 16 seconds. Pudd'nhead Wilson, at 428 pages, takes only about five seconds. Anything less than 400 pages takes about three seconds.

The Reader apparently insists on loading up the entire book before you can read it. Since most people don't read entire books in one sitting, this seems a bit weird.

• No hourglass
After you select a book, there's no hourglass or other symbol to let you know your request has been registered. So you begin to hit other buttons. Unfortunately, each of these commands get executed in a serial fashion. So let's say you decided to read The Da Vinci Code (selection No. 5 in the library) after nothing happened when you selected War and Peace. Nothing happens again. So you select book No. 1 in the menu, The Secret Sharer.

You don't get The Secret Sharer. You get the copyright notice on War and Peace, because the Reader went first to the No. 5 selection on the War and Peace index page and then the No. 1 selection on the Table of Contents. Until I figured this out, I found myself being thrown randomly around the place.

For spastic people, the slow pace and lack of signals from the machine clearly is a problem.

• No search on the Connect main page
You can search the Connect service with your PC, but if you want to download books, you need to search through the Reader connected to a PC. However, in that mode, there is no search bar on the main page. You have to go one level deeper to select a category--literature, sports, etc.--to get a search bar.

Then, the search function works only for those subsections. If you search for "Gibbon" under literature, nothing comes up. If you search under "Gibbon in history," you get The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Again, weird.

• Lots of specials
On the Connect front door, there is a tab for special deals. After you buy a book, the Web site also shows you a tab for special deals. But the specials offered under these two tabs are different. It's only a problem if you want to buy another book on the first specials page you were on. The free classics, for instance, are available only on the front door.

• Registration
I can't recall how I actually registered the device, but it took about five minutes and somehow I got it accomplished.

But here's the good news: it's actually a very cool piece of hardware. The screen, from E-ink, looks very paperlike and causes less eye strain than reading an LCD screen. The downloaded family photos also look somewhat realistic. The screen itself is somewhat delicate. One shopper told me he visited three CompUSAs and in two, the Sony Reader on the display was broken.

The MP3 player worked as well as any MP3 player. No complaints there. After awhile, you could see how this could become a portable media device. With a headset and a cellular chipset, it could function as a phone. Upgrading the screen to color would make picture and video viewing possible.

Who knows? Something like this could make Sony the king of portable devices. Or it could become a long retreat from Moscow.

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