Editors' note: As of October 2007, this first-generation product has been replaced by its successor, the Sony Reader Electronic Book PRS-505.
The "electronic" book has been around for a while, but the biggest impediment for books to really move into the digital realm has been the absence of an affordable e-book reader that was any good. While there are plenty of other significant challenges that have to be overcome before big publishers get serious about e-books, a key first step is the hardware itself. The good news is that Sony's gotten a lot right with its PRS-500 Portable Reader System ($300), which most people know as the Sony Reader.
At 6.9 inches tall by 4.9 inches wide by 0.5 inch deep, the Reader is somewhere between the size of a standard DVD case and a short trade paperback novel--it's bound in a leather protective cover--but obviously, it's heavier (8.8 ounces) than a paperback because it houses a thin screen display with a metallic blue border. There are some buttons on the front along with a memory card expansion slot on the side. The 600x800-pixel, four-grayscale screen measures approximately 4.9x3.6 inches, and the first thing you notice about it when you turn on the device (it takes a few seconds to fire up after you slide the power switch) is that it's a high-contrast monochrome display that isn't backlit. Technically, it's an electrophoretic display, which Wikipedia describes as "an information display that forms visible images by rearranging charged pigment particles using an applied electric field."
Like some other electronic paper products, the Reader uses "E Ink" technology, which serves to make the letters and words on the screen look more print-like in their appearance. With the Size button, you can choose among three font settings (small, medium, and large), but even at the smallest setting, you're still getting fewer lines per page than you would with a printed book. For example, George Orwell's 1984 comes out to 767 pages on the Reader (on the medium font size), far longer than the printed version. You can also switch between landscape and portrait mode, though chances are you'll naturally hold the device vertically like a book and stick to portrait mode most of the time.
Overall, we liked the way text is displayed on the screen, and we didn't suffer eye-fatigue over long reading periods (at least not any worse than what you'd expect from reading a standard book in a decently lit environment). That said, it was a little bothersome that when you turn a page, the screen takes a second to refresh (it goes to black and essentially blinks). This is referred to as a "ghosting" effect and it appears to be an inherent downside to E Ink technology. While it's not a huge deal, when we showed the Reader to other users, it's one of the first remarks they made--they expected the page turn to be more fluid.
Navigating the device's user interface is a pretty straightforward affair, but it could be improved. There's a top-level menu that allows you to select books, audio, pictures, and adjust settings. You can select books by author, date, and also organize your books into collections and jump to a bookmarked page. The menu system is tabbed on the right column with numbers that correspond to a row of numbered buttons just below the display. Clicking on the number eight, for example, takes you to the eighth tab on the screen, which happens to be audio. If you're in the middle of reading a book, the numbered buttons allow you to jump forward and back over big chunks of pages (the Reader divides the number of total pages in the book by nine to evenly distribute the chunks).
While navigating with the numbered shortcut buttons gets you to where you want quickly enough, if you end up navigating using the little joystick button, the process can feel sluggish, and we often found ourselves skipping over the menu selection we wanted and having to go back. We also weren't thrilled with the buttons' size and shapes and felt Sony would have been better off going with dedicated "menu" and/or "back" buttons, or even a Home button that always took you back to the main menu. As it is, clicking the menu button takes you back one level in the menu, which is multilayered. And lastly, Sony duplicates the buttons for paging forward and back, which is odd but understandable (there are basically two ways that you hold the device in your hand, and depending on how you're holding it, your left thumb will either be resting on the left bottom corner of the device or higher up on its side, where a second set of page-turning buttons sit).