Editors' Note (July 6, 2010): As of July 2010, Sony has lowered the suggested retail price of this product to $299.99.
One thing has always been clear about Sony's line of e-readers: they're arguably the sleekest and most elegant dedicated-electronic-reading devices out there today (in a pre-Apple Tablet world, at least).
The same holds true for the Reader Daily Edition PRS-900, Sony's first e-reader to include built-in 3G wireless service for accessing e-books wirelessly from Sony's Reader Store. Like the Touch Edition PRS-600, this model also has a touch-screen interface, but its screen is elongated, measuring 7.1 inches diagonally instead of the more standard 6 inches. That makes it almost exactly the same length as the Amazon Kindle in terms of pure physical dimensions, but because the Kindle uses up some real estate for its physical keyboard, the Sony delivers several more lines of text on its longer screen.
The move to wireless is a big deal for Sony, because it allows the company to compete directly, from a features standpoint, with the Kindle and other e-readers like the Barnes & Noble Nook, which bundle in "free" cellular connectivity. Mix in a touch-screen interface and the Daily Edition's markup and note-taking capabilities and you should have one of the more appealing e-reader options out there, particularly when you factor in the aforementioned elegant design. However, a few shortcomings--including a high $399 price tag--keep this e-reader from truly outclassing the competition.
As far as the screen goes, Sony appears to have made some very slight improvements over the Touch Edition. This model's display has 16 levels of gray vs. 8 for the Touch Edition, which helps when viewing images (yes, you can display JPEGs and other image file formats, including BMP, PNG, and GIF). However, like the Touch Edition, this model still has some glare issues, and though the touch screen is fairly responsive, you're not looking at a capacitive screen like those found on iPhones and other new smartphones. That means you need to apply a little pressure to the screen to get the desired response and it just doesn't have the zippy feeling that the iPhone or iPod Touch has, partially because the paper-mimicking E Ink technology built into virtually all current e-readers is inherently sluggish compared with traditional LCD technology.
As we said about the PRS-600 Touch Edition, these flaws aren't fatal. And if the Daily Edition were the first e-reader you ever picked up and you had nothing to compare it with, you'd probably think it was just fine. But it's our job at CNET to compare products against one another, and thus we can tell you that you'll notice a clear difference between this screen and that of the Amazon Kindle, the Barnes & Noble Nook, and Sony's Reader Pocket Edition PRS-300.
The Daily Edition's 7.1-inch screen offers a 1,024x600-pixel resolution and 16 levels of grayscale. Like most other electronic paper products, this model uses e-ink technology, which serves to make the letters and words on the screen look more printlike in their appearance. One of the characteristics of e-ink is that when you turn a page or scroll from one onscreen menu item to another, there's a slight delay as the screen refreshes. That's true of this model, too, but it has a faster processor than Sony's entry-level PRS-300. Its faster processor is helpful when accessing PDF files, particularly larger ones, and using the zoom feature on those documents. (Note: Larger screen e-readers are more suitable for viewing PDF files, but while this one doesn't do a great job with them, it does better than the Nook and the Kindle do).
The Daily Edition may have a speed advantage, but the PRS-300, as noted, does offer better contrast--and so do the Kindle and Nook. Comparing the Daily Edition with the Nook side by side, the first thing you notice is that the letters and icons on the Daily Edition appear lighter and the background is slightly darker (read: a darker shade of gray). You'll also notice that when you are holding the two units together and tilt them, the Sony's screen is much more reflective. At certain angles, with normal overhead lighting, the glare is so bad that you can't read the text on parts of the screen. Needless to say, the combination of these drawbacks leaves your reading experience not as good as it could--and should--be.
In case you're wondering, there's no way to adjust the contrast. Nor can you change the font style, as you can on the Nook. But you can choose among six typeface sizes using the dedicated Size button--extra-small, small, medium, large, extra-large, and extra-extra large. Most people with reasonable eyesight will find that the medium and large font sizes are optimal for reading. This model doesn't have a built-in accelerometer that automatically flips the screen when you turn it, but you can manually set the screen to display vertically or horizontally.
Like the iPhone and other next-gen touch-screen phones that have been appearing lately, the Daily Edition 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. The swiping is a nice way of giving you the feeling of turning pages in a book, but a lot of folks will continue to use the well-placed hard buttons at the bottom of the screen to page forward and back.
Content: The Sony Reader Store
Beyond the screen gripes, our biggest nitpicks about the Reader Daily Edition involve the access and navigation of Sony's Reader Store on the device. We actually liked the overall interface of the Daily Edition, finding it had a clean, uncluttered layout. There are four icons at the bottom of the screen that take you to "Home," "Store," "Applications," and "Settings." You get to each area by tapping on its icon. Aside from the virtual buttons, you get five hard buttons at the bottom of the screen, including a dedicated "Home" button that comes in handy and a button that pops up the font adjustment minimenu onscreen.
The Reader Store itself also has a clean layout and we found it a cinch to navigate, though accessing the store sometimes required some patience, depending on how solid our connection was with AT&T's wireless service or if the connection was waking up from the standby mode that helps you conserve battery life. The overall experience felt slightly slower than it does on either the Kindle or the Barnes & Noble Nook and a couple of times while accessing the store the device actually froze or simply went back to the home screen.
Once you're in the store, Sony has a decent selection of books and periodicals to choose from. You can now subscribe to electronic versions of newspapers like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Financial Times, the San Jose Mercury News , and several others (subscription prices vary, but The New York Times' will run you $13.99 per month, or 75 cents for single issue). That said, the selection currently lags far behind what you'll find on the Kindle.
On the e-book front, Sony could use more refinement of its categories and it needs more top lists in subgenres. For instance, there's a Mysteries and Thrillers category within the larger Fiction category, but you can't drill down into subgenres like medical or legal thrillers, which makes it harder to find books you'd like by just browsing. Amazon does this much better.
On the content side, Sony has made a great effort to catch up with Amazon in terms of the number of books it has available, as well as pricing (like Amazon, Sony charges $9.99 for bestsellers). With the edition of thousands of free public domain titles from Google (which includes many pre-WWI classics), Sony boasts more than 1 million titles in its e-book store and that number continues to grow.
In recent months, Sony's also upgraded its eBook Library PC software (it's up to version 3.0), and--hallelujah--it's now available for both Windows and Mac machines. While the process of transferring content to the device isn't as convenient as downloading books wirelessly to the unit, the way you can with the Kindle (so long as you have a signal), Sony has definitely improved its software--so much so, in fact, that it's become pretty easy to use. Sony's software is not the liability it once was. Still, there are some small quirks you'll discover that suggest there's room for additional tweaks.