In the nascent world of digital book readers, the two most high-profile competitors are Amazon's much-publicized Kindle and Sony's family of Readers, which now includes the PRS-505 and the PRS-700 reviewed here. The clear advantage of the Kindle is its built-in wireless service, which allows you to get content delivered directly to the device anywhere you can get a Sprint cellular data signal in the U.S., without the need to pay any sort of monthly fee. That's a big plus in its favor, but the Kindle does have a weakness: it just isn't the best looking e-book reader out there. That distinction belongs to PRS-700, which looks very similar to its predecessors, but incorporates a 6-inch (diagonal) touch screen, a much improved interface, faster operation, expanded internal memory, and a built-in LED reading light. All those positives should put the PRS-700 in the running for top dog in the digital reader space, but two serious flaws related to the new screen hold back an otherwise fine product.
Like earlier Readers, this model is both compact and slim, but it's 0.2 inch thicker and wider than the PRS-505 and weighs an ounce more. Its exact dimensions are 6.9 inches tall by 5 inches wide by 0.5 inch deep. The PRS-700 is somewhere between the size of a standard DVD case and a short trade paperback novel; it's bound in a leather protective cover that adheres magnetically to the front and back of the device. The overall package--case included--is sleeker and better designed than the Kindle. This is what a digital reader should look like; it's the right size and weight, though in time we should see these guys drop a few ounces.
I criticized previous Readers for having too many buttons and less-than-stellar interfaces. Probably the biggest change in this model is the addition of the touch screen, which changes the dynamics of the device. If ever there were a product 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). To be sure, it's not perfect (more on that in a minute), but the PRS-700 has a more minimalist feel to it, with only the essential buttons parked at the bottom of the device. All the other buttons are onscreen icons and the home-screen has been simplified, giving it a cleaner, more inviting look.
From a pure specs standpoint (aside from being touch-sensitive), the screen itself hasn't changed. It's a 600x800-pixel, eight-grayscale, "high-contrast," monochrome screen that measures approximately 4.9 inches tall by 3.6 inches wide. The screen is technically considered 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 PRS-700 uses "E Ink" technology, which serves to make the letters and words on the screen look more printlike in their appearance. The only problem--and the reason I put "high-contrast" in quotes--is that in going to a touch-screen display Sony has given something up in the way of contrast. I didn't have the older PRS-505 on hand to compare this model with, but I remembered that its screen looked very similar to that of the Kindle's, which I did have.
Looking at the Kindle side-by-side next to the PRS-700, it quickly became clear that the Kindle's screen is easier to read. Both backgrounds are grayish, but the Kindle's appears as a lighter gray (more white in it) and the letters appear blacker. The other thing I noticed is that the PRS-700's screen isn't as glare resistant as the Kindle's (both catch a little glare from certain angles, but the PRS-700 catches a lot more).
The PRS-700's screen is still quite readable and if you didn't have the PRS-505 or Kindle to stick next to it, you'd probably say, "This looks all right." And if there's one positive, the letters on the PRS-700 look slightly smoother and more filled in. But that Sony couldn't retain the contrast levels of its previous model and introduced glare issues is quite unfortunate.
In case you were wondering, there's no way to adjust the contrast. But you can adjust the size of the letters. With the Size button, you can choose among five font settings (small, medium, large, extra large, and extra extra 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.
As noted, this model incorporates an LED "reading light." It's not a backlight; 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 two levels of brightness or just turn it off.
We had mixed emotions about the light. The lighting isn't terribly uniform over the display but it will allow you to read your Reader in the dark. So, it's one of those features you appreciate is there (and you will use it), but at the same time, you'd like to see it implemented a little better. In terms of energy, LEDs are very efficient, but obviously, they still draw some power and having the light on will have an impact on your battery life. If you're doing a lot of reading at night, Sony also sells the optional Flex-Neck LED Reading Light PRS-LIGHT01 ($15) attachable nightlight.
Back to that touch screen. 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. The swiping is a nice touch, 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.