Editors' Note (July 6, 2010): As of July 2010, Sony has lowered the suggested retail price of this product to $149.99.
Editors' note (June 23, 2010): The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace. Anyone interested in this product should check out the Nook 3G, Nook Wi-Fi, and Amazon Kindle, all of which offer significantly more features for around the same price.
When it comes to e-book readers, the jury is still out on what screen size is ideal. Until recently, consumers were pretty much limited to choosing between 6-inch models from Sony, Amazon, and a few lesser-known manufacturers. But now new e-readers are cropping up in both larger and smaller sizes, and Sony's 5-inch Reader Pocket Edition (PRS-300) is making a bid to capture a chunk of the nascent e-reader market.
As the entry-level model in Sony's 2009 e-book lineup, the comparatively diminutive PRS-300 has neither the touch screen that's found on the $300 PRS-600 Reader Touch Edition nor the built-in 3G cellular wireless connection of the $400 Reader Daily Edition and its archrival, the $300 Amazon Kindle. This model also lacks expansion slots for more memory, annotation and note-taking capabilities, a built-in dictionary, and the MP3 audio of its step-up siblings. But while the PRS-300 Reader Pocket Edition sticks to the basics, it has the most attractive price tag to date for a mainstream e-reader: $200. And unlike the Kindle, its use of the Epub file format opens the door to a variety of free content, including public domain Google Books downloads and titles that can be electronically checked out from many local libraries.
Measuring 6.25 inches by 4.25 inches by 0.41 inch and weighing just less than half a pound, the PRS-300 looks to be about 20 percent smaller than the PRS-600. It's hard to call it a true pocket device as the iPhone is, but it will slip into the inside pocket of most sports coats (we tried it with a blue blazer), as well as cargo pants pockets. The unit comes with an inexpensive yet functional neoprene black slip cover. Fancier covers are also available.
This model comes in blue, silver, and rose, and retains the look, feel, and interface of earlier Readers. While this doesn't quite have the minimalist styling of the touch-screen PRS-600 and PRS-700, this model does have a nice, clean look with only a handful of buttons that keeps things simple and makes navigating the device pretty straightforward. Below the screen, you'll find a five-way directional pad, plus home, back, bookmark, and zoom; to the right are 10 buttons that correspond to navigation options on menu screens.
The PRS-300's 5-inch screen offers 800x600 resolution and eight levels of grayscale (color e-book screens won't be available anytime soon). Like most other electronic paper products, the PRS-300 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, and while the lag isn't irksome, we did get the impression that the step-up PRS-600 was zippier and turned pages a fraction of a second more quickly. (Note: When dealing with PDF files, especially larger size ones, the unit definitely slows down and appears downright sluggish at times.)
While the PRS-600 may have a speed advantage, the PRS-300 does offer better contrast. Comparing the PRS-300 with the PRS-600 side by side, the first thing you notice is that the letters and icons on this model appear significantly darker, and the background on the PRS-600 is slightly darker (read: a darker shade of gray). The reason, ironically, is that the PRS-300 lacks a touch screen. That's because the touch screen adds an extra layer to the display, which seems to reduce the contrast. In fact, we thought the PRS-300's contrast was arguably a hair better than the Kindle. The entry-level Sony also doesn't have any of the PRS-600's glare issues (another pesky by-product of the touch screen).
In case you're wondering, there's no way to adjust the contrast. (There's also no backlight, but considering that it didn't really work well in the PRS-700, we're not complaining.) You can adjust the size of the letters. With the Size button, you can choose among three font settings: small, medium, and large. While the absolute sizes vary from title to title, a 5-inch screen (diagonal) doesn't give you a lot of real estate. In one case, the large font size yielded just 11 lines with about four words per line; in other cases, it was 15 to 17 lines. However, if you move to the "small" setting, you move up to 26 lines of text with around 10 words per line. (Note: You can manually set the screen to display vertically or horizontally, but we really didn't like the horizontal setting for reading books.)
The small font setting actually equates to the font size you'd find in your typical paperback book, so it's not that tiny and should work fine for most people. That said, you do run into some justification issues (words spread awkwardly across a line) and reading purists might be put off having to turn pages every 15 seconds or so, depending on your reading speed. But all in all, the reading experience was better than we expected and we really did like the PRS-300's design. The PRS-300 just fits more comfortably in your hand, and since it's lighter than 6-inch readers, you can hold it for longer without having your hand/arm get tired.