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Hoping for the best from Sony's updated Reader

Sony has launched a new e-book reader. Here's what they say about it, what it means, and what they haven't said.

This week, Sony introduced the new PRS-505 Reader for ebooks. I've already ordered one to replace my PRS-500, which I used a lot before it broke not long ago.

Update: my PRS-505 has arrived. The review, in two parts, begins here.

Glaskowsky's broken Sony Reader PRS-500.
Glaskowsky's broken Sony Reader PRS-500. Peter Glaskowsky

That's my old Reader there. The damage was internal, somehow. I have no idea what went wrong. I didn't sit on it or anything like that. I just turned it on one day and that band on the left side of the screen showed up. You can see that the band doesn't extend to the top of the screen except in one spot, and even within the band, some of the pixel columns still work normally. There's also a horizontal band of dead pixels. All in all, the damage makes it impossible to use the unit, although it still works in every other way.

The photo also illustrates the really abysmal placement of controls on the PRS-500. The pair of buttons on the left edge turn the pages. The top one moves forward a page, but unless your elbows are hinged differently than mine, you'd probably find it easier to hit the bottom button of the pair. In normal use, the bottom "page back" button is just in the way.

The standard way of attaching the folding leather cover puts the hinge on that edge, which makes it even more difficult to get to those buttons. Even folded all the way around, the cover is bulky and spongy along the spine. Fortunately I discovered it's possible to put the cover on backwards, allowing me to hook a finger into the space between the front and back covers. This works great for holding onto the unit; though in that configuration, the magnet that holds the cover closed no longer works.

The other button on the left edge changes the font sizes on the screen. In some documents, there are three sizes: small, normal and large. In practice, they're more like "too small," small, and medium. In PDFs, you only get two sizes...and the largest size still limits the display of any PDF to the width of the window. So if you have a PDF from a textbook, you probably won't be able to read the text no matter what you do.

This isn't just about how sharp the user's eyes are; the screen only has 600x800-pixel resolution, so small text is inherently fuzzy. Also, because the E Ink screen has lower contrast than paper, text has to be larger to provide the same legibility.

Then, down at the lower-left corner of the unit, about three inches away from the pair of page-turning buttons, there's a big round rocker button. Guess what it does? It also turns the pages. Its active positions are toward the upper-right and lower-left directions, so it works equally badly in portrait and landscape orientations. But since the other page-turning buttons are basically out of reach in landscape mode, this rocker button is pretty much mandatory for that mode. And of course, Sony stuck another button underneath it. (That one's for marking a page for later reference. I never found a use for it.)

Over to the lower right, there are two more kinds of control-- a tiny little joystick surrounded by a one-way rocker switch in the shape of a ring. The joystick controls menus-- although menus are strictly linear, not hierarchical as implied by the joystick's four-way movements. The joystick is also a pushbutton. Finally, the PRS-500 has a set of 10 buttons along the bottom edge of the screen. These also work for selecting menu items; there are never more than 10 on the screen. (But menu items are arranged vertically when using the device in its primary portrait orientation.) When viewing the book text, however, hitting one of these buttons sends to the beginning, end, or intermediate page numbers within the book: 11 percent, 22 percent, 33 percent, etc.

Do you ever find yourself wishing for a fast way to get to the 44 percent point in a book? Me neither.

Seriously, it's like there were four different committees at Sony, each fighting for a different user-interface model for the PRS-500...and they all won. How Japanese.

Sony PRS-505
Sony PRS-505 Reader Digital Book Sony

OK, here's the new PRS-505. (It's also available in blue, like my PRS-500.) Some things have changed. The 10 buttons are now disposed vertically along the right edge, next to the primary pair of page-turning buttons, which are tucked into some kind of cosmetic crease that seems pretty weird to me. The other buttons at the bottom of the unit have been redesigned a little, but some of the basic problems haven't been fixed. All I can do is hope the PRS-505 is actually easier to use than it looks.

I should know pretty soon; I ordered a PRS-505 as soon as it showed up on the SonyStyle online store. Sony said it'd be able to ship the unit within a couple of days.

Here are some things to note about the new gizmo. The price has dropped from $350 at the debut of the PRS-500 to $300 for the PRS-505, but you can still get the PRS-500 from some retailers, typically for $280 or less. However, the PRS-505 doesn't come with an AC adapter, as the PRS-500 did. You can charge the unit from any USB port. But the PRS-500 could get into a situation when fully discharged where it couldn't wake up enough to start charging from USB, requiring the user to plug in the AC adapter. If the PRS-505 has the same issue, customers could find themselves with a "bricked" Reader. I'm betting Sony has fixed this problem, though; I didn't buy the optional AC adapter for my PRS-505. (I still have the AC adapter from my PRS-500, too, so I may be OK anyway.)

The PRS-500 came with a $50 credit for the Sony Connect ebook store online, at least at first, when I bought mine. The PRS-505 doesn't. Sony still offers a credit for 100 free titles from the "Connect Classics" series, but these are all available on Project Gutenberg anyway-- and in fact, at least on the PRS-500, the Project Gutenberg versions work better.

On the other hand, Sony offers free engraving when you buy the PRS-505 online. That's pretty cool. Apple does the same thing for online sales of iPods, and I've always taken advantage of it. I did the same thing on the new Reader, supplying my name and e-mail address, so if I lose the thing, there's at least some chance I'll get it back.

Of the software improvements, a Sony press release states:

More advanced users will appreciate the new USB-based mass storage capability that allows them to use the device as a portable drive for the direct transfer of documents, images and other files to the Reader. A new auto sync feature also lets users set up folders with books and documents that can be automatically synchronized when the device is connected to a PC.

These are significant improvements. Probably more important is that Sony plans to add support for Adobe Digital Editions, a new software platform for viewing PDF and XHTML (aka ePub, a format defined by the International Digital Publishing Forum) documents--later, that is; it apparently isn't in the PRS-505 yet. Since the PRS-500's built-in PDF reader is so awful, I'm sure the Digital Editions software can only be a big improvement.

I have to say, if you already have the PRS-500 or any other good e-book reader, the PRS-505 is probably not worth upgrading to. But for myself, I'm looking forward to getting the PRS-505 and getting back into my e-book groove.