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The Gizmo Report: Sony's PRS-505 Portable Reader System (part 2, software)

Glaskowsky concludes his two-part review of Sony's new ebook reader.

Before I finish my review of the new Sony PRS-505 Reader (you should probably read part 1 first, here), I wanted to mention that Sony itself has a corporate blog, hosted by corporate-communications manager Rick Clancy.

Peter's new Sony PRS-505 Reader.
Peter's new Sony PRS-505 Reader. Peter N. Glaskowsky

Clancy apparently has permission to stray slightly off-message, and a recent result of this permissive policy was a funny blog entry about an ill-conceived marketing slogan for the Reader: "Sexier than a librarian." Explaining the slogan, Clancy said:

Please be assured that this was a tongue and cheek effort on our part, playing off a certain stereotype or a fantasy, depending on how you look at it. With a little humor in mind, our aim was to draw attention to the style and the appeal of this unique device. The ad was never meant to be taken literally. In fact, I have a cousin who spent several years as a librarian, and I certainly would not want to make such an implication about her one way or the other.

Now that's comedy.

Anyway, I haven't spent as much time with my new Reader as I'd like-- too much other stuff going on-- but I figure I've waited long enough to complete this review. Today, I'll talk about the software aspects of the system... and leave one major topic for later.

The short summary is that the new Reader works pretty much like the old one except for a couple of significant improvements.

Like the PRS-500, the new model provides all the basic functions you need to read ebooks. You can view your collection sorted by title, author, or by the date each book was added to the Reader. For those of us with large collections of ebooks, the biggest improvement is that the PRS-505 supports named "Collections" of books stored on the Memory Stick Duo and Secure Digital flash-memory cards. The PRS-500 supported collections on its internal storage, but not on flash cards. This limitation was very annoying, since the flash cards are more likely to contain large book collections.

Unfortunately, collections can only be maintained through Sony's eBook Library application, which is only available for Windows. Books can be transferred directly to the Reader or its memory cards on any machine when the Reader is attached via USB, but only the Library software can associate books with a collection.

Also, collections are still just a one-level hierarchy. I can't have a "Fiction" collection with subdirectories for "Science Fiction," "Classics," and so on. Even with only about 400 titles in my Reader, I could really use a bit more flexibility in categorizing everything.

This wouldn't be a problem if the Reader was faster. Scrolling through a list of 100 books in a web browser to find a specific title wouldn't take more than a couple of seconds. On the PRS-505, like the PRS-500, turning the page in a Collection takes about 1.5 seconds, and you can only see ten at a time. You can't even go backwards from the first page to reach the last page, which would help significantly. (In these tables of contents, short titles end up displayed with larger fonts, which I find annoying. It makes it look like short-titled books are somehow more important than the others.)

In the "Books by Title" and "Books by Author" lists, there's a shortcut page for titles beginning with 0-9, ABC, DEF, and so on-- but there's no such page for Collections.

The real slowdowns kick in when you open up large files, especially PDFs. Bad PDF rendering was the PRS-500's biggest weakness, and I'm sorry to say it hasn't been improved at all in the PRS-505. Rendering large PDF files takes a long time, and most PDFs don't even look very good. In fact, PDFs meant to be printed on 8.5" x 11" paper (or A4 size, or anything larger) are often entirely illegible on the Reader.

The problem is that there's just no way to zoom in to a PDF page very far. The best you can do is switch the display into landscape mode and use the "Medium" zoom setting to put the width of the printed area across the screen. But that isn't good enough for many textbooks, product brochures, maps, etc.

In order to provide us both with a common point of reference, I did a quick Google search for textbooks in PDF format, and found one that is available free from the authors: the third edition of "A Heat Transfer Textbook" by John H. Lienhard IV and John H. Lienhard V.

Opening this book on the Reader only takes a few seconds, but the limitations in the Reader's PDF rendering are immediately apparent. Text on the copyright page, for example, can be displayed no larger than 0.050" in height (for capital letters) in portrait mode, or 0.080" in landscape mode. By way of comparison, the fine print on my latest AT&T cellphone contract was 0.095" in height, and the AT&T contract was darker and thus easier to read.

On page 289 of this textbook, there's a figure approximating the velocity function of a laminar-flow boundary layer. Capital letters in the caption for that figure are a mere 0.045" tall in landscape mode, or 0.035" tall in portrait mode. And in fact, some of the really thin characters, like the letter "i," disappear entirely, apparently falling between visible pixels. This textbook isn't even the worst case; I have other documents in which much of the text is entirely illegible regardless of viewing mode.

And once you get into them, these big PDF files are really slow to turn pages. Click the "page forward" button, and it takes 7 seconds to see page 290.

Okay, so we'll just have to accept that the PRS-505 still isn't very useful for many kinds of PDF documents. That being said, it works pretty well for pure text when the PDF file is properly optimized for the Reader. When I was experimenting with the PRS-500, I figured out that the perfect page size is a width of 3.57" and a height of 4.59" with a font size of 8 or 10 points. I prefer 10-point text, but younger eyes will need fewer page turns with 8-point text.

But the easiest format to deal with is RTF files, which can be made by almost any word processor these days. When I download books from Project Gutenberg, for example, I get RTF files whenever possible. RTF files are better than text files because the Reader scans for the title and author information in the document properties, making the tables of contents look better. Unfortunately, there seems to be one new issue with RTF files on the PRS-505.

Some RTF files now go through a "formatting" process the first time they're opened... and then again each time a new zoom level is selected. Not all of them do, and I don't see what causes it.

A large RTF file can take a long time to format. The Gutenberg version of the Complete Works of Shakespeare took seven minutes and 45 seconds to format before it could be viewed; changing the font size triggered another formatting. Oddly, changing from portrait to landscape didn't require reformatting, even though the actual font size on the Reader's display changes. Once a given font size was formatted, the Reader seemed to remember the formatting; re-opening the book was much faster, about nine seconds.

The PRS-505 also shares its predecessor's ability to play MP3 audio files and DRM-free AAC files too; the latter are most commonly produced by Apple's iTunes. (My advice is not to transcode MP3 files to AAC files, but if you rip CDs to your hard disk, the AAC choice will sound better than MP3s for any given bitrate. An AAC file at 256 kbps will sound indistinguishable from the original CD except on the very best audio gear.) But like the PRS-500, once you start music playing on your PRS-505 and switch over to read a book, you can't pause, rewind, or skip tracks without going back through the menus to the music controls. Personally, I just don't use this feature.

Sony's eBook Library software, which I use under Parallels Desktop on my MacBook Pro, is much like the older Connect Reader software. It allows the user to add, remove, and read books from the Reader and flash cards. It works pretty well, performing all of its functions much faster than the Reader itself. Copying files to or from the Reader can be a little slow, but that's because of USB throughput limits.

I'm not sure when Adobe and Sony will get Adobe's Digital Editions software running on the Reader, but I'm certainly looking forward to that. I'll review that separately when I can.

Anyway, I'm happy with the PRS-505. It's better than the PRS-500-- although not enough better to justify upgrading if yours still works. The one thing I haven't been able to test is whether the PRS-505 is more rugged than the older model. My PRS-500 display died under suspicious circumstances (suspiciously free of physical trauma, that is). I sure hope the PRS-505 doesn't.