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Sony takes on Kindle with next-gen e-readers

Sony has officially unveiled three new e-readers: the Reader Pocket Edition PRS-350, the Reader Touch Edition PRS-650, and the Reader Daily Edition PRS-950. They all feature next-generation touch-screen e-ink technology.

Sony PRS-350
The $179.99 Sony PRS-350 has a new 5-inch touch-screen E-Ink display and comes in pink and silver. Sony

Maybe the third time's the charm for Sony. After two tries at touch-screen e-readers, the company has officially unveiled its latest generation of Readers, and this go-round Sony's engineers have finally gotten it right--at least the touch-screen part.

As the rumors suggested, Sony is basically upgrading all three of its Readers with new technology, leading with the new higher-contrast E-Ink Pearl display, which is used in the latest Amazon Kindle and Kindle DX. In the upgrade, the smaller 5-inch Pocket Edition goes from PRS-300 to PRS-350 and the Touch Edition goes from PRS-600 to PRS-650. Those models will retail for $179.99 and $229.99 respectively and are available now.

Meanwhile, the larger Daily Edition PRS-950, which features an 7-inch screen along with built-in Wi-Fi and 3G wireless from AT&T, will list for "about" $299.99 and hit stores in November.

Yes, you heard right, only the top-end model has built-in wireless, which seems a bit odd when both the Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook cost less than the Sony Touch Edition and have built-in Wi-Fi and 3G. And both the Kindle and Nook now come in Wi-Fi-only versions for less than $150.

On a more positive note, we had a chance to play around with the new Reader models, and the touch-screen interface--and the screen itself--has been improved to the point where we can say it's finally hit its stride. Sony has managed to remove a layer of screen protection that previously hurt the contrast (the letters weren't as dark as on the Kindle or Nook) and caused glare issues due to increased reflectivity. Those matters appear to be resolved, though we'll wait till we get our hands on a review sample before making a final verdict.

While the touch screen may not be quite as responsive as the iPhone's, it's more responsive than it was, and, as we've said before, this type of interface is ideal for e-readers because it allows the designers to cut down on buttons and whittle the device down to just slightly bigger than the screen itself. You can also mark up text with the included stylus and turn pages with a swipe of a finger.

The 5-inch Reader Pocket Edition PRS-350 is small and lightweight, weighs 5.64 ounces, and is only .33 inch thick. Sony has also increased the built-in memory to 2GB.

Here are the PRS-350's key specs:

  • Price: $179.99
  • 5-inch "clear touch" screen (16-level grayscale E-Ink Pearl screen)
  • Weighs 5.64 ounces
  • Measures 5.71 x 4.11 x 0.33 inches (HWD)
  • 2 GB built-in memory (stores around 1,200 e-books)
  • Text and handwritten note-taking capabilities
  • Two weeks of reading on a single battery charge
  • Embedded multilingual dictionaries (2 English language and 10 translation dictionaries)
  • Six adjustable font sizes to customize
  • USB 2.0 data and power connection (micro USB)
  • Supports PDF, Microsoft Word, and other text file formats, as well as EPUB/ACS4 and connection with Adobe Digital Editions
  • Reads JPEG, PNG, GIF, and BMP image files
  • Reader Library software for PC and Mac
  • Available in silver and pink
  • Shipping September 1
Reader Touch Edition PRS-650
The Reader Touch Edition PRS-650 comes in red and black and lists for $229.99. Sony

The Reader Touch Edition PRS-650 has almost identical features to the PRS-350 but has a bigger 6-inch screen and, like its predecessor, adds SD and Memory Stick Duo expansion slots and plays back audio files.

Here are the PRS-650's key specs:

  • Price: $229.99
  • 6-inch "clear touch" screen (16-level grayscale E-Ink Pearl screen)
  • Weighs 7.93 ounces and is only .38 inch thick
  • SD and Memory Stick Duo Expansion slots for adding additional memory
  • Plays back MP3 and AAC audio files (headphone jack on board)
  • Otherwise offers the same features as the PRS-350 above
  • Available in black and red
  • Shipping September 1

Finally, you'll have to wait a few months for the new Reader Daily Edition PRS-950 to arrive, but it does offer increased battery life (Sony says up to 27 days with the wireless turned off). That's very close to the new Kindle's rated battery life of 30 days. The Daily Edition will only be available in silver and offers virtually identical features to the Touch Edition, though it does have the larger 7-inch screen and the aforementioned wireless capabilities. It weighs 8.99 ounces.

While we're generally impressed with the new Readers, we think the lack of wireless in the entry-level PRS-350 and step-up PRS-650 is disappointing and makes them harder sells against the new Kindle or the Nook--at least here in the U.S.--particularly since those models are cheaper. Abroad, where Sony has shown some strength with its e-readers, that missing feature may matter less.

If this weren't enough news on the Sony e-reader front, the company has also said it will be releasing a Reader Mobile Edition for iPhone and Android-based smartphones "later this year." Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as well as Kobo (Borders), already have e-reader apps available for smartphones so people can synchronize their digital libraries across multiple devices.

Reader Daily Edition
The new 3G and Wi-Fi-enabled Reader Daily Edition will cost $299.99 when it comes out later this fall. Sony