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Sony PRS-500 Portable Reader System review: Sony PRS-500 Portable Reader System

Sony PRS-500 Portable Reader System

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Kobo e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Headphones, Bluetooth speakers, mobile accessories, Apple, Sony, Bose, e-readers, Amazon, glasses, ski gear, iPhone cases, gaming accessories, sports tech, portable audio, interviews, audiophile gear, PC speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
7 min read

Editors' note: As of October 2007, this first-generation product has been replaced by its successor, the Sony Reader Electronic Book PRS-505.


Sony PRS-500 Portable Reader System

The Good

Slim and relatively lightweight; screen requires no backlight and is easy to read in bright environments; with the addition of optional memory card (SD or Memory Stick Pro), it's capable of storing thousands of electronic books; font size can be adjusted with a single button push; decent battery life; displays PDF and Word files, most image files, and plays MP3 and AAC audio.

The Bad

Overall, the unit feels a tad sluggish, with a short but noticeable delay when turning a page; controls aren't as intuitive as they could be; interface could be slightly easier to use; Sony's online Connect bookstore is still a work in progress; proprietary Connect book files aren't compatible with other devices and are often as expensive as paper books; Connect software isn't available for Mac owners; no support for Audible audio books.

The Bottom Line

Though the Sony PRS-500 Portable Reader System is an impressive platform for reading e-books and other documents, the price and availability of compatible "books" makes it a tougher sell.

The "electronic" book has been around for a while, but the biggest impediment for books to really move into the digital realm has been the absence of an affordable e-book reader that was any good. While there are plenty of other significant challenges that have to be overcome before big publishers get serious about e-books, a key first step is the hardware itself. The good news is that Sony's gotten a lot right with its PRS-500 Portable Reader System ($300), which most people know as the Sony Reader.

At 6.9 inches tall by 4.9 inches wide by 0.5 inch deep, the Reader is somewhere between the size of a standard DVD case and a short trade paperback novel--it's bound in a leather protective cover--but obviously, it's heavier (8.8 ounces) than a paperback because it houses a thin screen display with a metallic blue border. There are some buttons on the front along with a memory card expansion slot on the side. The 600x800-pixel, four-grayscale screen measures approximately 4.9x3.6 inches, and the first thing you notice about it when you turn on the device (it takes a few seconds to fire up after you slide the power switch) is that it's a high-contrast monochrome display that isn't backlit. Technically, it's an electrophoretic display, which Wikipedia describes as "an information display that forms visible images by rearranging charged pigment particles using an applied electric field."

The high-contrast screen is as close to actual ink on paper as we've ever seen.

Like some other electronic paper products, the Reader uses "E Ink" technology, which serves to make the letters and words on the screen look more print-like in their appearance. With the Size button, you can choose among three font settings (small, medium, and 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.

Overall, we liked the way text is displayed on the screen, and we didn't suffer eye-fatigue over long reading periods (at least not any worse than what you'd expect from reading a standard book in a decently lit environment). That said, it was a little bothersome that when you turn a page, the screen takes a second to refresh (it goes to black and essentially blinks). This is referred to as a "ghosting" effect and it appears to be an inherent downside to E Ink technology. While it's not a huge deal, when we showed the Reader to other users, it's one of the first remarks they made--they expected the page turn to be more fluid.

Navigating the device's user interface is a pretty straightforward affair, but it could be improved. There's a top-level menu that allows you to select books, audio, pictures, and adjust settings. You can select books by author, date, and also organize your books into collections and jump to a bookmarked page. The menu system is tabbed on the right column with numbers that correspond to a row of numbered buttons just below the display. Clicking on the number eight, for example, takes you to the eighth tab on the screen, which happens to be audio. If you're in the middle of reading a book, the numbered buttons allow you to jump forward and back over big chunks of pages (the Reader divides the number of total pages in the book by nine to evenly distribute the chunks).

The controls are functional enough, but they could've been more intuitive.

While navigating with the numbered shortcut buttons gets you to where you want quickly enough, if you end up navigating using the little joystick button, the process can feel sluggish, and we often found ourselves skipping over the menu selection we wanted and having to go back. We also weren't thrilled with the buttons' size and shapes and felt Sony would have been better off going with dedicated "menu" and/or "back" buttons, or even a Home button that always took you back to the main menu. As it is, clicking the menu button takes you back one level in the menu, which is multilayered. And lastly, Sony duplicates the buttons for paging forward and back, which is odd but understandable (there are basically two ways that you hold the device in your hand, and depending on how you're holding it, your left thumb will either be resting on the left bottom corner of the device or higher up on its side, where a second set of page-turning buttons sit).

Aside from the small navigational annoyances and the page refresh issue, we didn't encounter anything else that was too egregious. The real issue, of course--and sorry for waiting so long to get to this point--is what you can actually read on the Sony Reader. For starters, you can import a variety of content, much of it free, from your Windows computer to the device (via USB), though you have to use Sony's Connect desktop software to move content to the device's 64MB of internal memory (that 64MB allows you to store around 80 eBooks, so long as they aren't all War and Peace). Another way to access content is to transfer it to an SD or Memory Stick card and slip it in the Reader's expansion slot. However, you can only download encrypted Sony eBooks from the Connect store using the Connect desktop software. So, if you're a Mac user, the device probably isn't worth buying.

The 64MB of built-in memory can be expanded by slipping in a Memory Stick Pro or--amazingly, for a Sony product--an SD card.

The Connect software is much like the Sony's hardware: a little quirky and not entirely easy to use, but once you get used to it, you can deal with it. The Reader is capable of displaying Text, RTF, Word (they get converted to RTF files as they're imported to the Reader), and BBeB Book files, as well as PDF files, though they won't necessarily display properly because the PDF is scaled to fit the screen.

On the image side, you can view JPEG, GIF, and PNG files. The pictures are monochromatic--and they look like some really detailed Etch-a-Sketch work--but the effect is kind of cool, and you can use the reader to show off your family album if you're so inclined. As for audio, the Reader plays back MP3 and AAC files; there's no built-in speaker, however, so you will need to plug in a pair of headphones into the headphone jack to hear anything. Curiously, Sony doesn't support the Audible file format, so fans of audiobooks will need to fall back to their iPod or MP3 player of choice. The good news is you can read a book and listen to MP3 songs at the same time. Sony says that with a fully charged battery, you can turn 7,500 pages. It's hard to say what that translates into in terms of hours, but you should expect to get 15-20 hours of battery life, and possibly more.

You can find some free full-length books online in the form of PDF or Word files. But as we mentioned, to get the stuff you'd buy today in Barnes and Noble, you have to tap into Sony's Connect eBooks online store. You download the software to your computer, set up an account, and download whatever titles (they're copy-protected) strike your fancy--for a price, of course. We won't go into a full critique of the Connect service--you can follow the previous link to check it out yourself--but suffice to say that while the selection isn't anywhere near Amazon's, it isn't bad for a fledgling service. The books aren't exactly a bargain, with the prices for many books basically the same as their printed versions (in some cases, you might even find the printed version for less online). According to a Sony rep, "DRM rules allow any purchased eBook to be read on up to six devices (at least one of those six must be a PC). Although you cannot share purchased eBooks on other people's devices and accounts, you will have the opportunity to register five Readers to your account and share your books accordingly."

Sony does offer a number of classic titles for $1.99 and is currently running a promotion where you get 50 eBooks Classics with your purchase of the Reader (along with $50 for modern eBooks). These classics include everything from Hamlet to Moby Dick and Great Expectations. That's all well and good, but it's a shame that all eBooks don't cost less than $10--and most of them should cost less than $5.

Ultimately, the Sony Reader marks a nice progression for Sony in the e-book reader department. Enthusiasts remember the Sony Librie, and aficionados like to point to the larger and more expensive iRex iLiad ($699), which is also fairly new to the market and seems to have more of presence in Europe. But discussions of what is the ultimate e-book reader of the moment aside, the Reader is as close to a breakthrough product as the category has seen to date. Sony needs to make a second-generation device that's zippier, tweak the Reader's interface (both the hardware interface, as well as the Connect software), and continue to evolve the Connect eBooks store. Ideally, of course, Sony would come up with some sort of subscription service for checking out books, a la Netflix. But we won't hold our breath on that.


Sony PRS-500 Portable Reader System

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 6