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

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.

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