Sony Reader Digital Book PRS-700BC - eBook reader - Sony Reader Software - 6
In the nascent world of digital book readers, the two most high-profile competitors are Amazon's much-publicized Kindle and Sony's family of Readers, which now includes the PRS-505 and the PRS-700 reviewed here. The clear advantage of the Kindle is its built-in wireless service, which allows you to get content delivered directly to the device anywhere you can get a Sprint cellular data signal in the U.S., without the need to pay any sort of monthly fee. That's a big plus in its favor, but the Kindle does have a weakness: it just isn't the best looking e-book reader out there. That distinction belongs to PRS-700, which looks very similar to its predecessors, but incorporates a 6-inch (diagonal) touch screen, a much improved interface, faster operation, expanded internal memory, and a built-in LED reading light. All those positives should put the PRS-700 in the running for top dog in the digital reader space, but two serious flaws related to the new screen hold back an otherwise fine product.
Like earlier Readers, this model is both compact and slim, but it's 0.2 inch thicker and wider than the PRS-505 and weighs an ounce more. Its exact dimensions are 6.9 inches tall by 5 inches wide by 0.5 inch deep. The PRS-700 is somewhere between the size of a standard DVD case and a short trade paperback novel; it's bound in a leather protective cover that adheres magnetically to the front and back of the device. The overall package--case included--is sleeker and better designed than the Kindle. This is what a digital reader should look like; it's the right size and weight, though in time we should see these guys drop a few ounces.
I criticized previous Readers for having too many buttons and less-than-stellar interfaces. Probably the biggest change in this model is the addition of the touch screen, which changes the dynamics of the device. If ever there were a product that would benefit from the switch to touch-screen navigation, it's an e-book reader (iRex was the first with an e-ink touch-screen display, but that device was prohibitively expensive). To be sure, it's not perfect (more on that in a minute), but the PRS-700 has a more minimalist feel to it, with only the essential buttons parked at the bottom of the device. All the other buttons are onscreen icons and the home-screen has been simplified, giving it a cleaner, more inviting look.
From a pure specs standpoint (aside from being touch-sensitive), the screen itself hasn't changed. It's a 600x800-pixel, eight-grayscale, "high-contrast," monochrome screen that measures approximately 4.9 inches tall by 3.6 inches wide. The screen is technically considered an electrophoretic display, which Wikipedia describes as "an information display that forms visible images by rearranging charged pigment particles using an applied electric field." Like some other electronic paper products, the PRS-700 uses "E Ink" technology, which serves to make the letters and words on the screen look more printlike in their appearance. The only problem--and the reason I put "high-contrast" in quotes--is that in going to a touch-screen display Sony has given something up in the way of contrast. I didn't have the older PRS-505 on hand to compare this model with, but I remembered that its screen looked very similar to that of the Kindle's, which I did have.
Looking at the Kindle side-by-side next to the PRS-700, it quickly became clear that the Kindle's screen is easier to read. Both backgrounds are grayish, but the Kindle's appears as a lighter gray (more white in it) and the letters appear blacker. The other thing I noticed is that the PRS-700's screen isn't as glare resistant as the Kindle's (both catch a little glare from certain angles, but the PRS-700 catches a lot more).
The PRS-700's screen is still quite readable and if you didn't have the PRS-505 or Kindle to stick next to it, you'd probably say, "This looks all right." And if there's one positive, the letters on the PRS-700 look slightly smoother and more filled in. But that Sony couldn't retain the contrast levels of its previous model and introduced glare issues is quite unfortunate.
In case you were wondering, there's no way to adjust the contrast. But you can adjust the size of the letters. With the Size button, you can choose among five font settings (small, medium, large, extra large, and extra extra 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.
As noted, this model incorporates an LED "reading light." It's not a backlight; rather, it's more like side-lighting (some call it front-lighting but the LEDs are placed on the sides of the display), and you can increase and lower the intensity between two levels of brightness or just turn it off.
We had mixed emotions about the light. The lighting isn't terribly uniform over the display but it will allow you to read your Reader in the dark. So, it's one of those features you appreciate is there (and you will use it), but at the same time, you'd like to see it implemented a little better. In terms of energy, LEDs are very efficient, but obviously, they still draw some power and having the light on will have an impact on your battery life. If you're doing a lot of reading at night, Sony also sells the optional Flex-Neck LED Reading Light PRS-LIGHT01 ($15) attachable nightlight.
Back to that touch screen. Like the iPhone and other next-gen touch-screen phones that have been appearing lately, the Reader incorporates some gesture-based commands. You can swipe your finger across the display to page forward or back (you can choose between a left or right swipe to advance pages in the settings menu). Swiping and holding your finger down at the end of the swipe allows you to advance or rewind through pages at a fast clip. The swiping is a nice touch, but a lot of folks will continue to use the well-placed hard buttons at the bottom of the screen to page forward and back.
The PRS-700 also has an annotation and notes feature. With the included stylus--or your finger--you can highlight words and add annotations via a virtual keyboard that you tap on. The Kindle offers this feature via a Blackberry-style hard keyboard, but some argue that the Kindle's keyboard just isn't all that useful, takes up too much real estate, and elongates that device unnecessarily. The virtual touch keyboard seems like a good compromise, especially given that it'll be used a lot less than one on a dedicated e-mailing device.
It's worth noting that the PRS-700's touch screen isn't as touch-sensitive as the screen on the iPhone and several other new cell phones. How does this affect usage? Well, you've got to take extra care when highlighting a word or phrase with the stylus; it's easy to undershoot or overshoot the word. And until you get the hang of swiping, you may end up swiping more than once to turn a page. The key is to press more firmly on the screen than you're used to (if you've ever had a device that has a touch screen).
We said it before with the PRS-505 and we'll say it again for this model: we were a little disappointed that the unit doesn't ship with an AC adapter (it's an optional accessory that costs $30); instead, the default charging option is limited to connecting the Reader to your PC with the included USB cable. If you happen to own a Sony PSP, the charger from that device works with the Reader as well. It's also worth noting that we couldn't charge the Reader with a standard USB cable connected to a 5V power adapter, such as the standard iPod wall charger. The Reader only charged via USB when we used the cable that came with the unit and connected it to the USB port on a PC. Go figure.
On the content side, Sony is making an effort to catch up with Amazon in terms of the number of books it has available. As of this writing, it was offering abut 60,000 titles in its e-book store and that number should approach 100,000 by early next year. Sony has revamped the e-book store for the better and the device ships with eBook Library 2.5 PC software, which is more user friendly than previous versions, but it's not as convenient as just downloading books wirelessly to the unit, as you can with the Kindle (so long as you can get a signal).
Downloading a purchased book is a two-step process. You launch the software, connect the Reader via USB, and browse the e-book store, which in some ways is better organized and superior to the e-book store built into the Kindle. After you purchase a title, it goes into a special folder; you then drag the title onto the icon for the device and it transfers to it. All in all, it's pretty simple. And adding nonencrypted files is even easier: you just drag them over to the "book" folder on the PRS-700, which appears on your computer as an external drive.
In fact, one of the Reader's strengths is its ability to read other formats besides encrypted Sony e-books from the store. The Reader is capable of displaying text, RTF, Word, BBeB Book files, and EPUB files, as well as PDFs. Previously, you couldn't zoom in on your PDF files, but now you can. The zooming isn't quite as fast as you'd expect from a computer (there's a delay of a couple seconds), but it helps that the PRS-700 has the aforementioned faster processor, which speeds up everything, including page turns. It's still not super zippy, but it's definitely a noticeable bump up from the PRS-505 and Kindle.
As noted, this model doubles the amount of internal memory from 128MB to 256MB, which allows you to store around 300 books. Another way to access content is to transfer it to an SD or Memory Stick Duo card and slip it in the Reader's expansion slot. However, you can only download encrypted Sony eBooks using the desktop software; likewise, only the software can be used to organize the titles into customized collections. So, if you're a Mac user, the device probably isn't worth buying.
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 a pair of headphones into the headphone jack to hear anything. Not surprisingly, Sony doesn't support the Amazon-owned Audible file format, so fans of audio books will need to fall back to their iPod, MP3 player, or the Kindle. 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 go several days of reading without having to recharge, but audio playback will sap that accordingly.
Sony continues to run a promotion where you get 100 eBook Classics with your purchase of the Reader. These classics, which normally cost $1.99 each, include everything from Hamlet to Moby Dick and Great Expectations. Most best sellers cost around $10, which is too high in our book, but the publishers, not Sony, control the pricing to a large degree.
In conclusion, I'd have to say that this was a tough review to do. Sony has made a lot of good choices with the PRS-700; it's faster, has a cleaner, easier-to-use interface, and the touch screen definitely simplifies navigation and makes the device a relative pleasure to use. But it's hard to ignore that for the prime function of the product--reading--the screen on both the PRS-505 and the Kindle are better. We're not sure what Sony can do to fix that, but until it does, the Kindle remains top dog in the digital reader realm.