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In 2009, Sony was one of the few digital reader manufacturers to release a model with a 5-inch screen--an inch smaller than the standard 6-incher found on the Nook and Kindle. Now the same model--the Pocket Edition--is back in a sleeker, more compact package, and with more internal memory (2GB). Just as importantly, it now sports a touch-screen interface along with the new higher-contrast E Ink Pearl display found on the latest Amazon Kindle and Kindle DX.
That the PRS-350 Pocket Edition Reader, which weighs in at a mere 5.64 ounces and measures a very compact 5.71 inches tall by 4.11 inches wide by 0.33 inch deep, has a touch-screen interface isn't really the big news here. Rather, it's that Sony's engineers have finally gotten it right on the third try--at least the touch-screen part.
How'd they do it? Well, somehow they managed to remove a layer of screen protection that previously hurt the contrast (the letters weren't as dark as those on the Kindle or Nook) and caused glare issues due to increased reflectivity. Those matters are now resolved, and it's great to see the concept of a touch-screen e-ink e-reader finally hit its stride.
True, while the touch screen may not be quite as responsive as those of the iPhone and its superphone brethren, it's far more responsive than the previous generation's. 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, jot down notes (you can use the virtual keyboard or the stylus), and turn pages with a swipe of a finger (yes, the device is zippier than its predecessor). We also liked how you could double-tap on a word to bring up its definition in the built-in dictionary (the Reader keeps logs of the words you've looked up as well--nice touch).
Here are the PRS-350's key specs:
|5-inch "clear touch" screen (800x600 resolution; 16-level grayscale E Ink Pearl screen)|
|Weighs 5.64 ounces|
|Measures 5.71 x 4.11 x 0.33 inches (HWD)|
|2GB 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 Windows and Mac|
|Available in silver and pink|
As you can see from the list above, the one big omission from the features list is wireless connectivity. There's none, which seems a bit odd given that both the Kindle and Nook now come in Wi-Fi-only versions for less than $150 and those models have larger 6-inch screens. One can only assume that Sony simply couldn't produce the PRS-350 in a Wi-Fi version for a similar price and turn a profit (or even break even). Obviously, the touch-screen interface is costlier to implement, but it's a truly a shame that Sony couldn't include Wi-Fi.
That's our biggest gripe about the device, which we otherwise really liked. Some people aren't fans of smaller e-readers, but the PRS-350's size is appealing to those who want to carry around a very compact e-reader that easily slips into a coat pocket or a purse and barely weighs you down. That said, if your eyesight isn't great, this probably isn't the e-reader for you. And while it does display PDF files and has zoom capabilities (along with Word and text formats), we can't say the small screen is all that convenient for PDF viewing. But if compact is what you're after, compact is what this is--without being too small.
With the Size button, you can choose among six font settings: extra-small, small, medium, large, extra-large, and extra-extra-large. While the absolute sizes vary from title to title, a 5-inch screen (diagonal) doesn't give you a lot of real estate. In one case, the large font size yielded just 11 lines with about four words per line; in other cases, it was 15 to 17 lines. However, if you switch to the "medium" setting, you move up to about 24 lines of text with around 10 words per line, which is pretty good. (Note: You can manually set the screen to display vertically or horizontally, but we really didn't like the horizontal setting for reading books.)
To download e-books from the Sony store, you have to install the Sony desktop app on your Mac or Windows computer. You then "side-load" e-books you've purchased to the device via the USB port. Alternatively--and this is one of the nice things about the device--you can download EPUB books from other sites and transfer those books to the device by simply dragging and dropping them to the device icon when you're connected to the desktop app on your computer. For example, we downloaded some free public-domain books from epubbooks.com. Also, this Sony reader allows you to check out EPUB books from your local library if it offers that service. The Nook also has this capability, but the Kindle currently does not.
All in all, while the Sony e-book store has an ample selection of titles, it isn't quite up to the level of Amazon's Kindle Store or Barnes & Noble's e-book store. We should also point out at that at the time of this writing Sony didn't have an iPhone or Android app that would allow you to read e-books you bought from the Sony e-book store on those other devices. Apps are in the works, the company says, but they should have been ready for the launch of the latest Readers. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo (which also powers Borders' e-book offerings) all have apps that allow you to sync your digital library between multiple devices.
Beyond the major "no Wi-Fi" shortfall, the Reader Pocket Edition also lacks audio playback and expandable storage. For those two features, you'll need to step up to the Sony Reader Touch Edition PRS-650 ($230). That model has a bigger 6-inch screen and, like its predecessor, adds SD and Memory Stick Duo expansion slots and plays back audio files--but it, too, lacks Wi-Fi. Later in 2010, Sony will release the Reader Daily Edition PRS-950 ($300). In addition to an elongated 7-inch screen, that model offers Wi-Fi and 3G wireless connectivity, so there's no need to tether to a PC for book purchasing. As always, we wish Sony would include even a basic case for the Reader. Two options will soon be available as add-ons, however--a standard case that gives a classic bound edition appearance, and one with a swing-out light (powered by an AAA battery).
When all is said and done, there's really a lot to like about the updated Reader Pocket Edition, and we applaud Sony for finally taking the e-ink reader's interface to the next level (we wish both the Kindle and Nook had this touch interface). But it's just a shame that the PRS-350 doesn't offer wireless connectivity and that its price point is a little higher than perfectly good e-readers that do have it.
Now, if you're someone who doesn't mind tethering your e-reader to your computer to acquire and transfer content, you can choose to ignore that gripe. According to Sony, in Europe and other parts of the world, people aren't so preoccupied with going wireless. But we do think that if Sony wants to keep up with Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., it needs to figure out a way to bring wireless to all its e-readers, even its entry-level model.