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Sony Reader PRS-T2 review: Not quite a Kindle killer

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It's one of those great footnotes of tech history: the first-gen Amazon Kindle, introduced in November 2007, is really a me-too device. It hit the market more than a year after the Sony PRS-500 -- which also wasn't the first e-book reader available, but was one of the first from a household name.

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7.0

Sony Reader PRS-T2

The Good

The <b>Sony Reader PRS-T2</b> is a compact and lightweight touch-screen e-book reader with built-in Wi-Fi and fast page turns. It offers access to a large catalog of e-books, magazines, and newspapers via Sony's online store, plus online loaners from your local library. It also supports EPUB files, and is compatible with any e-book store that uses the Adobe DRM format. Its battery lasts for up to two months on a single charge with Wi-Fi off.

The Bad

At $129, the PRS-T2 costs $10 more than competing models that have an integrated light. The Sony bookstore isn't as extensive as Amazon's or B&N's, and the Sony Reader app isn't currently available on the iPhone and iPad.

The Bottom Line

The Sony PRS-T2 is a perfectly good touch-screen e-reader whose only sin is that it doesn't have any competitive advantages over Amazon's and Barnes & Noble's e-readers.

The rest, of course, is history: Amazon has gone on to leverage its world-class store to dominate the e-book scene, while competitors like Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo struggle to keep up. Sony, meanwhile, keeps its hand in the game, releasing an updated Reader every year or so.

For 2012, the new model is the Reader PRS-T2. The touch-screen e-ink e-reader weighs 5.9 ounces, and is available in black, white, and red. It looks very similar to last year's PRS-T1 -- and also costs the same at $130 -- but it brings some feature and performance improvements along with some tweaks to the button layout and design.

Overall, it's an attractive e-reader, with nice, dark text, good performance, and a lightweight design that makes it easy to hold in your hand. I had a few nitpicks as about a couple of design elements, but overall I liked using this Reader. There's nothing really wrong with it except for the fact that it costs $10 more than competing e-readers that are just as good or better (Kindle Paperwhite, Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight). Moreover, it's missing the killer feature that those products offer: a built-in light (the $129.99 Kobo Glo also has this feature).

So is there any reason to get it? Well, if you're wed to Sony's e-books ecosystem (or just a Sony Reader fan), sure. This is an incremental upgrade from the the PRS-T1. But for others new to the e-reader game, especially those living in the U.S., it's hard to recommend the T2 over the Kindle Paperwhite or Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, both of which offer the self-illuminated screen and the more extensive online bookstores of Amazon and Barnes & Noble, respectively.

The Sony PRS-T2 has newly designed physical buttons on the front. Sarah Tew/CNET

Good design, few nitpicks
As I said, overall I liked the look and feel of the device. It's 4.375 inches wide, which is pretty narrow for an e-reader, and fits comfortably in your hand. I reviewed the matte black model and it has a nice, rubberized finished. The only problem with the black version is that the finish shows fingerprints (I suspect this would be less of an issue with the white version). To be fair, both the Kindle Paperwhite and Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight have similar finishes and also attract fingerprints. But I'm just pointing it out.

Unlike the Paperwhite, which has no physical buttons, this model has five on the front (underneath the screen). A lot of people like their touch-screen e-readers to also have physical buttons, but it's worth mentioning that the page-turn buttons are on the left side of the device, so if you prefer holding your e-reader in your right hand when you read, their placement might seem like a bit of a nuisance. The buttons also look a tad cheap, and with a lot of use, the paint on the buttons may start to wear off. Again, this is a small nitpick, but the Kindle and Nook's look a tad more sleek.

Feature highlights
In terms of upgrades, Sony says the "glare-free" E-Ink Pearl V220 touch screen has been "enhanced for long-term reading." There are new social features (Facebook and Evernote), a simplified home screen, and an updated default book layout intended to make it easier to organize and find books. Smoother zoom in and out and improved continuous page turns are designed to improve the reading experience. There are two built-in English-language and four translation dictionaries. Battery life has been doubled from one month to two with wireless off, and the device's control buttons have been redesigned.

Finally, the matte black T2 model (the review sample I got) includes a free voucher for the e-book of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," redeemable from the Pottermore shop online. (That's right, only the black model has the free book.)

A stylus is included for marking up pages. Sarah Tew/CNET

In other good news, you no longer have to install any software on your computer to access the Reader Store; it's all done through a Web-based interface now that you can access from most browsers. Sony says any book purchased via Web browser will be "waiting in the user's Reader library, ready to be read." Needless to say, Sony was just a bit behind Amazon and Barnes & Noble in this department.

The Sony PRS-T2 comes in three colors. Sony

As noted, the latest Reader now includes new Facebook and Evernote features, which are accessible by tapping on the "Applications" button on the home page. Sony says, "Consumers now have the ability to post a short passage from books purchased from Reader Store to Facebook directly from the device along with the book cover, author, and title." You also get access to content you saved using Evernote's Web Clipper feature, and pages saved with Evernote Clearly are optimized for the Reader's e-ink display. And finally, favorite passages can also be annotated on the T2 and saved in Evernote for later viewing elsewhere. (Sony includes a stylus for marking up pages, but the device does not have a slot for storing that stylus).

In case you were wondering, this is a Wi-Fi-only e-reader (there's no 3G option), and it comes with 2GB of internal memory but has a microSD expansion slot for additional memory that accepts up to 32GB cards. While there's no built-in light, Sony does offer a cover with an integrated light as an accessory for $50.

The device comes with 2GB of internal memory but has an expansion to add more memory. Sarah Tew/CNET

'Open' e-reader
Sony has always touted its Readers as being more "open" than Amazon's Kindles, which simply means you're not locked into a single bookstore "ecosystem." On the file compatibility front, the Reader supports PDF, Microsoft Word, and other text file formats, as well as EPUB/ACS4 and connection with Adobe Digital Editions. That means it's compatible with any e-book store that uses the Adobe DRM format, including e-bookstores in Europe and Asia. It can also show JPEG, PNG, GIF, and BMP image files.

One thing missing from this model that was on the PRS-T1 is audio support. Gone is the headphone jack and you can no longer listen to MP3 and AAC audio files. I don't think it's a big deal (I never used it), but some people might want that feature (the PRS-T1 is still available at the time of this writing). For what it's worth, audio support is also lacking in the current Kindle and Nook e-readers.

The Reader is also designed with easy library-lending access in mind, with a dedicated icon offering access to free library book downloads -- if you have a valid local library card, of course. It also offers easy access to the large library of free Google books, though the interface is slow, and that content mostly duplicates the free pre-1923 classic texts you can already get in Sony's store and as EPUB files elsewhere. Another small bonus: there's a Web browser. But like the experimental browser on the Kindle, it's sluggish and should only be used in a pinch.

Sony has improved the e-reader interface and added features. Sarah Tew/CNET

In all, the Reader Wi-Fi has a decent feature set that matches up fairly well with the Kindle and Nook, and includes EPUB support for those looking for that feature. At the same time, the Reader doesn't have the same e-book-lending features as the Nook and Kindle -- the ones that allow you to lend a friend a book for two weeks if they're on the same platform (and if the publisher supports lending for that specific title). It's also worth mentioning that while Sony now has an Android app for reading e-books you buy in the Sony Reader Store, it still hasn't gotten its Reader app approved by Apple (why not is unclear), so you can't read your Sony-bought e-books on iOS devices.

Of course, some people won't care about the aforementioned features, but others might.

Conclusion
In the last couple of years, Sony has only offered incremental improvements to its e-reader line, which is really down to this single model (that said, it's good that it has simplified its line). While Sony's never released sales numbers for its e-readers or e-books, the prevailing opinion is that it has only a small share of the U.S. e-reader market -- but the Reader does have international appeal. However, as Amazon, Apple, and upstarts like Kobo expand their e-book offerings into fast-growing markets abroad, Sony's facing plenty of competition outside of North America. Also, Barnes & Noble has recently taken the Nook brand overseas.

I like the Reader PRS-T2. It's lightweight, the text looks good on the screen, page turns are fast, and the new interface has been improved. As I said, there's nothing significantly wrong with it other than it doesn't do anything to distinguish itself from the competition. And in a crowded field of commodity products (yes, e-readers have essentially become just that), you risk looking a little mundane if you're not beating anybody on price, design, features, or performance. Ultimately, that's what the Sony PRS-T2 is: a solid but undistinguished e-reader.

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7.0

Sony Reader PRS-T2

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 7