Editors' Note (July 6, 2010): As of July 2010, Sony has lowered the suggested retail price of this product to $169.99.
Editors' Note (January 25, 2010): Due to competitive changes in the marketplace, we have lowered the rating on this product.
When Sony released its touch-screen PRS-700 Reader last year, it had a few noticeable flaws. First, its contrast--or how black the letters appear on the screen--wasn't as good as that of the Amazon Kindle or even Sony's earlier PRS-505 Reader. Secondly, its screen reflected light and created a glare issue if you didn't hold the device at just the right angle when viewing it. Thirdly, the side-lit screen theoretically allowed for reading in dark environments, but it was more trouble than it was worth. And finally, the touch screen wasn't quite as responsive as it should have been. Those flaws were especially disappointing because the PRS-700 was otherwise a pretty good e-reader, and we found the touch-based interface to be more intuitive than navigating on the Kindle.
Enter the Sony Reader Touch Edition PRS-600. At first glance, it looks very similar to the PRS-700, but upon closer inspection you'll notice that Sony has removed the LED sidelights from the edges of the display and slimmed the device a bit. The lighting on the PRS-700 wasn't great and the root of several of the device's flaws, as it added another layer of glass to the device, making the screen more reflective and less responsive at the same time.
So lights gone, the problem is fixed, right?
Alas, not exactly. The PRS-600 is definitely an improvement over its predecessor, but it, unfortunately, retains two of its major flaws. While the screen is clearly more responsive to your touch, it still has some glare issues and the letters simply don't appear as black and distinct as the letters on the step-down PRS-300, which doesn't offer a touch screen.
No, these flaws aren't fatal. And if you picked up an e-reader for the first time and had nothing to compare the PRS-600 with, you'd probably think it was just fine. But it's our job at CNET to compare products to one another, and thus we can tell you that you'll notice a clear difference between this screen and that of the Amazon Kindle and Sony's Reader Pocket Edition PRS-300--which offers slightly better contrast than Amazon's e-reader. It's a shame, because in most other regards, the PRS-600 is a very good e-reader.
First off, let's get the wireless issue out of the way: the Reader Touch Edition doesn't have it. Sony has tapped its upcoming Reader Daily Edition to go toe-to-toe with the Kindle, so you'll want to wait for that one if the dearth of cellular wireless is a deal breaker. Otherwise, the PRS-600 is fairly loaded with features. Beyond its 440MB of usable built-in memory--good for storing about 350 e-books--there's a set of dual expansion slots on the top of the unit for both SD and Memory Stick Duo memory cards. Also, you get annotation and note-taking capabilities (you can write directly on the screen with the included stylus), MP3 audio, and JPEG image viewing. And its use of the EPUB file format opens the door to a variety of free content, including public domain Google Books downloads and titles that can be electronically checked out from many local libraries.
Measuring 6.9 inches tall by 4.8 inches wide by 0.4 inch thick and weighing 0.63 pounds, the PRS-600 has a 6-inch screen (diagonal) and looks to be about 20 percent bigger than the 5-inch Reader Pocket Edition PRS-300. To protect your investment, the device ships with an inexpensive yet functional neoprene black slip cover. Fancier covers, such as the leather-styled one that comes with the PRS-700, are also available, but they'll cost you extra (it seems as if Sony had to cut corners on the cover to keep costs down).
The PRS-600's 6-inch screen has an 800x600-pixel resolution and eight levels of grayscale (color e-book screens won't be available anytime soon). Like most other electronic paper products, the PRS-600 uses "e-ink" technology that serves to make the letters and words on the screen look more printlike in their appearance. One of the characteristics of e-ink is that when you turn a page or scroll from one onscreen menu item to another, there's a slight delay as the screen refreshes. That's true of this model of this model, too, but we found it to be zippier than the PRS-300 and turned pages a fraction of a second more quickly. Its faster processor also is helpful when accessing PDF files, particularly larger ones, and using the zoom feature on those documents. (Note: Larger screen e-readers are more suitable for viewing PDF files, but while this one doesn't do a great job with them, it does significantly better than the PRS-300 and the Kindle 2).
The PRS-600 may have a speed advantage, but the PRS-300, as noted, does offer better contrast. Comparing the PRS-600 with the PRS-300 side by side, the first thing you notice is that the letters and icons on this model appear lighter while the background on the PRS-600 is slightly darker (read: a darker shade of gray). You'll also notice that when you hold the two units together and tilt them, the PRS-600's screen is much more reflective. At certain angles, with normal overhead lighting, the glare is so bad that you can't read the text on parts of the screen. Needless to say, the combination of these drawbacks renders your reading experience not as good as it could--and should--be.
In case you're wondering, there's no way to adjust the contrast. Also, there's also no backlight, but--considering that it didn't really work that well in the PRS-700--we're not complaining. However, 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. While the absolute sizes vary from title to title, a 6-inch screen (diagonal) doesn't give you a ton of real estate but as long as you stick with the small, medium, and large font sizes, it's adequate (the medium setting will be best for most people). This model doesn't have a built-in accelerometer that automatically flips the screen when you turn it, but you can manually set the screen to display vertically or horizontally.
Like the iPhone and other next-generation touch-screen phones that have been appearing lately, the PRS-600 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 way of giving you the feeling of turning pages in a book--and as we mentioned earlier, the touch screen is more responsive to your touch. But don't expect the touch screen to be anywhere near as responsive as that of the iPhone or iPod Touch--selecting stationary menu items is fine, but the gestures require you to press pretty hard. 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-600 also has an annotation and notes feature, as well as a newly introduced embedded dictionary (the Kindle had an integrated dictionary form the start, but this is Sony's first model to feature one). On a basic level, you can turn the Reader into a notepad, creating single notes that aren't tied to any books or documents. For example, you can type out a text memo reminder using an onscreen keyboard or write a note freehand by using the stylus (you can draw anything you want, in fact). That all works fine and is simple to do.
Things get a little more complicated when you move to annotations. With the included stylus--or your finger--you can highlight words and add annotations via a virtual keyboard or just draw freehand on the page/screen using the stylus. The whole process is somewhat intuitive, but we had trouble figuring out how to add a note to a highlighted sentence or paragraph (you can also add notes to bookmarks). You first have to highlight the section, then tap on it to pull up a separate menu that asks whether you want to add a note using the keyboard or handwriting it via the "drawing" method. Unfortunately, we found that when you tap on the highlighted section, it didn't always pull up the note-taking menu. It was a bit frustrating at times.
After annotating a book on the Reader, you can "merge" those annotations with annotations you may have already added to the same book using your computer (from within the eLibrary software). Viewing--and reviewing--text, notes, and any markups using a larger computer monitor is preferable to viewing them on a dull, 6-inch screen, so if you're a big annotator, you'll probably find yourself reading a lot more on your computer than you think.
While this all sounds quite sophisticated and potentially useful, we'll warn you that to get the hang of the markup features, you're going to have to do some digging in the user manual (it's available as a PDF file). And even then, you may run into some snafus.
As for more mundane items such as battery life, these devices are designed to go several days or even weeks without needing a recharge. According to Sony, you should get up to 7,000 page turns or about two weeks of usage from a single charge. However, like the PRS-300, the included lithium ion battery isn't user replaceable--you have to send the unit back to Sony if the battery dies.
We were disappointed that this e-reader 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. 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.
On the content side, Sony has made efforts to catch up with Amazon in terms of the number of books it has available and on competitive pricing--like Amazon, Sony now charges $9.99 for bestsellers. With the addition of thousands of free public domain titles from Google (which includes many pre-WWI classics), Sony boasts more than 1 million titles in its e-book store, and that number continues to grow.
Sony's also upgraded its eBook Library PC software (it's up to version 3.0), and--hallelujah--it's now available for both Windows and Mac machines. While the process of transferring content to the device isn't as convenient as downloading books wirelessly to the unit as you can with the Kindle (as long as you can get a signal), Sony's improved its software to the point where it's become fairly easy to use and is not the liability it once was. Still, there are some small quirks you'll discover that make you think there's room for additional tweaks.
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. Overall, it's pretty simple. And adding nonencrypted files isn't hard either. After downloading a file to your computer, you import that file to your library using the "import" function and drag it over to the "Reader" icon on the left side of your screen.
In fact, as we've said before, one of the Reader's strengths is its capability 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. The zoom functionality on PDFs is more robust on this model than the PRS-500, but those who are looking for stronger PDF support should probably check out a larger format e-reader like the 9.7-inch Kindle DX or the 8-inch Sony Reader Daily Edition.
Another big plus is that the PRS-600 and other Sony Readers are compatible with digital books from local libraries, which have just begun lending out e-books using an EPUB file format with 21-day expiration. The selection is currently very limited, but anything that's available, is free to download. There's a lot to like about the Sony Reader Touch Edition. It's slim, relatively lightweight, more compact than the Kindle 2, and it is classy looking. We also continue to be fans of the touch interface for e-readers and its feature set is quite good, despite lacking a wireless option.
All told, it's hard to ignore the fact the PRS-600 is hampered by screen issues. While they may not be complete deal breakers, they're definitely something you should be aware of and we recommend that you check this product out in person before buying it.