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 (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.