In 2009, Sony put out the Reader Touch Edition (model PRS-600), an E Ink reader with a 6-inch touch screen that looked sleek but had a few design flaws. For 2010, Sony has delivered an upgraded Reader Touch Edition, the PRS-650. While it looks a lot like its predecessor, the new Reader Touch Edition is slightly trimmed down and has two major upgrades: the new higher-contrast E Ink Pearl display found in the latest Amazon Kindle and Kindle DX, and a touch-screen interface that finally works well and is glare-free. The product is available in red or black for $230.
Alas, the Reader Touch Edition, which weighs in at 7.58 ounces and measures a compact 6.61 inches tall by 4.68 inches wide by 0.38 inch thick, doesn't have any sort of wireless capabilities--but we'll get to that in a minute. For now, let's start with the good stuff, namely that Sony's engineers managed to remove a layer of screen protection that previously hurt the contrast (the letters weren't as dark as 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. (Sony is using infrared technology licensed from Neonode for the touch mechanics, so you barely have to touch the screen to get a response.)
The 6-inch screen is, so far as we know, identical to the E Ink Pearl display found on the latest version of the Kindle--600x800 resolution, 16-level grayscale, and improved contrast (compared with older E Ink screens, like that of the Barnes & Noble Nook). Six adjustable font sizes let you customize the view to your liking, so there's never a need to squint.
While the touch screen may not be quite as responsive as that of the iPhone (due to the slightly laggy nature of E Ink), it's more responsive than it was, and, 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.
The touch screen isn't just for navigation--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 the 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 dictionaries (there are 2 English-language and 10 translation dictionaries). Furthermore, the reader keeps logs of the words you've looked up.
In addition to the winning screen, the Reader Touch Edition has 2GB of built-in memory, which is enough to store around 1,200 e-books. Additional memory is available thanks to SD and Memory Stick expansion slots. The Reader delivers two weeks of reading on a single battery charge, and the sealed-in battery (not user-replaceable) is charged via a standard Micro-USB port, so any newer cellphone charger should suffice.
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. It can also view JPEG, PNG, GIF, and BMP image files, and play back MP3 and AAC audio files (there's a standard 3.5-millimeter headphone jack).
As you can see from the descriptions 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 (those models also have 6-inch screens). One can only assume that Sony simply couldn't produce the PRS-650 in a Wi-Fi version for a similar price and turn a profit (or even break even). Obviously, the touch-screen interface is more costly to implement, but it's truly a shame that Sony couldn't include Wi-Fi.
That's our biggest gripe with the device, which we otherwise really liked.
To download e-books from the Sony store, you're instead stuck with "side-loading"--downloading first to a Windows PC or Mac, and then dragging and dropping the files to the Reader via a USB connection. (The details are handled by the Sony desktop app, which first needs to be installed on your computer; think of it as iTunes for books.) 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--to enable you to read free and loaner EPUB books--but the Kindle currently does not.
In all, though 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 in 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.
The PRS-650's size is appealing to those who want to carry around a very compact e-reader that slips into a coat pocket or a purse and is pretty lightweight. While it does read PDF files and has zoom capabilities (along with Word and text formats), we can't say a 6-inch screen is all that conducive to PDF viewing, but the functionality is there for those who need it.
With the Size button, you can choose among six font settings: extra-small, small, medium, large, extra-large, and extra-extra-large. We tend to read in the medium setting, but those with more challenged eyesight will probably opt for the large setting. You can manually set the screen to display vertically or horizontally, but we really didn't like the horizontal setting for reading books.
If you're comparing this with the entry-level Sony Reader Pocket Edition PRS-350 ($180), the key differences are the PRS-650's larger screen, its audio playback capabilities, and its expandable storage. Sony also has its line-topping 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 an add-on, however--a standard case that gives a classic bound edition appearance, and one with a swing-out light (powered by an AAA battery).
As we said in our review of the smaller PRS-350 Pocket Edition, there's really a lot to like about this e-reader, and we applaud Sony for finally taking the E Ink reader's interface to the next level (we wish both the Kindle and E Ink Nook had this touch interface). But it's just a shame that the PRS-650 doesn't offer wireless connectivity and that its price point is significantly higher than perfectly good e-readers that do have it. For example, the Barnes & Noble Nook Color (available November 2010) will offer a color LCD touch screen with built-in wireless for a mere $20 more than the Reader Touch Edition. Ouch.
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, not just its top-of-the-line model.