It's hard for some people to imagine, but Sony was the first major brand to offer an e-book reader back in 2006--beating the original Amazon Kindle to market by at least 14 months. Since then, however, the company's e-book strategy has been one step forward and two steps back as it plays catch-up with upstart competitors Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.
Consider the 2010 Sony Readers: the models pioneered e-ink touch screens months before the Nook and Kobo, but most models inexplicably omitted Wi-Fi--instead requiring readers to tether to a PC to download new e-books. Those Sony Readers were also priced far above competing Kindle and Nook models at the time.
A year later, Sony has updated its Reader line, and this time the company is more in tune with current e-reader features. Instead of three Reader models with various pricing and feature sets, Sony now has one $149 model, the Sony Reader Wi-Fi PRS-T1. It does come in three colors (black, red, and white). The Reader Wi-Fi retains the responsive touch screen of its predecessors and, as the name suggests, adds Wi-Fi. And unlike the Nook Touch, the Sony has support for audio--though not audiobooks, apparently.
In all, it's a very solid e-reader. The only problem is it doesn't do much to distinguish itself from the competition: Barnes & Noble and Amazon offer cheaper models with similar or identical feature sets, and the content offerings of their respective stores are more extensive. That's doubly true of Amazon's new, aggressively priced 2011 Kindle models, which include the $99 Kindle Touch with Special Offers--basically a product that meets or exceeds the specs of Sony's product for $50 less.
Design and features
While the Reader Wi-Fi is essentially a redesigned version of last year's PRS-650, the new model has an all-new chassis and weighs less, partially due to an all-plastic, rather than metal, casing. In fact, at 5.93 ounces, this Sony weighs a hair less than Amazon's non-touch-screen Kindle (5.98 ounces) and has very similar dimensions.
Overall, the Reader Wi-Fi has an elegant, classy look, and we liked the design. Our only real complaint was that the glossy finish on the border around the touch screen (think of the finish on the original PS3) shows fingerprints, at least on the black model we reviewed; we suspect the white version won't show the fingerprints as much. This isn't a huge deal, but it's worth noting.
Sony was actually the first to license and include Neonode's infrared touch-screen technology in last year's PRS-350, PRS-650, and PRS-950 Readers. Since then, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and now Amazon have incorporated the technology into their latest touch-screen e-readers. Because that technology uses infrared sensors to register touch gestures on screen, it's allowed e-reader manufacturers to make touch-screen interfaces without adding an extra screen layer that would reduce contrast.
The Reader Wi-Fi brings along that same touch-screen technology and looks and feels more similar to the Kobo Touch than to the new Nook, which has rounded corners and is a little wider because it has "hard" page-turn buttons on the sides of the screen. As you can see, the Reader Wi-Fi's hard buttons are along the bottom of the screen.
With Wi-Fi now aboard and the inclusion of a microSD card slot for expanding beyond the built-in 2GB of memory, the Reader Wi-Fi is on par with its competitors from a specs perspective. The Reader Wi-Fi's one bonus feature is the inclusion of audio support, which means you can listen to music while you read--a notable upgrade from the no-audio Nook and Kobo models.
Here are the key specs of the Reader Wi-Fi:
- • Price: $149
- • 6-inch Clear Enhanced touch screen (16-level grayscale E Ink Pearl V220 screen)
- • Neonode infrared touch-screen technology (same as Nook Touch)
- • 1GHz Intel processor
- • Weighs 5.93 ounces
- • 6.8 inches by 4.3 inches by 0.35 inch (HWD)
- • MicroSD expansion slot for adding additional memory
- • Built-in Wi-Fi (no 3G)
- • 2 GB built-in memory (stores around 1,200 e-books)
- • Text and handwritten note-taking capabilities (stylus included)
- • Up to 5 weeks of reading on a single battery charge (with wireless disabled)
- • 12 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
- • Supports public library lending in U.S. and Canada
- • Reads JPEG, PNG, GIF, and BMP image files
- • Reader Library software for PC and Mac
- • Plays back MP3 and AAC audio files (headphone jack on board)
- • Available in black, red, and white
- • Integrated access to free Google Books
- • Pinch-to-zoom support on screen
- • Limited-edition PRS-T1HBC (also $149) includes a voucher to download free "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" e-book from Pottermore Web site
The touch screen on previous Sony Readers worked very well, and Sony is letting users choose between using their fingers or an included stylus to take notes and handle highlighting (alas, there's no storage slot for the stylus built into the device like there was on the PRS-650, so you'll have to be careful not to lose it). Protective cases with or without reading lights will also be available, but a case doesn't come with the device.
While the touch screen may not be quite as responsive as that of the iPhone (due to the slightly laggy nature of e-ink), 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. It also allows you to type on a virtual keyboard when searching, note taking, and entering URLs into the browser.
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 for handwritten notes), and turn pages with the swipe of a finger. We also liked how you could hold your finger down on a word to bring up its definition in the built-in dictionaries (there are 2 English-language and 10 translation dictionaries). Better yet, beyond the dictionary definition, you now also have the option to look the word up in Google or Wikipedia using the device's built-in Web browser.
Sony has always touted its Readers as being more "open" than Amazon's Kindles, and that trait continues with this model. 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, and play back MP3 and AAC audio files (there's a standard 3.5mm headphone jack). That said, as far as we can tell, there's no support for audiobooks unless you can find them in one of those non-copyrighted formats.
The Reader Wi-Fi 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.
So in all, the Reader Wi-Fi has a strong feature set that matches up pretty well with the Kindle Touch, 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--in which you can lend a friend a book for two weeks if they're on the same platform--nor does it offer some of the new social-media features (such as Twitter and Facebook integration) that Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo are integrating into the reading experience. Barnes & Noble also has its Nook Friends feature that essentially allows you to start reading groups and share books and passages.
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.
This Sony, like the Kindle, new Nook, Kobo Touch, and iRiver's Story HD, use E Ink's Pearl screen technology. In other words, the text on the screen looks exactly like it did on the previous Readers--it looks good, but don't expect any improvements in contrast or sharpness. The Sony Reader does offer pinch-to-zoom support, and it works, but don't expect smooth, iPad-style performance, thanks again to the limitations of the e-ink screen.
As with all e-ink, it's easy to read in bright light, as it doesn't get washed out in direct sunlight like LCD does, but since the screen isn't backlit, you do need some light source to read. One of the other benefits of e-ink is that it's very energy-efficient. Sony says you can get up to five weeks of use from the device based on 30 minutes' worth of reading a day and with the Wi-Fi turned off, which is an improvement over the PRS-650.
It's worth noting that Sony, like Amazon, doesn't ship an AC adapter with its latest e-reader. You get a USB cable for charging the device via your computer or any cell phone charger (with a USB connection) that you have lying around. It's not a big omission, but it's worth mentioning.
Overall, we found the device was as zippy as competing models, though we did have a little trouble at times connecting to the Web using Wi-Fi. To save battery life, you can set the Wi-Fi radio to go into standby mode after 5 minutes of inactivity, but when we did that, it didn't always reconnect, and at times it took close to 30 seconds to fire up again and load a Wikipedia page. To be clear, Web access---and Web navigation--is not a strong point of these e-ink e-readers, but on the upside, the touch screen does make Web navigation easier.
We should also note that Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Kobo have implemented technology that reduces the amount of flashing that appears when you turn a page (with e-ink, when the screen refreshes, the page appears to flash, and this really bothers some people). With the new Nook and Kindle models, the flash occurs every five to six pages rather than every page. Sony, however, has done nothing to reduce flashing.
There's a lot to like about the Sony Reader Wi-Fi PRS-T1, and we're happy to report that Sony's finally put its best foot forward with a compact, lightweight, and attractively designed e-reader that has a solid feature set and pretty competitive price tag.
Does it have some killer feature that the Kindle, Nook, and Kobo e-readers don't have? No, not really. We like its interface and store better than that of the Kobo Touch. And while Sony's certainly come along on both fronts, both Barnes & Noble and Amazon still provide a better shopping experience, with Amazon's Kindle Store still being the best.
The "openness" of the Sony e-reader is a nice plus (the Nook and Kobo Touch also have EPUB support) and the Sony has an audio jack so you can listen to music on the device while you read. But it's light on or missing the little extras, like e-book lending, social-media features, and a companion iOS app for iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch owners.
In other words, this is a perfectly fine e-reader that's recommendable to owners of older Sony Reader models looking to upgrade their devices or people who can't use a Kindle or Nook in their country, as Sony still has a strong presence outside the U.S. where Barnes & Noble doesn't play yet and Amazon and Kobo are just starting to make inroads.
However, for those new to the e-reader world in the U.S., the Sony Reader Wi-Fi is a harder sell, if only because the Kindle Touch with Special Offers (available in late November) only costs $99.
That doesn't mean we don't consider the Sony PRS-T1 a very good product. It just means that the e-reader market is a very competitive place and some of the little things count even more than they used to.