Walt Mossberg

The New Sony Reader For Books Performs Like a Good First Draft

The electronic book reader, a hand-held gadget that would store a whole collection of digital books and other material, has always seemed like a good idea. But nobody has been able to pull it off. The last serious contenders, launched in 1998, failed due to lousy battery life, poor screens, high prices and a weak selection of titles.

But this month, Sony is taking a new whack at the problem with a sleek, attractive $350 device called the Sony Reader. The Reader tries to take advantage of two developments since 1998: cutting-edge technology for improving screens and battery life, and the example of Apple Computer’s iPod and iTunes, which showed how a great gadget with strong software and abundant titles can create an end-to-end digital content solution that consumers will embrace.

The Reader can hold about 75 books at one time in its internal memory and can accept add-on memory cards to expand its capacity. In addition to books, the Reader can also store and display Microsoft Word documents, text files and Adobe PDF files, so you can take personal or work documents with you. It even works with music files and photos.

Sony Reader

I’ve been testing a Sony Reader for about a week and have been evaluating not just the hardware itself, but the whole system. That includes the PC software that downloads and organizes the material and transfers it to the reader; and Sony’s new online electronic bookstore, where you can buy books for the reader.

My verdict is mixed. The Reader is a handsome device with a stunning black-and-white screen and terrific battery life. But it has some serious limitations. The software, called the Connect Reader, is simple and plain, but effective. The online bookstore, called the Connect eBook store, has only a modest selection compared with a physical bookstore and is hard to use.

The Reader itself is small, slim and light — about the length and width of a large paperback book, just a half-inch thick and about nine ounces in weight. It’s cloaked in a flexible black cover that folds back to reveal the screen and a handful of easy-to-use buttons.

The key feature of the Reader is its high-contrast, but low-power, six-inch screen, which is quite different from the screens on laptops. Unlike those power-hungry displays, the Reader uses a new technology called Electronic Paper from a Massachusetts company called E Ink. This screen needs no backlighting and consumes no power until you change what’s being displayed by electronically “turning a page.”

The contrast between the black text and the light-gray background isn’t as good as on a paper book, but it’s easy on the eyes and makes the Reader usable even in bright sunlight.

You can select from three text sizes for books and switch the screen between vertical or horizontal orientations.

Because it uses so little power, the Reader has strong battery life. Sony says the Reader can perform 7,500 “page turns” on a single battery charge. Most people could go days, even weeks, without having to recharge, unless they play a lot of music or view a lot of photos.

The Reader’s screen can’t display color and is only fair at graphics because it has just four levels of gray. So photos appear in gray, and titles that make heavy use of charts and graphics don’t display well. Also, it’s too easy to accidentally press buttons and land far from the page you were reading.

The electronic books cost less than print or audio versions. I bought Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial” from Sony for $13.59. Amazon.com charges $17 for the print and audio editions. In at least one of the books, George Orwell’s “1984,” which comes free on every Reader, I found typos that were inexcusable.

In my tests, Word documents looked OK, if not perfectly faithful to their layouts. But the Reader’s claim to display PDF documents proved hollow. In every PDF document I tried, the text was nearly unreadable and the text resizing feature of the Reader didn’t help. Sony concedes that PDF documents work well on the Reader only if they are created for the Reader’s screen size and resolution. But it includes no conversion software to make them fit.

Another big disappointment: The Reader lacks a bunch of features that would enhance the reading experience. You can’t enter notes, search inside books or documents, or look up words in a built-in dictionary. And while you can bookmark pages for later retrieval, you can’t highlight passages. Sony says it’s working on a future version of the Reader that can perform these tasks.

The Reader software was fine at organizing and transferring books, and at importing your own documents, music and photos to your PC, then transferring them to the device. But it doesn’t automatically synchronize material. The online bookstore is poorly organized and has an awful search function. Its 10,000 titles are only about 10% of what you’d find in a typical big bookstore.

Overall, I’d call the Sony Reader a good start — impressive in some ways, but clearly a work in progress. I enjoyed using it, but would advise all but hard-core ebook fans to wait for an improved version.


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