Nearly nine months after showing off a prototype, Sony is gearing up to sell its innovative Sony Reader for electronic books--and to open the iTunes-like Sony Connect online store, which will be the only purveyor of commercial book titles in the device's proprietary file format. For the most part I was impressed by the preproduction unit I tested, but the Reader's $350 price tag will likely discourage most mainstream users.
The e-book reader's praiseworthy attributes begin with its understated good looks and modest size. It's slightly taller and wider than a standard paperback--and significantly skinnier at half an inch thick; plus, it weighs less than 9 ounces. During the week I used it, I dropped it into my midsize purse and--between uses--forgot it was there.
The front of the Reader's soft, cloth-covered case (attached via a snap on the back) flips open sideways to reveal a grayish 6-inch screen, set in A silvery frame. A concave button on the left front turns pages, a black rocker button on the right front handles screen menu navigation, and another black button on the left lets you toggle through three font sizes, scaling the type up to 150 percent of standard (important for vision-impaired readers). The bottom edge has ports for the included USB cable (which connects the Reader to a PC to load content), the device's AC adapter, and a docking cradle and headphones (both optional); you can store and play music and other audio files on the Reader.
The device's response isn't very snappy; but a second or two after you power it on, the page that the Reader was displaying when you turned it off will reappear. This happens because--unlike with LCD-based e-books, which go blank when shut down--the Sony device's E Ink technology doesn't change until you tell it to.
E Ink uses millions of tiny positively charged white and negatively charged black microcapsules that are "printed" on plastic film atop the circuitry; depending on what type of charge is applied to a specific capsule, the white or black particles move to the surface of the capsule to form type and images. Since the Reader consumes power only when you turn a page, its battery life depends on how much reading you do: Sony estimates that the unit's lithium ion battery will support 7500 page turns between charges.
Sony says that the Reader's E Ink display can produce four scales of gray at a resolution of about 170 pixels per inch--more than twice the pixel density of most conventional LCDs, and on a par with the resolution of newsprint. In my tests, both type and half-tone images looked extremely clear; and because there's no backlighting, you don't suffer eyestrain as you might when reading text on an LCD. Also, whereas LCDs generally wash out in bright light, the opposite is true for the Reader: The brighter the ambient light, the better the display's contrast.
A Library Inside
My review unit came preloaded with a selection of best-selling fiction and nonfiction (including the first chapters of The Da Vinci Code and Freakonomics). Also on hand were a romance novel and several classics, including George Orwell's 1984. The selection of preloaded MP3 files sounded fine through a headset (the device itself has no speakers). The Reader's 64MB of user-accessible memory can hold approximately 80 average-length (800KB) books. If you need additional space, you can store content on an SD Card or Memory Stick slipped into an expansion slot on the upper left edge of the device.
The only way to add content is via the Sony Connect desktop software. Besides handling Sony's own BBeB (BroadBand electronic Book) format for electronic books, the Reader supports PDFs, JPEG images, unencrypted MP3s, Word documents (converted transparently to RTF format), HTML files, and RSS feeds.
The Sony Connect software wasn't ready to test in time for this story, but in the demo I saw, it looked like a virtual iTunes clone. As with iTunes, you create an account to pay for e-books, download them to your desktop, and then transfer them to your Reader. (You can also use the program to read BBeB files on your PC.) The software imports other content types from your hard drive, much as iTunes imports music you've ripped in supported formats.
Sony expects to offer 10,000 titles at launch. In line with other e-books, Sony titles will cost slightly less than printed hardcover editions. You can authorize up to six devices (either Readers or PCs with Sony Connect software installed) to read each book, and redownloads are free.
Is the Reader worth $350? Only if you want to trim your luggage, stop collecting dead trees, or use the large-font feature for easier reading.