Amazon Kindle 2 vs. Sony Reader Face-Off

Our visual tour contrasts the two leading e-book readers available today.

Sony Digital Reader PRS-700 vs. Amazon Kindle 2

When it comes to hardware, Amazon and Sony are battling it out for leadership in the e-book reader market. For now these two models hold the most appeal--for very different reasons. We note the similarities and differences between the Amazon Kindle 2 and the Sony Digital Reader PRS-700, and point out how each does a better job at presenting books digitally. (For more on how the Kindle 2 operates, and how it compares to the first-generation Kindle, see our Kindle visual tour.)

The Amazon Kindle 2 (right) is taller than the Sony Reader. Both have a 6-inch, 800-by-600-pixel E-Ink display, but text on the Kindle 2 appears sharper than on the PRS-700. The Kindle 2 provides a usable QWERTY keyboard, whereas the Sony feels downright incomplete without a physical keyboard of some sort (its on-screen keyboard gets tiresome very quickly). But the Sony has its own advantages: I found that its black metallic chassis, with a gray matte bezel, is easier on the eyes over the long term than the Kindle’s stark off-white case.

The Sony's Main Menu Is Designed for Touch

The 10-ounce Sony PRS-700 may lack a keyboard, but it boasts a touchscreen--which explains the setup of the main Home navigation menu. Big, roomy buttons dominate the screen, one each for Continue Reading, Books, Collections, and All Notes; three more buttons, Audio, Pictures, and Settings, line the bottom of the screen. I appreciated the PRS-700's display, but I disliked having to press hard to make the touchscreen work. I could use my finger to select words and annotations (not easy with the on-screen touch keyboard). The screen supports gesture motions, too: Conveniently, I could swipe my finger left or right to change pages (even at an angle--neat), and swipe and hold my finger to jump through multiple pages at a time. But even with page swipes, I thought the pressure required to accomplish tasks was unnecessarily hard, and nothing like what I'm used to on, say, a Palm Treo 680 or an Apple iPhone.

Device Navigation

In contrast to the Sony, the 10.2-ounce Kindle 2 relies on a joystick menu navigation mechanism, in conjunction with buttons that line the right and left sides of the device. At the left side are Previous and Next buttons, with the former half the length of the latter; at the right are a Home button and another Next button. I found the stumpy five-way navigation joystick stiff to maneuver, and its location was awkward relative to where my hand fell for the paging buttons; nevertheless, it is useful for moving through options fairly quickly.

In addition to using your fingers on the Sony, you can use a built-in stylus to select items. The stylus makes the device easier to work with in some ways, and harder in others--the piece is superthin (not unlike what you’d see on a Palm Treo 680, for example), so holding it can get tiring very quickly.

Sony's View of Book Thumbnails

The Sony PRS-700 can show either lists of books or thumbnails. But neither view makes scanning through many titles particularly easy. The graphical menu presentation is bulky and cumbersome, and as a result it's difficult to read--titles bump into one another or get truncated, and the view offers no visual distinction between the title name and the author’s name.

Finding Your Content

Sort options on the Sony include author, title, and date transferred; along the right of the menu you can select the letter of the alphabet to jump to. You can view by list or by thumbnail. Along the bottom of the PRS-700 is a row of navigation buttons, but they're not nearly as convenient as the Kindle 2’s buttons (and even those could use some adjustments). The buttons take you to the previous screen, home, search, menu options, and forward and back.

Presentation and Shopping, Too

Overall, the Kindle 2 does a far superior job of presenting the book information. Its screen has more shades of gray than that of the PRS-700, and it has a better sense of visual design. The Kindle’s secret weapon (shown here) is its integrated wireless access to Amazon’s storefront for buying titles on the spot. The immediacy of this device’s 3G wireless-anywhere capability, combined with the selection available at Amazon’s shopping mecca, catapults Kindle to the head of the pack: Integrated shopping and wireless both seem critical to an e-book reader's success.

But I’d say that we need even better and more-responsive navigation menus, to facilitate managing the hundreds, even thousands, of books that these and future e-book readers are capable of storing. A versatile and fast content-management system, perhaps one similar to how Apple’s touchscreen-based iPod Touch handles its music playback, will be critical to making an e-book reader a viable and useful companion, and not a short-term gadget.

Optimized for the Digital Screen--Maybe

Sony has made a deal with Google to provide books for its Digital Reader system, but how those titles will be optimized for viewing on the Digital Reader remains to be seen. Meanwhile, as shown in this example, Sony needs to work hard on its presentation: Displayed here is the info screen for a specific book, as dry as an entry in a card catalog at the library.

Landscape Orientation

One benefit to the Sony PRS-700 is its flexible physical handling. A menu option lets you shift the device’s orientation from vertical to horizontal. The fun part is that you get to change up how you’re holding the device--which could provide welcome relief over long periods of time. One catch: Using your fingers to navigate in this position is more difficult--and you have no forward and back buttons to physically depress.

Illumination On

Unlike the Kindle, which has no backlight, the Sony PRS-700 has a light along the perimeter of its internal bezel. As a result, you can use the Digital Reader in dark environs, such as on an airplane or in a dimly lit bedroom. Pictured here is the PRS-700 with its light on. You can see, however, that the light doesn't spread evenly across the page.

Lights Off

Here is the Sony with the same text but no illumination. I realize that you can buy after-market lights for the Kindle; I also know that Amazon has investigated ways of illuminating its E-Ink screen, and has chosen not to go that path. But it's so much easier not to disturb your neighbor if you don’t have to turn bright lights on just to read. In fact, that’s one of the potential benefits that digital books have to offer. For instance, reading on an iPhone’s screen (using the Kindle for iPhone application) or on a Palm Treo would be less intrusive to others in darkened environments than a full-blown light would be. While Sony’s solution isn't perfect, the ideal e-book reader will figure out how to make illumination work.

Minimalist Design

Another goal of the ultimate e-book reader should be minimalist design. Though the device should be able to multitask--for example, do basic Web surfing (by which I mean more than what the Kindle 2 does today with its “experimental” 1994-like Web browser) and view standard office-suite files and digital images (even color ones)--the device should also have a minimalist design that strikes a balance between just enough buttons and inputs, and the right buttons and inputs.

In that regard, the Kindle is less cluttered than the Sony. Above, you can see the Kindle 2’s power switch and headphone jack—the only two things on the top of the device. The top of the Sony PRS-700 (pictured beneath the Kindle) has a spot for the stylus, two memory card slots (one each for SD and Memory Stick), and then the power switch.

What's to Come

The bottom view of the Kindle reveals a single micro-USB port. Micro USB is a bit of a disappointment, simply because fewer devices use it (some cell phones do, but other PC peripherals tend to rely on the more common mini-USB cable). The Sony (again shown on bottom) has a light switch, a physical power port, a mini-USB port, a headphone jack, and awkwardly situated volume-up and -down buttons. (The Kindle’s volume rocker switch is on its spine.)

For now, the Amazon Kindle 2 has an edge over the Sony Digital Reader PRS-700. However, that edge may be short-lived: A Kindle 3 with a larger screen is rumored to be in the works, and also coming are competing devices being developed by publishing company Hearst and bookseller Barnes and Noble.

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