The overhyped and feature-heavy Amazon Kindle 2 has a challenger: The Sony Reader Digital Book PRS-700 weighs in at $400 and has some strengths, but it has encountered tough sledding going against the Kindle’s overall design and integration with Amazon’s bookstore. (However, the announcement earlier this month of a deal between Google and Sony to distribute public-domain titles as e-books could change this.)
Across multiple points of comparison, the PRS-700 differs dramatically from the Kindle. It’s not as tall, and it trades in a keyboard for a more compact shape. It has a touch-screen overlay on top of its e-ink electronic paper display. The display measures 6 inches, and has a resolution of 800 by 600, just like the Kindle 2. But it looks larger–in part, perhaps, because it dominates the device, and partly because of its half-inch thick silver border that matches the gray background of the electronic paper display. The screen also felt easier on my eyes, probably because of its silver border, surrounded by black. The display’s text isn’t as sharp, and graphics aren’t as detailed as on the Kindle 2.
As a touch-screen fan, I appreciated the PRS-700’s display. Unfortunately, I disliked having to press hard to make the touch screen work. I could use my finger to select words and annotations (not easy with the on-screen touch keyboard). The screen does support gesture motions; I could conveniently 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 felt 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.
Like the Palm Treo, the PRS-700 comes with a stylus, integrated into the right-top side of the unit. The stylus is thin, which makes it uncomfortable to hold for long periods; but it also can be used for gestures, an unexpected surprise.
The main Home screen is divided into four main touch buttons, one each for Continue Reading, Books, Collections, and notes; three more buttons line the bottom of the screen, for accessing audio, pictures, and settings. The unit’s physical buttons are below the screen, in a neat row; from left to right, they are return, page back, page forward, home (conveniently, larger than the other buttons), search, enlarge, and option (for accessing context-sensitive menus).
The books are listed by title and author, with an alphabetical bar along the right to help you navigate. You can sort by title, author, or date loaded; and display either in a list (default) or by thumbnail (three across, for nine books on screen). Sounds navigable, right? Wrong.
While reading, I found myself wanting to push buttons alongside the screen, not way down at the bottom. The swipes were a secondary approach, and not one I wanted to use often.
One thing I loved: The ability to switch orientation from vertical to landscape. And built into the perimeter of the screen is an LED light; slide the light glide switch at the bottom of the unit once for illumination around the edges, and twice for a slightly brighter illumination that just barely reaches the center of the page. That illumination can be a lifesaver at times–one of my gripes with the Kindle 2 is you can’t use it in an environment without ambient light, which means you can’t read on a darkened airplane without your seat light on, for example.
The built-in memory holds up to about 350 books; the unit can also access books stored on memory cards (at the top are two slots–one each for a Memory Stick Duo and an SD card).
Sony supports only PCs (not other devices) with its eBook Library 2.5 software, which is a required download in order to shop for and transfer books purchased from ebookstore.sony.com. It also works with Adobe PDF documents (with reflow), Microsoft Word documents, other text documents, and even EPUB files and Adobe Digital Editions. The lack of native, non-Kindle file support remains one of the Amazon Kindle 2’s major weaknesses. The PRS-700 also supports MP3 and MP4 audio files, so use the headphone jack at the bottom of the unit to rock out while reading.
Particularly in the deal with Google mentioned earlier, Sony scores some hits with the PRS-700. But I need a more responsive touch screen and better navigation controls to be enticed into using this e-book device. And the lack of integrated wireless makes using the Sony Reader–and finding and buying new reading material–far less intuitive and impulsive than with the Kindle. In the end, this round goes to Amazon.
–Melissa J. Perenson