Sunday, February 11, 2007

E-reading has arrived…finally

I didn’t pay much attention when the new generation of e-book readers began arriving. I thought they would quickly join all of the other gizmos, which tried to wean me off real books over the past decade, in the Mausoleum of Digital Junk. Then Sony sent me their PRS-500 Portable Reader System for a test drive.

The Reader is small, about the size of a thin paperback. It weighs about 9 oz – nice heft, but not uncomfortable to hold for long periods. The standard cover is great; the optional $149 Dooney & Bourke leather cover is just silly. The lasting power of the rechargeable battery is incredible; the power indicator has moved down one bar after a week of reading sessions. It took a couple of hours to charge when it arrived and Sony says it will last 7500 pages turns before needing another.

The E Ink screen is a wonder, especially in comparison to the screens on all the now-extinct readers. It’s readable in all kinds of light and at any angle. I haven’t gotten any eyestrain from it at all. Based on technology developed in the MIT Media Lab, these screens are a big reason why the new generation of readers might actually start replacing books. The Sony has a six-inch screen, which works all right. If I had a choice, I’d prefer a larger screen. In fact, I wouldn’t mind a reader about the height and length of a hardcover.

The controls are simple and adequate. My technical aptitude is average at best and I had it mostly figured out without reading the manual. Sadly, you can’t search or highlight or enter notes (or delete a file without having to connect Reader to your computer), but you can navigate a book fairly quickly and the bookmark button can get you back to an important passage.

There is enough memory to store about 80 books, according to Sony. You can add a memory card, but I wouldn’t bother because navigating a huge library on Reader would get cumbersome. I’d keep a stack of books on the Reader and the rest of the library on my computer.

The Reader itself is a pleasure to use, but filling it with everything you might want to read is where things get more difficult. If you download all your reading from Sony’s CONNECT ebooks site, everything comes formatted to order (and at a price). But, to me, a major selling point for this reader is its ability to display a variety of document formats.

The problem is that this takes more expertise. For instance, since I was reading Dickens’s Dombey and Sons when the Reader arrived, I figured I would download it and compare the reading experience. But when I downloaded the book from Project Gutenberg to the Reader (via by my desktop), the formatting did not transfer properly. Every sentence had a hard return at the end. It seems that I could have reformatted the file myself using MS Word, but happily, I found (an essential community if you are considering joining the ranks of e-readers) instead. A forum post there directed me to, which allowed me to download books in variety of formats, including Sony’s. The new file read perfectly.

Reading PDF files, which is the second most important use of the Reader for me, is more problematic. I downloaded Counterinsurgency, the new manual from the U.S. Army, but couldn’t enlarge the text enough to read it. Apparently there are ways that users can reformat these files themselves and I’d have to learn how to do that. Hopefully, Sony will address the problem for me.

The Reader, by the way, can also play MP3 audio and display photographs, although I’d rather Sony had eschewed these functions and redirected the extra effort to the reading experience or to reducing the price. In fact, I’d run out and buy a Reader right now…except for the price.

Retailers are selling the Reader for about $350 and I’m cheap. Yeah, I’d eventually make it up in book purchases. I paid $9 for Dombey and Son in trade paper and got the e-book for free, but my wallet clamps up at this price tag. I would jump at $199 and wait outside for the store to open at $149.

The bottom line: Sony done good. I like using the Reader and would use it whenever I could I get what I want to read into it. Since that leaves price as the only major barrier to becoming an e-reader left for me (or preferably some smart electronics company) to overcome, I’d say e-reading has actually arrived this time.

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