Judging by our tests, Sony’s attempt to re-invent the electronic book is very well executed and is in many ways a brilliant device. It might even succeed.
In the late ’90s several small firms saw the opportunity to make book-sized portable readers for Internet-downloadable books. The problem with earlier electronic books was threefold: their backlit LCD screens meant short battery life, there weren’t many books available, and the devices were pricey.
Fast forward to 2006. Sony has addressed the battery life problem in a novel way. Instead of using an LCD, Sony’s Reader uses a technology called E Ink electronic paper. Electronic paper has very high contrast, like regular paper, so it doesn’t need to be backlit. In short, E Ink consumes a modest amount of power.
In practice, the screen is superb for text. Unlike LCDs, the electronic paper screen works beautifully in bright light, but is fine with modest lamplight as well (like regular paper, it doesn’t work in the dark). Just as important, in our tests we read several long books and found the screen non-fatiguing. Sony has also made the Reader very thin—at a half-inch, it’s about as thick as a 200 page book—and the screen is about the same size as the page of a typical paperback novel. It doesn’t weigh any more than a book either, and it can also display Adobe PDFs, personal documents, news feeds, and JPEGs— it even plays unsecured MP3 and AAC audio files.
But that still leaves Sony with two big issues: availability of books and price. Like Apple with the iPod, Sony has decided to make electronic books available through its own store. As of our test, just over 11,000 titles were available and the number was growing weekly. But that’s still a far cry from the 100,000 titles in a typical Barnes and Noble.
At $350, the Sony’s PRS-500 Portable Reader represents reasonable value for such advanced and usable technology. Still, the price will be prohibitive for some. Let’s hope the price drops and book availability continues to grow rapidly. TPV