Living on the Road

Sony Portable Reader

Electronic ink book receptacle

The Sony Reader is a portable, unobtrusive paperback-sized handheld device for reading eBooks. I’ve carried it on several plane trips and car trips and have found it be quite convenient and functional. In fact, I generally have it with me all the time, so I’m never without a book (or 40). Having it has encouraged me to read the types of books I might not consider otherwise due to space constraints around my home or simply not wishing to carry around a physical book that could potentially get damaged during transport. The books I usually read tend to be technical or reference books, but I’ve particularly enjoyed reading some classics and contemporary fiction on the Reader.

The three things I think distinguish it from a PDA used as reader or a laptop are the battery life, the fact that its E Ink technology works just as well in bright sunlight as it does indoors, and the book-like form factor.

Battery life: Sony advertises that you can get “7500 page turns” off one charge, and “turning a page” is the only operation that consumes battery life. This is a bit misleading in that a “Sony Reader page” is much smaller than a paperback book page (example: Anna Karenina is 860 pages in paperback but 2100 pages on the Reader). However, battery life is one thing I look for in a handheld device and I’m very happy with it on this one. I recently took the Reader on a 9-day vacation and read for multiple hours a day, and the battery wasn’t even half drained. When I’ve used color PDAs (or anything with a color screen) I’ve generally been much less thrilled with the battery life. The Reader also doesn’t need a fancy processor to drain batteries further, since it only does essentially one thing.

Works in sunny environments: This is really important for me if I want to take it on vacation or read outside. It’s amazing how well the device works in very bright sunlight — I’d say it’s better than a regular book because not only is it highly readable, it doesn’t have the glare of paper. I’ve used it as a passenger on very sunny road trips where it was pretty much the only thing I was able to look at, and it worked great.

Form factor: It’s like a small, thin book and is easy to hold and carry like a book. Again, it’s actually more convenient than a regular book, because you don’t have to use both hands to turn the page (it’s also quieter). The controls are well-designed for reading sequentially and I haven’t found any problem with losing my place in a book. The nice-looking cover that comes with it also opens like a book. (I’ve found no need to purchase the accessory leather cover. The provided cover I got still looks great even after I’ve had it banging around in my bag for several months, touched it with greasy hands, etc.)

I haven’t tried the iLiad (the other E Ink device for the U.S. market), but based on what I’ve read about it, I still prefer the Reader. The iLiad is twice as expensive and its official specs for battery life (12 hours) seem to be much less than what I’ve experienced with the Reader. It’s also a bit bigger than the Reader (8.5″x6.1″x0.63″ vs. 6.9″x4.9″x0.5″). I’m not sure how much that would bother me, but I really do like the size of the Reader.

The one feature the iLiad has which the Reader doesn’t is that you can apparently take notes and annotate text on the iLiad. I think this is a pretty cool feature – now if only they’d bring down the price and improve the battery life, I could imagine getting one myself. The Reader is very geared toward reading, and only reading. The only “writable” thing you can do on it is mark pages as bookmarks and clear your history (it automatically records your most-recently-read 100 pages in each book).

I’ve purchased most of my books from the Sony Connect store (“BBeB” format), but the device also takes PDF, TXT and RTF formats (if you have Word, the Connect software will convert Word documents to RTF). The screen size is quite small, so PDFs work best if sized specially for the Reader. (Some instructions for doing so are published here). and are two sources of free eBooks, and both sites provide custom sizing of PDFs for the Reader. TXT files display very well, in an easy-to-read default font. The displayed text size can be adjusted for all formats. The Reader also will play music files (MP3, AAC) — which I haven’t made much use of as I already have an MP3 player — and it will display images (JPEG, GIF, PNG), which look pretty good considering they’re in black and white. (I’ve uploaded maps and photos to my Reader.)

The device comes with 92MB of built-in storage, expandable with either an SD card or a Memory Stick. I haven’t used any expansion cards since most books are only around 500K to 1.5MB. The cable for connecting the device to the computer is a standard USB cable that works with other devices I have (camera, MP3 player).

A few caveats:

*The Sony Reader eBook format is, of course, proprietary, and the device doesn’t support any other proprietary formats (e.g. those from Palm Digital Media). This is mitigated somewhat by the fact that you can use your own PDFs, but it’s something to keep in mind if you already have a collection of DRM-protected eBooks from somewhere else.

*The screen “flashes black” every time you turn the page. I have never found this bothersome at all, but it’s a weird behavior (apparently an artifact of the E Ink) that you may wish to look at in person before making the purchase.

*It’s not particularly good for reference books, as the device currently doesn’t have a search function. (However, you can search content you’ve imported or purchased via the Connect software for the PC.)

*The Connect software is currently not available for the Mac. It is possible to put content directly on an SD card and put it in the Reader, but I’ve always used the software (which I find quite easy to use), and since I don’t have access to a Mac I haven’t figured out if there’s also some way to get purchased eBooks on the Reader directly.

*The screen does not have a backlight, so if you want to read in the dark you have to use a booklight or some other form of external light. I’ve used a headlamp in a “reading emergency,” which worked great.

One more thing: if you get hooked, people can give you gift certificates for the Sony Connect site via Borders (note: they’re not the same as a normal Borders gift cards, and for some reason you have to go into a physical store to order them).

— Maria Blees

Sony Portable Reader
Available from Amazon


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