This iPhone OS-based configuration makes total sense to me, though the design for an on-screen keyboard for a device of this size seems like a tricky (though certainly not insurmountable) UI challenge.
(via ) is listing two new models of the Sony Reader as “available for pre-order.” The new machines appear to have specifications similar to the current model, but with double the internal storage (160 books versus 80 on the previous model), improved control layout, and two color styles to choose from.
Judging from appearance, the new control layout seems improved over the current model. The menu (back) button has been separated from the cursor control, fixing the previous non-intuitive combination. The rough-edged and unpleasant-to-use cursor joystick has been replaced with a smoother-looking rocker switch. The numbered buttons are on the right, so they will align with corresponding menu choices when shown on-screen in the default vertical orientation. The secondary paging buttons are now positioned on the right, too, so they can be accessed without interference from the case’s left flap.
The software is still Windows only, so Mac users and others will still have to via third-party software or a flash memory card. However, the Windows software is now listed as version 2.0 which presumably corresponds to improvements in the rather clunky 1.x software.
At first glance, these seem like nice incremental improvements. Unfortunately, the price remains $299. Sony’s experiments with reduced prices () were apparently more about clearing old inventory than a precursor to a general price drop. The new units’ pricing remains steep enough to ensure that the Reader will remain a niche product.
According to the ABT web site, availability is expected in October 2007.
I find that I’m turning to the Sony Reader more and more often as my primary ebook reader for books that are mainly text (as opposed to those with extensive embedded images or comics). Its compactness, fast start time and long battery life are turning out to be more important than the superior display of the bigger and heavier X61T Tablet PC.
While I’ve loaded the Sony Connect software on the Windows-based X61T, my MacBook Pro is my primary machine and I prefer to manage the Reader’s content from there. While Sony’s software only supports Windows, several workarounds exist which make the Mac and the Sony Reader a viable combination. One option is to run the Sony software by installing Windows on the Mac via BootCamp, Parallels or Fusion. Mssv , and found it to be completely functional (with the notable exception of performing firmware upgrades). In this post, I’ll take a look at other methods which don’t require Windows at all.
Memory Stick or SD Card
The simplest (and most reliable) option for adding books to the Reader is via a flash memory card. Files on a card are automatically added to the Reader’s catalog when loaded via the device’s memory card slot.
Docudesk PRS Browser v1.0
This from Docudesk provides more options for browsing and file management of a Reader connected to a Mac’s USB port. The software is stable and it successfully reads the contents of the connected Reader’s internal memory. Files can be added by dragging and dropping from the Finder or browsing a dialogue box. Files can also be deleted with a single click. Flash cards in the Reader can also be read, but only the top-level directory is accessible — subdirectories can be seen but not opened.
PRS Browser’s other main limitation is in its minimal display — it only shows the file names of the books rather than the book titles stored in the files’ metadata. Other metadata like author name or file size are not available. The file-name-only display works fine for books with fairly meaningful file names. For example, Jane Rule’s downloads from WOWIO with a file name like ContractwithWorld_186849.pdf, but cryptically-named files — like those from Sony’s Connect store, with singularly unhelpful names like CBUS125110000B00U.lrf — can be a problem. In these cases, the files are best renamed in the Finder before attempting transfers to the Reader via PRS Browser.
As a version 0.3 product, the software is clearly not yet complete and can’t be expected to be fully stable. Indeed, it crashed several times in the course of my testing. However, the software promises to be a very full-featured package, with full file management options, metadata display and editing, and even file conversion capabilities into the Sony’s native reflowable .lrf format. That last feature includes the capability (due in the next update) to download, reformat and index the contents of a web site (for example, the New York Times could be downloaded, converted to the Reader and read off-line). Development appears to be moving along steadily, with version 0.4 due in late September.
In its current early-development release, libprs500 can display and edit the full metadata (title, author, file size and modification date) for books on the Mac and in the Reader’s internal memory and card slot. Files can be copied from the Mac to the Sony’s internal storage. Books in the memory card slot can be viewed and deleted but not yet added or copied.
While it clearly isn’t ready for day-to-day use, libprs500 is definitely worth watching as its development continues.
I’ve been over the last months, and I think it’s time for an interim report card on just how suitable the different technologies are for the purpose. My ratings are extrapolated a bit to try to account for the capabilities of a category as a whole rather than any specific device, but it’s obviously an inexact art. I’ll also put out the immediate disclaimer that this discussion is based on a limited sample of devices which aren’t wholly representative of the range of available gear. For fun, though, I’ll even include hypothetical ratings on a machine that doesn’t yet exist — my dream ebook machine, the mythical or iSlate. This not-so-farfetched device is like an iPhone grown up into a slick, touch-driven, Mac OS X tablet computer.
These hardware categories — desktop, laptop, tablet, dedicated reader, mobile and mythical iTablet — are rated on six criteria that affect the reading experience:
Compatibility refers to a machine’s ability to open ebook files and other documents in various formats. Are proprietary and DRM’d formats supported? Are workarounds required or even available for opening these formats?
Portability is an indicator of size and weight. Is it something that I’ll want to casually carry around, or will I need to consider trade-offs to save room in my messenger bag or, more importantly, to save my back?
Display is a subjective measure of how good the screen is for the purpose of reading. This encompasses hard data like color, screen resolution and screen size, but it also is a subjective measure of how comfortable the reading experience is and how well it renders and displays text.
Battery Life is an indicator of how often the device needs to be charged on a typical usage cycle. This includes drain from other uses, so if I typically use a laptop for general computing and use up the battery, this is included in the measure. A dedicated device is, by definition, largely used for a single purpose and thus would have fewer other applications leeching from its usable batter life.
Experience is an effort to sum up all of the subjective and sometimes intangible qualities in a single number. This includes the device’s feel in-hand, negative distractions from the reading experience (such as system demands for attention — did someone say “Vista?”), interface usability and even that ultimate example of subjectivity— the fun factor.
Compatibility ratings are high for the general-purpose computers, since they can generally handle anything that can be thrown at them. One major exception is the lack of support for some proprietary DRM formats on the Mac.
The mythical iTablet would have limited initial support for these formats, but being a general-purpose and relatively open machine, software could be developed for the purpose.
The form factor for the tablet PC gains a few points for a large and flexible display, but loses them again for being somewhat bulky compared to a dedicated reader. Conversely, the dedicated reader gains points for svelteness but loses a few for the relatively small screen. These factors are a wash for me, resulting in the tie score.
Display ratings for the mythical machine are higher than the other general-purpose machines based on the assumption that it will sport a superior display like that in the iPhone.
Text display on e-ink-based dedicated readers like the would be a point or two higher for text read in good light. The lower score in the table reflects poorer performance in marginal lighting conditions. Displays on LCD-based dedicated readers like the are closer to the ratings for tablet devices.
The tablet would rate higher on overall experience if it were just a little lighter and more compact, and if the operating system required less care and feeding. I ding the mobile devices for overall experience because I don’t like reading on tiny screens unless I have to, even given the superior screen and of something like the iPhone. Your mileage on this, like everything else on this table, will vary.
A Moving Target
I’d like to make this table a living document, updating it periodically as the technologies evolve and adding additional criteria as needed. If you have suggestions for additional measures, let me know. And if you violently disagree with my ratings — or just have your own ideas — I’d love to see your version of the table and the reasoning behind it!
A branch in the of digital devices will inevitably yield a machine that largely displaces the paper and ink of printed books. We clearly haven’t seen this ultimate device yet, but the Sony Reader and its dedicated-reader cousins represent one order of critters competing for this niche in the digital food chain, sandwiched between larger and more powerful general purpose computers (like the ) and the smaller, nimbler mobiles (like the ).
In the accelerated-Darwinian world of consumer devices, the marketplace may have already decided the success of this particular Sony model (i.e., not a huge amount of traction so far) and much has already been about its qualities. Nevertheless, I wanted to see for myself the current state of dedicated-reader evolution, especially in comparison with the other competing device types. It’s also a preview of the future, as new devices are set to emerge from and perhaps even . I’ve only had the unit for a few days, so it’s too soon to talk in-depth but I’ll cover my out-of-the-box reactions.
My first reaction was surprise — I’d forgotten just how compact this machine really is. After a few weeks of , the difference was stark. As light as the tablet is for a laptop, the Sony — at less than a pound — is less than a quarter of the weight and a third smaller in every dimension. Its tiny and very totable physical size put a powerful exclamation point on the portability potential of ebooks — the old notion of a shelf full of titles in a package smaller than a trade paperback is realized here, and it’s a very attractive feature. I originally thought that carrying this device in addition to a primary laptop would be excessive, but in reality, it would be a practical option with little additional stress on my overburdened messenger bag (or my back!).
Since the experience of reading a digital book is often compared against the tactile and visceral pleasures of handling its printed counterpart, the Sony’s physical design may have almost as much influence on the machine’s success as its book-reading functionality. In this respect, the machine is a mixed success. The fabric and leather-like folding case is pleasant to hold, with a magnetic latch that gives it a bit of substance when closed. The machine’s exterior plastics — a lightly-speckled black with chrome vertical edges — look solid and have a good feel in-hand. Unfortunately, the controls aren’t as successful. The joystick at the bottom right feels uncomfortably sharp-edged and rough to the touch. The other controls are less unpleasant, but they can be confusing in their functions and generally need polish in their appearance, positioning, and feel.
The display is the make-or-break part of any ebook reader, and the Sony’s e-ink screen is dramatically different from the LCD-based competition. In bright, indirect light, the display is beautiful, with a matte paper-like appearance. With a higher resolution and non-glowing surface, the page feels more comfortable and natural to the eye than a standard laptop LCD under these conditions. In less-ideal settings with dim artificial light, the screen’s apparent contrast degrades and takes on the hue of the light source, becoming harder to read. To be fair, a print book would also suffer in similar conditions but the Sony absolutely requires good light.
The photo above shows K. Eric Drexler’s in PDF format. Some content like that in Sony’s proprietary format can be reflowed like an html page, but those in the ubiquitous PDF format typically have fixed pages limited by the hardware’s ability to zoom. Because of this, the sans-serif font in this example is legible but a bit thin and small, even in the Sony’s zoomed-in mode. However, a landscape orientation mode is available, allowing more magnification for a given page size. The photo below shows H.G. Wells’ in this view. The increased magnification combined with a heavier serif font makes for a much more comfortable read.
Despite some compromises, the Sony is clearly optimized for text. In contrast, graphical content like the comic below is an insurmountable challenge. The balloon text is rendered nearly illegible and the rich colored graphics are reduced to a splotchy, dithered murk in the e-ink’s four shades of gray. The display is simply not up to the task of showing this kind of content.
So, given this first look, is the Sony Reader a mammal or a dinosaur in the evolution of ebook-reading devices? While the current limitations of the display technology (color is expected to be available in two years or so) and design problems with this particular species, the idea of a very compact, long-lived ebook reader continues to be a competitive one which may yet spawn an ideal device in later generations. I will continue to use the Sony for a long-term test to see how well adapted it really is — and I’ll compare its qualities from a reader’s perspective with those of its tablet PC and iPhone competition. Stay tuned!