The eBook industry is at a strange stage in its evolution. Some publishers and their authors have jumped on the bandwagon, while others remain timid and apprehensive of the whole digital-ink thing.
In fact, if it hadn't been for the massive efforts of the world's biggest book seller, namely Amazon.com, it's possible there would be almost no industry at all. Amazon's development – from scratch I might add – of their Kindle eBook platform based on the E-Ink technology licensed from EInk Corporation, represents the iPod/iTunes ecosystem of the eBook world. It's an almost Holy Grail combination of dedicated device married to a wireless infrastructure with access to a steadily growing electronic library. We normally associate this kind of product development with Apple, IBM, and Sony, not online book merchants.
But despite version 2 of the Kindle being deployed in the U.S. and recently announced Kindle DX (a larger form-factor reader) – here in Canada we remain Kindle-less for the foreseeable future. Here's one possible explanation as to why.
So what's an avid book reader and gadget geek to do?
The answer comes in two similar, yet different, eBook reading devices from Sony. Known collectively as Sony Readers, the PRS-505 and PRS-700 use the same E-Ink technology found in Amazon's Kindle.
We'll look at both models in detail seeing how they compare in form and function. Let's start with the specs they have in common:
- 6" diagonal screen size
- 170 pixels per inch (this is one of the reasons reading eInk displays is so easy on the eyes – average PC screens often max out around 100 ppi)
- 8-level grayscale (suitable for displaying most photos as black & white)
- Rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery, good for about 7,500 page turns according to Sony
Support for the following file formats:
- Unsecured Text: BBeB Book, TXT, RTF, Adobe® PDF4, Microsoft® Word (Conversion to the Reader-requires Word installed on your PC) DRM
- Text: BBeB Book (Marlin), EPUB
- Unsecured Audio: MP3 and AAC
- Image: JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP
Okay, time for a deeper look.
The PRS-505 has a crisp, black on light gray screen with a choice of three different font sizes (small, medium and large). Though the font face used by the reader can't be changed by the user, it's based on Times Roman which, as a serif font, will feel comfortable for most people. Sorry Helvetica fans.
The first thing you notice when reading an eInk display is that unlike a traditional LCD screen, contrast and readability actually gets better the more ambient light there is. That's because just like real ink on paper, E-Ink reflects light back to your eyes instead of generating it via a backlight. But this is also eInk's greatest weakness: there's no way to alter the contrast. Assuming the text is displayed in the darkest of the 8 levels of gray, if it's still too light for you, you're out of luck. Fortunately, the PRS-505 delivers a good amount of contrast for most environments.
Some people might be aware of the light gray background of the screen itself – indeed this is probably the cause of my perception that the ink could stand to be a little darker. We're all used to seeing black ink on a white page, or at least off-white and there's no escaping the fact that the light gray doesn't provide as much contrast as a piece of paper.
The good news is: you get used to it quickly and after a few chapters you barely notice it at all.
The PRS-700's touch-screen technology, whose advantages I'll detail later, possesses one major drawback. Because Sony's engineers had to layer a capacitive membrane over the E-Ink display to enable the 700's touch-screen features, they reduced the amount of ambient light the eInk receives, and thus the amount it can reflect. The result is (when compared to the 505) like reading through a thin layer of onion skin paper. Contrast is reduced and some crispness at the edge of letters is lost. Worse still, this top layer is quite reflective and depending on where your light source is located, you need to tilt the 700 slightly backward to avoid the glare. When you compare the two displays side by side (click on the accompanying image – the PRS-505 is on the left, the PRS-700 on the right), the difference is immediately apparent.
Perhaps because of this, the PRS-700 offers two more font sizes to choose from – extra large and an enormous extra-extra-large. I suppose the rationale is, if you can't make the text easier to read through contrast, you can at least make it bigger. Unfortunately, that is exactly what I was forced to do.
When reading from the PRS-505, I found the medium font size to be the best trade-off between readability of the actual text vs. line length (I'm sure that somewhere there is a well-researched paper that defines the optimum line length for prolonged reading!). However on the PRS-700, I needed the large font in order to compensate for the reduced contrast.
Now to be perfectly fair, when I used the PRS-700 in bright sunlight even its smallest font was quite readable. But when curled up in bed with a reading light behind me, which is how I do most of my non-business reading, the 700 just couldn't compete with the 505.
If being able to read in places where there is little or no ambient light is important to you, then you'll appreciate the 700's built-in backlight feature. It's actually more of a "side-light" since true backlighting wouldn't work very well with the e-ink display. Though this lighting works well, it's not a good substitute for natural light.
Buttons and other controls
With the PR-505, all aspects of the reader's functionality is controlled via the buttons that line the right side and bottom of the screen. The primary task – page turning – can be done with either the "page forward" and "page backward" buttons on the right side of the screen, or with the circular pad on the bottom left corner of the Reader. The redundancy of this setup is quickly appreciated when your hands get tired of holding the Reader by its edges and you shift to a different position. I'm not really sure why the secondary page turn controls are shaped like multi-way control pad, but perhaps that was more about aesthetics to balance out the other 4-way control on the right side.
Turning pages on the Reader produces a momentary flash of black before the ink resolves itself into the new set of words. This happens anytime the display needs to change what it's showing. While a little disconcerting at first, you again grow accustomed to it. The transitional effect is caused by the nature of eInk displays. The "pixels" work more like an etch-a-sketch tablet than like a typical LCD display. With LCDs, each pixel can change on it's own, very quickly, and go from one colour to another in an instant. eInk on the other hand exists in more of an ON or Off state. To switch between these states, an electrical charge is needed. Moreover, it seems that the entire area that is to be re-drawn must be first "cleaned" by turning all of the pixels on, then off. Only then can the final image be rendered. Odd as it is at first, I'm so used to it now that I wonder if a transitionless page turn would be an improvement.
On the PRS-700, you have a choice between using the built-in page turn buttons that are nestled at the bottom of the screen, or the touch-screen. If you've ever used an iPhone or iPod Touch, you'll be familiar with the technique – simply touch the screen with your finger and swipe it across, going left or right depending on which way you want to turn the page. As cool as it is to turn pages like this, I got tired of it pretty quickly and reverted back to using the buttons.
Navigating the Reader is one activity where having a touch screen really makes a difference. On the PRS-505, every option is associated with one of the 10 buttons that line the right side of the screen. To choose an option, you press the associated button. Not a bad system, and it's quite intuitive once you get used to it. But with the PRS-700, every option is displayed on-screen as a touch-sensitive icon or bar. Working this way seems completely natural, and makes you wish the 505 could do the same thing.
So far I've been discussing the fundamental activity that everyone will be using Readers for: reading. And if you've come to the conclusion that the PRS-505 seems better suited to this than the 700, and for less money, I'd have to agree.
However, there's more to using a Reader than just reading.
Given the enormous amount of books that you can keep at one time on a Reader with their on-board memory - (256MB for the 505 and 512MB for the 700) and an essentially unlimited number if you include the use of external MemoryStick or SD cards - a search feature could really come in handy. Especially if, as a student or professional you've got textbooks or other reference material on your Reader.
Sadly, the PRS-505 is bereft of such a useful tool. Sony's engineers could probably have included a hard keyboard like the one found on the various Kindle models, or alternatively could have come up with a soft keyboard scheme using the navigational pad on the right side of the device. But perhaps their desire to create a simplified, differentiated model from the 700 kept both of these options from appearing on the 505.
The 700, on the other hand, has an excellent soft-keyboard that can be operated with the tip of a finger, or with the included stylus which stows away in the top right corner of the case. It can be used to search the entire contents of the Reader, with results broken down by book title.
Bookmarks and Notes
If you tend to read books sequentially, bookmarking isn't a big requirement since both Readers will always remember where you left off from your last reading session. But if you enjoy marking pages in books for future reference, or if you're like me and have a habit of keeping multiple books on the go, bookmarking is a must. Each of the Readers does a fine job of this, giving you the ability to mark as many pages as you like. Finding them later is easy too – you just look for the book in question and get the Reader to display all of the related marks.
Bookmarks are great if you want to come back to a particular point in a volume, but if you're a student or perhaps someone who proof-reads regularly, the ability to make notes at specific points within the text is critical.
The PRS-700 lets you do this, again with the built-in soft keyboard – but I have a feeling serious note-takers will find it frustrating for any extensive writing. Perhaps if this feature proves popular with users, Sony will follow Amazon's lead and include a hard keyboard in future Reader products.
Software and more
The easiest way to get content onto Sony's Readers is via the included eBook Library software. The Library will be immediately familiar to those who use Apple's iTunes as the interface is nearly identical. Access to your personal library, music and other files is found in a right-hand column as is your Reader which shows up just like an iPod would inside iTunes. The similarity continues with the integration of Sony's online bookstore. After creating an account with the store and registering your Reader, you can buy and download thousands of books from a variety of categories.
Using the Library is dead-easy and Sony has clearly learned from Apple's success.
Unfortunately, digital distribution hasn't meant lower prices – at least not so far. Expect most books to be comparable in price to what you'd pay in a bricks and mortar store. However, many free titles are available from Google which can be downloaded as .pdf documents and then loaded onto the Reader.
Recharging the Readers can be done two ways: via the included USB cable or by using an optional travel charger. Strangely, Sony only supports USB charging if the Reader is connected to a PC or Mac. A standalone powered USB hub won't work which I found frustrating while traveling without my computer.
Both Readers can playback MP3 and non-DRM AAC audio files via the headphone jack. Sound quality was average and there are no equalizer controls. My guess is that most people will use this capability for audio books instead of music.
Both Readers offer ease of use, excellent software, and a form factor that is both small and light enough to go anywhere you'd take a novel. Whichever model you choose, you'll own a great piece of tech.
Choosing the right Reader for you will probably come down to two factors:
- When comparing the two displays, are you comfortable with the reduced contrast of the PRS-700 and could you see yourself reading it for long periods?
- How important is the ability to take notes while you read?
Given that the PRS-700 retails for $100 more than the 505, these questions become even more relevant.
Although the photos included in this review should help, I strongly suggest you visit a Sony Store location to see them side by side for yourself. Personally, I was never totally satisfied with the contrast on the PRS-700 and would opt for the less expensive 505.