Over the past few weeks, I have read a book and a half (and browsed through a few more) on my Sony Reader Touch Edition (PRS-600), and I think it's time I gave it a critical look as an ebook reading device. I have used several different handheld ebook devices over the years, and while this one is better than most of them, it is not the ultimate solution that readers have been seeking. However, there are some key features that set it apart from the crowd.
The PRS-600 comes in three different colors (silver, red, and black), and there are a few cover accessory options if you want to personalize your Reader. I have the silver Reader, and I like the simplicity of the design: rounded edges, clean lines, and buttons that are nearly flush with the case. There are a total of five buttons on the front, and since it is a touch screen, no more than those are needed, which makes this device look a lot like a PADD from Star Trek, adding to the geeky appeal. The touch screen seems to be resistant to picking up finger prints, particularly compared to the glass screens of the iPhone and iPod Touch.
The options on the main menu screen are self-explanatory, and navigating through menus and books is fairly intuitive. One caveat, though: I am fairly tech savvy, so my experience with the intuitive-ness of the device may not be the same as yours. One of the features of the interface that sets the PRS-600 apart from other ebook readers is the touch screen, which allows you to navigate through the menus or books without pushing a button or taking several clicks to get to a selection. Speaking of selections, highlighting or underlining text and making notes using the included stylus is simple, and you can reference your notes later on both the device and through the desktop application. Like most modern ebook readers, the PRS-600 can provide dictionary references for any word, and with the touch screen, it requires only a tap with the stylus.
As a librarian, I cannot neglect to mention the unique capability of the Sony Readers in allowing library patrons to "check out" and download library copies of ebooks to the device if the library provides those books through a service called Overdrive.
The Needs Improvement
Because the PRS-600 uses e-ink, it takes a moment for the screen image to be drawn when you make any changes such as selecting a menu item or turning a page. This can be distracting, but I noticed it less the more I got absorbed in whatever I was reading. If the screen redraw process could be sped up to at least the refresh rate of most computer monitor screens, I think that more people would go for e-ink devices. I do not notice any difference in eye strain between the two, so my preference is for faster response times.
Another area in need of improvement is the touch aspect of the screen, which is not as sensitive as other touch screens one may be used to and requires a firm tap of the finger. I found that using the stylus was more effective, but not particularly comfortable when reading. Instead, I would hold the device in my left hand and use the page turn buttons, conveniently placed within reach of my thumb. The PRS-600 only weighs about 10 ounces, which is nearly the weight of a trade paperback or small hardcover, but it is much easier to turn pages with one hand without dropping the book.
The layer that is added to the screen to make it touch sensitive also makes the PRS-600 screen a bit darker than other ebook reader screens. Under good lighting, this did not impair my ability to read the screen; however, finding good lighting was difficult. Direct light seems best, oddly enough, since indirect light made the screen more reflective. I have not tried the book light attachments, but I suspect they might do the trick for proper illumination. It doesn't seem quite right, though, that readers must purchase a $25-45 accessory in order to improve a device that already cost them $299, particularly when ambient light is sufficient to read a paper book without accessories. Hopefully Sony will fix this in future incarnations of the touch screen.
So far, I have read and enjoyed text-heavy books on the PRS-600, so I wanted to see how it would fare with an illustration-heavy publication. I went hunting for a graphic novel in the Sony eBook Store, and I must say I'm quite unimpressed with their selection and indexing. I found many of the Google books mistakenly categorized as graphic novels or manga even though they have no illustrations beyond their covers, if that. Harder to find were graphic novels that interested me, but I am a bit picky. I finally settled on I Saw You by Julia Wertz, a collection of illustrations based on Craigslist's missed connections section.
Although the text was easily reformatted to fit the device, the illustrations were not. Each page required me to use the zoom and navigation arrows in order to read the text in the illustration, and the zoom was not retained as I moved from page to page, so it was a multi-step process which made reading the book less fun and more of a chore. I did not try another publication to see if it was a problem with how the book was laid out (there seemed to be an excessive amount of white space around each illustration on the page) or if it was simply the down side to having a screen the size of a mass market paperback.
The eBook Store is limited in other areas of selection, and many of my wishlist books and favorite authors were unavailable. I know that this is partially due to negotiations with publishers, and it's not entirely Sony's responsibility to fix it. Hopefully, publishers will wake up to the 21st century and realize that the ebook market does not overlap entirely with the print market and they could be making more money by publishing in as many formats as they can. On the up side, because Sony has changed to using the ePUB format (both open and DRM versions), any book in that format can be read on the device, opening up the option to purchase books from other booksellers and not exclusively through the Sony eBook Store.
The touch screen of the PRS-600 makes it the easiest and most intuitive interface of any dedicated ebook reader I have used. If Sony can keep that functionality while improving the contrast and eliminating the need for direct light, they will have a clear winner in the ebook reader market. Reading and interacting with text is easy, and you could easily build an extensive, portable library between the 512MB of built-in storage and the optional removable memory cards (Memory Stick® PRO Duo™ and SD). However, this edition of the Sony Reader is not optimal for reading image-heavy content.
Amazon has been getting all the attention lately, much like the new baby in a family, but hopefully ebook readers will not be too distracted and miss watching the older ebook manufacturers like Sony mature. I have been and continue to be impressed by the quality and thoughtfulness of the products in the Sony Reader line, and I look forward to the next generation of improvements.