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Product Review: Sony Pocket eBook Reader

So you planned on getting the reader on your list a Nook, the new eBook reader from Barnes & Noble only to find out they're backordered.  You still like the idea of giving that special someone an eBook reader but you're not sure where to turn next.  There are a a growing number of options on the market and it can be confusing at times.  Should you go with Amazon's Kindle?  What about one of the eBook Readers from the Sony family?

This summer I became a Kindle 2 owner and I've found the conversion to eReading to be an easy one and have come to quite enjoy it.  A month ago, I received a Sony Pocket eReader and I've spent the past few weeks kicking the tires on it.  For the purpose of this review, I'm going to do my best to ignore my membership in the Kindle club.  This review is going to focus on the strengths, weaknesses, and general experience of the Pocket eReader.  We'll save the  comparison for another day.

The greatest strength of the Sony Pocket eReader is its simplicity.  You don't have to have a PhD in technology to operate the device.  Purchasing books, transferring them to the device, and navigating from one book to another or from page to page are all intuitive processes.  Bookmarking and changing font sizes are also simple.

Using the Pocket device requires installation of software that can be downloaded from Sony's web site and is available for Mac and PC users.  The majority of users will get the majority of their books through Sony's eBook Store.  The eBook Store is integrated into the software download.  For those of you who own iPods, think of the relationship between your Pocket eReader and the Sony software the way you do your iPod and iTunes.  You can manage the content of your device in the software and also connect to the store through it, provided you're connected to the internet.  Similarly, purchased books are moved to the device in a drag/drop manner when the Reader is connected to your computer via the included USB cable.  Trust me when I say that all sounds a lot more complicated than it really is.  The learning curve is gentle.  Buying books, transferring them to the Reader, and reading are all simple.  The native support for Adobe's PDF format is another major plus for the Reader.

As for the reading experience, it's entirely pleasant.  The Pocket Reader may not actually fit in the front pocket of your Levi's, but it is quite small and incredibly light.  Despite that, the screen is plenty large to comfortably read your favorite books.  The screen real estate can feel a little squeezed when the font is set to the largest setting, but even then it's still workable.  The screen isn't revelatory in any fashion, but reading the books on the device really does feel like ink on the page.  The battery life is quite good.

Navigating the device is also pretty easy.  The control buttons at the bottom of the device are self-explanatory.  Bookmarking is a snap as is changing that font size.  The numeric keys on the side of the device may be helpful to some readers.  I found it just as easy to use the controls at the bottom of the screen for my purposes.

That's the good news.  The Pocket Reader is not a perfect device and there are a few areas where it falls short of what it could be.  The first issue is the lack of an included independent AC adapter.  The only way to charge the Reader is by connecting it to your computer via the included USB cable.  AC adapters are sold separately, retailing in the neighborhood of $25.  That's frustrating enough.  What makes it worse is that you can't use the device while it's charging when hooked up to your computer.  You can still read using the Sony software but now you're reading the book on your computer screen rather than the device. 

The other issue isn't with the device itself but it's something to know going in.  Some people are going to be unhappy with the prices at the Sony eBook Store, and that's where the majority of readers will turn for the majority of titles.  Without getting into a confusing discussion of the brewing format wars, Sony's device doesn't lock you in to their store exclusively (PDF being one example of this as well as compatibility with Google's Public Domain titles) but most readers will turn to their store and prices here vary. 

If your reading taste trends towards the major bestsellers and contemporary titles, the pricing is reasonable by eBook standards with many of them priced at $9.99.  If your reading tastes are a bit more obscure, you're going to have mixed results.  There are many older or less popular books that sell for $9.99 and less.  There are also several titles selling well above that price.  The price issue undercuts one advantage of digital reading.  In exchange for eschewing the physical and allowing publishers to save on the publishing costs, readers are supposed to get a bargain.  With Sony's store, you do and you don't.  It's worth browsing their store and getting an rough idea on prices for the books you'd plan on purchasing once you buy your device.

Summary: The Sony Pocket eBook reader is an excellent device that's very easy to use for anyone with even modest familiarity with technology and easy to learn for those who aren't even that savvy.  It's lightweight, has excellent battery life, and is easy on the eyes.  The battery life is very good, which becomes important because charging can be inconvenient without purchasing a separate AC adapter.  Prices at Sony's eBook store vary from cheap to reasonable to expensive.

About Josh Hathaway

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