Digital books are finally coming of age having been talked about at great length. But can Sony’s offering impress? Pocket-lint got hands-on with the new Sony Reader for a First Look.
Wrapped in a leather cover, you could easily mistake the Reader for a Moleskine notebook or diary and doesn’t look out of place on your mahogany desk. The cover conveniently stays shut thanks to a couple of magnets. The overall impression you get is not of something barging into the book world with its fancy ways, but casually introducing itself without being too pretentious. The Reader doesn’t forego classic styling to boast about its technological credentials (from the outside at least), and that is something of its appeal.
The inside of the cover was a light grey, not so far removed from colour of the reader itself, and this isn’t just convenient design, it means that you aren’t distracted from the screen – it serves, in a sense, to make the Reader feel more like a book.
The Reader powers on using a slide switch on the top, next to the memory slots for Sony’s Memory Stick Pro, and standard SD card, which, let’s face it, is probably going to see more use. But we’ll come back to these.
Also adorning the face of the Reader are numbered buttons from 1 to 0 down the right-hand side of the screen. Across the bottom are a number of controls, a main four-way controller and "enter" button, the Menu button, the Zoom control, Bookmark and page turn controls. Tucked tidily away on the right edge of the device are additional page turn buttons so you could say the reading surface is a little busy.
The duplication in controls is again a deliberate move to give you an option, the right edge buttons fall into a convenient place to allow you to shift through pages in a natural holding position; the same could be said of the page turners located bottom left – if you are holding the book by the virtual spine, then you can use these with a thumb.
Into the menu itself and you are presented with a number of ways to browse your books – by title, author, collections and so on. Of course the first option is simply to "Continue Reading" should you have found your way back into the menu rather than just closing the cover on the page you were on.
Menu navigation is either by the four-way controller, or you can use the right-hand numbered buttons to shortcut straight to the option you want and this principle works throughout the menus. The number buttons also allow you to type in a page number and go directly to that point, but more on this later.
Menu navigation can be a little slow unfortunately, and at times we found that the cursor had jumped down the page following too many button presses, probably because of the rate at which the E Ink page changes. Plenty has been written about E Ink on this site and elsewhere, so we won’t cover that ground here.
Bookmark, as it suggests, allows you to virtually fold over the corner of a page to mark your position in a book – this then falls into the Bookmarks section of the menu. If two of you are reading different novels, you can just go straight back into your reading via a bookmark – or show the page to someone else, perhaps on a collaborative project. That said, there didn’t appear to be a keyword search, which would open up a range of possibilities for the Reader.
The dedicated Zoom button allows you to flip through three different font sizes – called small, medium and large surprisingly enough – depending on how much information you want on the page. The page numbering also then changes, so you’ll have to be careful using the aforementioned direct page selection to make sure you end up on the right page 214, for example. Again, this might be useful for referring to pages with research buddies, so long as the text size is also recorded.
Lurking at the bottom of the menu you’ll gain access to the other features – a picture browser and MP3 player. We slipped in the SD card from a camera and it automatically refreshed to display image thumbnails from the card – yes, it is only in greyscale and not great quality, but if you want to put in a few shots of the wife and kids for those long business trips then they’ll take on something of a regal appearance.
The audio playback works with the headphone socket on the bottom of the Reader, with a volume control, meaning you can listen to music whilst reading, for that complete in-flight experience, shutting out the world around you.
The E-Ink screen should be familiar to all those interested in ebooks, and whilst I was sceptical, I actually found it an enthralling experience. Easy on the eye, the only comment would perhaps be that once you add the bezel of the device to the white space of the virtual page, it can feel a little cramped: we would have liked a bigger screen (the Reader has a 6-inch display), perhaps at the expense of the numbered buttons down the side.
The Sony Reader is one of many ways of consuming the written word, but doesn’t feel out of place. It won’t replace that feeling of running your fingers along a shelf of well-loved books, but it is a better experience than reading a PDF book on your notebook computer.
Lurking in the pre-loaded content were titles you probably meant to read long ago and perhaps now will. Of course, during our First Look we didn’t get to experience loading new content or explore the delivery options, but from what we have seen, the Sony Reader looks like it has the makings of a classic.
The Sony Reader is available to pre-order from Waterstones.