Sony Reader PRS-505 ebook review

We first looked at the Sony Reader (PRS-505) a few months back. We have now lived with the Reader for some time and following the UK launch with the associated Waterstones website behind it, the time seems right to delve a little deeper.

We had a good look at the layout and overall design of the device in our First Look (link below) and wouldn’t want to repeat too much of that here, so feel free to flick back for a more in-depth read covering layout of the controls and so on. For those that did not see the previous iteration, we’ll cover the essentials here.

The Sony Reader, or PRS-505, presents a 6-inch E Ink display, lovingly set in a metal body, the front of which is somewhat cluttered with buttons. The grey lining to the sophisticated leather cover, paired with the silver-grey metal body of the Reader itself results in a combination that is sensitive to the needs of a reader - it doesn't distract your eyes from the text. E Ink displays avoid backlighting of any sort, so this is nothing like reading on an LCD display: it’s like reading grey paper.

Of course all these are important features, because at its very core, the Sony Reader has to be convincing as a replacement for a humble paperback if it is to succeed. Whilst you can read it in bright sunshine, the surface does give you some reflection, but thanks to the wide viewing angle you can simply tilt it slightly. A distinct advantage of E-Ink displays is low power consumption, so Sony estimate the battery life to be about 6800 page turns.

Down the right-hand side of the screen are buttons numbered 1-0, which allow you to enter page numbers and directly navigate the menus, although the four-way controller and central enter button at the bottom also allow menu access. Direct page access is something of a misnomer as changing the text size leads to renumbering in some formats (but not in others). Much more useful is the bookmark button, which we found we used constantly.

Much has been made recently in the press about the text resizing option, suggesting that this would appeal to those want to put their reading glasses aside. True, but it’s not an absolute solution: removing a pair of glasses is replaced by the adventures with procuring e-books and messing around with the software. However, text resizing also comes in to play when you start importing different file formats: RTF (originally an 11pt document in Word) was nigh on impossible to read – we set it to the largest format.

The two supplied software options duplicate their functions to a certain extent. Adobe Digital Editions is essential from a DRM point of view to handle your purchases. Unfortunately, and this is where things get sticky, Digital Editions only deals with PDFs and EPUB, where as the Sony software handles an additional range of files, including content of the 100 "classic books" disc, which are in Sony’s BBeB (BroadBand eBook, .LRX or .LRF) format. As a bonus, it also supports TXT and RTF files, the latter meaning Word documents can easily been taken on the move with you (although you could just as easily convert them to PDF). As a result you’ll find yourself using the somewhat bland Sony eBook Library for content management, and only Digital Editions when necessary.

However, a straight drag and drop method of adding titles to the Reader from both software solutions keeps things simple. If you prefer, you can simply use Windows Explorer and drop files direct into the appropriate folder, with direct access to memory cards as well. In terms of capacity, the onboard memory gives you 210MB of memory, which is good for about 160 books. However, the expansion slots on the top support SD cards and Memory Stick Duo (up to 16GB).

We found the SD card slot useful for music, as the Reader will also play MP3 and AAC files. Simply slotting in a card will cause a refresh of content with your files appearing in the menu. A 3.5mm headphone jack on the bottom lets the music out and once your track is playing you can go off and read a book. Similarly, images (JPEG, GIF, PNG) can be viewed so you could preview digital camera photos, albeit in black and white (the softy in me says this is great for baby photos on your travels...).

Having read the bundled excerpts, I decided that James Barrington’s "Foxbat" appealed to me, so I headed off to buy it from Waterstones’ shiny new ebook store. The first issue with the website is that search is site-wide by default, so you have to select e-books in the advanced search to find what you want. Chances are you’ll be looking for something specific – after all, browsing an online shop has little of the appeal of standing in a bookshop flicking through various tomes: that tactile experience is entirely missing.

Regardless, I found Foxbat and made my purchase. You then download the EBX transfer data file and open this up to start the transfer, as which point Adobe Digital Editions swings into action and takes over. As file sizes are small, it’s fast, and you then have your digital book which I dragged and dropped onto the Reader. Disconnection from the PC forces a refresh when your new book will appear.

Adobe Digital Editions’ main responsibility is to handle digital rights and authorising devices is part of the process. Having purchased an e-book, you can at least read it on your PC as well, should you find yourself without the Reader.

Page turning is handled either by a bottom left-hand corner control or right-hand edge controls, both of which fall neatly under the thumb when reading. One issue with E Ink is refresh rate, i.e., the time taken to "turn pages". This is slight issue, especially if you opt for larger text as there is distinct pause whilst this happens, however, in normal book reading this isn’t such a problem as to deter from using the Reader.

Menu navigation suffers from the same setback – it does take longer than you’d expect to flick through the options, so those ugly numbered buttons have a place after all. We found we’d often go too far because we were a button press ahead of the device, which is obviously an area for advancement in this technology.

Charging takes place, along with file transfer, through the Mini-USB slot on the bottom of the device. A cable is supplied, but unfortunately there is no mains powerpack, which could be connected through the 5.2V DC jack on the bottom.

Verdict

There is no doubt that Sony’s Reader has brought added interest to the world of e-books, adding to the likes of Amazon’s Kindle, iRex iLiad, Bookeen Cybook and BEBook. So could this be the coming of age for the e-book?

With people becoming accustomed to buying music online, buying e-books is not such a great step. It is a shame that Waterstones’ offering isn’t as slick as something like the iTunes music store, and it is not inconceivable that some people will find themselves buying a paperback when they meant to buy the e-book. Certainly there is room for improvement make to process clearer.

Fortunately there is little with the Reader itself to confuse. Navigation of the menus is relatively intuitive, if a little slow. The two software options might cause some initial confusions for some, but both are fairly simple to use: third-party options are also around for those with a preference, but DRM issues with the Waterstones’ e-book store require Adobe’s Digital Editions.

Competitively priced and supported by a major bookstore, it remains to be seen how readily available other booksellers make their digital editions. In the meantime, I’m off to read Foxbat.