First Look: Sony PRS-650 Reader Touch

Are you looking for our full review of the Sony PRS-650 Reader Touch edition? If so, you can find it here.

Sony have updated their two readers - the Touch and Pocket editions, looking to cash in on 2010 Christmas lists. Announced at IFA recently, where we saw them for the first time, we returned to the UK launch to clap eyes on them again and investigate the changes further.

The first thing to note is that although this is technically a First Look of the Touch edition, much of what is written here applies to the Pocket edition too. It's important to realise that the difference between the two units mostly comes down to size: both are now touch enabled, both have the same interface and this is a fundamental change from the button-based controls of the Reader Pocket edition in the past.

It's quite a brave step for Sony, as their last edition of the Sony Reader Touch edition was greeted with criticism because of the level of reflection from the screen in bright conditions. We certainly felt that the reading experience wasn't as good as basic non-touch E Ink devices. That has now changed, with Sony telling us that they'd managed to reengineer the touch surface to remove the reflective film from the front. We examined the new surface with what lighting we could find at the launch event and it certainly looked better, but we'll reserve judgement until we've had a review unit to read in the garden, in bed, on the train, and, ahem, on the kahzi.

It isn't just the reflective surface that Sony have targeted by incorporating the latest E Ink technology. The refresh rate is noticeably faster, so page turns are now quicker and general navigation feels more natural, with 16 shades of grey offered over the normal 8. Compared to their first mainstream UK device - the Reader PRS-505 - things have come a long way. The contrast has been improved too, but we'll wait to judge the changes.

The new Readers have had some exterior changes too. The body, as before, is brushed aluminium and so it feels good in the hand, it feels like a premium product. Sony took advantage of their captive audience at today's launch to point out the metal body compared to the Amazon Kindle's plastic body, but we guess it is horses for course: ultimately you'll buy the device that best suits your needs.

The user interface of the Reader has been updated to be more touch-friendly and it's welcomed. Gone are the lists of books, and instead you are greeted with a homepage that uses book cover images to give you nice big icons, so its easier to find your way around and it has a more complete feel to it. It is a more consumer approach, rather than the previous versions which had something of a file/folder feel to them.

Other neat features include a dictionary so you can double tap a word and the OED will give you a definition and there are now translation options too, so if you are struggling your way through Moyen de parvenir, it might just help you out. As well as accepting straight finger taps, you'll also be able to use the stylus, which is better suited to doodling notes.

But functionality is only half the story of an ebook reader, because they are all about content. We're not talking movies and games like those fancy tablets offer, we're talking about reading, good old-fashioned reading. The Sony Readers are designed to be as much like reading on paper as possible, so shouldn't be compared directly to the wider functions you'll find on the latest range of tablets or smartphones: they can't complete because they aren't designed to.

Focusing on content, the Sony Readers accept a range of open formats, most notable is the EPUB format which you'll find is the format of choice for almost all online ebook stores - except of course from Amazon, which locks its content to its own devices in the Kindle family. That's fine, but a reader of the type that Sony is presenting offers you a wier range of shopping choices, even if the buying and transferring process is a little more convoluted than buying direct from the device.

Neither of the new Readers contain a Wi-Fi connection, something we've seen recently from the likes of the iRiver Story Wi-Fi and the BeBook Neo. We pressed a Sony representative on this today and although there was nothing official to hint that this was the route that Sony was going to take, the spokesperson did say he suspected it was being considered for the future.

But Sony does have some content tricks up its sleeves. The first, which we looked at today, was in the agreement with 50 UK councils to provide free ebook rentals through country library websites. Fortunately we fall under one such council so will give this process a test drive when we get a review unit. The second content offering comes in the form of a reorganisation of the Google Books offering.

We've seen Google's book project bandied about by almost all ebook manufacturers. It's a great source of content, providing you're after out-of-copyright works. There is plenty of classic literary fodder to be had. Sony have provided a search engine on their website to make it easier to get it into your Reader in the right format. We prefer this to just advertising that it exists.

Despite the size - the Touch is 6-inches, the Pocket is 5-inches - the Touch also has more space to fit in an SD and MemoryStick card reader, so you get the potential for a huge number of books. The Touch also has a music player, something we didn't get to see much of during our hands-on.

Verdict

We liked Sony's first UK ebook, the PRS-505 Reader, but we didn't really get on with the Pocket or the Touch last time around. This new iteration of both Readers looks better, but the Touch seems to have grown into what the last Touch should have been. It looks and feels much more like a natural product to use for its intended purpose. Touch, perhaps, enhances the experience rather than bringing a compromise with it.  

Of course those are just first impressions and we'll be putting the new Readers through their paces when we get final samples in for review. The pre-order Sony price for the PRS-650 is £199 which still looks a little high, so we're hoping that book stores will be able to get this price down, as the price of source freedom might not stack up against the simplicity of Amazon's £109 Kindle.



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