Sony PRS-650 Reader Touch review

The Sony Reader Touch edition has seen a significant update from the PRS-600 model we reviewed in 2009. The new version, the PRS-650, has addressed a number of criticisms we fired at its predecessor. So comfortable is Sony with its touch readers that it changed the Pocket edition to be fully touch equipped too. But is this the ebook reader you should go for?

Ebook readers are caught in a strange place and there are many that don’t see the value of an E Ink reader device when set aside the all-singing all-dancing multimedia tablet. But for those who read a lot of books, the E Ink approach is a compelling solution. It offers numerous advantages within its relatively constrained parameters over the iPads of this world, but you have to accept what this device is for.

With that in mind, we’re not so blown away by expanding features in ebook readers - after all, many of us now have a smartphone tucked in a pocket that will deliver a complement of connected services. No, devices like the Sony Reader are designed for slipping into fresh cotton sheets and settling down to read for a few hours. For us, what makes a “good” or “bad” ebook reader comes down to that core reading experience.

Sony’s Readers have been lavished with a premium finish in the past and here we see the same attention on the PRS-650. It is a strokeable aluminium finish, with a slightly rubberised feel to the back, but one that feels like you are grasping a quality device. Of all the ebook readers we’ve looked at, it is certainly the one we like getting our hands on the most. The Amazon Kindle’s plastic finish might be solid enough, but the finish of Sony’s device is the one that draws admiring glances.

The PRS-650 offers you a 6-inch display with a resolution of 800 x 600 pixels, which is typical for ebook readers, and perfectly adequate for displaying text. Sony has, however, used a more sophisticated display than many rivals, using 16 levels of grey, meaning that menus are more interesting and any images that need to be displayed can offer a wider range of greyscale.

Previously our killer complaint with the Sony Reader Touch edition was that by enabling the touch display, they also introduced glare that ran counter to the Reader’s primary function: it detracted from the experience of reading a book. Sony has re-engineered the surface of the screen to remove that reflective layer and the results are excellent. Not only has the reflection problem been solved, but it's also improved the overall contrast. Ebook readers offer a very dark grey text on a light grey background and the challenge has always been to get as far to the light and dark extremes as possible to get best possible contrast. The PRS-650 proves to be excellent. Sure, it isn’t white, but then neither are the pages of the latest bestseller either.

The Sony Reader is surprisingly lightweight in the hand too. Weighing in at 215g it measures 118.8 x 168 x 9.6mm so is slim enough to slip into the jacket pocket of your suit, although we suspect you’ll buy a cover for it and slip it into your bag instead.

We’ve said many times before that content is king when it comes to ebook readers. After all, you’re getting it to consume content. This is where the Kindle lays down a huge trump card. The Kindle is linked to your Amazon account, letting you browse the Kindle Store from your device and download books directly to it. The downside is that you can only read those books through Amazon’s approved routes, but they also support applications to let you read on your PC or Mac, iPhone, Android device or BlackBerry. So it is a closed system, but one with plenty of access and benefits.

The huge downside of Amazon’s offering is that you can only source your content from them, which is where Sony’s Reader offers a good deal more freedom. This freedom lets you purchase DRM-protected content from any store you choose in the most common EPUB format and then transfer it to the Reader Touch edition. There is no wireless connection, so it has to be done the “old fashioned” way, with wires.

Making this connection and dealing with the DRM involves using two applications, so the out-of-the-box experience doesn’t have the simplicity that Amazon’s Kindle does, but this could be the price of freedom that you are happy to pay. You’ll have to install Adobe’s Digital Editions on your computer to authorise your device and essentially give it permission to view your protected files. If you already have DRM EPUB files this won’t bother you, because you already have the free software and an account with Adobe. You simply connect via USB, authorise a new device and you are free to transfer content onto it.

Sony also supplies its management software - Reader Library - that will let you manage your collection and simply and easily add content to your device by dragging and dropping. It is simple to use, as is the authorisation process, if you are happy to go through the process with your new device.

Some rival devices we’ve seen, such as the Samsung E60 or the iRiver Story Wi-Fi offer a Wi-Fi connection which will allow you to browse a book store and buy online (in both cases in the UK the store is WH Smith). It lacks the simplicity of the Kindle approach overall and without dedicated content portals, the experience is a little too clunky for us to get really excited about.

Whilst we are on content, it is worth considering where you are going to get your content from. When we reviewed the Amazon Kindle it was clear that despite offering a closed system, it wasn’t going to hold you to ransom for your books. We’ve gone back to look at the prices of a few titles from a few stores, again taken from the New York Times hardcover bestsellers. As a comparison chart it isn’t very comprehensive, but it demonstrates the position that the ebook market is currently in: prices and availability vary wildly and it is well worth examining who sells what and for how much before you commit your hard cash. It's worth remembering too, that at present, not all new titles are provided in ebook format by the publishers, but this is a problem that all content providers face.

Of course, if you already have a collection of EPUB titles, then the Kindle isn’t an option as a new device. Aside from EPUB support, the Reader can also view PDF, BBeB, TXT, RTF and Word files (converted automatically by the Reader Library software).

The ace up Sony’s sleeve is compatibility with rental material. This is protected and loaned out by your local library and expires after the end of the loan period (7 or 14 days). As such, we were able to visit the online section of our county library and download a selection of titles, including the above-mentioned Steig Larsson title. Free content isn’t to be sniffed at and there is a chance that you already have access to some content if you are a UK resident and a library member. Fortunately Sony has provided a list of libraries on its website.

So, from a content point of view, the Sony Reader Touch edition has pros and cons. The process is certainly more fiddly than the Kindle, and many rival book stores are more expensive, but then you do get more buying options as well as the possibility of free content that your taxes have already paid for. It’s worth seeing what your library will offer and how the process works, especially as you’ll be able to view these files on your computer without the need for a reader device.

Control of the PRS-650 is also one of the strong points. Across the bottom of the screen you’ll find five buttons which offer page turning, home, magnify and options. They cover the main options you’ll need whilst using the device, but you will have to use the touch options to actually get you started reading a book. The main menu is clearly laid out, using large icons so you can quickly get to grips with the device.

The touch response is surprisingly good and probably the fastest of all the touch-enabled ebook reader devices we’ve seen. It comes with a stylus, but you only really need to use it if you want to scribble notes or sketch drawings. For daily navigation a finger is sufficient. The surprising thing is how fast these features work, with fast refresh rates meaning quick page turns and quick menu navigation. It is noticeably faster than previous generations of Sony Readers.

Additional features include a photo browser and an MP3 player, and you also get easy access to the Oxford Dictionary of English to provide definitions of words with a double tap, or alternate languages if English isn't your preference. There is also an SD and MemoryStick card slot on the top to expand the storage over the 2GB onboard, also providing a method of adding content.

Verdict

Of all the ebook readers we’ve seen this year, the Sony Reader Touch edition PRS-650 has been the best we’ve seen, delivering the premium feel and ease of use that we want from an ebook reader.

Prior to July this year, we’d have given the Sony Reader a Hot Product award. But the launch of Amazon’s Kindle for only £109, undercutting the Sony device by a whole £90, changes the game. Our ideal reader would be Sony’s hardware combined with the Kindle’s content delivery system.

As it is we’d recommend the Sony Reader Touch edition to anyone who feels they want to stay out of Amazon’s Kindle empire, but with Amazon’s prices looking so appealing, it’s difficult not to be drawn in.