The ebook reader market seems to be gaining momentum if you take an increasing diversity of devices as an indicator. The idea of an ebook replacing your collection of dusty novels is still in its infancy, but with the PRS-300, the "Pocket Edition", we see Sony expanding its offerings, alongside the PRS-600, the "Touch Edition".
We liked the PRS-505, the original Reader that we reviewed last year and we've been using one ever since. There is as much a need to understand the limitation of an ebook reader as there is any features it offers: these devices are primarily designed for reading and the real issues are about content delivery and accessibility and how the device performs its core function. In some cases, like the PRS-300, less can be more.
The PRS-300, then, fits well into that convenient slot. The format is largely the same as Sony's other Readers. We reviewed the brushed silver version, which we prefer over the red/rose version, but if you feel the need to make a statement that's the one to go for. It's also worth mentioning that we are a fan of the accessory cover. Sure, it costs £30 extra, but it does make prolonged use more like reading a book and you can close the cover to protect the Reader when it is in your bag. A neoprene slip cover is supplied in the box.
The device itself features a 5-inch screen, which gives you an 800 x 600 pixel resolution display. Like other ebooks, this is an E Ink display, meaning it doesn't have a backlight and it uses very little power, essentially only when changing the contents of the page. Some criticise E Ink displays, but it fits the purpose perfectly: it doesn't cause eye strain when reading, you aren't left feeling drained from staring at it whilst reading in bed, plus you get a battery life of weeks, rather than hours.
The front and the spine of the PRS-300 are metal, the back and edges are plastic. The back has a slight tactile feel to it, so it is a pleasure to hold in the hand. The plastic edge perhaps looks a little cheaper than the rest of the device, but it doesn’t matter. Overall, it looks good, and feels good in the hand.
Although the screen is only 5-inches on the diagonal, the PRS-300 is approx 7.3-inches overall on the diagonal (107 x 157.5 x 10.2mm). It weighs in at 220, heavier than most mobile phones. It will fit into an average suit inside pocket, whilst the larger PRS-505 was a bit of a squeeze.
The extra real estate on the front is where all the controls live. Below the screen are Home and Back buttons and Bookmark and a Zoom button, flanking a central four-way controller, and "ok" button. Running down the right-hand side of the screen are number buttons, which can be used to enter page numbers directly, or select options from the menu.
In terms of size and weight, the PRS-300 is comfortable to read in the hand. It is lighter than most paperbacks. Given the overall size, we found accessing the main control, the one to turn the pages, fell into easy reach of the thumb, which is an important point.
Around the edges of the PRS-300 you have the contact points. On the bottom is the Mini-USB and the 5.2V DC input. This uses the same charger as the (now old) PSP, so it is worth shopping around as you'll find one for a fraction of the £25 that Sony would ask of you for the Reader charger.
The top of the device gives you a power slider and small LED indicator that lets you know when it is connected to the power and receiving juice (it takes 2 hours to charge using the charger, 4 hours via USB). Using the charger is preferable, as you can read at the same time, whereas once connect to your PC, the Reader enters USB mode and you can't get to your content.
Connect the PRS-300 to your PC and you'll find that the software – Sony's eBook Library for both PC and Mac – is onboard. It is basic and but allows you to organise your collection of eBooks, provides links to online stores (Waterstones, WHSmith and Borders) so you can buy titles, and move content over to your device or set folders to sync. You can also use it to read ebooks on your PC if you wish.
If you plan on buying content, for example from Waterstones online, you'll need Adobe Digital Editions to handle the DRM, effectively granting you a license to the title. This is free software, which you can download direct from Adobe, or you'll be prompted to when you come to purchase an ebook online. Again, it's simple, but essential for the process and once you have your verified file, you can move it over to the Reader.
You don't have to use Sony's software for the process and some users have reported problems with eBook Library, but we found it worked with no problems on the Mac (we already had Adobe Digital Editions in place).
File support on the PRS-300 is good, letting you read EPUB (the mainstay of purchased content), PDF, TXT, RTF, DOC and BBeB formats. We found it had some difficulty with Word documents, but it copes with PDFs rather well, allowing you to resize text in multiple page documents, although don't then trust the page count you are given. For the most part, however, you'll be using the EPUB format.
Reading feels natural on the PRS-300. The quality of the device in your hand combines with the E Ink screen that just works. It is comfortable reading it in the same situations that you would a book. Some criticise the lack of its own illumination, but that's exactly the same as a real book and that's exactly the point. What you can do is sit next to a window on a train and still read it.
The menu system is easy to navigate. The bookmark button will let you mark a page so you can dive straight back into that point and keep reading. It encourages you to explore multiple texts at the same time. Perhaps you have a biography and a novel on the go at the same time – here you can easily jump to something different as your mood changes.
Inherently E Ink pages do take some time to change the content, down to the mechanics of how it works. So when changing page there is something of a pause, as there is when navigating the menus but we’ve never found this to be intrusive. It's not that often you are in a hurry to jump to a particular book; no, the Reader is designed for when you are about to sit down and relax and enjoy a little time to yourself.
The Zoom button is really useful. Given the size of the display, you might want to see what text size works best for you and each will have a different preference of the small, medium or large on offer. We usually stick to small, which reduces the number of page turns, but when tired, might move up to medium. If you have trouble seeing smaller characters, large might do you justice, but then you'll be "turning" pages with increased frequency.
And therein lies the shortcoming of the PRS-300. The overall screen size doesn't give you that much text on the page, so you'll be turning pages more often than you would with a bigger device. It's a trade-off that has to be made: if you want a smaller, pocketable, device, you are looking at a smaller screen.
Some might see the PRS-300 as something of a step back. It doesn't have the features that the PRS-505 offers or the more advanced offering of the PRS-600. There is no memory expansion, so you are limited to the 512MB onboard, but still good for over 300 books. You also don't get to play music at the same time, but then we've never really wanted to do that anyway. If there is anything we'd change then it would be to expand the screen size whilst maintaining the dimensions of the device, so you get a few more paragraphs to each page, but we don't miss those features that have been removed.
Getting access to the content you want is a separate issue and it isn't fair to criticise the device because of the immature market. If you are considering investing for the first time, it is worth checking out what you will have access to by browsing the various bookstores online.
The PRS-300 isn't cheap, but it looks and feels like a quality device and does what it is supposed to do, which is let you comfortably read your books, without having to lug around a bag of paper copies.