Sony's Touch Edition Reader, the PRS-600, looks to answer a lot of questions and push ebooks to a wider audience. Adding touch interaction and the ability to highlight and scribble notes on your books means it is likely to appeal to students and researchers.
Out of the box you have a device that closely resembles the size and weight of the original PRS-505 Sony Reader, measuring 121 x 174.3 x 9.8mm and weighing 286g. The new screen dominates the front, giving you 6-inches of visible screen space, with an 800 x 600 pixel resolution and supporting 8 levels of greyscale. A line of hard button controls runs across below the screen.
The front carries the same aluminium finish to other Sony Readers such as the Pocket Edition which launched at the same time. The back is plastic, but has a tactile feel to it's nice to hold. The build quality and the finish is very good, which you'd expect it to be for a device that comes with this sort of price tag.
The bottom sees the DC input, which incidentally is the same as the (old style) PSP uses, so you can save yourself some cash by buying a PSP charger rather than the one sold as the Reader charger. The battery will give you approx 7500 page turns, which in reality is usually weeks of reading. A Mini-USB port provides connection to your PC or Mac, and the 3.5mm headphone jack sits next to a volume control, as the PRS-600 supports audio playback too.
The top sees the status LED, power slider and two slots for expansion: one a Memory Stick PROduo and the other a more regular SD. There is also a stylus hiding on the side, for optional use for interacting with the device.
The Touch Edition works very much as the other Readers from Sony, with onboard eBookLibrary software working on PC and Mac. You'll also need Adobe's Digital Editions to handle the DRM on ebooks that you buy (for example from Waterstones or WHSmith). You then simply transfer the content to your Reader, which has 512MB of memory. Format support includes EPUB, BBeB, PDF, DOC, TXT, RTF. You also get MP3 and AAC support, as well as JPG, GIF, PNG and BMP.
Adding touch to the Sony Reader sounds like a clever move as on a relatively simple device you can just touch the menu options and settle down to read. And that aspect of it works fairly well, you can navigate with your fingertips, but with the screen space given over to the text, you'll often have to press the option button to raise a menu for you to start pressing.
Another benefit of touch is that you can swipe to change the page, rather than using the forward and back buttons at the bottom. Is this enough to warrant buying a touchscreen ebook? No, it isn't by any stretch. In fact, using a finger swipe often means using two hands, whereas pressing the button often just means moving your thumb, so it's no great benefit.
The real value comes in the form of highlighting and note taking. Previously you could drop bookmarks, either to help you re-find your place or return to a notable position in a text. Now you can highlight passages, bring up the definitions of words and even doodle/annotate on your ebook. Of course you don't get margins, which is where you would normally scribble notes when studying a text, if you are one for writing directly on the book.
It sounds great, but it is only likely to be used by students or researchers, perhaps literary reviewers. There will be some business types who prefer to read their documents in this manner and scribble notes, rather than doing it all over paper copies. For those looking to store 100 books to read on your world travels, you might very well find that the touch interaction is an expensive novelty and nothing more.
For those that do want to use it though, we like the fact that notes are collated and can be reordered by date, type (highlight or written) or by comment (alphabetically). The Reader doesn't actually recognise your scribbles, but associates it with text, so handwritten notes will be indexed and shown on the page on which they appear.
You can also write notes using an on-screen QWERTY keypad, although because of the refresh rate of the E Ink screen, it is rather slow and cumbersome. If a note is absolutely essential, then it works well enough, but as this is unlikely to be your sole device, you're probably better off writing such notes elsewhere.
Notes are visible through your PC too once you connect up via USB. Navigating your ebook on your device via Sony's eBookLibrary software will display these notes. For those reading large amounts of text for a course of study and perhaps borrowed texts from a library (if you have a participating library to serve you) then this means you can annotate easily whilst away from your desk, perhaps over lunch or on the bus.
But there is a but, and it's rather a big one. In the process of enabling touch interaction, the quality of the screen is degraded when compared with the PRS-505 and the PRS-300. It is darker, the contrast is worse and it is more reflective. For us this is something of a problem as actually reading the text on the Touch Edition is not as pleasant as on the other editions.
The result is that you need more light to read it, the characters are not as distinct and the reflections are distracting. Sure, they are nothing like the reflection you get from a glossy screen, but the Touch Edition is worse for it. You still get the advantages of an E Ink display - low power consumption, no backlighting to cause eye strain and so on - but we prefer the other versions of the Reader.
Touch interaction is certainly a current trend and for some, the ability to take notes will be a real bonus. But for casual readers, who want to use the ebook for reading in bed or on the plane, then the addition of touch is not worth the extra expense or the changes to the screen.