July 9, 2008

Sony PRS-505 eBook Reader Review
Miami Beach, United States

As a full-time traveler with little ability or desire to carry around more literature than a guidebook and single leisure book in my backpack, I jumped at the opportunity to take a peek what a dedicated eBook reader looks and functions like.

This is the first product I've ever seen that uses electronic paper—the future of publishing.

First Impressions, Musical Misfire

The Sony PRS-505, naked (without its handsome cover)

Sony certainly knows how to make a classy device, and the PRS-505's visual presence simply oozes "I've got discretionary income".

The protective cover (a rather attractive looking piece of tan leather) and sleek, muted metallic finish of the Reader are easy on the eye, while the weight (about nine ounces—or the equivalent of a bottle of formula in my world at the moment) gives the DVD case-sized unit a pleasing sense of durability and value.

The PRS-505 has a standard USB 2.0 connector that's used for both data transfer and charging, and accepts plain text, RTF, PDF, Sony's own locked e-books, and Word documents (which are translated into RTF and which require Word to be present on the machine). It will not accept any other DRMed e-books. The Reader also accepts pictures in JPG, GIF, PNG, and BMP formats, and it can also play back MP3s and unencrypted AAC files (allowing you to play music whilst you read).

The Reader doesn't have a speaker, but does have a headphone jack, two types of memory card slots, and 200MB of internal storage space that pops up as an externally manageable device in Windows (very nice). Unfortunately, management or the developers (or both) really dropped the ball with the music playback feature, which comes off as a way to simply drain the battery, rather than entertain.

For starters, it doesn't support albums, playlists, or the Audible file format—listeners of audio books will need to fall back on something else.

Every song you pop into the drive shows up on the Reader in a single long list—no fussing with the order allowed. And when you start the playback, it plays through the list completely, and then over again—unrelentingly so—until the Reader's battery is dead (at which point you recharge it, turn it on, and it picks right back up where it left off). Perhaps it would be useful for the display to show that something's playing while I'm reading without headphones—a little musical note icon would be perfectly acceptable—instead of figuring it out after much head scratching.

And as for the grayscale photo viewer: Why? I'm no department head of R&D or marketing, but I'm going to venture a guess that consumer demand isn't particular high for such things. The development energy used on this part of the device would've been better spent on the product's next iteration, or that little icon.

eBook Excellence, PDF Pain

The Reader clearly isn't designed to be MP3 player or photo viewer, but an electronic book replacement. And as things go, the PRS-505 is as close to it as anything I've ever seen.

The display is the most revolutionary component of this product, and it's certainly worth taking a look (if even you've no intention of making a purchase).

Profile of the PRS-505 against that of a typical guidebook

Electronic paper is a technology designed to mimic the appearance of ordinary ink on paper. Unlike a conventional flat panel display (which uses a backlight to illuminate its pixels), electronic paper reflects light like ordinary paper and is capable of being viewed from the most extreme of angles, while holding text and images indefinitely without drawing electricity.

Because the Reader doesn't need power to display pages (only to turn them), power consumption isn't measured in hours, but page turns. Sony says that the included battery can handle 7,500 page turns with every full charge. The lack of backlight also means that you'll need a light source to illuminate the Reader's pages, just as you would a conventional book.

I found reading text on the Reader to be a very pleasant experience. The page background isn't white, but a light shade of gray, much like a book printed on recycled paper. A choice of three font sizes (levels of zoom) allows me to scale the text to the level I'm most comfortable with.

The ability to bookmark/dog-ear pages functions well, and the keenly designed 'continue reading' feature allows me to jump between books without having to remember what page I left off on.

But as amazing as the E Ink-powered display is, the technology is not without its drawbacks and (current) limitations.

Screen flash and delay are the big thorns in the paw of any eBook reader owner, and though apparently improved over this device's predecessor, the PRS-505 is still no exception.

Whenever the screen needs to refresh, it first flashes the display to black, then does this crazy black and white dance of pixel inversion. This is a limitation of the current E Ink technology, which relies on charged pigment balls sandwiched between electrodes. These balls have to be "reset" to form a new image, and even when they are, slight ghosting is sometimes visible from the last page displayed. If you buy a Reader, be prepared to explain this to everyone who sees the device.


( video link )

The navigational acid trip aside, I had strong hopes that a traveler could use the Reader as a platform for storing and displaying their guidebooks. And as I plan on traveling from Poland to Thailand within the year or so, the ability to carry around hundreds of leisure books and dozens of guidebooks on such a device is very appealing.

The PRS-505 displaying a LP eBook in landscape mode

Sadly, the PRS-505 falls far short of the mark when dealing with PDFs—the only format that publishers like Lonely Planet deliver their electronic content in. PDFs can take a while to navigate through (I've seen load times as long as six seconds between pages), and the text is generally not as clear as with e-books (there are only two zoom levels: 'fit to width' and 'fit to screen').

The only practical option available is to hold the magnifying/zoom button down for five seconds to put the Reader into landscape mode. This makes reading PDFs much easier (at the cost of seeing fewer lines of text at once), but not something I see travelers using.

Intended Audience, Final Thoughts

Despite some mild software and technological limitations, the Reader is a beautiful device that displays e-books very well. But with a retail price of $300, I think you've really got to love both gadgets and reading to pick up one of these up.

Avid readers who don't enjoy gadgets would be better off with a paper book, while gadget lovers who prefer music and audiobooks over text would be best suited with another device. Even a business traveler who's gone for a week or two at a time doesn't have enough hours of downtime to consume more than a book or two on a trip.

Working against the Reader are the high prices of the eBooks via Sony's Connect eBook online store, which the supplied device install software funnels you into. Prices for many of the books are basically the same as their printed versions (and in some cases, you might even find the printed version for less online)—though Sony is currently running a promotion where you get 100 eBooks Classics with your purchase of the Reader, and free public-domain eBook resources do exist (such as the Project Gutenberg, Baen Free Library, and Wowio).

The PRS-505 is a wonderful mechanism to store and deliver hundreds of eBooks, but even more so it's a technological fashion statement. Taking it on a metro subway would certainly either get me a date, or get me mugged, as it's an accessory people will likely notice and look over your shoulder at.

It's probably perfect for the gadget-loving bookworm who's going off to a resort for two weeks and doesn't want to weigh down their luggage down with books, but I'm afraid that's just not me.

Sony: Please get back to me when you've got a deal going with Lonely Planet as their new electronic guidebook reader.

Comments:

The United States

Bob L

July 9th, 2008

I would love to love one of these, but alas, I would never pay that much and would not want to carry another piece of electronics unless it was cheaper and really did everything I wanted. Much of my reading is from electronic versions. I take text from free e-books, websites, blogs, newspaper articles etc. etc. etc. and print them in small, double column text then read them in my leisure, throwing out the pages as I read them. I can print them at no cost to myself. Certainly not practical for long trips, but I can bring weeks of reading material in a small amount of space and end up only carrying what I have not yet read. This electronic book is close, but not at the price. Maybe in time the price will come down to a more acceptable amount.

One thing I really like is the fact it is NOT touch screen. I hope the inventors of touch screens are burning in heck.

Bob L

Argentina

Jeff

July 10th, 2008

That's an informative review. Thanks. I've been really debating whether to get one of these devices. An ebook reader could be useful for expats living abroad where there's difficulty finding certain books in English (and Amazon's international shipping isn't entirely reliable). But, I have hundreds of PDFs that I want to read. Ultimately, PDF is a more important format for me, too.

The United States

Yancy

July 11th, 2008

I've had one for a little while and have found no shortage of books online in PDF mode (and use converters to get everything else to that format). I'm wary of traveling with it, but I'm looking forward to not losing much in the way of space by bringing it along. Its sturdiness is definitely untested for now, but will be tried fairly soon.

The Netherlands

Tommy

November 27th, 2009

This is a really nice ebook. It's a serious competitor of the amazon kindle.

I have also found a nice review of the sony prs-505

I thought it was worth sharing

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