Academic Technology @ Palomar College

The Sony WiFi eReader

Three Sony ReadersToday I am reviewing the Sony Reader™ WiFi®.  Actually, it is the Sony PRS-T1/RC (Red Case) that I am reviewing, but when Sony, an eReader pioneer, saw the competition begin to eat their lunch, and then leave them for dead, they consolidated the product line under a snappier name (Sony’s older readers have been discontinued) and dropped the price.  This model sold for $149 last November, then $130 in December, and now $99.  Sony has been praised over the years for its eReaders, but that was then and this is now.  The Sony WiFi does not stand up well to equivalent offerings from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, mainly because it tries to do too much but not too well, but it does have a couple of unique features like a set of hardware keys and handwritten annotations, that make it stand out.

What You Get

The Sony Reader comes with built-in WiFi (b/g/n), of course, and is linked to the Sony Reader store, where over 2,000,000 for-pay titles are available.  It has accompanying PC, Mac and Android Reader software thank works something like the Kindle and Nook software, but without some of the nicer integrated store/reader features or device management features achieved by those competitors.

The screen is a six-inch 600x800px E-Ink Pearl touchscreen display with 16 shades of grey that looks very good at normal resolution.  The touch responsiveness of the screen however, is sluggish, and screen refresh involves a lot of flashing and flickering back and forth from inverse video, and the OS navigation is downright eccentric and far from intuitive in some cases.  It has pinch enlarge/decrease functionality for examining pictures and maps, but is not a good idea on text, which becomes pixelated when enlarged in this fashion.  There is a separate font enlargement feature for that.

Almost uniquely among low-end touchscreen eReaders, the Sony comes with a row of hardware buttons across the bottom of the case.  If you hold the case in one hand (the left hand) then the page forward/back buttons are handy.  If not, not.  The Home button takes you back to the main navigation page.  The back button has multiple uses, and not always what you think.  And the menu button also has multiple uses.  The menus change depending on what you are doing.  At least it has these buttons though, which may be comforting to those new to touchscreens.

It comes with2GB of storage, which amounts to 1.3 in actual practice, the rest devoted to the OS and PC and Mac versions of the Reader software.  It does, however have a micro-SD expansion slot that will accept a card up to 32GB.  Sony claims the 1.3GB of storage can hold about 1200 books.

Uniquely, it comes packaged with a stylus, and accepts handwritten or virtual keyboard notes and annotations.  It also has a note taking app that allows for drawing and capturing the drawings as images.  The stylus is just about as cheap a plastic component as I’ve ever seen, but does the job.  If your fingers are small enough, you can use them to draw as well.  Even when reading a text you can add hand annotations and notes, writing right on the page of text, which is a feature I like a lot.  It also comes packaged with a mini-USB cable for computer sync with the Reader software or Windows Explorer, once the device is placed in Data Transfer Mode.

Even though it comes pre-configured with power saving features that turn off non-essential services like WiFi connectivity when not in use, and even turns itself off after 3 days of being in sleep mode, its battery life (average 1 month) is significantly less than the Kindle or Nook devices.  Annoyingly, the power saving features cannot be turned off.  Time from fully depleted battery to fully charged is about 2.5 hours.

It supports DRMed (digital rights managed, i.e., locked by the publisher) ePub 2.0 and Adobe Digital Edition DRM protected documents, and also supports non-DRMed ePub, PDF and TXT documents.  It has a Pictures app which supports the usual PNG, JPG and GIF formats, and has a nice feature in its built-in web browser that allows for holding on pictures on any web page and saving them to the Pictures folder, a procedure it also follows with captured web pages and captured by-hand drawings on the touch screen.

It comes with 12 dictionaries on board, in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch, which is a bit ironic since there are only Sony Reader stores for this device in the US and Canada.  Since the non-English dictionaries exist in pairs (English-Spanish and Spanish-English) I think the idea is that language learners and travellers might find this feature useful.  The default dictionary is the New Oxford American Dictionary.

The stylish plastic case comes in black, white and, amazingly, red—why can’t we have more color choices in eReader cases?—the whole thing weighing in at 5.9 ounces (very light, as these things go) and measures about 17.5cm (6 7/8″) x 11.11cm (4 3/8″) x 0.95cm (3/8″).  Small and light it is.

The price:  $99, including stylus and USB cable, which can quickly scale up if you include a cover (essential, about $35), a warranty (around $40, your call, I wouldn’t), and an AC adapter (around $25, but if you charge from your computer you don’t need it).  This is down from $149.99 very recently, as competition has heated up in this market.

The User Interface

The Sony WiFi tries to compete in feature set with products like the Kindle Fire, which is just crazy given the limitations of the 16 shades of grey and less than highly responsive touch screen.  The Home Screen (accessed at any time from a Home hardware button) contains a thumbnail link to the last thing you were reading, thumbnail links to the three latest things you have added to the device (personal documents side-loaded to the device are stored with the books), and links to four “applications”:

  1. Books, the only really good reason for owning the device;
  2. Periodicals;
  3. the Sony Reader Store, which doesn’t hold a candle to Amazon, but approaches but does not equal what Barnes & Noble has done;
  4. Collections , the only thing you get in the way of collection management, but that’s a defect suffered by every eReader I have seen, including iBooks on the iPad and the Kindle Fire.

On page 2 of the Home screen you get the other applications (as Sony calls them):

  1. A Public Library finder, useful for downloading directly over wifi from your libraries directly to the device;
  2. a shortcut to Google Books;
  3. a Browser, on which more below;
  4. a Link to the Sony Reader store where your purchased items are filed;
  5. All Notes, where all of the notes you have taken in all of the books on the device are stored, and are searchable, which is a very nice idea indeed;
  6. a Dictionary application, that is, a search form input box to the Dictionary, where you can look up any word and, if it weren’t for the generally poor responsiveness of the virtual keyboard would be a joy to use;
  7. Handwriting, yes, where you can make handwritten notes with the stylus or draw to your heart’s content;
  8. Text Memo, where you can save your grocery lists;
  9. Pictures, where all the pictures are stored in thumbnail or list view, though it is not searchable;
  10. Audio, apparently more than a few people load mp3 or non-DRMed AAC music files and play them through their headphones or ear buds while they are reading;
  11. and finally, Settings, one of the most exasperating aspects of this reader, because you cannot change several settings that one might really want to change, like page turn activity and power save features.

It’s a long list for a $99 device.  All of the applications do what they are supposed to do, but in pretty rudimentary ways.  Both the Nook and Kindle basic models concentrate on the reading experience, and don’t emphasize all these associated activities that they cannot perform well.  Sony would have done better to devote their energies to a really well integrated Reader store, with good device and library management.

Some Comparisons

Sony publishes a fairly deceptive chart (here) that compares its reader to the Amazon Kindle Touch, Nook Simple Touch, and Kobo Touch eReaders, priced identically.  Here is why I say it is deceptive:

1.  Weight doesn’t matter.  The Sony reader is the lightest of the bunch at 5.9 ounces, and the Kindle Touch the heaviest at 7.5 ounces, but really now, if you are used to holding sometimes large, hardbound books in your hand(s) and reading for extended periods—as is the case with most academics—are you really going to notice a difference of 1.6 ounces?  The tradeoff is poorer battery life with the Sony, which DOES matter.

2.  The Sony chart justifiably crows about wireless public library access, which only the Kindle shares.  The Nook and Kobo do not have it and require side loading library loans.  I tried it and it works well, but what Sony does not have is a really good way to manage those library loans through their Reader software.  The Kindle is a dream.  In fact, when you click checkout on an ebook title at the libraries I use, the Amazon web site opens and lets me deliver the Kindle library book to whichever Kindle version I want (I use versions of the Kindle software on several platforms).  The Sony Reader software has nothing like this level of integration, though it is true it has wireless download from public libraries.  Sony is a bit ingenuous about calling its Dedicated Public Library Search a feature, rather than a chore.  Because Kindle is better integrated for library lending, you don’t have to go through searching for your libraries, as you do on the Sony.  It’s a minor point, but just an example of where Kindle just works and Sony is a bit awkward.

3.  EPub format support is identical on the Sony, Nook and Kobo (and the iRiver Story, for that matter), but Amazon has their own proprietary format based on mobi files.  This is the great divide, and you are going to have to adapt to it.  It is possible to convert non-DRMed titles between the formats, but where titles are protected with DRM (digital rights management) they are not interoperable.  One solution is to own both types of devices, and the price points at which they are sold makes this a realistic possibility.

How it worked for me

I found the Sony eReader screen generally sluggish and sometimes unresponsive.  Things worked, but they took a while.  The virtual keyboard is a bit odd, and not nearly as intelligently implemented as the Kindle keyboard, not to mention the far better iPad keyboard.  Page turns REQUIRE a finger swipe.  You cannot tap to turn and cannot change this setting.  If you want to use the hardware keys to turn pages you will find them inappropriately (for me, at least) located at the lower left of the case.

In terms of note taking the Sony eReader worked well, and I loved the fact that I could use a handwritten note OR a typed note.  It did just what it was supposed to do with respect to bookmarking, highlighting (the highlight slider worked especially well to highlight blocks of text), annotations, word look-up, and web access from within books.  I noticed a warning, however, in the user manual that said resetting the device (sticking a straightened paper clip into the reset hole) might cause notes and other annotations to be lost.  Often, when using the menu within a book, two or more choices appear on an onscreen menu, with no cancel option, and until you figure out that the Back hardware key is the cancel option you will be confused.  The book navigation feature, also, behaved at bit eccentrically, it seemed to me and didn’t always go back to what I thought it was going to go back to.

The built-in web browser is light duty, but useful in a pinch.  Let’s face it, how much web browsing are you going to do on a 16-grey shade, six-inch screen?  Here is how the Palomar College home page appeared:

PC Home Page

Palomar Home Page on Sony Reader

Actually, this screen capture from the Sony is a lot clearer than it looked on the actual Sony screen.  Certainly you can pinch to enlarge, but getting it large enough to read means lots of horizontal scrolling.  Even screens built with mobile clients in mind did not display well.  A nice feature in the web browser allows you to tap a picture and elect to save it to your Pictures folder.  Now, if you could only tell what the picture is…

When I first started using the device, I installed the Reader software from the Sony web site, then connected the reader to my computer.  I was told I needed an Adobe ID and was sent again to the Reader web site, where I was asked to read a 108 page Terms of Service agreement and then agree to it (I kid you not—the End User License Agreement on the device itself is 632 pages long, surely a record!).  In the end, I received an error and this didn’t work.  So I uninstalled the Reader software and installed it again FROM THE DEVICE ITSELF.  This worked well and there was no nonsense about the Adobe ID.  After doing it this way, it all worked as it was supposed to, and I was able to sync the device from my computer and place PDF documents, mp3 music files, and various pictures on it from my hard drive.

Sync Now

One of the features I liked was a Word Log feature, that let me make a list of the dictionary words I had looked up.  The Reader also comes with a Text Memo app that allows for the creation of grocery lists or other pure text documents.

The integration with Google Books works well, as does web integration with Project Gutenberg.  Just click the ePub format download icon and the book is moved to your reader wirelessly, though you will do better to use the Gutenberg mobile site rather than the full web site (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/?format=mobile).

Except for the handwriting/drawing application, the other apps were unimpressive.

Verdict

If you want a Kindle Fire light—very light, in only 16 shades of grey—you might want this device.  If you like handwritten annotations you might also want it.  Otherwise, stick with the Kindle or Nook touch screen devices.  If you just don’t like Nook, stick with Kindle AND this device, so that you have the world of DRMed eBooks covered.  I would give this device 3 happy faces out of five.  It’s a nice effort, but has something of a whiff of panic about it, as Sony strives to stay competitive in a very, very competitive market.
happy-1 happy-1 happy-1

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