I got a chance to try out the new Sony E-Readers at a local Best Buy recently. Sony’s new lineup, discussed here, includes the 5″ PRS-350 Pocket Edition ($179, currently on sale for $149), the 6″ PRS-650 Touch Edition ($229), and the 7″ PRS-950 Daily Edition ($299). Each has the new e-Ink Pearl screen, for excellent contrast and readability. Each is made with an aluminum frame (most e-readers have a plastic frame), and are available in multiple colors (whereas most e-readers are white or gray). And each has a new touchscreen technology: a grid of infrared lasers is embedded around the edges of the screen to sense your touch — which is a great improvement over Sony’s old touchscreen method, which required an extra layer of plastic over the screen that muddied the display.
Sony’s e-readers have been described in many reviews as good hardware that is somewhat overpriced and lacking an easy-to-use, robust e-book ecosystem. It’s almost like Sony wants to make great, pretty, expensive products, and leave it to the user to figure out how to actually get e-books on the device and use it. For example, only the most expensive version (at a whopping $299, or more than double the cost of the $139 Kindle 3 Wi-Fi or $149 Nook Wi-Fi) comes with any form of wireless connectivity; the cheaper two versions require downloading books to your computer and sideloading them to the device through a USB cable. Also, Sony’s e-book store is harder to navigate, has a smaller selection, and the e-books are often more expensive than the Amazon or B&N stores. On the plus side, Sony’s e-readers do read the ePub format and can access Overdrive library e-books.
As for the hardware itself, I have to say I wasn’t as impressed with them as I thought based on reading their descriptions. For some reason, I didn’t prefer the aluminum frames to plastic. And I’m not a fan of the controls: the main culprit is the page turn buttons, which are located on the left side of the row of 5 metal buttons below the bottom of the screen, and are therefore not in a comfortable position for one-handed reading (even if holding it with your left hand, you’d have to hold the device by the very bottom corner). I far prefer the page turn buttons on either side of the screen, like on the Kindle or Nook.
And I was disappointed with the touchscreen, which is hyped as the defining feature of the new Sonys (it’s the only major e-reader with a touch-enabled e-Ink screen). The description of the new touchscreen system, which doesn’t affect readability, sounds impressive. But I found that it didn’t register my touch several times, with a little minus-sign-in-a-circle symbol showing up in the bottom right corner of the screen. Probably a bad sign that the touchscreen is so finicky, there’s programming for a symbol to show up when it doesn’t work right. Further, I’m not jumping on the touch bandwagon: I think it’s overrated for most uses, even on something like the iPad, and I find myself wishing for a “low-tech” mouse. Sure, touchscreens are helpful for some things, but as often as not they’re horribly imprecise (and I click the wrong link on a web page or miss a tiny button), your fingers obscure some important screen element, or I miss the tactile feedback of a good old-fashioned control pad on games. For e-readers specifically, I don’t see much benefit in being able to touch the screen, and one clear drawback is getting finger oils on your screen.
All in all, I was mildly disappointed by the Sonys, and I didn’t find them compelling. Since I’m not a fan of their defining feature (touchscreens), I find their controls inconvenient, their e-book store is lacking, and I consider them pretty badly overpriced (their normal prices are excessive; when on sale they’re merely on the high end), I don’t really recommend them. On the other hand, they are small and light, and they come in a variety of screen sizes (5″ and 7″, in addition to the normal 6″ screen you’ll also find on most other e-readers). And they are one of the few e-readers (along with the Kindle 3, but not the Kindle 2 or Nook) to come with the new e-Ink Pearl screen, which I consider a must-have e-reader feature.