An e-reader is an interesting device. No other portable device will instill the same level of confusion and joy into a person at the same moment as one of these. For the past week (or so) I’ve been playing around with a Sony e-reader, specifically the PRS350S (I had wanted to try out the pink one, largely so I could see how many people I could get a picture of holding a pink e-Reader for blackmail purposes, but this is how these things work out).
A little background, if you’ve read previous blog posts, you might know that I own an iPod Touch, which has several apps that can be used to read/buy books (including iBooks, and the Kindle), so approaching the world of reading a book digitally is not a new experience for me. At first, I was a little apprehensive that it was going to be another device to clutter my day – I actually look forward to winter, sometimes, because it gives me a coat with another set of pockets. Plus, since I already had a device to read books on, how much of a change would reading on an e-Reader be compared to my iPod Touch or smart phone? Would it be easier to read? Easier to use? Could I survive without access to a wireless network to buy books? Would it rise up to conquer me, it’s human overlord, using its vast library of knowledge to convince my other electronic devices to join it in destroying humanity? Yes; yes; yes; yes; that remains to be seen.
There’s a surprisingly large difference, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much of one, between reading on a phone versus an e-Reader. The first thing that struck me was the battery life of the reader. They are not kidding about that two weeks of reading thing – while I wasn’t actively reading, I decided to test this by just leaving the device on . . . and on, and on . . . for about two days. While it does go to a standby screen, even with the display still on, leaving it on for two straight days in that state only drained the battery to the halfway mark. With my other portables, even on standby (screen off, in sleep mode) they would be completely drained in this period of time – much less if I were actively reading. So, for long trips, the e-Reader has a clear superiority advantage here.
The second thing I was struck by was how natural reading was. The shape feels much like a thin paperback, with the cover folded back (I can see bibliophiles shuddering in involuntary terror at this image of breaking the spine of a book), making it easy to hold. The PRS350’s small size, while not truly “pocket” (in the sense that I could throw it in a pair of jeans), can easily fit into a jacket, or a purse (or a European carry-all).
Turning pages could be accomplished by either tapping page turn buttons on the bottom of the device, or by sliding your finger from right to left to go forward (as though you were literally sliding a page) or doing the opposite motion to flip backwards. While this is a somewhat regular movement, I found myself using the buttons more often than the “page-turning” motion, which was frustrating if I switched hands while reading (I tend to hold books in my left hand when casually reading), but luckily, of the five buttons on the bottom of the reader, neither of the opposite buttons to the page turns would interrupt your reading experience (beyond not turning the page) so it never became a huge issue. There was very little lag (if the refresh of the e-ink wasn’t very obvious, I would never have noticed it) when flipping through pages, making the whole process feel very smooth.
The e-ink itself was surprisingly realistic (I almost felt in may cases like I could somehow digitally smudge it), and the screen is only mildly reflective. Even in cases of direct light, like a bedside lamp, I rarely had to adjust it very far to avoid any sort of reflection; I suspect that an actual book might have had just as much. Because it lacks a backlight, it was also easier to read over long periods of time without straining my eyes (working at a computer all day, my eyes are somewhat used to this, but I also tend to not look at the screen a lot when thinking, to relieve eye strain).
Finding and loading books onto the e-Reader was surprisingly simple – when plugging the reader into my computer for the first time, it prompted me to load their Reader Library program onto my computer (offering both a Windows and Mac version; convenient, as I use both types of computers regularly). Sony’s book manager is surprisingly similar to iTunes, which I’m still not sure if that was intentional or not, with a master “library” list (this label can me more literally interpreted here than with music), and subsections for sorting books, periodicals, audio, pictures, notes, and books purchased from the Sony bookstore. There’s a link to open the eBook store (again, like an iTunes store for books), and then a list of connected devices. To load something onto the reader, just drag and drop it from the master list onto the device, and you’re done. Alas, I did not purchase any books, so I can’t tell you much about the checkout process for the eBook store. My sole addition to the e-reader for testing purposes was an eBook that was available free from Google Books (H.G. Well’s (thanks to Mike in the comments for that correction) The War of the Worlds).
One of the biggest worries I had (putting aside previous ones of robot revolution for a moment) was that it would be difficult getting books without access to either the 3G or Wi-Fi I’ve become accustomed to. The PRS350 has neither of these options available to it, but it was far less annoying than I expected. As long as you’re willing to load up on books when you’re at your computer, it doesn’t become a huge issue. If you tend to make snap decision about book buying, I recommend steering more towards the Daily Reader Edition of the Sony eReaders (which also makes it more convenient to get things like newspapers).
Perhaps the coolest feature, but also one of the more disappointing features, on the eReader was the inclusion of a stylus and a simple drawing program. While it’s great fun, the touch screen isn’t quite sensitive enough to really pick up on normal human writing – small intricacies get lost, and most things end up looking like doctor scribble. The notes feature within books, however, was a surprising hit – up on discovering it, I wished that I had had something like this in school, with the ability to highlight phrases, or scribble in the margins of the page, and then call up a list of all the pages where notes had been taken.
The picture loading option was the feature that perhaps surprised me the most. While the touch screen loses intricacies, photos didn’t lose any definition on the screen. The reader came pre-loaded with several pictures (a beach scene, the Eiffel tower, a lovely snow covered road) and I was surprised how detailed they were even in black and white. When I looked at them outside the reader, all the photos were in color, and just as detailed. Loading up pictures of friends and family, the PRS350 could easily double as a take-along photo album, freeing you from having to pass a small camera or phone screen around when showing off pictures.
Overall, my experience with the Sony eReader was great. The clarity and usability of the PRS350 was very good, and while the lack of wireless capability could possibly hamper someone in a book emergency, it’s a minor annoyance at best. The touch screen could be more sensitive, especially considering the included stylus and “notes” section, but it’s sensitive enough for the page turning and menu browsing that one would do most of the time. The surprise feature was the picture display, which, while black and white, was incredibly detailed, and gives a second use to a device which otherwise seemed pretty dedicated.