Update (Sep 29, 2011): With Amazon having released quite a few devices, more recently, the Kindle Fire, this post seems very old.

After having used the Sony Digital Reader Touch Edition (PRS600BC) for almost 2 months now, I think I am ready to give a comprehensive review of the features of this wonderful device.

When I bought the Sony Reader (PRS600BC), I didn’t put much thought into it. I compared it only to the other well-known reader at the time – the Amazon Kindle – and decided without doubt that I am going for the Sony reader. Frankly, I didn’t research for other options and I wasn’t even aware of the other readers in the market.
So if you ask me, how does this compare to, say the Nook, or other digital readers in India that use e-ink or the tons of other Chinese digital readers that can be hacked, I don’t have an answer. What I can do tell you is why I made this choice and what I feel after having used it for a couple of months.

So let’s begin with the choice: Between the Sony readers and the Kindle, the choice for me was obvious. Even if the Kindle was dirt cheap and had better look and feel and amazing features, I would still go with the Sony reader at this point in time, for the simple reason that the Sony reader supports EPUB, and the Kindle does not (read the disclaimer below). As the DRM debates are on, I felt that the Amazon Kindle does not have EPUB support and I was not sure what documents would work without issues on the Kindle and what would not. It made no sense to me to have to pay Amazon (howerver few a cents) or let Amazon decide what is and what isn’t appropriate to upload into the Kindle (read disclaimer below). On the other hand, the Sony reader has no such reservations – connect the reader, allow the device to mount, drag and drop your documents and you will be reading your book on the reader in less than a minute. Now, when I talk about open formats, people automatically assume that it means I can copy pirated versions of books into the reader and that’s the reason why the Sony reader is favored, but I think the reason is slightly different. Let us look at it in a little more detail. Here is the definition of open format from openformats.org: We will say that a file format is open if the mode of presentation of its data is transparent and/or its specification is publicly available.Why is it so important? Well, the fact that the reader supports open formats means that I can think of tons of uses for my reader. I can use it not only to read my books, but I can also create documents in the format that it supports and then upload them into the reader. What the document is – is totally up to me to decide. For example, suppose I find an interesting website/blog which has some content that I intend to read on my reader, I can just fetch the website contents using wget, and then use html2epub to convert them into an EPUB document and upload it to my reader in minutes. Is it as simple in a Kindle? How is the support in Linux? I was not sure. You may now say, “But that’s for geeks; how about the non-geeks? How do they benefit by going with the Sony reader?”. This is where tools like Calibre come into picture. Calibre provides an easy interface for users to sync their documents and news feeds with the reader. It also has the feature of syncing Google Reader content with your reader. All this is possible, because of one decision that Sony made – to support open formats. So for me, the decision was simple – if the reader does not support open formats I would not go with it. Enough of the comparison, so what should I expect in a reader? A reader is an equivalent of a book. It is designed to as closely match a real book as possible. So expect any feature that you would have in a regular book and you wouldn’t be disappointed. Note taking, ability to bookmark pages etc are natural to expect in a reader. If your expectations however are closer to that of a cell phone and you say, “Does this play movies? Does it record video?”, my only answer is, “Cummon guys, it’s a reader!” Of course, there are certain things that you could expect in a e-reader, for eg: bluetooth that allows a simple sync of documents. The reader has the ability to play music (or I would say play audio-books), and also display photos, but I am not a big fan of it – I always believe in buying a device which does one thing well – the reader is meant to do everything with e-books, and do it well. So now to the actual features and what I liked and what I disliked: The pros:

  • Boots in less than a second and takes you back to where you left – the Sony reader remembers where you stopped reading a book and takes you to the same page the next time you open the book.
  • The touch screen is cool and extremely useful – the coolest use of this is I can double-tap on any word and its meaning appears in the bottom of the screen. I am so used to this feature now that I sometimes find myself tapping a word in an actual book and expecting its meaning to appear in the bottom! (I am not kidding). Another use of this is to take notes – just bring up the note taking feature and just select the words using the stylus. You can even use the draw mode to circle words and then write your note next to it! Double-tap the right corner of the screen and it bookmarks the page.
  • The battery backup is amazing – I am not sure how many times I have charged the reader in the last 2 months, but I can tell you its not a whole lot.
  • The reader is able to render PDFs with images and size does not seem to be an issue – I have tried uploading PDFs of 150MB and more and the reader effortlessly rendered it.
  • The reader auto-flows documents at various zoom sizes – once you get comfortable at a certain font size, you can ensure that every document you read is of the same font size so that you can read documents extremely fast.
  • Enough space – with 512MB of memory, the reader has sufficient space to store tons of books. But if you think you are short of space, you have the option of popping in a SD card. I am yet to find the need to do that.

The cons:

  • The contrast could have been better – a common complaint with Sony readers. The e-ink technology seems to increase the contrast with light so the contrast is a problem in low light.
  • The glare – another common complaint with Sony readers – the touch screen creates a glare and so can hurt your eyes if not held the right way. It took me some time to get used to this but I don’t see it as a problem now.
  • No backlight – this is a problem which has been solved in the next version of the reader, Sony Digital Reader – PRS700BC, but the PRS 600 BC does not have a backlight making it tough to read books in low light.
  • The touch screen makes the reader look like a page behind a glass – making it look unnatural.
  • The music player seems to suck up a lot of power.
  • Software bugs: Considering that it has been only 2 months since I bought the reader, I have run into quite a few bugs already. Here are a few:
    1. The most disturbing one of all is the reader seems to reboot when it runs into an issue in some EPUB documents. Sometimes it just hangs and you need to hard-reset the reader and a couple of times even do a catastrophic failure recovery. I am not sure if the issue is with the reader or the document converter, but I would expect the reader to not fail horribly in any case.
    2. The dictionary does not work on some words and there is no way to look up some word in the dictionary except to tap on some other word, bring up the dictionary and then change the word. I think the Sony reader requires more usability tests.
    3. Tapping on a word in the dictionary should take me to the meaning of that word – many a times I find myself not knowing the meaning of some word in the meaning provided. And the only way for me to look this up is to remove the current word and look up the new word manually.
    4. The note format is confusing – the notes are stored as XML documents, but the format that is used to identify the words is confusing. I was not able to decode it.
    5. Usability issues with images in documents: The reader is excellent for reading novels but falls a little short of expectations when it comes to reading research papers with images and equations in them. The reader does render the document pretty well, but I have seen cases where images are not rendered or it is difficult to read. There is a zoom feature which allows you to zoom into documents and then drag the document around but this is quite unusable because of the delay in rendering.

All in all, I would say, Sony has made an excellent effort at building an e-reader. It would take another couple of releases before we can expect it to mature, but I would say I am pretty content with what it already has and I don’t mind waiting a couple of years before upgrading. Disclaimer: A few of these words may already be outdated considering that Kindle may support drag and drop of documents and have some form of ePub support (or a official converter) soon. Further, the DRM debates are still on, discussing trade-offs between piracy and usability. Update: Here is a better and more accurate description of why I am reluctant to buy a Kindle: Amazon’s Kindle Swindle.