Monday, January 29, 2007

Throwing the Book at Sony’s Reader

I recently saw a Sony Portable Reader System, a new device for displaying electronic versions of books. It failed to sell itself to me, and that was before I saw the price was $349.

Yes, I like the idea of doing for books what an iPod does for CDs: putting a whole collection in a single, portable device. (Actually, I don’t care whether the device stores the stuff or streams it from a network, just so long as I have access when and where I want it. However, like iPods so far, the Sony Reader requires the user to download and store full files on the device, via a connection to a computer; there’s no WiFi.)

Yes, I am intrigued by the Reader’s E Ink display, based on tiny microcapsules that can be controlled like pixels. Think of an Etch-a-Sketch displaying a computer screen, and you’ll have the general idea.

The E Ink display’s key feature is, once a page is drawn, it requires no further power. Like a book, it does not need to be turned off.

That’s the good news. The bad news is, the display is monochromatic, with four shades of gray. Although the text looks pretty good, contrast is diluted with a grayish background. And when the display refreshes, as when you go from one page to another, it does so inelegantly, taking perhaps a second to wipe and redraw itself.

As for usability, the device was fine for turning pages, but everything else was somewhere between awkward and absent. For example, you apparently can’t specify a page number you want to go to, or search for pages containing specific keywords. But, strangely, you can push dedicated buttons to reach the pages that are 10%, 20%, 30%, etc., through the book. Also, the unit I saw somehow ended up in the “Utilities” section of a particular book, and no one could get it out of that state.

Finally, Sony’s e-book store only has on the order of 10,000 titles, although you can supplement those offerings with text files, Microsoft Word documents, and PDFs from anywhere else. You apparently can read RSS feeds too, although I assume clicking links in feeds gets you nowhere except frustrated.

Bottom line: I can imagine reading books on a Reader-like device, but not this one. E Ink’s big advantage in power efficiency just isn’t worth the color, contrast, and refresh limitations. Give me a high-contrast, color LCD screen, and I’ll recharge it at night, thanks.

And while you’re at, I’ll take a more complete computer on the inside, so I can follow those RSS links to Web pages, play videos, and do all the other things that now come with the online “reading” experience. However, since this is a portable media reader, I don’t need a keyboard or a full slate-style Tablet PC; a beefed-up PDA is probably the closer cousin.

Am I asking too much for $349 worth of today’s technology? If so, then let’s just call the above my threshold for when a Reader-like device will get interesting. Maybe Sony’s Reader will evolve there. In the meantime, perhaps it will find niches (school textbooks?) where the current version can take hold. I wish it luck, because I think it will need more than its share.

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