Sony Reader: Good Condition, Some Flaws

The electronic book is easy to use and, more important, read, but its online store could offer more titles and a better experience

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Can store up to 80 books, some blogs, and display black-and-white photos; long battery life

The Bad: Ink hard to read in poor lighting; online site hard to navigate; Windows PC needed to buy books

The Bottom Line: An environmental plus and a good way to lighten the load for frequent travelers

When Sony (SNE) introduced its much delayed Sony Reader PRS-500 last year, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. For someone like me, who travels often and reads books quickly, it looked like just the thing to make life a little easier. Airlines will charge you plenty if you exceed certain weight restrictions, and taking along two or three books can put you over the limit—not to mention strain the muscles.

After testing the $350 PRS-500 for the past month, I'm happy to say the Sony Reader lived up to expectations, though there are some problems that prevent me from offering a wholehearted endorsement.

The Reader is easy to master and comfortable to read, particularly with a feature that lets you increase or decrease font size to suit your eyes. You will, however, need a light when reading in dimmer conditions. Like regular books, this device lacks a light of its own.

Easy-to-Use Controls

At 6.9 in. by 4.9 in. by 0.5 in., the PRS-500 looks like one of the digital pads you'd see in Star Trek. It weighs just 9 oz. and the 6-in. screen is a whitish gray until you turn on the device. After a second, the electronic paper display developed by E Ink Corp. clearly delivers pictures and words in four colors of gray at about 150 pixels per square inch.

Overall, the Reader's layout is well thought out and easy to use. You can zip through an on-screen menu that lists the books stored in memory, bookmark certain pages, or move forward or back a step with a button on the right-bottom of the Reader. Or, for even faster access, simply press one of 10 buttons on the bottom that correspond to the numbers of each function onscreen.

A tiny joystick button on the bottom has an outer ring that brings you quickly back to the menu, or lets you navigate up levels. Push the inner ring to follow a link or move back and forward, or left and right.

Buttons to page forward and back are placed about where your left thumb would be holding the device. Some might be turned off by the lag time compared with a paper version, but I quickly got used to it.

Sony's Copyright Correction

The Reader also can display Adobe PDFs. That's a useful feature if you know how to hunt online for unprotected books, or have the time and patience to scan books or other documents from an all-in-one printer. Standard-size PDFs, however, are not formatted for the device, a problem Sony says it is working to fix. The device also supports select news feeds and blogs.

For those looking to lighten the load even more, the device will display JPEGs and GIFs (in gray scale) stored on the device or on a Secure Digital (SD) or Memory Stick Duo memory card. The device also can play MP3 and nonprotected AAC music tracks. Those are accessed from controls on the side of the device.

Sony has a checkered past in the area of copyright protection. Its Sony BMG music venture suffered a backlash after attaching restrictive digital-rights management software that left computers vulnerable to malware.

But Sony may have learned from the mistake. Electronic books purchased through Sony's Connect eBooks store can be read on up to six devices registered to your account, one of which must be a PC. While some still might consider this a bit onerous, given that you are not allowed to share your books with other people's accounts, you can quickly deauthorize a device from one account and add it to another. Since I only had one device, however, it was not clear whether in that circumstance the content already on that device would be erased.

Online Store Needs Work

The biggest weakness of the Reader is the Connect eBooks store and the PC software that connects you to it. With a CD that comes with your purchase, you must install drivers on your computer to recognize the device and the software that manages what you buy.

Early on, I kept forgetting you needed to open the program to browse the store and manage your content, instead going to the Connect eBooks Web site, which looks virtually identical to the store interface.

Once you do fire up the program, you get a list of the top 10 downloads on the right side of the screen. Perhaps not surprisingly, nearly all were books on current best-seller lists. The home page also showcases "featured titles," which typically are books recently added to the library, and gives you the option of browsing categories.

While the library was adequate, it falls short of comprehensive. Many classics and older titles from popular authors do not appear. And some of the big-name writers are not available at all. For instance, popular fiction writer Dean Koontz was nowhere to be found.

Very Good Start

Sony executives say the store offers about 60% of the titles on The New York Times best-seller list and that back catalogs are rapidly being added.

Even those that are included can be hard to find. If you know what you're looking for, you can see fairly quickly whether it's available with the search function. You can also narrow a search by title or author, but for future iterations, Sony should consider adding software similar to Amazon (AMZN), Apple's iTunes (AAPL) store, and others that lists items in similar genres that may interest the reader.

Battery life is exceptional. Sony says you get 7,500 page turns, if you're one to count. In my testing, I had to recharge the nonreplaceable battery after about two weeks of occasional use.

The Sony Reader is a very good first foray into the electronic book market. While there's no substitute for the feel you get with a real book, with a few adjustments to the software, and as more books become available digitally, it could quickly turn into the device everyone wants to have.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.