Sony Catches Kindle, Trails iPad with New Reader

— The annals of consumer technology are full of woulda, coulda, shoulda: companies that were ahead of their time, then missed the wave they themselves helped spawn.

These days, just about no one fits that description better than Sony Corp. Back in 2006, it helped kick off the electronic-book trend with its first Sony Reader, then lost the initiative as Inc.'s Kindle introduced features like built-in wireless access that redefined the category.

Now, Sony is out with a new addition to its e-reader line, the Reader Daily Edition. At $399, it's considerably more expensive than the Kindle and Barnes & Noble Inc.'s similar Nook, both of which sell for $259. But it also offers more than they do, and reaffirms that the parade hasn't completely left Sony behind, even in an Apple iPad world.

The Daily Edition is the first Sony model with wireless, operating in the U.S. over AT&T Inc.'s 3G network; until now, every Sony had to be hooked up to a computer to download content. I've found wireless to be a huge boon in an e-reader, allowing me to buy books and access news while traveling or on the go.

It's news, in fact, that Sony is counting on to help differentiate the Daily Edition from its competitors. It has struck deals with a number of major newspapers, including News Corp.'s Wall Street Journal and New York Post, to sell subscriptions for editions tailored for the device. No one will mistake these for the kind of rich—and right now theoretical—presentations possible on the iPad. Still, they are better formatted and easier to read than much of what appears on the Kindle.

Narrower, Thicker

The Daily Edition is narrower and thicker than Amazon's e-reader, with a longer screen. It also feels more substantial, with metal in places the Kindle is plastic. The screen uses the same gray-scale digital-paper technology found on the Kindle and Nook, but with an important difference: The Sony display is a touch screen.

This is a much more natural way of moving around than either the Kindle's buttons and joystick or the Nook's separate navigation window. You can buy or open a book or newspaper just by poking its thumbnail image, and turn pages with a finger swipe rather than click.

Oddly, unless you're reading, say, Hebrew, the default page-turn gesture is a left-to-right swipe, not the right-to-left move that would simulate a physical book. Luckily, users can control that, and Sony says it will eventually change the default.

Little Bit Dimmer

There's at least one drawback to the screen: The layer that makes it touch-sensitive also makes it a little bit dim. It didn't bother me; as with an ink-and-paper book, I just turn on a light if I'm having trouble seeing. Some folks, though, seem to be more sensitive to the dimness factor than I am; the best advice is to find a retail store carrying the Daily Edition and try before you buy.

The Daily Edition also includes a stylus, which I found to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it's easier than your finger for scrawling yourself a note. I also found myself using it with the on-screen virtual keyboard; my pokes were more precise. But when the reader slid off the center console of my car, the stylus popped out and briefly went missing. In other words: one more thing to lose.

Less Selection

The Sony online bookstore's selection is thinner than Amazon's. Both have current best-sellers at similar prices, usually $9.99, but in terms of older titles, Amazon has more that you'd actually want to read. On the other hand, Sony supports a broader array of book formats, meaning there are other places you can go for content, including your public library.

The Daily Edition comes with a replaceable battery and enough memory to store hundreds of books, plus slots for an SD card and Sony's Memory Stick. I found its performance acceptable—not as swift as the Kindle, but considerably faster on both startup and in operation than the poky Nook. Battery life was good, not great; I was able to go about four or five days between charges, as opposed to seven or eight on the Kindle.

In the end, the big question about the Daily Edition is whether it's worth the extra cost over a Kindle or Nook. You do get more: the larger screen, the premium fit and finish, a cover and hard case. I especially regard a cover, which for the Kindle costs an extra $29.99, as essential not only for protecting the reader but because it creates more of a book-like reading experience.

Do all those justify the hefty price premium? Only you—and your wallet—can be the judge.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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