Review: The Sony Reader
For Hanukkah, my father called me up and asked if I wanted a Kindle. As I've discussed here before, I think the Kindle is too expensive, too locked into its own proprietary, DRM'd ebook format and too goddamn ugly. I told my father that if I was going to get a book reading device, it'd be the Sony Reader PRS-505. (Not, mind you, the newer PRS-700 model, which has
Internet,* touch screen (allowing for a keyboard) and horrible, blinding glare that negates all those features.) So I am now the proud owner of one of these:
It sure is pretty. And small, and light, and easy to read off of. There's just one major problem with it. The software with which you put books on it from your computer only runs on Windows.
Now, if this device had just been released I might be able to excuse this, since they might just have Windows available for the release and be working on a Mac (and perhaps Linux) version in the future. But the Sony Reader first came out in 2006. They've had years to port their software over, and it seems glaringly stupid to cut out a huge portion of their market this way.
As I've revealed a couple weeks ago, I do have a Windows PC that I use as a media center, so the whole thing isn't an unmitigated disaster. Better still, an open source program called Calibre works with the device and runs on both Mac and Linux. But it doesn't support the proprietary, DRM'd ebooks bought from the Sony Reader store (or any other DRM'd ebook store for that matter). Which means if I only had a Mac, I wouldn't be able to buy and read ebooks from Sony.
Now, for me this is alright; I have literally hundreds of free ebooks lying around my computer, downloaded from various places including Project Gutenberg, Creative Commons, Tor (which gave away a lot of ebooks by email in promotion of its new website), and numerous other places. But there are still lots of books that aren't available from these sources. I don't mind paying for them at all, in fact, I like supporting the authors and publishers, but I do mind spending good money for a book that's essentially crippled, that doesn't work with my computers and that doesn't work with my devices -- Sony Reader DRM'd ebooks aren't compatible with my iPod Touch, for instance, and likewise books purchased for the iPod Touch via FictionWise or eReader.com don't work with the Sony Reader. And if in the future a better ebook reading device comes out from some other company, will all of those books that I might have bought and paid for be useless with it too? It's absurd. In this sense, the paper book is still far superior to the DRM'd ebook. I know that twenty years from now I can still pick up some fondly-remembered book and read it again, or even just reference it for information. That's a good technology, which is why it's survived more-or-less unchanged for the last 500 years.
At any rate, I am very much enjoying reading the open-formatted ebooks that I already have. In above photo is "The Scarlet Citadel" by Robert E. Howard (starring Conan the Barbarian), courtesy of Project Gutenberg Australia. Here's the wonderful Spaceman Blues by Brian Francis Slattery courtesy of Tor:
You can even read comics (albeit in black and white) in PDF form or converted by Calibre from RAR, CBZ or CBR format. Here's the comic String #1 courtesy of the ebook and comics download site Literate Machine (full disclosure: I am one of the creators of this site).
I really do like the e-ink screen, which is much easier on my eyes than the iPod Touch, and the device is much smaler, lighter and easier to carry around than a lot of hardcover and trade paperbacks I've read (and some very long mass market paperbacks too).
To sum up: A great device, but it still needs better support for other operating systems and non-DRM'd ebooks.
UPDATE: Apparently you can put Sony DRM'd ebooks on the device using a Mac by manually dragging them onto the device like you would any other external hard drive. Good to know.
UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: However, you can't actually DOWNLOAD the books from Sony's website on a Mac, you need a PC. Nice to keep people from buying stuff from you, Sony.
Meanwhile, apparently you can download DRM'd ebooks in the Mobipocket format from sites like Fictionwise, then remove the DRM using MobiDeDRM (might have to do a little Google searching to actually find it) and finally put it onto the Sony Reader using Calibre. Which is all as much of a pain in the ass as it sounds like, but at least you can actually get the books you want on the device.
UPDATE TO THE UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Fictionwise apparently also has many books already in the Sony Reader (LRF) format, so you shouldn't need conversion at all. More info once I try it out myself.
UPDATE AD INFINITUM: I have successfully purchased an ebook from Fictionwise in Sony LRF format (latest issue of Asimov's Science Fiction for only $3) and transferred it to my Sony Reader, and it looks great and even has a navigable table of contents (thumb down to the story, hit a button, read the story). Pretty neat. Of course, it's still DRM'd with everything that entails, but at least Calibre + Fictionwise gives Mac and Linux users a viable way to purchase and transfer books to the device.
YET ANOTHER UPDATE: As has been pointed out in the comments, the PRS-700 does not actually have Internet access (like the Kindle). So the advantages of the 700 over the 505 are that it has highlighting, notetaking, searching and a backlight. And glare.
Also, it was suggested that I point out that the Sony Readers support many more ebook file formats than the Kindle, which was implied when I talked about the Kindle being locked into its own format, but here I state it explicitly. Probably THE major reason I chose the Sony Reader over the Kindle was because the Sony Reader can read most of the ebooks I have lying around my computer already (which are in all sorts of formats) and the Kindle simply can't. If you want to read (free) ebooks from multiple sources, rather than be locked into the Kindle's DRM'd format, the Sony Reader is really the way to go (especially with the added formats available via conversion with Calibre). (To be fair, the Kindle doesn't ONLY support its own format, but the number of formats it does support is paltry compared to the Sony Reader. For more information on supported formats, see the Wikipedia pages for the two devices: Kindle, Sony Reader.)
UPDATE TO YET ANOTHER UPDATE: According to one of the comments below, the LRF files from Fictionwise aren't DRM'd, making Fictionwise clearly THE place to buy ebooks for the Sony Reader. Curiously, Fictionwise owns eReader.com which sells PDB (Palm Doc) format ebooks (which ARE DRM'd) and competing with Fictionwise in a number of places. (For instance, the two biggest ebook readers for the iPhone/iPod Touch are eReader.com's app, which only reads books from that site, and Stanza, which can buy books from the Fictionwise site.) One wonders if Fictionwise has plans to consolidate the two sites.