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:

Sony Reader 1 - Scarlet Citadel

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:

Sony Reader 2 - Spaceman Blues

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).

Sony Reader 3 - String 1

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.)

ONE LAST THING: Here's a list of places to download free ebooks, courtesy of MobileRead.com, a website dedicated to ebook readers which has been extremely helpful to me in all of this.

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.

Comments

PRS-700

Did you look at a 700 in person? I almost went for the 505 based on bad reviews, but at the last second took a trip to a SonyStyle store to compare them side by side. The sharpness definitely takes a small hit, glare is not that big of a deal, imho. The tradeoff is worth the better speed, better interface, ability to search, and most importantly the ability to highlight and take notes.

If you don't care about the ability to highlight, or the on-screen keyboard (for note taking and search) then the 505 is definitely the better choice. I upgraded from the 500 to the 700 and have no regrets.

Calibre is a KILLER solution even if you don't have a Mac. I have been playing with its ability to download newspaper content. Has a "recipe" for downloading for The Economist built in.

I did see the 700 briefly at

I did see the 700 briefly at the Small Press Book Fair in NYC (Sony had a table) and it seemed to me that in the (admittedly bright, fluorescent) lighting there that the glare was quite annoying. In truth, if I tried it out for a few days I may have found that the glare wasn't so distracting in practical use, but without the ability to do that first I wasn't willing to risk it. At any rate, I'm pretty happy with the 505, though searching and note taking would be nice. The bottom line, I think, is that none of these devices are ideal, and I think someone is going to come out with the ebook reading "killer app" at some point in the next few years.

Suggestions seem to be that

Suggestions seem to be that if you've got a 505, you might not be 100% happy with the 700 screen, as it's a subjectively a slight step down from the one in the 505, but if coming from a 500 or new to eInk, you'll be fine with it.

700 vs 505

Note--In your review, you state that the 700 has Internet capability. This is not true.

My husband has a 700 and I have a 505. I don't find the glare on the 700 to be that bad at all. The 700 definitely isn't as clear as the 505 and I'm perfectly happy with my 505. But I wouldn't complain if I owned the 700 either. The built in light is definitely a plus for reading in low light situations. I also find the other added features of the 700--ability to make notes, the search feature, and the zoom features to be very valuable.

dordale :)

I've corrected the Internet

I've corrected the Internet statement, thanks for pointing that out.

I'm not clear exactly on how the 700's zoom functionality is different from the 505's magnification feature (which works great). Does it zoom in on images and complicated PDF's better?

Zoom on 700

The 700 has two different types of "zoom"--You can enlarge the font with the same type of "PDF Reflow" that the 505 uses. There is also an additional zoom option that will allow the 700 to zoom in to a part of the screen. You can then move around on the page by dragging the image back and forth. (Hope this makes a little sense anyway!)

dordale :)

Nice post

I hope you'll update your Calibre + Mac adventures from time to time. I'm recommending this post to Mac owners who got a Sony Reader last month as a gift.

LRF files you buy from

LRF files you buy from Fictionwise do not have DRM. Another good source of DRM-free LRFs is Baen's www.webscription.net.

If for some reason you don't

If for some reason you don't want to install Calibre you can use http://www.lib2go.com as a converter to LRF.

I own a Kindle

Nice review.

I own a Kindle. I love my Kindle. I'm not concerned about DRM.

I bought the Kindle because I love Amazon.com. If I need something, I go to Amazon.com.

The Kindle is amazing. Easy to use. The buttons blow but that's really the only downfall I complain about.

The pricing of the ebooks are good. I've purchased over 100 books and have saved $225 versus purchasing the physical book from Amazon.com. Granted I'm sure I could have found the physical book cheaper somewhere else i.e. used bookstore, mass market, but I don't enjoy wasting the little bit of time I have.

And the most amazing thing about the Kindle? The wireless of course! You complained about the Sony transfer process lacking. The Kindle is soooo easy. Even if you already have books on your PC, they can be converted very easily and transferred just as easily via the USB or even the available wireless delivery ($0.10 per file).

All in all, it sounds like you are getting more of a headache to save a few bucks.

In the long run I believe the Kindle will evolve into an amazing device that everyone will want to get their hands on.

Yeah, the fact that Amazon

Yeah, the fact that Amazon charges you--even just 10 cents--to convert books is crazy to me. And how good are the conversions? The Sony Reader can read LRF, ePub, PDF and other formats natively. And I can buy books without DRM from Fictionwise and then I'll still be able to read them in 10 years when all the devices change. That's worth a lot to me. But I suppose it's a question of priorities.

But then, from your tone I kind of wonder if you're on Amazon's payroll.

Not on the payrolll....but I wish!

Nope, I'm not on the payroll. Just a normal avid reader. Here's a link to my spreadsheet of books I've purchased on the Kindle. I haven't added much because I'm a full time student, full time employee, and a full time Mom and Wife.

http://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=p8gkHfptjDERg_-RNAWmLPw

The $0.10 charge is to have the book transferred WIRELESSLY to your Kindle. All conversions are free. And they are good conversions. I wasn't into ebooks before I actually got the Kindle so I haven't used it much. I do use it when I get free eBooks from Tor but that's all.

Honestly, how many books are you going to keep and reread? If they are that amazing buy the physical book: be proud and show it off. Or be super proud and buy it again and again for each new device. :)

I plan to stick with the Kindle. Therefore, the DRM issue doesn't worry me.

Also, Amazon is a one-stop-shop. It sounds like you shop on several ebook stores. Again, I'm all about saving time. I go to one place, get what I need and get going.

And what do you do if you've finished reading a book or just saw something at the bookstore and want to get it on your device? You don't have wireless and require your PC to get that book. The wireless its self is all worth the price of the Kindle.

I enjoy talking about the Kindle so this is cool. I saw your post on the Dear Author page btw.

Honestly, how many books are

Honestly, how many books are you going to keep and reread? If they are that amazing buy the physical book: be proud and show it off. Or be super proud and buy it again and again for each new device. :)

Yeah, see that's crazy talk. I don't want to have to buy the same thing over and over again, and I shouldn't have to. But then, as I said, it's a question of priorities. For you, the priority is the convenience of wirelessly getting your books. For me the priority is being able to read the books I already have and being able to continue reading them in the future. So you have your device and I have mine. That's fine.