The good, the bad and the ugly of choosing another brand

Since I bought an eReader almost everyone I’ve told has had one of two responses:

“oh you mean a Kindle?”

or

“why didn’t you get a Kindle?”

This kind of thing is one of the reasons I didn’t buy a Kindle in the first place. One of my (growing number of) wacky beliefs is that domination by one player in any market is rarely good for the consumer so I wanted to support competitiveness in a market I think will become increasingly important to me. Other factors included a lingering dubiousness about the Kindle seller’s business practices and not particularly wishing to lock myself into a proprietary format for the books I buy (and thereby being at Amazon’s mercy somewhat).

My reason for choosing the PRS-650 in particular is a combination of design and form factor. In my day job I have had demonstrations of a couple of dozen eReaders over the years and have borrowed several (including a Kindle and a Kobo) for extended ‘research’ and found all of them lacking one or other design element I was looking for. The Sony felt perfect as soon as I held it in my hand and didn’t disappoint upon closer inspection.

The Good

The device is pretty much all-screen, with only 5 slimline buttons along the bottom edge for the most commonly used commands (page turning, going to the home screen which is displayed in this picture, changing size of text and accessing the context sensitive menu). There are no buttons along the sides (I have accidentally clicked buttons on the side on several devices I’ve played with). All the other commands you need are accessed via the context-sensitive touch screen menus (i.e. the touch screen menu accessible while you are in the middle of a book has different options than the one which appears when you are managing a collection of books). When you need a keyboard for data entry (which is not that often) one appears on screen and you can use your fingers or the device’s inbuilt stylus. The upshot of all this is that when you’re reading (i.e. 99% of the time) the device feels very little like the computer it is and very much like a book.

It’s a good size: the screen size is 12cm x 9cm (it galls me that even in this country which has used the metric system of measurement since 1977 it was sold as the 6” model) and the device itself 17cm x 12cm with its cover (closed). So it’s slightly wider and taller than a mass market paperback but significantly smaller, lighter and thinner than the trade paperbacks which make up the bulk of my physical book reading. Though light enough to hold for several hours without cramping it still has enough weight not to feel flimsy or easily breakable.

I can easily hold it in one hand and because you can turn pages either via the touch screen or the buttons at the bottom I can read one handed in virtually all circumstances (e.g. curled up in bed with just finger or two poking out from under the blanket on a cold, winter’s night, with the reader propped up against the cereal packet during breakfast etc). I didn’t know I wanted to be able to do this until I could.

The touch screen is not gimmicky like I thought it might be. Using it for page turning feels very responsive and helps replicate the sensation of reading a physical book. The touch screen menus work well too and disappear all together when I’m reading (which is what I do with the device 99% of the time) which adds to that sense of it being a book.

Some of the other features which I love (and are by no means standard on all eReaders I have used)

  • automatic last page memory (i.e. if you leave it alone for a few minutes the device goes into sleep mode but when you wake it up it remembers which page of which book you were on, very handy for people with a tendency to fall asleep while reading)
  • the ability to keep multiple bookmarks in multiple books (the Kobo I used did not have this feature)
  • note taking and underlining that is collected all in one spot for each book (handy for reviewing)
  • an easily accessible dictionary (tap on a word and it is immediately defined for you)

Although many books sold for the Sony do have proprietary Digital Rights Management (DRM) inbuilt which means they too (like books sold for the Kindle) would lock you into the device there are also loads (and the number is growing) which don’t.

The Bad

To get books on the device you have to use a computer and a cable (mini USB/USB), there is no wi-fi or 3G downloading direct to the device. I knew this going in and it doesn’t matter to me in the slightest (in fact it enforces a slight amount of impulse control which is a good thing in my case) but I know it’s an issue for some so it’s worth being aware of.

There are not as many books available in Sony compatible formats as there are for the Kindle. Again I knew this going in but I figured one way to help turn this around is to support a different format myself. This is not likely to be as big an issue for those who live in the UK or US as territorial copyright is far more restrictive on my eBook buying than format-based restrictions (there is for example a Sony eBook store that I am not allowed to access because I am not American).

At $345 (with cover) it’s expensive. That’s nearly double the price of the Kobo (which is its main, non-Kindle competitor here in Australia) and about $100 more than having the equivalent sized Kindle shipped to me. Still, I’d have paid $450-$500 for a new bookcase for physical books and I simply did not like the form factor of the Kobo at all so that wasn’t an option for me.

The ugly

The software that you’re supposed to use to manage your eBook library and to transfer books from your computer to the device is truly awful. Really, truly terrible. Configuring user interfaces for information management systems is part of what I do for a living and if I produced this level of inherent stupidity and clunkiness I would be lynched and/or unemployed very quickly. However, thanks to some lovely people at the Sony Reader Forum (sometimes the internet truly is a magnificent place) I was able to put in place a workaround for the worst of the problems I encountered (the automatic synchronisation between computer and device not working as it ought to). Although the answer was difficult to find (thanks for not helping in any way, shape or form Sony), once I knew the solution it was very quick and easy to implement and turns out to allow better management of books than if it had worked properly in the first place. I also learned about some alternative software I can switch to if I want to which has a much better interface and metadata capturing (I’m still internally debating the pros and cons of switching).

Overall

I love my PRS-650 (even though it has a name that completely fails to roll off the tongue) and am pleased that I waited for it to come along. As I spend a good percentage of my leisure time reading and plan to eventually do all of my reading via eBooks I wanted a device that I actively like using and will be happy to continue using until it falls apart (I didn’t want to be looking wistfully at whatever comes out next month). It is definitely the right device for me. I’ve no idea if it’s also right for you so wouldn’t presume to recommend it but I would urge you to at least consider looking beyond the biggest player in the market. Perhaps this video review (via a great website, The eBook Reader) will inspire you.

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16 Responses to The good, the bad and the ugly of choosing another brand

  1. Maxine says:

    Really glad you like it, Bernadette. I have to say those workarounds would have phased me. I am afraid I am one of those people with a Kindle (only just) – partly because it was bought for me as a gift. The choice of books is not actually that great – it is good, but not as good as I would like. For example I have a standing Amazon shopping basket of 100 plus items (have done for 5 years or more, though items in it come and go!), and of those, very few have Kindle editions. Howver, so far, I have found two books that I wanted to read, available in Kindle at a reasonable price (I am trying not to download one until I have read the last, so a small sample size at present).

    Unless one wants to get tecchy, over here in the UK the main choice still is Kindle or Sony – I looked at the Sony as Karen has one, but the choice of books is nowhere near as big, and there isn’t the convenient wireless to Amazon link, so in the end I gracefully accepted the Kindle. I can see me getting another brand at some point, as the price of these devices is cheap and getting cheaper, just in order to maximise my choice of reading while digital rights management and business models are sorted out (grrr).

    Don’t I know what you mean about metric vs imperial! It was the thing that struck me the most in the USA when I first visited, how old-fashioned everything seems because of their quaint unit system.

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  2. Bernadette – Thanks for giving your feedback on your E-reader. I’m eagerly collecting all of this information, because I may make the move to one myself. I haven’t done so yet, but there are so many choices out there that it’s really good to know what works well and what doesn’t.

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  3. Maxine I totally understand about the tech stuff, playing with gadgets and software is second nature to me but I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

    Interesting that you say you’ll get another brand device at some point because I have been thinking I’ll need to do the same thing if I really do want to replace physical book reading. But I’ll wait until publishers wake up a bit to the rest of the world.

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  4. Thanks Margot, hope it helps a little bit. One of my reasons for putting down my thoughts like this is that I couldn’t find much information about the experience of using eReaders (lots of technical reviews but not a lot of experiential stuff).

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  5. Kerrie says:

    Does the Sony take epub Bernadette?

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  6. kathy durkin says:

    So glad to read about this and so glad that you are enjoying the Sony so much and plan to keep using it. Me–I think I’ll pass. Luddite is my middle name, really. My eyes glaza over at these descriptions and of what one must buy, connect, process, etc. I’m still freaking out about my nonusable printer which I need for tasks. But so glad to hear of others enjoying this technology. It’s great. I’ll stay with my paper books, thanks, and my dvd’s from the library and occasionally buy from Book Depository, Amazon and Partners in Crime, a favorite. (I haven’t read with a book propped up against a cereal box for awhile, but must return to that practice and get in every minute of reading time. I used to work (in high school) down the street reading a book.

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  7. kathy durkin says:

    Errara: I used to walk (in high school) down the street reading a book.

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  8. Patty says:

    I am just so in love with the ease of my Kindle 3…and I have owned two other Kindles…I am in that group that just does not get any other reader…each to his own…

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  9. Dorte H says:

    Thank you for another useful post on the subject.

    The other day I told my husband what a Kindle cost. “Why don´t you just order one?” he asked. Well, because I don´t know yet if Kindle is what *I* want – and unlike him, I don´t buy gadgets until I am sure I really want or need them 😀 We have enough in that garage already.

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  10. @Kerrie yes the Sony will take ePub but some publishers put DRM in their files so you have to use Adobe Digital Editions to access it (or use a hack to strip the DRM out first). These publishers are of course living in 1953.

    @Kathy it would be boring if we were all the same wouldn’t it? I happen to love tinkering with technology but I’m sure there are things you can do that I cannot.

    @Dorte I’m the same – I like to take the time to choose the right thing when I’m spending a chunk of money. If you know anyone who has a Reader or if you can play with them in any stores then have a go – they all have a different feel to them I’ve found. Realise that might be a bit hard where you are though.

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  11. Bill H says:

    I also have a Sony rather than a Kindle. The decision maker for me was that the Kindle can not be used to read eBooks from the public library whereas the Sony can. Just thought I’d mention this in case it is something that might make a difference for other people as well.

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  12. Thanks for that Bill. We don’t have that facility at our library here yet (though there are rumours that it might be coming soon-ish) but that’s another excellent reason to choose something other than the Kindle.

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  13. BooksPlease says:

    Very interesting. I’m still considering what if anything to get. I looked at the Sony about 18 months ago and wasn’t convinced, mainly because of the limited number of books available for it at that time. I don’t like to rush into buying things like this (unlike my husband who’s always one of the first to get new gadgety stuff) and I don’t like the idea of having to buy two devices! On second thoughts, however, I don’t see why not – I buy lots of varieties of other products quite happily. As you can see I just haven’t made up my mind yet.

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  14. JoV says:

    I really love this post Bernadette, it gives me a balanced and honest view about Sony e-reader. I have been tempted by both Kindle and the Sony e-reader, but I truly believed you have made the right choice.

    Enjoy your time with it! 🙂

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  15. I have an old sony and have found Calibre the easiest way to manage the books. The Sony reader library software is clunky but compared to the system for accessing e-books through borders its a walk in the park.

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