Since I bought an eReader almost everyone I’ve told has had one of two responses:
“oh you mean a Kindle?”
“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 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.
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 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).
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.