Sony eReader – first impressions

2007/01/03

I have got my eReader on 30th December, so after few days of playing with it, here are first impressions. I managed to read one book and played with it quite a bit, but I am still learning.

The quality of the display and “electronic paper” look and feel is great. It actually looks like paper, not like screen. The non-glossy texture surface has same visibility from every angle and it really reads like paper. I have no problem with the speed or lack of it – the page turn takes about 1-2 seconds, switching to full black and then redrawing is kind of cool when the page text “emerges” from the page. The picture is perfect, steady, does not strain the eyes, perfectly readable in sunlight. It is the best feature of the reader.

Disclaimer: I have not tried the Sony eBook store, did not buy any DRM-protected eBooks and have no intention doing so. Actually I am going to avoid it like a plague. The prices of their eBooks are ridiculous (e.g. Michael Crichton Next costs $15.96 in ebook format compared to $25-$27 in paperback). If you think about economics, production costs and actual author’s cut – this is pure greed. I only hope that the market will teach Sony a lesson and force them to get real – why would sane customer buy ebook which is locked to a new-to-market device with uncertain future ? Especially from company with such disastrous record when it comes to customer’s right protection – anybody wanna rootkit ? Fortunately, there is enough content available without it.

I have inserted SD card (thanks, Sony for not forcing us to go with otherwise useless Memory Stick) and loaded about 200 books in text, RTF and PDF format. The loading works only with supplied CONNECT software, so if you hoped (as I did) that you will copy the files on the notebook on the card and insert it, just forget about it. The CONNECT seems to be the only way how to get content on the device.

The same way as the screen of the reader is great, the CONNECT software is terrible. It tries to look like iTunes, but it fails in every aspect. It is sluggish on P4-3.2 GHz with 1 GB RAM (XP-Pro, do not blame Vista ;-)). It seems to “freeze” or lock up without visual indication while copying – and then it moves on. Uses 60-70-80% of CPU time. SO after about half an hour, I managed to have some content and started reading.

The absolutely best results are with TXT books, as long as you do not use hard line breaks, because – despite the many CPU cycles consumed – CONNECT did not bother reformat the paragraph and device obviously did not either. The device allows 3 or 4 sizes of the font. It does not allow to actually set the font, but the default font is OK.

Reading PDF files – which was one of the three main reasons I bought the device (next to large paper-like screen readable outdoors and long battery life) – was not so great. Imagine the lettersize page of PDF shrunk to the size of small paperback – less then half of the original. The characters are minuscule, very thin and pretty hard to read. Unlike with text, you have only two size options with PDF – bad and worse. Bad displays too small letters with no page margins, the worse adds some empty space around and makes the letters even smaller. Ouch. The only (partial) workaround is to switch the screen to landscape (by holding the size button for 5 seconds). In landscape the width of the page makes the characters almost well readable – for the price of seeing half of the page at once. I also noticed that one or two bottom lines in landscape appear to be “grayed” – probably software bug ?

The menu system looked strange at first, but then I got used to it. The device has limited bookmarking and navigation capability – you can store bookmarks, but you cannot search or jump to a given page. Partial compensation for it is history feature that remembers last pages per each book. If your books’ file names are long and start with the author name, and you have several books from the same author, the book list display will be pretty useless – because all you will see is the first 15-20 character of the file name. There is also no option of annotating or marking anything in the text. I guess I can understand why. Combination of touch screen and e-ink is probably very hard problem to solve and features like search or annotate require user input.

The device offers option of viewing pictures and play MP3 (unprotected). The images look pretty good for the B&W screen – the grayscale is quite nice. I did not try the MP3 -IMHO the user interface is too impractical for real usage as player when you are used to iPod, and of course CONNECT is a bad joke compared to iTunes …

If the above sounds like this is pretty terrible device, and I am sorry I spent about $450 CDN ($349 US plus Florida sales tax) – it is not true at all. I am very happy to have it, I actually like it a lot and use it as much as time permits. True, I had very high expectations, and except of the screen, Sony did not quite deliver. But it is version one – and not a bad version one. Let’s hope there will be better firmware and most importantly better desktop software sometimes soon.

Here is my wishlist of changes and improvements (in case somebody listens):
– reformat TXT files during conversion to remove hard line breaks
– “reflow” the PDF files to make shorter lines and readable font size
– selectable font type and more font sizes
– allow bold/italic for font selection
– allow transfer files on SD card without CONNECT software – at least for TXT files
– network capabilities – ideally wireless or at least Bluetooth – allowing either to access it as drive or (ideally) to use it as client to access network files
– more intuitive navigation with “breadcrumbs” – showing where you are
– show long filenames in two lines
– thesaurus (for us non-native speakers of English)
– paging buttons on both sides of the screen, not only on the left
– text-to-voice (like Apple Macbook has)
– clock, showing you the time in case you dive into book too deep 🙂

In the meantime, if you are preparing the content for reading yourself, you can do several things to improve your reading experience: Format your text files and DOC files to avoid hard breaks and use only paragraphs. If you can generate PDF, try format and “print” it for custom page paper sizes – e.g. half-letter. This way the characters will be large enough to be actually readable.

Happy reading.

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