The e-reader market is constantly moving, with new models being introduced (and prices dropping) on almost a weekly rate. The latest additions are from Sony, which has revamped its line of Sony Reader e-book readers. While two out of the three new models don't have wireless connections to a bookstore -- and are therefore missing the instant gratification that Amazon's Kindle offers -- the new devices are sleek and good-looking, with a lot of interesting features.
I got a preview of the three e-readers about a week ago, and I have to say, what I saw impressed me. The new devices -- the Reader Pocket Edition, Reader Touch Edition and Reader Daily Edition -- have been redesigned to be smaller and lighter than the e-readers they are replacing. All three now share the same user interface and general physical style, although only the Daily Edition adds Wi-Fi.
Sharper, more responsive touch screen
The Sony Readers are also equipped with touch screens that use the new E-Ink Pearl displays -- the same ones used by the recently introduced Kindle DX and Kindle 3 e-readers. E-Ink claims a 50% greater contrast ratio, and thus better readability, for the Pearl than earlier e-reader displays.
Although I didn't have a Kindle or other competing e-reader around to compare them to, the older versions of the Sony devices were available, and I was able to look at them side by side with the new models. I found that the displays of the new devices were indeed brighter and more responsive than Sony's previous touch screen (which was available only with the appropriately named Touch edition). According to a company representative, the increased responsiveness is due to Sony's ability to remove a glass overlay that caused the screen to be duller and less sensitive than it now is; the current displays use infrared optical technology to locate where your finger is on the screen.
In addition, I found the new models to be surprisingly light and quite comfortable to handle. My only problem with the interface as a whole was that I got used to the touch screen and subsequently had trouble with the physical buttons below the screen. I kept accidentally hitting their labels rather than the buttons themselves, which were a little too discreetly placed for me to immediately notice them.
The Pocket Edition ($179) still offers the same 5-in. display as its predecessor but, at 5.7 x 4.1 x 0.3 in. and 11.4 oz., is smaller, lighter and more streamlined. Because the device now has a touch-screen display, Sony has been able to eliminate the buttons on the side and the large cursor control on the bottom -- the Pocket now has the same five slim buttons on the bottom that the Touch and Daily editions use. It's available in two colors, silver and pink (although the model I looked at seemed more lavender than pink).
The next in the line, the Touch Edition ($229), comes with a 6-in. display and is slightly larger than the Pocket, at 6.6 x 4.7 x 0.4 in. and 7.9 oz. (Like the Pocket, it is smaller and lighter than its predecessor.) The Sony Touch adds the ability to play MP3 and AAC audio files; it also expands its capacity with Memory Stick PRO Duo and SD media slots. It is available in black and red.
Neither the Pocket nor the Touch comes with any type of wireless communications. That's where the 9 oz. Daily Edition ($299) comes in. With a 7-in. display, the Daily now adds Wi-Fi and basic Web browsing to its AT&T 3G connection. (At the time of the preview, I wasn't able to test the browsing function.) It will be available in silver.
All three devices include 2GB of onboard memory; according to Sony, that's enough to hold about 1,200 books. Each comes with a stylus that lets you take freehand notes, or you can use the on-screen keyboard. Your notes can be exported to your computer via the same included USB 2.0 cable that lets you import and export books.
Unlike the Kindle, the e-readers in the Sony Reader line are compatible with a variety of e-book formats, including ePub (which is as close to a standard as is possible in today's e-reader market), Microsoft Word and PDF.
Both the Pocket Edition and Touch Edition are now available, according to Sony; the Daily Edition will be available in November.
Whether the new Sony Readers will succeed in what is a very competitive marketplace has yet to be seen, especially when prices are starting to drop down to the under-$100 level. In addition, people may be too fond of instant gratification to be content with e-readers that don't connect wirelessly to a book service.
However, the new UIs are very easy on the eyes, both in terms of reading and in terms of style. In addition, these devices are extremely lightweight, the touch screens are very responsive, and they accept a number of different formats, rather than pushing you into a favored format, as the Kindle does. All these factors may help to keep Sony's Readers alive in the e-reader market.
Barbara Krasnoff is reviews editor at Computerworld. When she isn't either editing or reviewing, she blogs at The Interesting Bits ... and Bytes; you can also follow her on Twitter (@BarbaraKrasnoff).