Product Review

Sony Reader Touch Edition Fills a Niche


When Sony announced three new digital book readers in August, pundits quickly surmised that the mid-tier model, the Sony Reader Touch Edition, might find few takers. Their concern was that the $299 version might get lost between the lower-priced $199 Reader Pocket Edition, with its obvious appeal to budget-minded readers, and the high-end touch-equipped $399 Reader Daily Edition, which is due later this year and is expected to boast wireless access.

But after testing the Touch Edition over the past few weeks, it's easy to see why Sony (SNE) opted to include it in the lineup. The touchscreen and other features are a step up for users of the current Sony Reader. And new users who aren't holding out for a wireless version will no doubt like the intuitive feel. Its features are far easier to master than those of the rival Amazon (AMZN) Kindle family of readers.

This isn't Sony's first touchscreen Reader. But the new Reader Touch Edition is a vast improvement over the previous iteration, the PRS-700, introduced in 2008. The now-discontinued earlier version suffered from the inclusion of a well-intentioned but poorly executed feature. Most e-readers are virtually impossible to read in poor lighting. To address that, Sony included a backlight. But to accommodate the light, Sony had to install another layer on top of the digital e-ink used to render images. Contrast was so poor in normal lighting situations, and glare so strong, that users needed to keep the backlight on all the time. That drained the battery within a couple of days instead of the two weeks without a charge that other readers boasted.

With the Touch Edition, Sony removes the backlight completely. Instead, it sells a book cover with an integrated book light for $55. Sony also jettisoned the stylish leather cover that came with previous Readers. It's too bad you now have to pay at least $30 extra for what came standard previously, but Sony at least includes a neoprene slipcase that offers some protection for the fragile glass screen. Amazon.com's Kindle 2 and Kindle DX come with no case at all.

Touchscreen Features The biggest reason to opt for the Touch Edition is, you guessed it, the touchscreen. Simply swipe a finger across the screen to move forward or back a page. You can set it to recognize a finger swipe left or right, depending on your preference. These aren't exactly the same gestures you'd use to turn pages of a regular book, but they come close enough. Yet, you must have a firm touch on the middle two-thirds of the screen for the software to detect your gesture.

There's more to touch than turning pages. You can double-tap a word to look it up in the newly built-in New Oxford American Dictionary and double-tap the corner of a page to create or remove a bookmark. By tapping on an Options button on the lower part of the device, an on-screen menu appears on top that lets you choose from a digital highlighter or drawing tool that will store your selections in notes that can later be downloaded to a PC or Mac.

Two other applications on the home screen also take advantage of touch. With Text Memo, you can store notes such as books you might later want to check out at the library or even grocery lists and contacts. Sony uses a virtual keyboard that appears on screen as needed, instead of the physical iterations seen on Kindle readers. It's an aesthetic choice that especially helps the black version of the Touch Edition look more elegant. The device is also available in a red or silver finish.

Another application, Handwriting, lets you use your finger or a stylus to take notes. Both text and handwriting notes appear under "Notepad" in the desktop software. You can view them but you can't edit or export unless you highlight them and transfer into a Microsoft (MSFT) Word file.

With Sony Readers, you use your computer and the included USB cable to download and transfer books from Sony's eBook Store. The online bazaar has recently been revamped to let you download free books from Google's (GOOG) catalog of 1 million tomes. There's also a handy library-finder function that will point you to any in your area that offer free, 21-day digital book rentals for use on the Sony devices.

Memory Card Slots Buyers who are more tech-savvy will love Sony's support of multiple e-book formats, including Adobe (ADBE) PDFs, ePub, TXT, and RTF. Amazon's Kindle and Kindle 2 have their own proprietary format; only the large, 10-inch-screen Kindle DX includes native PDF support. And you can rotate the Sony screen into a landscape format—something you can do only with the Kindle DX.

Sony's Readers can play MP3- and AAC-formatted non-DRM music files. The Kindle offers a stereo jack for this, too, but I like the fact that Sony devices include slots for SD and Memory Stick Pro Duo cards. That way you can simply download music files to the cards rather than walk through the slightly more cumbersome and confusing method Amazon requires. Another bonus: The memory card slots can serve as added memory if for some reason you download more than the 1,500 or so books capped by the internal memory.

I've been using the Kindle 2 for several months now, and love the easy ability with the Sprint (S) Whispernet built-in wireless to download a new book almost anywhere in the U.S. The biggest downside to the Touch Edition is that it doesn't offer the same amount of convenience or spontaneity for finding new authors. Amazon also trumps Sony with its recommendation engine that delivers potential books you might like based on what you previously purchased or browsed in its online bookstore.

The Reader Daily Edition, set for release in December, will include built-in wireless from AT&T (T) (with the ability to swap out SIM cards for other 3G carriers around the globe) and likely address these failings. I think, over time, wireless will become standard on all digital readers.

But the cheaper, non-wireless Touch Edition currently fills a void that makes it a valuable part of the Sony family.
Cliff_edwards
Edwards is a reporter for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek in San Francisco.

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