I've been an avid e-book reader since the old days of grey scale Palm devices, where Palm OS once dominated the mobile world (oh how they squandered their market share). The best e-book reader I've ever used is actually the Dell Axim X50v (well before it was nicked), which has a wonderful 480x640 screen that made reading books and mangas a joy. The problem with these and modern devices are the (lack of) battery life and the inability to read books outdoors.
Today I had a chance to play around with Sony's recently released (in the UK at least) Sony Reader PRS-505. The PRS-505 is an updated version of the PRS-500 which was released in 2006. The PRS-505 contains a 6" 600x800 resolution (perfect for reading graphic novels) electronic paper screen with support of up to 8-levels of grey scale. E-paper allows for a massive improvement in battery life (around 7000 page turns on the Reader) as well as paper-like characteristic (high contrast, flicker free, readable in the sun).
The Reader supports Sony's BBeB book format (in both DRM and none-DRM form) as well as both protected and unprotected PDF, TXT, RTF, DOC and ePub e-book formats. It is a shame that Palm documents (pdb) doesn't work on the Reader and I won't hold my breath that the Reader will eventually support it (which is a darn shame).
The UI is quick to understand. The 'menu' buttons acts as a 'back' button that allows you to cycle through the menu. Like digital music, e-books can be sorted through different categories e.g. writer, publisher etc. A couple of buttons are laid on the bottom of the Reader and a quick access short cuts (0-9) that allows you to easily select books/chapters etc.
Dedicated page forward/backward keys are also easily accessible near the right edge of the Reader, though it may annoy lefties. The Reader is made of plastic and is about the same size as a trade paperback. It is also much thinner (about the same thickness as a standard mobile phone) and light. A Pro Duo card slot is available to supplement the 256MB flash ROM.
When I first handled the Reader I thought it was a none-working demo unit. This was because the screen looked as though the texts were printed on a paper then stuck to the screen, kinda like how mobile phone shops market their none-working 'display' units. It was that good. The screen isn't paper white as the background has a sort of light greyish tone to it, but it does look paper-like.
The contrast is good though and black isn't as the blackest black I've seen (if that makes sense!). Screen refresh (the whole screen flashes black for a fraction of a second) is on the slow side, but isn't slow enough to detract from the experience. Text is very clear and is easily readable in the sunlight. Three text size options are available, great for people who tends to purchase and read large print format.
Personally I am going to wait for a while until the e-book selections at Waterstones increases (they have about 3500 fiction books for sale). It would be best if Waterstones gives customers an option to buy electronic books at a discounted price if they also buy the physical copies. But perhaps best of all, the Sony Reader is surprisingly open and allows you to upload and read the tens of thousands of copyright-free books from Project Gutenburg.
All in all, I really do like the Reader. At £199, it isn't too bad a début price considering that Borders UK is selling the iLiad e-book reader for a massive £299-£399. And while the screen does not offer the same experience as reading on a thick high quality printed paper, it is still the closest you can get an electronic screen to be comfortable on the eyes. While it won't replace hardbacks, but if you travel a lot and is an avid reader, then this may be your dream product.
The Sony Reader PRS-505 is now available for £199. Unlike Borders UK, Waterstones has decided to backup the Reader with a dedicated online store. While the selection seems respectable they don't seem to be selling e-book versions of Christopher Moore's books yet (eReader does - but the books won't be compatible with the Reader).