Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Sony Reader Pocket Edition PRS-350 review

An early proponent of ebook readers, Sony was the first company to release an electronic device with E Ink designed for book reading: the LIBRie - released in 2004 long before Amazon copied the design for their Kindle series of ebook readers.

While ebook readers has since steadily improved, the core design remained similar with the majority of devices consisting of an  E Ink display. Some manufactures include colour LCD, but these have impact on battery life and usability. E Ink has the advantage of not using power when the screen is turned on as well (most ebook devices equipped with e-ink have a maximum battery life of thousands of page turns) as improved visibility outdoors. It is more comfortable to read on for longer periods of time. On a downside, E Ink displays have low refresh rate, lacks a backlight component and is currently limited to grey scale.

The PRS-350, also known as the Sony Reader Pocket Edition, is a no-frills entry level ebook reader. Weighing 155 g and measuring 145 x 104.3 x 8.5mm, it is also one of the smallest and lightest ebook reader currently on the market by any manufacturer. The built quality is great, with no sign of creaking. It does not include any expansion slow, but has 2 GB of built-in storage - more than enough for an ebook reader. The battery is rated for two weeks, but this really depends on how many books one reads. I found I was able to go through an average of six books before needing a recharge.

The front of the device has a modest 5" anti-glare E Ink display with 'Pearl' technology - the same one on the new Kindle 3. It can display in 16-levels grey scale and have a resolution of 600 x 800 pixels - perfect for book reading but sadly isn't enough for viewing comics. Incidentally the Kindle 3 has a larger display but also have the same resolution, so the Sony Reader wins in terms of sharpness. The display is a touchscreen type, but not as you know it.
Because fitting a touchscreen layer would reduce the contrast quality of the display, Sony has instead fitted the display with infrared sensors around on the edge of the display. This allows the PRS-350 (and PRS-650) to retain the clarity of the E Ink Pearl display while also offering touchscreen functionality. The touchscreen is accurate, though may seem laggy when drawing, but this is due to how the inherent weakness of E Ink displays rather than Sony's implementation.

Below the screen are some hardware buttons, including two for flipping the pages forward and back (though why would you when you can swipe the touchscreen, thus mimicking the action of flipping an actual book), a home key that takes you to the main screen, a zoom key that gives you the option of changing font size and finally, an option key. The back of the device is painted in some rubber-ish texture, giving it a better grip. The microUSB port (for both charging and data transfer) and reset hole can be found on the bottom, while the top contains the power slider and stylus silo. The stylus is not needed in most situations as the UI of the Reader is optimised for fingers.
The Sony Reader is capable of opening a number of files, including the industrial standard EPUB (both DRM and none-DRM), PDF, DOC, TXT, RTF and BBeB (both DRM and none-DRM), as well as most mainstream image formats (JPG, PNG, BMP, GIF). Sony's own ebook library store sells books formatted in EPUB format. 12 dictionaries and 10 translation dictionaries are included with the PRS-350. Double tapping a word in any opened book will cause the dictionary to pop up on the bottom of the screen, giving you the meaning or translation. It could not be easier.

Where the PRS-350 Reader fails in comparison to Amazon Kindle 3 is the lack of wireless features for uploading books and the quality of Sony's own ebook store. With the Kindle 3, you can easily access Amazon's online store via WiFi or 3G (depending on model), purchase a book and start reading in under a minute - all without the downside of being tethered to a computer. It's that simplicity that has allowed Amazon to catch up and then surpass Sony in the ebook industry.
With the Pocket Reader, you are limited to buying books from stores that sells them in EPUB format (of which Amazon does not) and upload them from a computer via cable. While the Sony's Reader application is pretty decent, it isn't as elegant as Amazon's method. Still, because of Sony's decision to use the EPUB format, you can borrow books from any libraries that offers them. And don't forget, you have complete access to millions of public domain books thanks to Sony's partnership with Google.

Sony has a great ebook reader that I personally think matches (and perhaps surpass even) Amazon's Kindle 3 in terms of hardware. But Sony's ebook library store still lags behind Amazon in terms of pricing and availability of new books. If the requirement to read (legally purchased) new books is important, the Kindle 3 makes way more sense than this. If however you are looking for a portable ebook reader that is easy to use and do not mind not having access to the latest books on Amazon - then I can recommend the PRS-350 Reader Pocket Edition.

+ E Ink Pearl screen offers great clarity even under strong sunlight
+ Ease of use
+ Touchscreen display
- Sony's Ebook Library Store lacking compared to Amazon's Kindle store
- Lack of any wireless feature
- None removable battery

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