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Sony Reader PRS-700: Full Review

UPDATE PREFACE: If you’re thinking of getting a Sony Reader, you should know that if you get a lemon, you’re in for a headache. Original review follows.

I’ve had my Sony Reader PRS-700 for two weeks now, and it has essentially fulfilled the expectations I had when I bought it. It’s not perfect by any means, but for a certain kind of reader, i.e. me, it gets the job done while we wait for the Great eReader Adoption.

So, here’s my experience with and review of the Sony Reader PRS-700.

Physicality — Very Good

The Reader PRS-700 is about the size of a trade paperback. It’s something you can’t quite fit in the back pocket of your jeans, but which will easily fit in the pocket of your coat. It’s constructed of metal, and feels solid in your hand.

The 700 has a touchscreen, which has a bit of flex to it, and you have to press harder than you would on an iPhone. However, it doesn’t scratch easily, in my usage, and I haven’t had a problem with fingerprints or smudges obscuring reading. I haven’t had to clean the screen because I couldn’t see the text I was reading.

The case is disappointing. The outside is nice enough, and snugs up to the Reader itself with small magnets in the corners. The spine of it, though, where it hooks into the Reader, is made of crappy plastic that just bends to unhook the Reader. I haven’t broken it yet, but it’s already distended and it’s only been a few weeks. This is the worst constructed part of the Reader, but not a dealbreaker by any means. (I’ll post again if the thing breaks, and/or I get grief from Sony if I try to get it replaced.)

The frontlight is also quite useful, and not terribly hard on the eyes. It sucks up the juice, though. One full night with the light on, about four hours, would use your whole battery.

Music — Below Average

I didn’t think I’d often use this, but actually it’s quite nice to listen to a little instrumental music while you read sometimes.Unfortunately, it’s not incredibly useful just yet.

The volume doesn’t quite go down as far as it should; in a quiet room, the music is always a little too loud to be true background music.

The functionality, though, works very well. It’s easy to do everything you normally would while music plays. Sorting through your music library is a bit tedious, because of the refresh rate of the E-Ink, and also because each song is listed individually, and there’s no way to use folders to sort.

Wait a few more generations before you expect the music function of ereaders to approach that of dedicated mp3 players.

The good news is that music playing doesn’t drain the battery too quickly. You could probably get 6-8 hours of reading and listening in a charge.

Software — Abysmal

Easily the worst part about the Reader is the eBook Library software it comes bundled with. If you don’t use Windows, you won’t be able to read any books you don’t get DRM-free, and even then eBook Library is awful. I recommend introducing your Reader to Adobe Digital Editions, and then never using eBook Library again.

For more about eBook Library, read this post. For more on how to get ebooks for your Reader without involving Sony, read this one.

Readability, contrast, etc. — Below Average

This is a downside for the PRS-700, and I hope it was a conscious sacrifice. The touchscreen layer reduces the contrast ratio, and is prone to glare. Honestly, it’s not a big deal for me. I generally need to have brighter light than I would with a normal book, but I’ve never found myself unable to read in any conditions but the brightest fluorescents imaginable.

If you think that will be an issue for you, I recommend finding a Sony store and checking out the display in person (I wouldn’t trust any print ad you see of a display; they’re all doctored). The PRS-505 has a significantly better contrast ratio than the 700. Compare them side by side, and if you can’t live with the display of the 700 and you feel like you must take notes and search within books, then you’ll have to get a Kindle or the overpriced iRex iLiad.

If you think you can sacrifice note-taking and word-searching abilities, try the PRS-505, or the BeBook, which are both around $300. Both can read library books (though the BeBook reads Mobipockets).

Interface — Phenomenal

The Reader PRS-700′s touchscreen allows its interface to be intuitive and useful for all kinds of users.

With a combination of the touchscreen and the modest row of buttons across the bottom of the display, you can easily do such things as: page turning (and fast page turning, see 1:25 of this video); finding to a specific page (with both a numeric keypad and a navigation bar); searching inside the book with a touchscreen keyboard; highlighting; bookmarking; and note-taking.

You can change the orientation to read PDFs in landscape instead of portrait (page-turn gestures re-orient and you get a nifty icon that tells you whether you’re in the top or bottom half of the page).

If your PDF is stupid and doesn’t have reflow, you can zoom in and move around it, but this is a pain.

You also need to enter into a note-taking mode to highlight text. This is a little obnoxious, and could be incorporated into the sticky nav-bar at the bottom of the display in future versions.

Overall, though, the touchscreen interface allows you to read and interact with books in a convenient and intuitive way. A better processor and faster E-Ink, and this aspect of the Reader will be perfect.

Content Availability — Above Average

Sony’s eBook Store is awful, overpriced and generally worthless. Stay away from there. But the Reader itself can read secure PDFs, which I generally get from non-Sony ebookstores or the library, and which circumvent Sony’s software and load directly onto the Reader from Adobe Digital Editions.

PDFs are the way to go for now. They’re cheaper than LRFs (Sony’s proprietary format) when you buy them, but you can also find them for free at the library. For me, this is better than Amazon’s slightly cheaper prices coupled with DRM-crippled content, even with the convenience of the whispernet (it’s not free, even if you don’t get a bill).

Price — Below average

eReaders are still an early adopter’s game, and some people will balk at dropping $400 for a model they won’t use forever. If you’re only willing to spend the money on the only ereader you’ll ever need, wait a few more versions.

If, however, you don’t mind spending the money on a great ereader to use for the next two or three years, until that perfect model comes out, then this is the one for you.

Other Features/Random notes

Double-click and drag to select text to search for: nifty, but I haven’t used it very much.

Note mode resizes the text slightly instead of repaginating. A small thing, but a good consideration.

In landscape mode, there’s an icon that shows which half of the page you’re on. Great for medium or small text sizes; gets a bit unreliable at large size or above.

Stylus works well, but I rarely use it. The interface is good enough to use with just your finger.

You can’t charge the Reader and read on it at the same time. It doesn’t come up often for me, and it only needs to charge for a few hours every few days, or even less. Still, I don’t think it needs to be that way.

There’s a feature to organize your books into collections. I guess it might be useful, but the eBook Library is so bad, I’ve never used it.

Conclusion — Best ereader out there

If you have concerns about the screen, go see one in person, it’s a deal-breaker for some. If you see it and can live with it, though, this is the best reader on the market (we’ll see about Kindle 2.0). Openness = goodness, library books = awesomeness, and the interface and physicality of this device are well worth the price tag.

Contrast ratios will get better, and future versions of the Sony Reader might have their own wireless. Processors will also hopefully ramp up, and companies will turn out better eInk screens.What this means is that no device you buy now will be current for more than a few years.

However, I hate the idea of buying an ereader like the Kindle, because of the content I’ll be able to get. Content availability will even out eventually, and even before it does, the library is a phenomenal resource to get great content with no sacrifices (and no money).

At this point, I think potential ereader buyers should decide between the Kindle and the Reader by physical features alone, and in that contest, the Sony Reader wins by a lot.

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