Sony Reader PRS-700 takes on Amazon's Kindle 2

When Amazon.com Inc.'s Kindle 2 hit the market in February, nearly universal acclaim made one think that most of the population of the U.S. was about to burn their books and grab their Kindles (that is, if they could afford one). And some of that reaction was quite justified -- the Kindle uses an e-paper display to provide a clean, very readable display, and its 3G connection (which Amazon calls "Whispernet") offers users a quick, extremely easy way to purchase and read literature.

In fact, a lot of readers have adopted the Kindle with great enthusiasm. For example, a friend of mine, a teacher with a well-stocked library of texts and reference books -- and a small apartment -- has already gotten rid of most of his fiction collection, happily determined to read all his novels through the Kindle. I'm sure he's not the only one.

But the Kindle isn't the only e-book reader out there. Prominent among its rivals is the Sony Reader. The latest version, the Sony Reader PRS-700, was recently released and also offers an e-paper display. While it doesn't boast a 3G connection, it does have backlighting and a touch screen.

Both of these e-book readers cost around the same -- as of this writing, the Kindle 2 cost $359, and the Sony Reader PRS-700 was priced at $350 -- and both have their advantages and disadvantages. In order to find out which one suited which readers, I tried out both.

This was an informal test, so I didn't run any performance figures. What I did was live with each of these over the course of a few days -- uploading books, reading, carrying it around -- to try to figure out what the differences were and how well they suited at least this reader's lifestyle.

So now that the bloom is off the Kindle rose (at least somewhat), which of these two e-readers should you buy, assuming you are in the market for one?

Amazon Kindle 2

From the moment I unwrapped it, I was impressed with the Kindle 2.

To begin with, the e-ink is fantastically easy to read (as it is on the Sony Reader -- I could see no advantage in either). There is a moment when you "turn" each page that the screen blackens and then resolves, which does take a bit of getting used to.

Another first impression that I didn't expect was the weight. The Kindle 2 weighs 10.2 oz., not including the case. Although you wouldn't expect a device that weighs slightly under a pound would be a problem, these things can start to add up if you already carry a mobile phone, a media player and/or a notebook (or even a netbook). And that's only my everyday walk-around-Manhattan gear.

One thing that adds a couple of ounces, and a few inches, to the size of the Kindle is the keyboard located under the 6-in. diagonal display. As small keyboards go, it isn't bad -- I had no trouble typing in search terms or using it to tweak either the font size or the voice. But I much preferred the design of the Sony Reader, which, because it uses a touch screen, eliminates those extra three inches from its length.

That being said, it didn't take me very long to get used to the Kindle's controls, which are located to the right and left of the display. They aren't hard to find. A Next Page button is on the left edge of the unit, with a smaller Prev Page button above it. On the right, you'll find the Home, Next Page (yes, there are two Next Pages, one on each side), Menu and Back (what I would think of as Esc) buttons, along with what Amazon calls a five-way toggle switch, which can be pushed up, down, left or right or pressed down.

I had no problem with the toggle switch, which somewhat resembles a tiny joystick. However, I found it difficult to accommodate to the location of the Prev Page key -- my brain kept telling me that, if I wanted to go back to the previous page, I should hit the left-hand button directly across from the right-hand Next Page key as if I were paging back. As a result, instead of paging back, I went forward another page.

The Menu key brings up a context-sensitive menu on the right side of the screen. If you want to move to another book in your library or make a purchase at the Kindle Store, you use the toggle switch to get to your selection and press down.

The first thing anyone wants to do with a Kindle is buy a book to read. I have to admit that the experience of buying a book through the Kindle is gratifying -- simple and fast. You can find a book by browsing through your selection or searching for the name and/or author. You can then check out the user reviews (the usefulness of which depends on your opinion of Amazon's user reviews) or, better yet, download a selection from the book (and some of these selections are fairly generous).

Have you decided you want the book? Select Buy Now -- you need to be a registered Amazon member, so your credit card information is already recorded -- and the book is immediately downloaded in the background while you continue to browse or go back to whatever you were reading before.

Of course, there can be glitches -- and with the usual luck of a reviewer, I happened to find one. I ordered a copy of a biography, Harpo Speaks! by Harpo Marx and Rowland Barber, and got an error message stating that the book could not be downloaded. I tried again -- several times. No luck.

Luckily, Amazon.com seems to have its technical support staffers well trained. I went to the Web site and used Amazon's callback system, where you type in your number and get a call back from support. I explained my problem and was routed to a tech person who helped me delete the five or so unsuccessful downloads I had initiated, determined that the problem was a faulty initial download, and helped me try again -- successfully.

I have to admit, it was very neat to be able to sit around wherever I was -- a doctor's waiting room, a living room, a bus -- and shop for my next book via Whispernet. Once I had made my purchase and downloaded the book, I could turn off the connection to save battery power.

I found that, in general, more-popular books tend to cost around $10; others, such as academic texts or less-popular nonfiction books, can head toward $20. Older books, especially those in or near the public domain, can cost under $1 (for example, a copy of Through the Looking Glass cost 79 cents).

By the way, if you're a reader of older books but would rather get your public-domain literature without the extra charge, there are ways. For example, Feedbooks.com offers a Kindle Download Guide. If you go to the Web site using your Kindle and download the guide, you can then download a variety of Kindle-friendly books that are either in the public domain or were written by authors who want to distribute their works free of charge.

Amazon has apparently thought through the user interface of its Kindle 2 very carefully. The device includes many small touches, which, I have to admit, aren't important in the long run but are rather endearing. For example, I enjoyed the way it uses illustrations of famous writers or of literary references during its "sleep" mode; it was fun to close the cover and wonder what illustration I would see when I opened it up.

You can easily bookmark a page by bringing up the menu. You can also use the keyboard to enter your own note that is then associated with the point in the text at which you entered it. This is a very nice feature that lets you, in essence, annotate any text you're reading. You can also get definitions of words within the text by resting the cursor on it; the definition shows at the bottom of the page.

I also tried out the text-to-speech feature, and while it still isn't anywhere near as nice to listen to as having a human reading the text, it isn't bad. I tried it on what a friend pronounced the ultimate test of any speech-to-text software -- Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky" -- and it didn't do badly, although it couldn't seem to parse the actual word jabberwock. Certainly, if you're busy preparing a meal and don't want to stop in the middle of a chapter, the feature is a useful one -- but it isn't how I'd choose to discover most of my literature.

The Kindle is a fine reading tool and has a lot of advantages over the Sony Reader and other rivals -- its marketing is smart, its interface is well thought-out, and it is very good at what it does. Whether it or any other e-book will actually replace the traditional book has yet to be determined.

Sony Reader PRS-700

The Sony Reader hasn't gotten anywhere near the publicity the Kindle has garnered. That's too bad, because while the Reader doesn't boast the 3G network that the Kindle provides, it has some rather snazzy advantages of its own.

On first glance, the Sony Corp. device has a much more user-friendly interface than the Kindle. It takes about two seconds to figure out how to navigate the Reader's touch screen via the icons (the Reader comes with a stylus, but I tended to use my fingernail). I also like the way you can turn pages by swiping across the page -- it's a much more natural gesture, especially for a device that's trying to emulate a dead-tree book.

Because of its lack of a keyboard, the Sony Reader is somewhat smaller and just a bit lighter than the Kindle, which may sound negligible at first, but is actually a distinct advantage.

Most of the face of the device is taken up by the display. A series of discreet buttons just below the display allow you to (in left-to-right order) go up one screen level, page back, page forward, go to the home screen, do a search, change the text size and go to a general options screen so you can go to a specific page, create or edit notes, go to the table of contents, etc.

As with the Kindle, there is a power switch on top, although the Sony actually shuts off, while the Kindle only goes into sleep mode. The Sony also includes something that the Kindle 1 had but the Kindle 2 lacks: a slot for SD memory cards (and, in the case of the Reader, the Sony Memory Stick Duo). As a result, while the Sony has less built-in storage than the Kindle -- 20MB vs. 2GB -- you can save as many books, documents, audio files, etc. as you want.

The SD slot also makes the Reader easy to use as a work tool, as I found over a weekend when I needed to read a long PDF document. I was able to download it from my netbook, save it to a memory card and pop the card into the Reader, which immediately pulled all the readable documents on the card -- including my PDF file -- into its table of contents. Seconds later, I was reading the document on a very comfortable display.

Other hardware controls include one for volume, a standard audio minijack and a switch that provides you with two levels of backlighting, which means you can use the Reader in low-light situations without having to carry a book light around with you. As with the Kindle, you can adjust the text size to suit your comfort level. Besides five preset sizes, the Reader adds a "Zoom in" feature that lets you magnify and reduce the text as much as you like.

In place of the Kindle's physical keyboard, the Sony Reader offers a touch-screen-based keyboard for text searches, either within a book or within your entire library. You can also bookmark your pages.

The Sony charges through its USB connection. According to the specs, it takes about four hours. There is an optional AC charger available for $30 that can cut that time to two hours. Sony asserts that you can get about two weeks or reading on a charge (presumably, without running it on the backlight).

A major advantage that the Sony offers -- at least, for those of us who have already amassed our own digital book libraries -- is the ability to accept documents in a variety of formats without having to go through any kind of "translation," as is necessary with the Kindle. The Sony Reader can handle BBeB, ePub, .txt, RTF, Adobe PDF and Microsoft Word documents.

Another plus associated with the Reader's more traditional method of obtaining files is that you can easily add images, such as family photos, and audio files (in the MP3 and AAC formats). So while you can't listen to a somewhat robotic voice read to you, as with the Kindle 2, you can enjoy listening to music while reading with the Sony.

Sony's approach to adding notes to the text you're reading is a bit different than Amazon's -- in Sony's case, you can mark out what passages you want to note by hitting a "highlight" icon and indicating the text on the touch screen. However, you can't add your own notes, which is a pity, especially considering that the on-screen keyboard is already available for searches.

Unfortunately, the Sony falls short in one of the most crucial tasks for any e-reader: the ability to easily download books and other products. In this area, its ease of use doesn't come near to that of the Kindle's. Besides the fact that you have to actually physically connect the Reader to your computer via USB (which isn't difficult, but is not nearly as convenient as simply clicking to the Kindle Store), the software that the Reader uses isn't as slick as it could be.

The eBook Library is the application (for Windows only, unfortunately) that allows users to purchase books, obtain free books from the Google Books repository and manage their files in general. You move your documents from your computer to the Reader manually by dragging and dropping them from a list in a main window to the Reader listing that appears in a side menu when you connect the Reader to your computer.

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