Eyestrain, cramped fingers, sore wrists… these are the hallmarks of reading online. In fact, when doing so, usability experts assert that we’re not really reading at all, and flip through websites so fast that we barely even register the information in our brains (no skimming this review, please!). An electronic, or “eBook” is supposed to be different, though – it’s a relaxed experience more akin to reading an actual printed publication. And while Amazon stole some of Sony’s thunder in terms of this slice of the digital marketplace with its popular Kindle eBook reader, currently an Oprah favorite, Sony wants to steal it back. The big question here: Does the third generation Sony PRS-700 fit the bill (or is that book)?
The short answer is yes, but not for the reasons you might think. Stylish and user-friendly, the PRS-700 is as close as you can get to a hardcover book without actually chopping down trees. We’ll address the Kindle comparisons a little later, but the PRS-700 is, quite simply, a better buy – even at $41 more. It’s just more book-like, a device that eschews extras such as wireless access in favor of an immersive book experience. The summary is that you might end up reading more on the PRS-700, and it could find a permanent place in your laptop bag. What’s more, the devices features never get in the way of reading, and that’s really the main goal.
The PRS-700 weighs just 10 ounces, so it’s a tad lighter than the Kindle. The six-inch display is exactly the same size as the PRS-505. A thick black cover works as a protective lid, but also offers the added benefit of folling people into thinking you are not an extreme uber-geek. In fact, carrying the PRS-700 in a crowded area looks perfectly normal (well, as normal as you can get with an eBook) since it could be a thin paperback. The edge of the Digital Reader is slightly sloped, like the pages of a real book. And, mostly importantly, there’s a subtle-looking hinge that holds the Reader in place when you open the cover that also slides it into position when you close the cover. Frankly, if the gizmo came with a neck pillow and some Earl Gray tea, you’d be all set for a night of catching up on the latest Stephanie Meyer teen vampire tale.
Sony claims the Reader will last for 7500 pages on one battery charge. We set out to test this theory with the Warren Buffet biography, called The Snowball, which is almost 2500 pages long in digital form. Suffice it to say, we used the PRS-700 for several days without needing a charge. The PRS-700 uses digital ink technology that projects text at a very crisp and high resolution (about double the resolution of a computer monitor, at 170DPI) as well – if you leave the book open on a table, text will stay on the screen without using any power because of how the electronic ink works. If you do close the lid, and open the book later, your last page will be on the screen when it powers up (which takes less than a second). You can navigate easily on the device too: One can open other digital books, mark pages with a bookmark, search for text, type in notes about the book (a great aid for students) and more using a virtual keyboard.
The Reader can hold about 350 books on its internal memory. That’s about twice as many as you could stuff onto the PRS-505 and 150 more than the Kindle holds. You load purchased books by connecting to your PC or Mac with a USB cable and copying them over with the Reader software. Mind you, the process is a little awkward, however, because you can only buy books through the software and not directly from an online portal.
Book prices are a couple of bucks more than they are at the Kindle store. For example, Cross Country by James Patterson costs $11.99 at the Sony store, while the same book (like most bestsellers) costs just $9.99 at the Kindle store. Amazon offers some amazing deals, selling some e-books for $5 or less. Sony does offer a wide selection of classic novels (Dickens fans, you are a lucky bunch!) and every PRS-700 comes with 100 free credits for these classics though, which buys you about 40-50 books at around $2-$3 each.
Once you load your Reader with books, there are three ways to turn pages. You can use an included stylus to drag across the screen, click a next page button, or just swipe across the screen with your finger. This latter method is the most book-like method of perusing content, but sometimes the PRS-700 won’t register your swipes unless you push a little harder on the screen that you might expect (don’t press too hard though). Calling the PRS-700 a touchscreen eBook is a stretch: Other than swiping to turn pages, you can also push buttons to select a book or access the main functions. Often, it’s easier to use the hardware buttons. You can’t use gestures to, say, flip to a bookmark or a specific page number.
Sony has positioned the PRS-700 as a more advanced device than the PRS-505 – the stylus allows you to make highlights in books and create notes you can view later, a plus for academics. We prefer the PRS-700 for its style and substance too, as it’s a more elegant e-book than the Kindle. Reading on the PRS-700 is an exceptional experience. There are five text sizes to choose from, including very small (for those with perfect vision) and very large (for those who want to read while working out). Text re-formats quickly and maintains the same page position. Built-in lights along both sides of the screen offer three brightness levels in addition – the PRS-700 looks like a museum display when the lights are on, giving you the sense you’re reading something really worthwhile, even if it’s a tawdry romance novel.
Given the choice between carrying six books on an airplane or loading the PRS-700 with the same material, we’d take the Reader every time – it just affords more flexibility. Sony also includes two memory card slots on the PRS-700, so you can load hundreds of books as long as you have the spare gigabytes. The Reader further supports music and photos, but these are minor accoutrements. Music playback sounds a bit muddy and consumes internal storage space quickly. Pictures, displayed in grayscale, are not that exciting either, but at least you can use the Reader as a portable digital picture frame.
So, let’s cover book selection, because that is how an eBook reader essentially lives or dies. Sony has ramped up their eBook store with just about every major book you can think of, including the aforementioned The Snowball and the new Andrew Jackson bio, American Lion. But the best way to evaluate such a service is not by the most popular books, but by the more obscure titles. Sure, you can buy cheap horror tales, but what about that one science book you need for a class or the first Malcolm Gladwell biz book? Even more niche, you might be into gourmet cooking or emergent theology – books that you can’t even find at a local bookstore or order from the library. All things considered, Amazon offers 190,000 e-books, and Sony only offers about 57,000 – but the reality is that the latter manufacturer’s selection features more hits than misses. You can easily search for books before buying by visiting amazon.com/kindle or ebookstore.sony.com and searching for books as well.
In a random test, we found just about every book we would consider buying. The one exception was emergent theology books: Neither the Kindle nor Sony stores had recent volumes by Francis Chan or Mark Driscoll that we liked, but they both have all three of Rob Bell’s books.
Also worth keeping in mind: The PRS-700 is missing some key features compared to the Kindle. It does not support mobile broadband wireless access to buy books (Kindle uses the EV-DO network). There are no magazines or newspapers. The Kindle has a hardware keyboard that’s easier to use. You can’t e-mail documents to the eBook reader (Kindle even supports e-mailed photos in multiple formats). Access to Wikipedia.org is unavailable (no major loss there if you care about 100% accuracy). And there are no free samples of individual bestseller chapters as a way to get you hooked on literature that would make James Joyce roll over in his grave.
However, the PRS-700 does offer some cool extra eBook features. You can load any PDF file onto the Reader, and purchase books online that support the Adobe Digital Edition eBook system, which is a content management tool that allows publishers to sell digital manuscripts. In fact, the emerging e-pub standard is becoming popular at libraries so you can check out a book at your library online (oddly, only if it is “available”) and read it for a set time period. (We couldn’t test this feature because our local library is not up to snuff.) There are also many free e-pub books available (e.g. Gutenberg.com). The Reader also supports the BBeB format, the format sold on the Sony store and at sites like Fictionwise.com.
Compared directly to its closest rival, Amazon’s Kindle, the PRS-700 is more stylish and holds more books. It’s also far less geeky of a gadget, which means you can more effectively use it on a plane or in a public place without attracting too much attention. A few minor downsides notwithstanding, it’s a device that comes highly recommend for sheer reading pleasure, albeit not pure technical versatility.
- Holds 350 books
- Easy to use
- Stylish and slim
- No wireless access
- Have to buy books on computer
- Smaller selection than Kindle