Pros: Display technology is kinda "gee whiz"...
Cons: Use it and everybody will *KNOW* you're a dork...
When I was growing up, my daddy always used to tell me, "If at first you don't succeed, maybe it's because you're meant to fail."
Sony could stand to learn that lesson. They've gone down the e-book path before. And they've failed before. Now they're doing it again with a "new and improved" e-book reader --- the Sony Reader PRS-500, and I'd bet serious money it's going to fail again. Miserably.
Their failure won't be because the unit is flimsy or because they haven't put enough work into it. It won't be because they're behind the pack, because truthfully, this is probably the most usable e-book reader to yet come to market.
Their failure will be because e-books are fundamentally a bad idea. An e-book strikes me as kind of like somebody developing a square tire...just because technology lets them.
Technically, e-books is a cool concept. It really makes no sense in the real consumer world --- but it IS kind of cool. Some 20 years ago, work was being done at the M.I.T. Media Lab on ultra-thin devices that were envisioned to be indecipherable from paper, but you'd never even need to flip pages --- the page would be rewritten for you. Pie in the sky, to be sure, but the ideas are nothing new, and Sony's Reader is a VERY long distance from any realization of electronic page nirvana. There are some niche applications for e-books that might give them limited acceptance, but the technology isn't really doing consumers any favor.
The real problem though boils down to the nagging little fact that printed books are inexpensive, highly portable, universally used and understood, and EXTREMELY hard to "improve upon". Thus far, every e-book reader has failed for one simple reason: it's a LOT harder to use than a book.
I predict the new Sony Reader PRS-500 will fail with similar indignity. Although it is the state of the art, it's also a glaring example of how far "the art" has to go if it's ever going to gain true widespread acceptance. Let's take a look...
The Problems with E-books and their Readers...
This new Sony Reader has its own specific technical pros and cons, but it also inherits every single con of every failed reader to date. All e-book readers are quite simply niche products that apply technology to a problem that does not exist.
Here's what I see as the pros and cons of e-book technology in GENERAL.
* can store large numbers of books
* requires technology for a fundamentally simple task
* any interface or software functionality will be more complex than a book
* nobody ever had their book "disappear" because of a power surge / memory glitch / connection error / system fault / divide by 0 error / programming error / license key error / etc. / etc.
* hard to annotate
* hard to use for teaching purposes
* you look like a dork if you sit on the beach with any electronic screen device (you just do)
* nobody's going to steal your paperback novel
* ...but if they do, you're not out $300 for the reader plus another $300 for all the purchased e-content that's stored in its memory
* there's no "display delays" when reading a paper book
* paper is recyclable and inexpensive
* paper books are very portable
* it's easy to xerox 1 page of a book for "fair use" purposes, but difficult, expensive, and impractical to xerox a large number for piracy purposes (books are ultimately more secure than electronic files from an intellectural property rights perspective)
* many, many more (but my fingers are tired from all this typing)
* books printed by Gutenberg, Manutius, etc. 500 to 600 years ago are still readable, and most large libraries have tomes that are tens of decades, or even a century or more old, whereas most computer-readable media generated in the 1960s, 1970s, and even 1980s has been lost to "media rot" --- how many of you would even bother trying to figure out what to do with an IBM PC 5-1/4 floppy disk created in 1983 if somebody told you it was worth looking at? Paper is not a bad archive format.
Most consumers understand the inherent problems that come with any e-book reader. They just are NOT smart applications of technology. They may prove useful in some niche situations, but as a consumer technology, they are strictly for the early adopters who will then find no buyers for them when they go the way of the 8-track cassette.
And while Sony advertises that there are 20,000 or 30,000 (or whatever the number du jour might be) e-books available, keep in mind that 3/4 of those are ancient public-domain works from the Gutenberg Project that you could already get cheap or free down at the library, and the rest are either junk or are no cheaper than buying a paperback. (Prowl the e-book shelves at Amazon and see for yourself.)
While some commercially published books are available electronically, many of them come with the HUGE drawback of digital rights management (DRM), which SEVERELY restricts how you can use the book, how long it may last, whether it can be printed, and many other aspects. DRM is NO friend of a consumer. I estimate that any media provided with a DRM scheme is worth only 1/4th --- max ---- what it would be worth to me if provided in an open, flexible, usable format. Music companies are starting to realize that DRM works against the industry. Publishers will likely come to the same conclusion.
"Just say NO to DRM." In any guise.
Well, let's move on and look specifically at the new Sony PRS-500 ebook reader...
Using the Sony PRS-500 Reader...
The Sony PRS-500 is a nice looking device. Sony's evidently done their usability homework and given us a lightweight, very sturdy feeling device that's got good basic usability, though they introduce a lot of overhead and complexity once you go beyond simply paging through a book.
The screen is very good, from a glare and visible perception viewpoint. It's got a matte-type finish with almost no glare. This is a very cool screen because it is based on the magnetic ink paradigm rather than using light to create its display image, as is typical with any monitor or LED display. Although Sony wants people to think it looks as good as a book, it really doesn't. A cheap laser printer produces 300dpi output. Book masters are well over 1,000dpi. The Sony PRS-500 is 166dpi display. It is quite good, as far as online displays good ---- but it's only half as good as a printed page from a cheap laser printer, and about 1/10th the quality of a typical printed book. Your eyes will not care about the difference for short passages or browsing around --- but it isn't going to be a joy to read for hours on end.
I found it quite easy to page through a book, and it was fun...for a few minutes. Navigation is handled via two small buttons on the left side of the casing, or via a quick and easy thumb press on a button at the bottom of the casing. Simple next-paging is easy.
I liked that the reader can quickly zoom in and out at the touch of a button, but there's only 1 magnification factor available, and it does have a downside to it as well --- it cuts significantly into the amount of text displayed on a single e-page.
The amount of text is a bit of a problem in the first place. I've always found that reading any text on small screens (Blackberry, cell phone, even Palm Pilots) became tedious very quickly. You just can't put very much useful information on a small piece of real estate, and the navigation to get around becomes tedious when you have more than a 1-line text message to deal with.
On the Sony Reader, you get around 10 half-lines of text displayed on 1 screen (about 5 lines worth of material from a typical paperback). Magnify it, and you're down to about 2 lines of text. I figure that 1 page worth of paperback text is going to equate to about 12 pages of Sony Reader text. Can you imagine all the page button pushing you're going to have to do if you use the Sony PRS-500 to read a 1400 page Tom Clancy doorstopper?? You might think that would get really tedious, really fast....and you'd be right.
Attractive as the Sony's screen may be, advanced as its ink display technology may be, the device is still significantly less crisp than a page, and it will require at least 12 times more flipping, making it less usable. It doesn't take a rational human more than a very short time using the Sony Reader to quickly realize that it is significantly harder and slower to scan a line of text and grasp its meaning when using the e-book than it is when using a comparable paperback. You might think that would represent a serious technological step backwards....and you'd be right.
While I've been abundantly clear about what I see as major drawbacks of the whole e-book concept, there are some specific cons that come specifically with the Sony PRS-500 Reader. First, is the whole issue of potential format incompatabilities. There already exist excellent portable document formats (best is Adobe's PDF), yet Sony introduces yet another, vendor-specific format. To Sony's credit, it's actually well optimized towards quickly displaying text content and does load acceptably well for text-only pages. However --- and here's the "gotchas" --- it embeds odious, restrictive DRM technology so you won't be able to use the files you buy on other devices and you may not even be able to print out a page when you want to. You might think that totally sucks....and you'd be right.
Sony's proprietary format is, naturally, not used or supported by anybody in the industry other than Sony. Translation: you're going to have to give Sony lots of your hard-earned dollars if you want to use their own built-to-be-obsolete format. Only via their Connect web site will you find any quantity of files that natively support this obscure device. You might think that's going to inhibit competition and end up costing you the consumer in the long run...and you'd be right.
More significantly is that the Sony Reader does not gracefully handle PDF files --- especially those with professionally designed page elements, including color graphics and similar design elements that are critical components of many books. Even simple tasks like correctly displaying basic fonts is handled very poorly by the Sony device, with choppy looking text renditions and frequent image ghosting and other faults. Can you imagine reading anything ever published by Dorling Kinderly (DK) with a text-oriented black and white small screen? You might think that would be a hideous experience....and you'd be right.
On the pro side, Sony at least has the common sense to start supporting GOOD, industry-standard memory, instead of only its own silly, overpriced, mediocre MemoryStick format. And in the space-saving space, it is possible to store quite a lot of schtuff on a 128MB of main memory. Sony still supports MemoryStick on this thing (another built-to-be-obsolete "innovation"), even though most sane electronics buyers have long since realized it totally sucks....because they're right.
While the Reader's basic navigation is straightforward and well-designed, Sony just couldn't leave well enough alone. Part of that is due to a marketplace that often rewards manufacturers who develop a chronic case of featuritis, but part of is simply poor product design. If Sony had left the entire row of navigation function buttons off the screen bottom, they'd have come up with a much more elegant product. And if they could only have totally eliminated the need for any kind of menu system, they'd be light years ahead in the user interface world. As it is, a buyer might think an e-book reader that had too many features and navigation options was cluttered and a LOT harder to use than a simple book off the local newsstand...and they'd be right.
The Sony Portable Reader System (PRS-500) represents the state-of-the-art in e-book technology. It's a very long way from being a genuinely useful or consumer friendly replacement for a traditional paperback book from your local newsstand, though its an interesting toy to play with until you get tired of it --- which should happen within your first half hour of use.
I don't recommend this device for anybody other than early adopters and geeks who play with everything just because things exist. E-books are a bad idea to begin with. The Sony Reader does nothing to change that situation.