The Sony Reader: Too Good For Me To Use

The Sony eBook ReaderMan I just love a title that leaves you thinking, “what the hell is he talking about?!” If you’ve read this blog very long, you’ve already realized that. Anyway, what I mean is that the Sony eBook Reader is such a great gadget, and so much like reading a book (sometimes better because it’s so light) that my wife has stolen it from me.

That’s right. To steal a term from my friend and technology uber-guru Scott Hanselman, the WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) is off-the-charts high. As you know, it’s usually very difficult to get your wife to OK the purchase of a new gadget, especially if it causes any redundancy with any the stuff you already have. Occasionally, you’ll get a grudging acknowledgment that something was worth getting. (I’m still waiting on that for the killer 5-day wireless weather forecaster I bought a week or so ago… these things take time…) But you almost never get the kind of response I got to the Sony Reader… She’s taken it, and won’t give it back!

Ok, since I tagged this post as a review, let’s get to what I think about it in more useful detail.

What I Like About the Reader:

  • My wife loves it. This makes it very easy to buy eBooks for it. It just makes it difficult to read them.
  • It’s very easy to read. In fact, reading it is like reading a book. I know this because I still catch myself reaching up to the corner of the reader to flip the page. Because of the marvels of eInk, you can read it at virtually any angle, as long as you have a light on. (It isn’t backlit, but there’s a reason for that…)
  • It’s very light. The reader is smaller and lighter than most hardback books. Though it isn’t small enough to fit into a normal shirt pocket, it fits easily into a medium sized purse (WAF again) or a backpack.
  • The battery lasts forever. Seriously, this thing goes for weeks without needing a recharge. I find myself uploading books and accidentally recharging it before I can use up the battery. (This was sort of annoying when I was waiting to see what the I’ve-Run-Out-Of-Juice behavior was like.) Part of what allows it to last this long is that it is not backlit, and it only uses power when you turn pages. I haven’t used the MP3 abilities for this yet (other than to test that it worked), so the mileage for sound will likely be less.
  • eBooks are cheaper than regular books. Sometimes they’re free! The Sony Connect eBook store has a selection of eBooks that is lacking in some areas (some popular authors and topics are completely missing or under represented), but it is improving. The books it does have, which include many new and bestseller selections is typically 20% cheaper than the physical book and even more discount for older titles. Of course, that’s if you even buy any books. There are a ton of free, Sony Reader formatted books available on ManyBooks.net for download. There are so many, in fact, that I’ll be probably won’t need to actually buy a book until next year. And no, it isn’t just old Sherlock Holmes novels. (Though there are quite a few of them, aren’t there?)
  • You can read RTF and text documents. I love being able to grab a huge hunk of text, an article I want to read later, or some online book, and save it as a RTF document (easy to do with Microsoft Word) or a text document. (I actually do this a lot more often than you might expect.) This also has the potential to very handy for anyone in transit that needs to get up to speed on project documentation.
  • You can read blogs on it. You can’t see it online, but the software that comes with the reader allows you to download the latest from 20 different popular blogs including Lifehacker, WiredNews, and Engadget. Many are disappointed by this limitation, but I only read blogs on my reader when I’m flying some place, so it’s not a big deal to me. However, there is a tool out there that many people aren’t aware of named Web2book (originally RSS2book) which allows you to convert any feed into a format readable on the Sony Reader.
  • Multiple bookmarks in multiple books (and blogs too). Bookmarking is an essential feature of the Sony Reader, as it does not give you a method jumping to a specific page. (It does do a good job of remembering your last place in each book you’ve opened, even if you don’t bookmark it, which is nice.) Apparently, you can have as may as you want, I’ve had several pages worth of bookmarks in a single book with even more bookmarks in other books. Handily, it will let you view all your bookmarks in all your books at once, or by individual book.

What I Don’t Like About the Reader:

  • My wife loves it. She’s usually already got it during my prime reading time (i.e. just before bed), which means I’m stuck with the old school paper format.
  • The sad “Connect Reader” software that comes with it. The program responsible for transferring files from your PC to the Sony Reader really wants to be something slick, like iTunes. But the interface breaks so many usability standards, leaving you confused and irritated until you get used to it. When I first started using it, I kept “ejecting” the reader from the application when I was trying to upload files. Actually downloading RSS feeds is a bit of a puzzle too.
  • No search capability. That’s right, you can’t search for a word or a phrase at all. Which means the Reader provides no advantage over traditional books for people needing to read a lot of reference material. Linking inside an eBook is possible (some books have a linked table of contents), so in theory, and index in the back of the book would become easier to use.
  • No jump-to-page functionality. The Reader badly needs a way for the user to jump specifically to a page number. It does allow you to move in percentages through the book by using a set of 10 buttons along the lower side of the screen, but how often do you need to jump 60% into a book? (I have a feeling that this may be in the works, its seems to be the single beef I see the most mentioned around the internet.)
  • Poor PDF support. There are a lot of eBooks and documentation out there in PDF format, and the Sony Reader’s PDF support is really poor. It basically takes the PDF and shrinks it to fit the Reader’s screen. That may not sound bad, but if the PDF is designed to be printed on an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper, it means your 12 point font becomes a 7 point font. Even worse if there are borders. Unless the PDF was designed properly for the Reader’s smaller screen, you won’t be able to read it without a magnifying glass. (There is a rumor that you get better results trying to read PDF’s in landscape mode, but I’ve never tried this… feel free to comment if you have! :) )

What I Just Don’t Care About:

  • The reader’s audio playback. It’s not an MP3 player. And I usually don’t listening to music when I’m reading. I can see this as potentially being OK for listening to audio books when your eyes get tired, but there are a ton of itty-bitty MP3 players out there, get one of those.
  • The picture quality. It’s not a photo album, and does anybody really want to read a comic book in grayscale? (Unless of course, it was in black and white to begin with…) I guess it’s nice to keep a picture of the wife, kids and dog when you’re away on business, but that’s about as far as that goes for me.

UPDATE: Who This Gadget is For:

I just scanned this post again, and it felt like it needed a bit of guidance as to who would most enjoy this gadget, and who would find it disappointing and overpriced. It’s pretty simple (no need for bullet points), this gadget is for people who like to read books that are the cover-to-cover, front-to-back. People who read mostly comic or art books will likely find the display disappointing and those that want to store a bunch of reference books will find it hard to navigate quickly. (There are very few technical books available for the reader anyway.)

I think it’s incorrect to say that this is only for people who like to read “the classics” (which are free, and worth reading), this is just as much for anyone who likes to read the latest Chrichton book or best-selling self help tome.

And I’ll say it again, this isn’t a gadget for somebody who might read books, but is really looking for an MP3 player or a picture frame.

Some Other Sony eBook Reader Resources:

In case I sold you on the reader, or have gotten you a bit more interested in it, here is some more information you can check out.

And for the cigar enthusiasts, I did a quick search for cigars on the eBook store and they do have the Idiots Guide to Cigars and a book about Ulysses S. Grant called Cigars, Whiskey & Winning. Not the best selection, I know, but it beats the heck out of the borders down the street (which has none).

UPDATE: I did some poking around, and I did find a bit more information that will be useful to Sony Reader users, or people thinking about buying one. The MobileRead Wiki entry for the Sony Reader is jam-packed with great information, including some useful stats on the proper size of a reader-friendly PDF. As well as a guide to creating PDFs from Sony. Check ‘em out!

UPDATE 2: I found another option for people needing to convert unusable PDFs to something Reader-friendly. The MobileRead wiki also has a page dedicated to eBook conversion. On it there’s a utility that specializes in converting PDFs to other formats, including text and word documents (which you can then convert to RTF). It’s not free, and I’ve never tried it, but it something to consider trying if you have a lot of PDFs you want to read.

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6 Comments

  1. kevin said,

    April 29, 2007 at 6:54 am

    I agree with you.
    On my side, I bought the Sony reader in order to read technical pdf documents…

    I have been searching on the web and asked Sony support to help me resizing my documents … Noi soluation so far.

    It is too bad, the device is cool (the software sucks, I agree) but it is for me useless so far.

  2. Brian said,

    April 29, 2007 at 11:38 am

    Hi Kevin,

    I think there will be improvements in the firmware eventually that may address many of these issues… but there’s no telling how long it will take for these fixes to be available. And I hate to say it, but there’s always the chance Sony will opt to release a new reader instead of repair the flaws of the current one… :( But I remain hopeful. :)

    One thing I’ve noticed is that it seems that the larger the font of the original RTF document, the larger the font on the reader. (I’m not sure how else to explain the differences of fonts I’ve seen.) So I think you may have some control over your word/RTF documents. So if you’re having trouble with text in a PDF, you might consider copying and pasting it into an RTF document. It’s worth a shot. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t help you out with diagrams, graphs and other essential pictures… I guess you upload those separately as image files. An awful lot work, just to get the reader to read a document, huh?

    If you’re making PDFs, I did stumble onto some information as to how to make a properly scalable PDF. These PDFs do size correctly for the reader. Most people don’t make them that way, hence the problem. If I find the information, I add it to this post.

    Brian

  3. May 1, 2007 at 12:53 pm

    [...] 1st, 2007 at 12:53 pm (Geek, Books, Rants, Technology) Mike Elgan clearly didn’t read my post on the Sony Reader before he wrote his Computer World article Why e-books are bound to fail. (Side note: Don’t [...]

  4. Russ said,

    May 4, 2007 at 6:43 pm

    Brian,
    I have been looking at these types of devices for a long, long while. I almost made a huge impulse buy when I finally saw one in the local Fry’s two weeks ago. After reading your review I think I may have found my new-employment-first-paycheck present to myself. :)
    I do have to say I disagree with you partially on the pricing of e-books. Yes there are lots available for free and very cheap and I would absolutely spent paperback prices for e-books. That said, when I have looked around for new releases they all seem to be at hardcover prices (or slightly discounted just like Borders does). There are only a handful of authors I actually buy hardback books from and even then, I often defer to the library so maybe I’m just cheap. :) Perhaps if e-book publishers took a page from textbook manufacturers and put a code in their hardback versions that let you download the e-book for free I might go for it, but otherwise, it just doesn’t make sense to me to spend more than $7-$8 for an e-book. Especially when you think of their reduced costs on an e-book versus a hardback. Hehe.. ok venting over.
    All that aside, thanks for the great review.
    -Russ

  5. Brian said,

    May 5, 2007 at 12:37 am

    Hey Russ-

    They are a lot of fun for the bibliophile, but the do have their drawbacks. Keep in mind that the Sony Reader is probably not a good purchase if you’re planning on reading a lot of technical books on it. The main reason being that most technical books just aren’t available in the Sony Reader compatible format right now. (Of course, tech specs in a word documents are a different matter completely.)

    I will give ground on the pricing argument. From the little bit of research I’ve done (hardly scientific), I’ve noticed a slight difference in price in favor of the reader over Amazon, which becomes an even greater advantage if you consider there’s no shipping expense with an eBook. That being said, eBooks really should be a lot less expensive than they are currently. I agree that you should never pay more for the eBook than you would for the paperback version of it.

    I think the prices are inflated currently (for everything, both hardware and software) because this market and the technology is so new (I’m thinking early days of CDs here). Eventually, assuming what I believe is correct and these readers (or their children) take off, I think we’ll see a more reasonable pricing scheme.

    Thanks for reading it! When you do get it, I hope you love your reader as much as Umah and I love ours! :D

    Brian

    P.S. One last note, make sure to buy it when they’re doing the free $50 ebook coupon deal with purchase. I’ve heard they’re doing that again sometime this month. Possibly now, but I’m not sure about that.

  6. May 9, 2007 at 12:52 am

    [...] 9th, 2007 at 12:52 am (Lists, Sony Reader, Money, Reviews, Books, Geek, Technology) In previous posts, I’ve done a pretty good job of putting together a solid, if not slightly biased [...]


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