Sony's reader is a strange and not entirely new concept that tries to apply new technology to an area of our lives so far untouched by tech – the reading of a good book.
Thing is, it's now not a concept like the HP eBook reader we saw last year. It's here, and soon, for £199. Problem is, if you like books, chances are the thought of reading them on a screen fills you with hate. After all, a book is an emotional interaction, a go-anywhere, by-the-pool, on-the-plane kind of anywhere.
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So how does Sony expect us to react to its new slab? By making content – and lots of it – extremely accessible. The manufacturer has certainly learnt from its experiences in the US, where purchasers also had to obtain their books from a single Sony-owned website.
For the UK release has roped Waterstones in on the action. Expect its 25,000 ebooks to cost around 10-15 per cent less than their physical counterparts. But it's not just purchasable books you can load onto the Reader. There's the vast array of out-of-print books available for free on the web, too.
The device holds up to 160 books – roughly, speaking, though there's also MemoryStick and SD card slots for further expansion. 100 classic books are provided on CD with the Reader when you buy it.
We got hands on with the Reader at a Sony tech preview. Once you turn on the device, you see a large format menu that works on the same rough principle as the iPod's. You can select options with a scroll control, or one of the number buttons on the side of the screen.
Buttons and ink
There are scroller buttons in both of the bottom corners underneath the screen. We feel the number of buttons could be simplified, but you can easily browse your books by author, title or date and so it's not too confusing. There's also a couple of page turn buttons half way up the side of the Reader. These are the cleverest controls – think where you hold a book with your right thumb? That's where those buttons are.
Bookmarking is also supported, so you won't lose a place or reference, while you can also rotate your screen between portrait and landscape
If you don't know much about eInk, it's very clever. It only consumes power as you turn a page, so while you're reading, no power is consumed by the screen. Therefore Sony rates the battery life of the Reader in page turns – 6,800 to be precise.
It also works in bright sunlight, says Sony, though unfortunately as we looked at it in a basement, we didn't get to test that claim out. The viewing angle is pretty impressive though you will need a light to see the screen in the dark – there is no backlight. However, we still had little problem reading the text on the screen.
Happily, one of the controls zooms the text in and out and readjusts the flow to fit the screen. One group of clientele we can see for the Reader are older citizens prevented from reading mainstream novels because of their small text. The Reader makes that entirely possible. And, if you need to look at other documents, you can do that too – you can view Word, images (in black and white) and PDFs plus listen to MP3 files.
Unemotional but brilliant
We expect to have a Reader for review over the coming weeks, ready for a true long-term test to see if we can live with it. But we have to say we've been pleasantly surprised by the Reader. It's an extremely well-worked device and if content is as accessible as it's supposed to be, we can see a certain section of people really getting to grips with it – especially frequent travellers.
Some, however, will hate it. As for look and feel, the device isn't heavy and looks the part in brushed aluminium completed by typically-good looking Sony port orifices and side-controls. But there's only one real problem – it doesn't feel like a book, all soft and touchy-feely. Aside from the fake book-like cover, it feels cold and modern. Unemotional, even.
And because our left thumb had nothing to hang onto apart from a little piece of cover, it felt a little strange and got rather uncomfortable. Indeed, we can imagine the cases of many Readers getting really quite shabby as people grapple with actually holding the device. A thicker case might do the trick – some are available.
Aside from that, the Reader is a very interesting new concept. It shouldn't work, but it really does seem to. And we actually rather like it.