And now it may be told ....
(Hey, yíall, how does this
grab you for ďreaching out?Ē)
A little after 9 A.M. PDT, September 15, 2006, a small group of bloggers arrived at Sony Electronicsí headquarters in San Diego, CA. Bob Russell
and I were fortunate enough to be among them. We came at the invitation of the Project Marketing Team for Sonyís PRS-500, Portable Reader System. Our hosts were several members of the PRS-500 Project Team. These were some of the same folks who brought us last monthís Sony Reader Q&A
The first order of business was an NDA
requiring us to refrain from discussing, publishing, etc. all that we heard and saw that day ... until September 26 ... until now.
We were shown to a conference room supplied with tables and chairs, presentation equipment, a light breakfast buffet, several laptops and, beside each laptop, a cradle for a PRS-500 Sony Reader -- empty cradles. After a very brief introduction and overview (it was
the marketing team, after all), we were each handed one of these highly anticipated devices and left to play with them for a while. The Sony team members circulated amongst us to answer questions and let us in on a few undocumented tricks on the Reader. The format for the whole gathering was very casual, so I felt like I got a pretty solid ďhands onĒ experience with the Reader. Far too short, but they wouldnít let us take them with us when we left.
Iíd been preparing for this opportunity for a couple of weeks, so I came armed with both a list of questions to try and get answered (several from this Forum), and an SD card full of files for testing on the Reader with the intent of trying out as many different things as I could.
Let me start with the overall look and feel of the device. The hardware they showed us was just shy of production (and the software was
the production version), so these observations ought to be pretty reliably accurate. The device had a good, solid feel to its metal case. The majority of it looked to be anodized or enameled, with a bead-blasted type texture, very nice. The left and right edges were a spiffy chromed finish. The size was, for me, quite handy, and convenient (for reference, I wear menís large gloves). The overall fit and finish were excellent.
The display. Iím one of what must still be a very small number of folks who have seen with their own eyes, both the Sony Reader and the iRex iLiad (thanks to a fellow MobileReader near me who has one and was willing to show it off). To my eyes, the Sony Reader display is every bit as crisp and clean a display as the iLiadís. Yes it is smaller and ďlower resolutionĒ, but since they have the same PPI, the difference in resolution is really
only a reflection of the difference in size
. The difference in available grayscale levels between the two seemed unimportant to me for viewing text. It does
matter some for pictures, of course (though not as much as you might expect), but for text -- not so much. The anti-glare finished display does show some ghosting, which I didnít find noticeably different from the iLiad. To my eyes the ghosting was not much more pronounced than what youíd see on a paper page. I inexorably found myself thinking of the display not as a screen, but as a page
. I didnít set out to do it, and I think itís kind of silly, but thatís the way I found myself thinking of it.
Along with the display quality goes page turn speed, which was excellent for an e-ink device. The limiting factor on the page flips for the Reader, as nearly as I could tell, was the displayís refresh rate. If page flips took longer than the displayís nominal one second refresh rate, I couldnít tell it. And the Reader does not
seem to need any additional (rendering) time to change the pages beyond what is required by the e-ink display itself.
I had previously ventured a guess on this Forum that the Memory Stick and SD card had separate slots. That guess was incorrect -- there is a single slot for both. The fellow on my left quickly determined that you must have an adaptor to use MS Duo sticks (the techs slightly less quickly managed to get the card back out for him, though), and Bob found that the Reader read files just fine from his 4 GB SD card, as it did from the 512 MB SD and 64 MB MMC cards I brought along. One of the first tips we picked up was that it is best to use smaller capacity cards if you plan to take them in and out of the Reader frequently. This is becuase the Reader indexes the whole
card upon insertion. I didnít actually time this, but it took 1~2 minutes to index the ~740 files on my 512 MB SD card. When it was done, it displayed the files it recognized sorted in its various categories -- books, audio, pictures, etc. (it did not change any files on the card).
I found the user interface obvious enough. If not truly intuitive
, it was
well within my own range of what I could get used to. I was largely there by the end of the day, in fact. Items were listed down the page with numbers at the right edge. These numbers corresponded to the number buttons below the bottom of the display. A vertical list corresponding to a horizontal set of buttons, as I said: obvious but not intuitive, certainly ďgetable,Ē though. Items on the page could be directly selected with the numbered buttons, or highlighted by use of the ďjogstickĒ at the lower right, and then selected by pressing in the jogstick like a button. The number buttons were faster, but I found myself more comfortable using the jogstick. Most of the others preferred the buttons.
The jogstick was also used in controlling audio playback. In the audio player application, clicking it controlled pause/play, and left/right handled scanning forward and backward. The audio application apparently supports playlists through the Connect Software, but I didnít play with that at all. The stereo audio playback was quite nice, by the way. Iím not an audiophile, but it sounded very good to me. They did caution us that it eats battery life, so itís important not to leave the audio running when youíre not listening to it.
A note on the controls -- and let me be completely clear that I am not
talking about page flips here. Response to the buttons and jogstick seemed a bit sluggish (for reference, this was comparable to my brief experience with the way the iLiad responded to its various navigation buttons). There wasnít always immediate, clear feedback that a button press had been recognized, which lead to some ďdid that take?Ē thoughts. I think this may be a side-effect of the Readerís power management (i.e. the processor needing some milliseconds to spin back up from stand-by). I found I particularly noticed this in menu navigation and controlling the audio (not things I plan to spend most of my time doing with a reading device). I noticed it less and less as I played with the Reader. Whatever it is, it sure didnít seem to affect page turn speed, and thatís what I care most about.
The jogstick has a ring around its base that is the menu button. Single clicking the button steps up a menu level, while holding it down goes directly to the top level menu. Toward the Readerís left side is the mark button. When clicked it toggles a bookmark on the current page (a virtual dog-ear at the upper-right page corner), and holding it
down takes you to a list of all bookmarks for the book. There is an internal blue LED that lights the edges of the mark button and the large next/previous page button next to it when you press the mark button, providing good visual feedback for the mark control, and just plain looking cool
The size button along the left edge steps through the three font size increments (in non-PDFís), and if held down for five seconds will rotate to landscape mode. What we didnít already know is that this rotation trick also
works for non
-PDFís files (texts and pictures). Combined with the three selectable font sizes, this effectively provides something like 200% of the base fileís font size for non-PDFís. When reading non-PDFís in landscape, the last two lines were displayed partially grayed out, and were displayed again at the top of the next page after the page flip, which I felt improved the reading experience by keeping me from having to flip back if I lost the thread of a particularly complex sentence during the change (something I, personally, sometimes have trouble with). I have more to say about fonts when I get to file types.
I found the page turn buttons, both the pair and the single large round one, reasonably placed. Holding them down jumps forward/backward in five-page steps. We asked about repeating these buttons on the right-hand edge of the display. Apparently there are things in the way, unless ďengineering reasonsĒ was just what the design team told the marketing team to stop them asking about it. I found that the large, round page flip button worked well enough for right-handed operation, and of course the paired ones are excellent for left-handed use. There isnít, however, a good way to operate the Reader right-handed in landscape mode, though left-handed works just fine with the large round page button. When a book is open, the numbered buttons below the display will take you to a matching percent of the text, 1 takes you to 10%, 2 to 20%, and so on. Handy for bigger jumps.
On the left edge, near the top, is the SD/MMC/MS slot. The slotís cover is the same solid metal as the rest of the chromed edge, and felt good, solid and secure when closed, but the bit of plastic/rubber that serves it as a hinge/tether seemed like it might be a bit wimpy (itís very flexible) -- not something you can really determine without long-term use ... or deliberately yanking on it to see how hard it is to break, which I declined to do. It may be quite durable for all I could tell, it just seemed like it might not be. This impression may well have been a reaction to the very solidness of everything else about the Reader that so impressed me.
About the middle of the left edge is the volume control for audio playback, a standard up/down, +/- arrangement. I was told that pressing both at the same time would mute the playback, but I couldnít get this to work. I also didnít spend more than a few seconds trying. Since thereís no built-in speaker, audio playback is through the headphone jack only, and if Iím using phones, mute doesnít seem to me to be that big a deal either way. Personally, I see the audio playback feature as most promising for audio books. They wouldnít comment on the possibility of future Audible
compatibility, except to the effect that theyíre open to considering it.
On the lower left edge is the sliding power switch; itís really
a suspend/resume switch. The spring-loaded, sliding action works well and I have more to say about it when I get to power management (which the Sony Reader does
On the bottom edge, at the right is the 3/8Ē headphone jack. Left of that is the 5V DC-in charging jack. The Reader will charge from a PSP power supply as well as the one it ships with (a mini brick, a lot like
the PSPís power supply), which could be handy to know. Next comes the cradle connector which we were told is a combination of the DC charging function and the functions of the mini USB to the left of this connector. At the left end of the bottom is something that I hadnít expected, but was instantly glad to see: a lanyard attachment point. The Reader doesnít ship with a lanyard, which struck me as a bit odd, but one shouldnít be too hard to scare up.
On the back face, near the bottom is the pinhole style reset button. In the very center of the back is what weíve all been assuming was a speaker -- it's not. It is the attachment point for the covers. The Reader ships with a nicely done black synthetic cover, and upgrade leather covers will be available in several colors. The standard cover seems the best choice for the addition of large, friendly letters
. The covers have a magnetic closure to keep them from flopping when closed. There is a bit of a trick to attaching the covers, which they showed us. It works best to lay the Reader face-down on a flat surface and press the cover into the attachment point. The attachment is satisfyingly secure, but not difficult to remove or install.
Power Management -- I know that is a very hot topic! I specifically
asked what was running while the Reader is on, but not changing the display. The answer was almost nothing. The Reader is just monitoring the various buttons for presses, so itís almost completely powered down between page turns -- as it should
be! In almost five full hours of what could only be considered very
hard usage (constantly
opening files and flipping pages and playing sound files and so on), the battery meter did not budge, still reading fully charged at the end of the day.
The Reader has a sleep or suspend mode that kicks in automatically after an hour with no button presses. It does the same thing that manually exercising the power slide does, namely blanking the page and locking the buttons (to prevent you getting your pages changed for you when youíre not looking), and it stops using power completely. Unlike a laptopís sleep mode, the Reader comes out of it, right back to where you were, in about four seconds -- flip the slide and youíre back to exactly where you were before in about four seconds.
I reset one of the Readers specifically to time the full boot cycle. Resetting begins with paper-clipping the pin-hole reset button (which actually turns the Reader ďoffĒ off, as opposed to putting it in suspend mode), and does not blank the display (which could be handy if you wanted to leave it displaying something indefinitely). To boot it from here, you exercise the power slide. From flipping that switch to being back at the main menu was 1:20 ~ 1:30 (I canít be more specific because I stopped the timer too early when I thought it was done, and it was a second or two before I realized and restarted it, sorry -- 1:25 is my best guess for the actual number). Thatís a bit long, but the whole Reader is designed specifically to avoid having to reboot, so you shouldnít be doing it often. For reference, of the six Readers we played with for about five hours, we only had to reboot one unit that I know of (aside from my deliberate re-boot), and I think that was because I had been trying random files to see what would happen. So not a typical situation. Well, not typical beyond the first few days or so.
Before I go to file types, a bit about navigation. On the main menu, the first item is a direct link back to the last opened page of the last opened book. Nice. The Reader keeps your place in each book (unless you remove the file from the Reader, of course), so you can switch between multiple books and keep your place in each of them even without
setting bookmarks. Itís supposed to keep this information for SD cards even when you move the SD card to another unit. Each book has a list of its bookmarks, and a history of what pages youíve visited in it (the jogstick allows moving through the page history list while reading a book, but it wonít take you to a page you havenít visited yet, so you canít use it to just flip pages), and there is an ďinfoĒ section with details about the file. Navigation between books seemed a bit cumbersome, mainly from e-inkís refresh rate, but nothing jumped out at me as obvious ways to improve the approach they used. I didnít really find it burdensome after a few minutes, and of course itís a non-issue when actually reading a file.
Okay, now to file types. I had made up a set of files that covered all the reported file formats so I could confirm that they worked. I missed confirming the AAC (but I did get the MP3), and I donít think I hit all the picture types (though the ones I did hit looked fine, better than four levels of gray sounds like it should). I did get RTF, PDF (A5 sized), cropped PDF (margins cropped from A5), a PDF sized to my best guess, based on presumed display dimensions (note that this was a guess, not an experimentally determined size, so itís more of a place to start trying when we get Readers to do that experimenting -- 3.54Ē X 4.85Ē with a .03Ē margin or 89.9mm X 123.2 mm with a .76 mm margin), Libriť (beta) format from ManyBooks
... hmm, I think I actually missed trying TXT.
The A5 PDF was (barely) legible at about 4 point text in portrait mode, and somewhere around 8 points in landscape. The cropped version was a little bigger than that, of course. The sized PDF was beautiful, so itís in the right neighborhood. And the remaining formats all worked quite well, including the Libriť formatted ones, so dust off all those Libriť tools youíve got lying about! Some of them are bound
to be useful for the Reader, and I expect the vast majority of the various Libriť formatted files out there will work well too.
Within my sized PDF and one of my RTF files, I had played around with the font sizes, and randomly changed the fonts to many different, crazy font faces to see how the Reader would display them. The size of the font in the source file definitely does make a difference in all file types, so those who plan to load their own content should keep that in mind, -- that would be most of us, I expect. Not all the different fonts showed up in the RTF (some did), but rather were displayed as more ďstandardĒ fonts (no cryptic squiggles or boxes). However, the different fonts did
show up very nicely in the PDF file. Some of the more bizarre ones actually seemed more
readable on the Readerís page than on paper, go figure. From what we could tell the Reader does a slant font rather than true italics, for those to whom this is of concern, but it did
support smart quotation marks. Sony does have the ability to add fonts from their end (whether they will or not is another matter of course), but there isnít presently any way for users to add fonts themselves. I suppose there might be some way to hack them in.
Now for some surprises. The Reader supports Tables of Contents and other links in both BBeB and PDF formats (I put a link in one of my PDFís to test that very thing). It uses the jogstick for navigation and selection of the links. The SD card I had my test files directory on is one I use for other things as well (hence the ~740 files I mentioned earlier), the Reader displayed a lot of files beyond what Iíd intended to test with, categorized as various things, mostly books. Seeing this, I decided to open some random ones to see what would happen. While the Sony folks were very quick and clear to tell me that they do not
support them, I found I was able to open and read a couple of Excel files. I canít say that all Excel files would work, but the ones I had handy did
. There may be other ďunsupportedĒ file types that would work which I just didnít happen to have available.
(11/14/06 NOTE: It has since been established that the production Readers do not handle
XLS files -- I don't want to change the review, but I do want to clearly note this detail)
A few other semi-random things before I move on to the Connect Store and Software. The 64MB of internal memory that Sony reports is the user accessible
memory, and may actually be a bit more in practice.
There was no appreciable difference in page flip time between files on a memory card and files in internal memory. The Reader also seemed to flip pages just as fast in files that had not been run through the Connect Software (having worked out the file pagination when the file was first opened, it already had that information for page flips).
Files cannot be moved directly between memory cards and internal memory, in fact, all internal memory content management is done by way of the Connect Software -- there is no file management per se on the Reader; as will ship, that is. As that suggests, the Reader does not mount as a USB drive, for now, anyway.
The mini USB port is not a master (or host) port.
The picture viewing utility allows for three levels of zooming (by way of the size button), and panning the zoomed picture.
There is a bit longer initial load time for files from the SD card compared to the internal memory. It probably varies from card to card, and shouldnít come as a surprise. While reading, I didnít notice any difference at all.
One of the other guests asked about Sonyís attitude toward hacking of the Reader. The response was to the effect (if not the words) that they planned to continue ignoring it, as they have with the Libriť up until now. No one said anything to suggest it, but I suspect that they may view hacking as potentially more help than hindrance to their plans for the Reader.
The optional cradle has a clever insert to allow placing the Reader in it both with and without its cover in place.
It seems that theyíve been following the general e-ink discussions (Iíve voiced my suspicions before that they follow MobileRead in particular). Theyíd been testing various reading lights with the Reader, and had a recommendation for us. The ďGreat Point Light
Ē by the same folks that do the LightWedge, apparently. They said they really wanted an actual LightWedge formatted for the Reader, but that company isnít interested until they see enough Reader sales to make them believe it would be worth it. They were willing to produce the Great Point Light colored to better match the Reader, however. The Great Point Light is a clip on, goose neck light that uses button cell batteries and is supposed to get somewhere around 30 hours on a set. The notable thing about it is that the LEDís are flat ended, rather than rounded, which provides a more evenly distributed light on the page. We didnít have a dark place to try it, so we did the best we could with a dimmer corner of the room. The light seemed to throw a nice even pattern that easily included the full Reader (not just the page), and it was bright enough to see even under normal fluorescent lighting, so my best guess is that it should be satisfactory for reading in the dark.
I guess that brings us to the Connect Store and Software. Please keep in mind that Iím a programmer, and I pride myself on trying to make my applications as user-friendly (and idiot-resistant) as I can -- from my usersí various comments, Iím apparently fairly successful there. These things, however, necessarily color my impressions of software, so consider that as you read. Iím trying to be as objective as I can but I donít always know when Iím not. Come to think of it, that disclaimer should also be applied to the above discussions of the software on the Reader itself.
First off, they listed some of the publishers that are involved (characterized as being very interested), I didnít write them down as they rattled them off rapidly while I was eating with one hand, and still playing with the Reader with the other. The list was rather long, so Iím not going to try to list them from memory lest I get some wrong and cause issues somehow. I can
tell you they were big
names, ones you would recognize both from the local Borders as well as from a college campus bookstore. This made me optimistic about the kinds of titles that theyíre likely to have.
I didnít get to spend as much time browsing the Connect Storeís offerings as Iídíve liked (too busy playing with the Reader, you know), and they didnít have the complete set of titles loaded on the server they let us play on, but they did have a number of my favorite authors that I donít believe have ever done e-books before, Anne McCaffrey and Douglas Adams, to name a couple. The Store is accessed through the Connect Software, so itís effectively browser independent. The Store could benefit from a bit more versatility in searching/browsing, in my opinion, especially with the full 10,000+ titles on it to wade through, but the purchasing mechanism is agreeably straightforward and easy. Choose, click to buy, and a moment later (depending on your connection speed) it shows up on your PC ready for transfer to the Reader. I can already hear my 62 year old, mildly technophobic mother saying, ďWhat? Thatís it?Ē
The store will have gift certificates available, and while they donít currently have any subscription content such as magazines or newspapers available, they are open to them, in as much as publishers of that type of content wish to participate. Prices are set by the publishers, not the Connect Store, so while they get a cut, they arenít in control of the pricing, and I think we can expect to see price steps corresponding to the hardback/paperback release periods. RSS feeds canít be added by individual users, but they pointed out that this was largely driven by copyright concerns -- they want to have permission for what they provide. I expect theyíll hit as many of the big ones as they can arrange, maybe even MobileRead! And I donít know of anything barring us from putting our own RSS feeds on the Reader on our own.
As with the Store, I didnít spend as much time with the Connect Software as I might have liked, being too occupied with the Reader itself, but here are my observations.
The Connect Software itself does some interesting things aside from putting content on the Reader. You can read the texts there, if you wish, and the Connect Software supports full text searching (which the Reader itself, lacking an input mechanism, doesnít), so you have the option of doing any needed searching there. I tried to test copying a line of text from the Connect Software, but I realized after the fact that I had only tried it from an unsecured document that I brought with me (which did work), not from one of their DRMíed ones (which I can only guess would not have). Sorry about that.
I did test what difference running files through the Connect Software makes. I took a 2.6 MB RTF file, ran it through the Connect Software, and loaded it onto the reader. Then I opened both the original, unprocessed file from the SD card and the processed file in turn. The processed file opened immediately, and the unprocessed one took a couple of minutes. The processed file itself wasnít changed in any way that I could see. What it did was to add a cache file in addition to the actual file itself.
From watching it go through the process, it appeared to be compiling pagination information and putting that in the cache file so that it could open and display the file quickly. Rather like opening a book for the first time in eReaderís software on my Palm -- it takes it a moment to count the pages, and figure out the page breaks. If you let the Connect Software on the PC create the cache file, it is significantly faster than having the Reader do the same job because the PC is simply a faster machine. The cache file seems to be where bookmarks and other book information is stored as well (itís a largely human-readable XML file).
Another cool thing the Connect Software allows is creating Collections. These allow moving groups of books around as
a group. They also allow specifying what order you want books in the collection displayed on the Reader, say if you want your Honor Harrington books to display in chronological order rather than alphabetically -- no adding numbers to the beginning of the file names!
There were a couple of things that I found somewhat suboptimal about the Connect Software, they fell mostly under the heading of judgment calls, and I just would have made different ones (not necessarily better ones). There are sections in the Connect Software, the first is the Library, others are the Reader (when attached), any memory sticks/cards you might have inserted, system hard drives, and the Connect Store. You can also make your own folders, which are the representations of the Collections I mentioned. Each of these things, except the Collections and the Store (I think), had sub-sections for various things, but to move something into the Reader, say, you had to click and drag it onto the top level of each section, i.e. the ďReaderĒ entry, not the Readerís ďBooksĒ subsection. I would have set it up to let you drop it anywhere, and have the software catch it and put it where it needed to go -- as I said, a judgment call.
Another thing that took a bit of getting used to, though I do not question the logic of it, is that you have to move things first into the Library section before you can move them to the Reader or to a collection folder in the Library section. This seems to be because this is when the software actually does the caching of page sizes and such. Overall the software seemed serviceable and I didnít see any genuine issues with it, as I said, just things that I
would have done differently. Those things have to be done some way, and the ways they chose certainly worked well enough.
Overall, my impression is that the Sony Reader is an extremely well done piece of hardware. The Readerís on-board software does have some peculiarities, but those seem to be primarily limitations imposed by the new technology of the e-ink itself. While there are some things Iídíve done differently (not necessarily
better, but different), the Connect Store and Software are both more promising, and have more features than I anticipated -- well done on balance. They do what they need to do (plus some nice extras) quickly and without fuss. I donít ask more than that, and thatís what theyíve delivered.
Sony has clearly aimed its Reader to be optimized for reading
, I say it hits that mark pretty close to dead on. To my own surprise, Iíd put it upwards of 90% of my own idealized
vision of an e-reader. If you want something that does a bunch of stuff other
than reading, you probably donít want it. If, however, you want something for reading, page by page, beginning to end, the Reader is definitely something you should look at. I found that it does that little job extremely well, with a few other nifty bits thrown in for good measure.
I want to say a few words of thanks to Sony for having us out and letting us play so thoroughly with their new toy. They were gracious and accommodating hosts, and it was plain that they were trying to answer as many questions as they could.
I know my fellow MobileReaders will have questions Iíve not answered, so fire away. Iíll answer what I can to the best of my knowledge and recollection. I will, however, insist on occasionally eating and sleeping.
I wanted to get this out as quickly as I could, but itís getting rather late here, so I donít know how long Iíll hang on tonight. You may have to wait Ďtil morning for some of those answers.