A little over a week ago, MobileRead headed to sunny San Diego, CA with much anticipation for a hands-on sneak preview of the upcoming Sony Reader at the Sony Electronics headquarters. Also present were many members of the Sony Reader product team to present information, answer questions and get feedback. As a bonus, we were also the first outside of Sony to see the new Connect software and e-book store.
There were some anxious moments as Nathan Chance and I awaited our first contact with a real Sony Reader ďin the fleshĒ, not knowing if it could live up to the hype or to our own expectations. But all concerns were very quickly calmed as we found the Reader to be an exceptional and exciting device, well suited for adoption by techies and non-techies alike.
The devices we used were pre-production versions, and were very close to what the final product will be like. The main difference is that the bottom surface will gain some extra reinforcement. The reader itself is a pure delight to look at and to hold, and the e-ink display brings with it a degree of fascination. The more time one spends with it, the more there is to like. Itís high tech and exotic, yet itís simple, comfortable and useful. It comes with a nice enough cover that most buyers will probably not feel any need to get anything different, but if you want to customize the Reader a bit, there are three other cover colors that will be available as accessories - red, brown and green.
Although reading e-books in the past has required some significant compromises because of product weaknesses in the consumer-oriented readers, the Sony Reader has reached a new milestone in functionality and quality of display. It is a device that a book lover can comfortably enjoy without being a consumer electronics expert. It is about the size of a paperback, yet thinner. And you donít have to worry about losing your page if your fingers slip. You can set it down in front of you, and it will stay open. If you want a big print version, you just change the font size.
The Sony e-book reader has been hotly anticipated (see our recent roundup of Sony articles in the press to get some indication of the interest that has been generated). To my knowledge, Sony is the first large company to release an e-ink device in the U.S. aimed at the general book reading population. Certainly the first to offer a device with the sort of base level features you would think the average reader would require in order to be satisfied. While there have been previous predictions of success for early generations of book reading devices with LCD displays, it has become clear that the previous LCD screens were not good enough to bring widespread adoption in the e-book world. Getting books onto the readers has also been a challenge at times for past e-book readers.
The Sony Reader solves the primary display issues with e-ink technology, and solves the question of book availability with a large collection of e-books to be introduced along with the new Sony Connect e-bookstore. It promises to make purchase of books specially tailored for the Reader a simple exercise for just about anybody.
AN EXCEPTIONAL E-INK DISPLAY
The e-ink display is truly revolutionary and unlike most electronic devices, you can comfortably read in direct sunlight. When you see the pictures, I guarantee you that it doesnít do the screen justice. This isnít the first e-ink device, but if you havenít seen e-ink before, then you will be amazed and fascinated. Itís not perfectÖ the background is gray instead of bright white, and due to e-ink display characteristics you have to wait a second to get to the next page, but the page rendering has been fine tuned so that itís not a bother and is unlikely to be noticed by readers immersed in a book.
Another normal characteristic of e-ink is a slight ghosting effect, but again with some tweaking, Sony has found an excellent setting to balance page turn time and ghost image removal. I did not find that to be an issue at all. The only situation where ghosting seemed to be a noticeable issue was for manga (the comic book novels that are so popular for all ages in Japan and are becoming popular now across the world). But I think manga fans will be delighted to see how cool their art form looks on an e-ink device, and to learn that it will be supported by publishers and the Sony Connect store. As with much of the content, the success of the online store will probably help determine how much additional material will be added over the years.
Finally, with respect to the display, it is meant to be read in lighted conditions as it has no integrated light of its own. As we have been discussing on the MobileRead forums, a backlight or some form of integrating lighting is one bonus that many LCD based e-book readers, like PDAs, have provided. However, the Sony Reader is more like paper. You get the awesome display, but you do need light in the room to read it. Fortunately, Sony is working with Great Point Light on a clip on lighting solution that they will sell.
OPTIONAL DOCKING STATION
There is a nice docking station that doesnít come with the Reader. It lights up at the bottom to confirm when itís connected, and it can be used with the Sony Reader whether or not it is in its cover. (There is a sleeve that fits inside for a snug fit if you donít have the cover on.) Itís hard to judge whether this will be a popular accessory or not. I suppose it depends on pricing, and it will probably be more popular with the average reader population than with tech and gadget fanatics who donít mind plugs and wires.
SOURCES OF E-BOOKS
The obvious primary source of e-books is the Sony Connect online store. Itís integrated with the desktop software that comes with the Sony Reader, and itís where you are going to find your favorite best seller books. (Not every best seller will be available, but they have pumped up the collection of books pretty well, even for product rollout.) The advantage of the Connect store is that itís easy, especially for novices, and you have a big selection of books all prepared especially for the Sony Reader. The disadvantage is that, like any DRM, it ties your purchase to one technology plus whatever future support the seller decides to provide in the future. In this case, you will be able to read the books as long as you have your Sony Reader, but whether future readers or platforms are supported is up to Sony, both in terms of its success and its policies as the technology marches forward.
Alternatively, you can load up any txt or rtf file and read contentedly. Non-DRMíd Adobe pdf files are also supported, but you probably want to create them yourself to format them for a page the size of the Sony Reader. A typical full page pdf file is going to be compressed a bit too much to be a comfortable read, even if you use the landscape half-page viewing option. HTML files saved as rtf (e.g. from MS Word) would probably also work just fine.
Gutenberg is a natural choice for picking titles from a gigantic library of public domain books. But I suspect that books from ManyBooks formatted for the Librie would probably work very well also. In addition, there are many other unprotected e-books in supported formats that are constantly being made available. They frequently seem to pop up at MobileRead, so keep your eyes out for interesting titles. Other sites like Steve Jordan Books and Fictionwise appear to have pdf formatted books, but itís not clear how readable they would be on the Sony Reader. Iím sure weíll learn quickly on the forums.
Any other DRMíd or differently formatted books like Isilo, MobiPocket, eReader, OpenReader, OEBPS, Franklin, Hiebook, Microsoft (.lit), Palm Doc, Rocket, eBookwise-1150, REB 1200/GEB 2150, even DRMíd Adobe Acrobat pdfís, are not going to be compatible unless you can use a workaround like printing them from your PC to a pdf print driver and format them in line with the Sony Reader screen size. But for most people, that means DRMíd books will be Sony Connect books.
GETTING AROUND ON THE DEVICE
The navigation is very easy and intuitive, even if not always completely obvious. They main problem I had was that Iím so used to touching links on the screen of my Treo, that I kept tapping the Sony Reader screen expecting it to jump to the link! But you have two small silver page turn buttons on the left front, as well as a big thumb button for turning pages. Thereís a dedicated mark button for bookmarking, and 10 buttons to help you either navigate to 0%, 10%, 20%, etc or to choose on screen options like menu items or books to read. There is also a size button that lets you zoom in or out and change the text size.
The joystick has an outer ďMenuĒ ring that is convenient to get back to a menu or to navigate up levels towards the main top level menu. The inside joystick can be pushed to follow a link, or moved left/right to navigate back/forward through your navigation history. Up and down on the joystick moves the highlighted menu options.
On the outside are up/down volume controls for the music player, and an on/off slider switch, and the covered memory card slot. The bottom of the device has a mini-usb jack, the docking port (which combines the usb and power), a power jack and headphones. It uses standard mini headphones like for a normal mp3 player. I believe that is 1/8Ē. Itís smaller than ľĒ which is used in full size stereo components, and bigger than the really tiny jacks for cell phone headsets. Also included is a slot for a wrist lanyard to be attached.
The screen tells you things like how much battery life is left, what page you are on, total pages, the zoom setting (small or medium size) and sometimes shows if itís busy.
Each book has its own menu with the following options:
* Continue Reading (even if you didnít bookmark your last location)
* Table of Contents
* History (Can go ďbackĒ moving the joystick to the left, and fwd to the right)
* Utilities (Remove All Bookmarks and Clear History)
* Info includes: Title, Author, Publisher, Category, CONNECT ID, Kind (e.g. BBeB Book), Date, Size, Location (Internal or external), File location and name.
* Yes, itís trueÖ if links are implemented in a document you can navigate them.
* Firmware is upgradeable, so in the future the above menu options might change.
* Check out Engadget and Gizmodo for more possible early Sony Reader coverage, as they were among the six of us that had the privilege of this private inside look at the reader with the product team.
TIPS, TRICKS AND UNDOCUMENTED INFORMATION
* The zoom sizes are: Standard = 100%; Medium = 125%; Large = 150%
The large size in landscape is like a big print book, and is achieved by holding down the size button for five seconds and then releasing.
* The sound of the mp3 player can be muted by pushing both the up and down volume buttons at the same time.
* When you put on the cover, it attaches in the back with a circular snap-on clip. It is a firm but flexible cover that can be bent back behind the reader while reading. It probably wonít protect the display, though, if you accidentally sit on it.
The trick is that you can more safely and easily attach the cover by placing the reader face down on a flat surface and then pressing the cover onto the back of the reader. Otherwise, if you do it while holding both parts up in your hands, you may accidentally damage the display if you inadvertently press at the wrong location.
* You can probably use a PSP adapter with the reader, but itís not officially supported. The included A/C adapter has a really tiny transformer brick, which is very convenient for travel.
* When the unit goes into sleep mode after a period of time. I think it was about an hour. The screen will go blank, and the device will shut off to save battery and to prevent accidental pressing of the buttons while it is not being used. You wake it up (in less than five seconds it turns on recreates the screen) by pushing the power switch on.
* It looks like the page turn controls are only available for left handed operation. But thatís misleading. Once you use it, you find out that if you hold it in your right hand, your right thumb falls naturally to the big page turn button, and is therefore convenient for page turning. If you really want to get fancy, you could create an upside down landscape page to move the controls to the other side!
* In a very nice convenience, the battery may just have life when you get it. They are charged prior to shipping, but of course over time the charge is slowly lost. If you are lucky, yours might still have enough power to read with immediately.
* If you want the best performing documents, you should import them through the Sony desktop software. I believe itís due to pre-caching of the page information. But the page turn is not the problem I had expected it to be. With a sample book provided on the demo unit, a one second page turn was about all it took. Slightly more for some complex pdfs that I brought with me.
* You can read books with the desktop software. Itís not a fancy book reader, but in a pinch it might do for a quick fix.
* A 28 page (in standard text size mode) Operation Guide e-book is included with the reader. But thereís also a printed quick start guide in case you donít know how to read an e-book yet!
* The DRM licensing allows 6 devices to be registered to read purchased books. (But at least 1 must be a PC.) That means that families can potentially share purchased e-books and read them together.
* You do not have to have a Windows PC to use the Sony Reader, because you can move files directly to the storage cards in other ways. But you do need a PC to get the faster page turning speeds or to buy e-books from the Sony Connect store.
* The menu ring will take you to the menu one level up. You can push repeatedly to advance all the way up to the main menu.
SOME NOTES ON MEMORY CARDS
Usable Memory Cards:
* Memory Stick / Memory Stick Pro
* SD Memory Card
* With adapter: Memory Stick Duo / Memory Stick Pro Duo
* With adapter: miniSD Card
Sony Reader is compatible with both ďMagicGate Memory Stick and standard Memory Stick, but if the data requires the MagicGate copyright protection function, it canít be copied or played on the reader. SD copyright protection is not implemented either.
My 4gb SD card was readable, but canít tell if all 4gb is visible, or just 2gb. SD cards of up to 2gb are supported, but not guaranteed. Up to 4gb Memory Sticks are supported, but they are also not guaranteed.
WARNING - Donít insert a wrong sized card! And if an adapter is needed, be sure to use one. If you insert one of the smaller cards into the slot by mistake, it may need to go to the factory to have the case opened to remove the card. This was a lesson we learned when one of us put the wrong size card into the slot. Fortunately, the factory was next door, so it was a good learning experience and not a tragic event!
THE SONY READER PRODUCT TEAM
Borrowing from Mohammed Ali, one could say that the Sony Reader team is a lean, mean production machine. It takes a lot to coordinate all the design, production, marketing, promoting, budgeting, planning, working with publishers, creating an online store, etc etc. But in the midst of all the work, you find a very down to earth group of people that genuinely were excited about what they are doing and the product that they are going to be rolling out. As we have seen already, this team wants to pay attention to the user community and to ensure the Sony Reader is a good product for the consumer. They may not be able to provide everything that we consider important like multiple desktop platform support, but neither are they taking the ďyouíll just have to live with whatever we give youĒ approach either. They are working hard to support the customerís needs and wants as much as possible. They are not naÔve about desired features, and they keep an eye on our forums, for example.
MAINLY AN E-BOOK READER, BUT IT KNOWS A FEW OTHER TRICKS
This device is simple and easy because it supports one main function and does it well. Itís meant to be a book reading device, not a general content viewer to compete with your desktop machine and web reading. But they also acknowledge that there are a couple of basic functions that book readers really appreciate, such as music and RSS feed reading.
The level of support for these features is very limited and basic. Itís not meant to compete with iPods or even smartphone feed readers. But the music quality turns out to be very good, and is something that I think many people will appreciate listening to while reading. RSS feed functionality is even more limited as only a preset selection of collected feeds will be available as selected by Sony, not by each user. Obviously, some might be disappointed by that choice, but there are a lot of issues involved in what can be provided and converted and stored for the readers by Sony. And the addition of this functionality at all is sort of a bonus. Nobody will or even should consider buying this device just to read RSS feeds, unless they plan to extract and convert them on their own.
Speaking of other tricks like converting RSS feeds on your own, remember that there are formats like rtf and pdf and txt that are natively supported. This means that even without any special assistance from Sony, there may be all kinds of interesting applications that can be developed for the device. For example, maybe a button that captures and prepares driving directions and maps in one simple process to take with you in the car. Or maybe capturing RSS feeds and web pages for reading on the device. (Something like a Sunrise application would be terrific.) Or how about something that creates a nice looking document with your calendar for the day or week for the device.
Heck, you could even probably design interactive novels with pictures and choices made by the reader that determine the way the story proceeds. There must be many other applications with important information in them just waiting to be pushed into the Sony Reader to be taken on the go for later reading. It will be very interesting to see what kinds of apps will be made to simplify creation of all kinds of materials for the Sony Reader, as well as what sorts of third party software developers might even be allowed to program for the device itself.
* 6Ē SVGA 800x600 E-Ink ďelectronic paperĒ display
* 4-level gray scale
* This comes to approximately 170 Pixels Per Inch resolution
* Supported DRM text: BBeB (with Marlin DRM)
* Supported non-DRM text: BBeB Book, Adobeģ PDF, TXT, RTF
* With conversion: Microsoft Word (if Word is installed on your PC)
* Unsecured Audio: MP3 and AAC7
* Image: JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP
* About 9 ounces, and about ĹĒ thick
* Rechargeable Lithium-Ion Battery
* Uses either SD card or Memory Stick for expansion storage
* Up to 7,500 page turns on a charge (4 hours to recharge from a wall outlet)
* Desktop SW (Connect Reader) requires Windows XP, internet, and USB 1.1+
* Charging cradle is optional
* Comes with: AC Charger, Black Soft Case, USB Cable, Quick Start Guide, and a CD-ROM with Connect Reader software.
SUMMARY OF THE GOOD AND THE BAD
+ Awesome screen
+ Convenient size
+ Lots of mainstream native format support (.pdf, rtf, txt, but not HTML)
+ Associated online e-bookstore
+ Great battery life
+ Sony hardware (It just feels and looks nice, as we expect from Sony.)
-- Screen requires room light to read
-- Standard full-page pdfís are too big to be comfortably read without reformatting
(Even in the Ĺ page landscape mode, the screen is a bit too small for that.)
-- Battery is not user replaceable
-- As with any e-book reader, DRMíd content is at risk over the years if you migrate to another reader which doesnít support the same BBeB/Marlin format and authentication system.
CONCLUSION: AN E-BOOK REVOLUTION IS COMING
We have all expected and believed that e-books will become widespread and popular. Itís just a matter of when. Some of us have been lucky enough to have and touch early e-book devices and read books on PDAs and smart phones. With e-ink, everything changes, and for the good. We may see an explosion of interest and new devices, as well as more and more e-book availability. Maybe even improved pricing for e-books and some better solutions for DRM and e-book formats.
With the upcoming release of the Sony Reader, as well as other e-ink book readers, we may be seeing a whole new level of interest and adoption of e-books. But itís not clear what will cause it to catch on. It might just be word of mouth. So those of you who understand what this is all about will have a role to play in speeding the e-book world forward. After all, Iím not sure that people will be inspired to buy these in mass quantities simply because they see it in a store or in a magazine ad. More likely, is that they will catch on because of word of mouth. People will see one and get excited, and go find one to buy. Friends will tell friends who will start reading together. Families will keep one or two around the house and share books. People will start asking libraries to develop a way to loan the books. Grade schools and colleges will start looking for ways to integrate the e-book readers into their programs. Teens might even find it cool to read again.
Itís not clear how and when the e-book revolution is going to take the world by storm, but surely itís coming. We have the opportunity to witness what may become a historic event in the big book of world history. Maybe it wonít have quite the significance of the original printing press or the first transistor or the rise of the world wide web, but donít be surprised if historians centuries from now point to the Sony Reader as a milestone or a turning point. And we are lucky enough to witness and participate in the beginnings of this revolution right here and now.