Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Sony eReader

Those who know me know that I'm a gadget nut, and I've gotten a few gadgets lately that fall into the category of essential for my on-the-road lifestyle and of interest to software developers and other geeks as well. One of them is the Sony eReader. This is the first real application of digital ink, which has been The Next Big thing for several years While it looks like a monochrome LCD display (with no back-lighting), digital ink acts more like real ink in that it doesn't consume power while it's being displayed. Most LCDs need a constant (very low level) charge to keep their dark bits aligned. With digital ink, you just zap them once and they stay in place until you zap them again. The obvious use of them in a digital book reader makes perfect sense: it consumes no power while you are actually reading the page, just when you turn the pages.

The Sony eReader was announced at the beginning of 2006, and was originally going to be available in the Spring of last year. Fast forward to November, when they actually shipped (I got mine late November, and I was on the list of "ship it too me right off the assembly line". Here's a picture:

Sony ereader

The Good
Reading eBooks on it is an awesome experience, pretty much all I hoped for. The screen is highly readable as long as you have light (it does not have a back light). Essentially, if you have enough light to read a regular book, you can read this one. Even in low light it isn't bad because you have 3 zoom levels for eBooks: small, medium, and large (Mr. Magoo could read the large without his glasses). The page flips are slow because of the digital ink, but it's not really noticeable. I quickly forgot that I was reading something on a new fangled device and just enjoyed it, and have subsequently read more than a dozen books on it. The battery life is stunning: I used it for an entire week in Singapore, reading a couple of hours a day, without recharging it once (and that included 2 marathon reading binges on the 26 hour flights there and back). The eBooks (and even PDFs) take up very little room. It comes with about 100 Mb of storage; I immediately put a 2 Gb Memory Stick in it. I guesstimate that I can probably get 1000 books on this puppy.

The Bad
One of the great appeals for me was the ability to put PDFs on it. I carry (or would like to carry) a fairly sizable collection of reference books with me, in addition to whatever I'm reading at the moment, and lots of books (especially technical ones) exist on PDF. Alas, the reading experience with PDFs leaves something to be desired. Unlike eBooks, the eReader can't reflow PDFs, meaning that you can basically see them in 1 of 2 sizes: regular (the entire page) or zoomed (just the text on the page, eliminating the margins). The text of most PDFs is still too small for portrait mode even in the zoomed state, so I generally flip it to landscape. One of the annoying bugs bites you here: when you flip pages on PDFs in landscape mode, it re-sets itself to regular mode but still thinks it's in zoomed. That means to be able to read the page, you have to flip it back to regular (for real), then flip it back to landscape. That means that every time you flip pages, it's a 3-press operation. Which wouldn't be so bad except for the glacially slow refresh rate for the digital ink (which is hardly noticeable for a single page flip). Once they get this bug fixed, PDF's will be reasonable on this device, but painful for now.

The Ugly
The selection of eBooks is pretty small right now, but growing fast. As you would expect, there are a fair number of science fiction titles, including Neal Stephenson's whole catalog (which I have dully downloaded and and synced onto my eReader). The worst part of that whole experience, though, is the Connect software that comes with it and manages both syncing with the device and shopping at their on-line bookstore. Strike 1: Windows only, so I have to crank up Parallels to access it. Strike 2: Think iTunes written by a high school student who's just learned VB. It's awful and clunky. The should have picked a reasonable starting place (like Eclipse RCP) rather than reinvent a buggy version of an application that needs a file system view, a HTML-centric content pane (or pain, in this case), and standard menu stuff. Strike 3: buggy, crashing at the drop of a hat. One of the few options on the menus is "Update", which I access frequently to try to get a better version. While it works mostly, it also locks up on a regular basis. At least the syncing part pretty much works and is fast. It really shows, though, how much you take something like iTunes + iPod for granted until you see an amateurish version.

The Bottom Line
The above notwithstanding, I love this little thing, especially for eBooks. If they would get the PDF bug mentioned above fixed, it would be Good Enough for PDFs too. Of course, what I would really like is the ability to reflow PDFs, but thats much tougher. If anyone reading this knows of a PDF to eBook converter, please let me know...I've searched in vain. The Sony eReader has some pain points (like the PDF bug) for a version 1.0 product, but it still a great addition to my collection of gadgets.


Jim McSlim said...

Great to see a fellow ThoughtWorker has purchased one of these things, thanks for your review. Do you think the PDF bug and PDF reflow could be added via a firmware upgrade, if Sony could be bothered? Have you read any of the Pragmatic Programmers downloaded PDFs (ie. PickAxe, Agile Web Development with Rails) on it yet? I would love to get one, but I might hold off until generation 2 comes around...

jps said...

Can you post a larger image of the screen? I'd like to see just how good the resolution is.

Andrea said...

Thanks a lot for the review of the new eBook reader! I've been buying teaching supplies off of over the last year or so, and am in the market to buy an even more portable device with which to read my books. Since I haven't completely decided on which one yet, it is nice to get a heads up about potential problems before buying!

Thanks again for your help,


Weifeng said...

Does anyone know if this eReader support any language other than English, say, Chinese? Thanks!

Jingzhao said...

I tried out the Sony eReady at their store. It is really like a paper! The size of the eReader is kind of too small for reading normal PDF files. I don't think it supports Chinese, which is a great pity.

I am thinking of buy the iRex product instead.

Michelle said...

A group of students at the University of Michigan are looking at the usability heuristics of electronic portable reading devices (aka eReaders). We are currently conducting a survey and are offering you a chance to win a free, silver iPod Shuffle (

We are looking for participants who either do or don’t have experience using eReader devices. The goal of this survey is to gather information regarding your daily reading habits and reading preferences. On analyzing the results, we hope to develop guidelines to design eReaders of the future.

Survey link:

Please pass our survey link to others who may have experience with eReaders, an interest in e-books or enjoy reading in general. Our survey will be available until Tuesday, March 11, 2008.

Thank you for your time and we appreciate your feedback.