Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sony eReader Update: It's all Bad and Ugly

Back in January of 2007, I wrote about my impressions of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Sony eReader electronic book reader. I thought I’d update that, given my time with the device and the eBook service. And the news isn’t good.

One of the major annoyances of the eReader is the inability to reflow PDFs. That’s a complex problem, so they get a pass on the actual reflowing part. The solution they offered was the ability to view PDFs in either of two formats: either the entire page or just the width of the text on the page. The latter worked reasonably well for most PDFs when viewed in the landscape mode of the eReader. But here’s the fatal bug: when you switch pages in the PDF view, it restores the “width of text” view to the “width of page” view, but doesn’t update the mode on the reader. Thus, you must hit the button to actually get it back to what it thinks is officially “width of page” view, then hit it again to actually get back to “width of text” mode. Page refreshes on the eReader are very slow, which isn’t a big deal when reading a book because you only have to do it occasionally. But forcing the multiple page switches just to restore it to the mode it says it’s on is deadly. It effectively made reading PDFs on the device unpalatable. I reported this back in my original review, and predicted that it would be fixed in a software update (leaving aside for the moment how the device could have ever shipped with such an obvious bug).

It never happened. The new version of the reader came out with no software update in sight for this killer bug. I don’t know if they’ve fixed it in the new version because, frankly, I wouldn’t take one if they gave it to me. They did offer to sell me a new one when my original died. I turned it on one day in December and the screen was a garbled mess. I contacted their support who told me that, since mine was out of warranty, my best course of action was to purchase another, new version. That’s never going to happen.

In fact, the whole experience has soured me on Sony. They used to compete in mind share at least with Apple for delivering innovative products, with a modicum of understanding things like design and aesthetics. Apparently, they’ve abandoned that. I still own a single Sony product, the PSP Portable, which embodies many good features and design touches. But seeing how they treat their customers for an admittedly small, trivial market is enough for me to cast all their products in doubt. They clearly don’t have any concept of quality assurance (given the original bug) or responsibility (never fixing it). It’s a shame too because reading actual eBooks on the reader wasn’t bad. I probably read about 40 books on it, and liked it a lot. But, given that you can’t read PDFs on it, and their eBook format is proprietary (another annoying characteristic about Sony — memory sticks anyone?), I won’t buy another one.

I’ve looked at the Kindle but haven’t taken the plunge yet. I want a killer user experience, and it doesn’t look like it. I wish Apple (or someone who understands design like Apple) would release an eReader so I could read the Neal Stephenson Baroque Trilogy without herniating myself!


Alex said...

What "killer" experience are you looking for in the Kindle? I like mine a lot, despite the rather retro look of the hardware design.

Neal Ford said...

I don't have any usability gripes with the Kindle, as I haven't lived with one yet. I'm not crazy that the keyboard, which I'd used < 5% of the time is always there. I just don't look at it the same way I look at, for example, my iPhone.

Unknown said...

I haven't tried this one yet but you may want to check out the iRex iLiad Book Edition reader.

It looks like it handles a wide variety of formats (though, again, I don't know how well).

My only real concern off the bat is the price ($600). It's petty steep. However, it is a good looking device and it sounds promising.

Ken Rimple said...


I have had the Kindle since January, and I love it for one thing, and one thing only: reading novels and replacing my bookshelf for serial reading.

One nice thing is that if I can print something to PDF (on my Mac) I can email it to my kindle email address and it will convert it to a book.

The problem is that PDF is a print layout format, based on Postscript. So you can't easily re-flow the text without implementing a pretty complex re-rendering engine, which Amazon does not really do well.

There is a tool you can use that converts books to the Amazon e-book format, but it only runs on windows, hence I don't use it. The 10 cent conversion service does a good enough job if you want to read text, but forget ANY ability to read source code in a formatted way.

I am in your camp--hopefully someone (Amazon, Sony, APPLE) will come out with a e-book reader that can handle reading PDFs natively and the size will be a bit larger (tablet?) so that we can actually read them. Graphics stinnk on the Kindle due to the 4 shades of grey problem, but the battery lasts forever, provided you keep the wireless off.

Jonathan Newell said...

I have the newer reader (prs-505), and while the issue with pdfs is annoying, there are satisfyingly techy solutions for getting other formats onto it.

Calibre (formerly libprs) is a great app, written in python and working on windows, os x and linux, that will convert html, rtf, lit and pdf documents to sony's lrf format. html, rtf and lit work brilliantly, pdf is great if it doesn't have headers and footers (which sadly properly published pdf books do...).

Especially clever is it's ability to suck down an entire rss feed and create a book from it (so for instance you can pull down the economist every week for free and put it on your reader, complete with a hyperlinked contents table).