And most importantly the latest firmware of the PRS-505 adds support for DRM-PDFs (like the one you can read with Adobe Digital Editions) as well as the ePub format. It also supports PDF reflow making better use of the screen area.
This means that overall the PRS-505/300/600 is the best mobile ebook reading device available on the market today. It is sturdy, lightweight, appealing look and feel, good support of secure and unsecured formats, and strikes a good compromise between size and reading area. It is also one of the cheaper ones and can be had new for around $200 for the PRS-300 and around $300 for the PRS-600.
So what are the cons? We have to distinguish between generic problems stemming from the e-ink screen technology, which all other e-ink devices (Kindle, Iliad, Cybook, Mentor, etc.) suffer, too, and deficiencies coming from deliberate design choices by Sony.
The second fundamental advantage of an e-ink screen is its low power consumption. Once the ink particles have been moved in place the screen does not need any energy to keep its image. You can therefore read a page as long as you wish without draining the battery. Only a page turn will cost a short burst in energy and then it is back to standby mode without draining the battery. Current devices specify 5000 to 10000 page turns on one battery charge. You could be reading dozens of ebooks before you have to recharge.
One further advantage which is at the same time also a bit of a disadvantage is that an e-ink screen needs ambient light to be readable. This is great under strong light conditions because the screen remains readable under bright sun light. However at night in bed you will need a reading light. In those moments a back-lit LCD screen can be great. Unless you are a heavy night time reader I say it is more important to be readable in sunlight than when it is dark. I offer one suggestions to the device manufacturers: build into the device a little reading light. This could be easily achieved by including one or two white LEDs on a little boom that can be flipped or rotated out of the ebook reader to illuminate the screen. For me personally that would be much more desirable than the built in MP3 players.
However, so great the advance, there are still some real bummers with this technology. The biggest is the one second refresh time including a 'flash of black'. Whenever you turn a page it takes about one second for the screen to display the next page and you briefly see an inverted version of the page which is typically mostly black. The page turn delay itself is not that big of a problem, because turning a page in a real book also takes about a second, but for all the menu interactions from choosing an ebook, navigating to a specific page etc., this quickly becomes a real pain in the butt. At a recent industry convention I saw new e-ink screen models that could refresh in a shorter time and the engineers there told me that they can make it fast enough to show video, or about 60ms refresh time. Showing video would counter the low power consumption advantage and therefore I don't think the technology needs to be driven that far, but getting to about 200ms refresh for responsive interaction would be a huge plus. However, the 'flash of black' is quite annoying. I assume this has to be done to remove any ghost images and shadows, to reset the screen to a default state. But whatever the underlying reasons, this is something that needs to be fixed. Achieving a higher refresh rate would automatically take care of it as well. A black flash for 60ms would be hardly noticeable.
The contrast of the e-ink screen is more akin to newsprint. The white is not really white but light gray and the black is not really black but dark gray. For most reading it is not a big problem, but a higher contrast would allow the benefits of the high resolution to come through better.
The latest screen version has 8 gray levels (3 bit) whereas their earlier models only had 4 gray levels (2 bit). 8 levels of gray for a high resolution b/w screen is plenty in my opinion, particularly for text. Once we go into the reproduction of photos more levels would be advantageous but the low contrast is the bigger problem. And the high resolution allows one to use dithering to achieve enough shades of gray.
There are competing technologies to e-ink. Most notably Bistable Nematic screens manufactured by Nemoptic. Their advantage is faster, full color, retaining the advantages of extreme low power and paper like appearance.
For us consumers this is good news. Competing technologies mean strong downward price pressures and higher quality products. The primary reason why current ebook reading devices are so expensive is the price of the screen. Once the screen prices come down so will the end devices that use them.
The software controlling user interface and user interaction, what you see as menu, is a bit clunky and could be much more intuitive and powerful. Particularly ordering and sorting through a larger collection of ebooks is not very well supported. But this is only software and could quickly be fixed. If I would be Sony, I would open the software and let others do it for them. Their unit sales would shoot up immediately. There is so much more one could get out of this device. For example, why not turn it into a digital photo frame with a nifty slide show support. Or what about presenting your next PowerPoint to a colleague. And I am not even talking about games and other entertainment software that could run on these devices. For example, an adventure or brainteaser like game could work because it doesn't need high refresh rates.
With the release of the latest models, the PRS-300 and PRS-600, Sony has introduced improvements to the software. For example, support for Mac is now built in. Sony is on the right path and making progress.
You also get five pre-set font sizes and zooming is as easy as tapping the screen. The internal memory is twice as large as the one of the PRS-505 holding on average 350 ebooks. And page turns are faster with a snappier refresh.
The main advantage as we see it is the touch screen which together with the faster screen refreshes results into a much more pleasant interaction. Switching from one ebook to another, adding bookmarks, checking the table of contents, accessing notes and searching, all of this needs user interaction which is on the model 700 much faster and more user friendly. You will be much happier using this model than any other.
For people who read mostly fiction, where one usually does not need to make annotations or search, and who don't need the front light the PRS-505 is the much more economical option than the PRS-700BC. However, if you need to search frequently, or if taking annotations is important, or if you like to read in your bed with the lights off, then the PRS-700BC is the better choice over the PRS-505.
Sony is working on a firmware update that will allow one to export ones annotations. And they are looking into wireless connectivity, although we do not believe that this is that important a feature, particularly if it comes with a hefty price increase.
Besides all the pros and cons of the e-ink screen mentioned above under the Sony reader, the Kindle uses its own proprietary ebook format, the Mobipocket format (Amazon bought Mobipocket). And this is really a bad idea. It is extremely customer unfriendly, locking you into a proprietary format that might not be supported in the future, rendering all your ebooks useless. I hope Amazon does what Sony did and support DRM-PDF/ePub formats. If they don't I predict that the Kindle will soon be falling behind and quickly enter the museum as a failed idea.
One advantage the Kindle has is its free Whispernet EV-DO service that allows you to go online, check your email, and most importantly purchase and download ebooks wherever cellphones work. (This works only in the US. For example our Canadian friends are out of luck.) This eliminates the need to be at a wireless hotspot. This is certainly a nice feature but on the other hand I don't need to be able to purchase ebooks at any given moment. And this feature is currently limited to the Amazon ebook shop, which eliminates any price competition and is not conducive to lowering ebook prices for consumers. But one hopes that this monopoly will eventually be broken and consumers can choose where to buy their ebooks from.
At $359 the Kindle is one of the more expensive options. You can find a lightly used Sony Reader at half that price. The Kindle is therefore highly overpriced for what it offers.
Despite the fact that I think the Kindle is not a good purchase, Amazon has generated a lot of positive publicity for ebooks in general. Many more people are now aware of the existence of ebooks and what they are. And for that we have to thank Amazon.
Where I have to applaud Amazon is with the text-to-speech functionality. I like that. Although I think actual use of this feature will be low, it is a great use of existing technology to enhance such a reading device. And visually impaired people will love it.
Increased storage space is not that important but a nice to have. Better e-ink screen brings the Kindle 2 on the same level as the Sony PRS-700 which uses the same model of E-ink screen.
Before you order this jumbo sized Kindle compare in particular to Iliad and the one from Plastic Logic.
But let's not kid ourselves. $500 for an e-reader? I buy full featured computers for half that price. In my opinion netbooks will take most of the future e-reader market. Their battery lifetimes are getting in the 10 hour range which allows a full days of work and charging over night - enough for any workaholic or bookworm. Some come with detachable screens or eventually two screen models (see XO-2).
In my opinion the little color LCD screen is mainly there to confuse customers into believing this is a 'color reader', which it is not. The main reading area is greyscale as all the other e-ink based readers. The color screen at the bottom can show ebook covers in color and provide colorful menu navigation - but that is the least important use of color I can imagine. The little LCD screen does have one benefit though. It allows for a fast and responsive menu navigation. One of the problems of e-ink screens is that they need about a second to refresh. For navigating a menu this can become a real pain in the neck. The LCD screen which has no such response time issues provides for a fast and instantaneous interaction.
The lending feature is a more interesting new development. It allows you to lend some of your ebooks to a friend for up to 14 days. Not all ebooks enjoy this lending freedom. And you can lend each ebook only once. Meaning once you lent it out to a friend and the 14 days have passed you cannot lend it to somebody else ever. This is a very limited form of lending but it is at least a first tiny step in the right direction. My hope would be that the lending restrictions are less tight, perhaps allow more days to lend it out and allow more than one-per-lifetime lending of a particular ebook. A suggestion if anybody at Barnes & Noble reads this: Why not limit only the total lending days and not the number of people I can send this to? So if friend 1 returns it after 5 days one can send it to friend 2 and once he returns it one can send it to friend 3 a.s.o. until the total amount of lending days is consumed. I would think that something like 100 lending days would be a good start.
And of course, Barnes & Noble had to introduce yet another propriety and incompatible ebook format. I think many customers will be surprised once they find out that none of their ebooks (except unprotected PDF or EPUB ebooks) can be transfered from a Nook to a Kindle to a SonyReader and vice versa. This is one of the big challenges the publishing industry faces. My solution would be to drop DRM altogether or at least allow for some kind of federated DRM where a user can transfer an ebook to another reader platform.
So you get a big board that you have to lug around - hardly a mobile device. That is one reason why the Que is targeted to buisness people who are supposedly carrying briefcases, but how many are these? The Que competes mostly with the Kindle DX. It has a large screen - close to letter size - which certainly provides for a nice reading experience. But there is nothing I can see that makes the Que better than any of the other devices already on the market. Once PlasticLogic turns this into a flexible device it would be able to leap ahead of the pack. Until then it is simply one of many possible choices.
However, it appears that the annoying flicker during a page change is gone and the response to user interaction is much faster than other e-ink based devices. And it has an accelerometer like the iPhone to detect the orientation of the device and possibly to enable other cool applications. It uses the same DRM system that Sony uses. That means you can transfer your SonyReader ebooks to the Txtr. You can also move any ebooks you read with Adobe Digital Editions on your desktop or laptop to the Txtr. Kudos to the Txtr team for not creating yet another system but to build on what is already available and make it compatible. I very much hope that their open and compatible approach will be a success. It certainly is customer friendly.
The form factor of the JetBook is similar to the SonyReader PRS-300 with a 5" screen diagonal. I like that the JetBook is even lighter than the SonyReader and that it supports a good range of formats. It also has a built in multilanguage dictionary. But I don't like the proliferation of buttons. The visual design could be better or cooler if you will. The price point, $200, is the same as for the SonyReader PRS-300. And some retailers for the JetBook such as Bed Bath & Beyond have their own store discounts pushing the price down to $160, making the JetBook the cheapest dedicated reading device at this form factor.
If you don't like the e-ink screen because contrast is too low or the time it takes to turn a page is too long then the JetBook offers a great alternative at an attractive price as long as you primarily want to read non-DRM ebooks.
If OLPC can actually build this device with the battery lifetime and price they are targeting, then this would immediately become the best ebook reader known today. It would be a lot cheaper than your typical e-ink reader. It would have color screens, more reading area, fast response page turning - and it would still be a regular computer with all kinds of free software available to view many file formats - an open hackable device. It would leave all other devices mentioned here in the dust.
A nice to have feature is the touch screen. As I mentioned before during the Kindle description, I believe this should be mainly a reading device and should be optimized to reading rather than writing. However a touch screen expands the usage profile and is therefore an acceptable design choice. It also improves the user interaction which is already severely limited due to the one second refresh time of the screen. In the end it comes down to a cost trade off. At $699 the iLiad is already hopelessly overpriced. Nevertheless, the fact that one can take notes, underline, and capture sketches can be a useful and sometimes a necessary feature. In that sense the iLiad offers a very different device at a much higher price point. However, with the new Sony PRS-700BC, which also has a touch screen and allows highlighting and annotating, the iLiad has become an even less attractive option, unless you need the bigger screen. At that price my recommendation is to buy a subnotebook computer or a small laptop. Then you have a real computer at your disposal.
If you need a large screen also take a look at the reader from Plastic Logic, which was already demoed at a recent industry show, and should hit stores early 2009. It is a very thin letter sized device. Originally I thought this will be a flexible screen reader, however in the demo the reader looks rigid although very thin. The price is unknown but it will clearly compete with the iRex 1000 mainly for the business community.
However, you might as well wait for flexible screens. As the concept device from Readius depicted on the right shows, flexible screens offer a completely new kind of mobile device. The combination of large screen with small enclosure to carry around in your pocket. Supposedly Readius will release their first flexible screen device 2009 in Europe.
Another company Plastic Logic has demoed in fall of 2008 their flexible screen device and will offer it early 2009. Plastic Logic's screen will be about twice the size of the Sony Reader. However, their demo did not show a flexible screen device. It is unclear to me if this was merely a limitation of the prototype or if the device will indeed be rigid.
Unfortunately a big company, Gemstar eBook Group, acquired NuvoMedia in March of 2000, and that was pretty much the end of the success story. Once the Internet bubble burst there was no Rocket-eBook anymore. Gemstar through a licensing deal with RCA released a slightly modified version the REB-1100, but large companies are not innovative and nimble enough to care for a fragile baby like an ebook reading device through the storms of the Internet bubble burst.
It took another innovative startup, Fictionwise, owned by the Pendergrast brothers, to rescue the Rocket-eBook and continue to offer it as the Ebookwise-1150 for a bit more than $100. Since this is now essentially a decade old technology, I can't really recommend it anymore. But if you only want to spend a hundred bucks on a mobile reading device and you don't mind a bit heavier and thicker device, then this is a pretty good option.
It is conceivable, with a bit of clever engineering, to turn such an Eee PC into a handy ebook reader. What if the screen could be folded all the way to the back to turn it into a tablet-type PC? What if the screen uses a bistable LCD technology like the earlier mentioned Bistable Nematic from Nemoptic? Then this Eee PC could be operated in reading mode where it needs very little power to run. And ultimately once an e-ink type screen becomes cheap why not add such a screen as secondary screen on the outside of the PC? Then one could use it as ebook reader in its closed state and once you need to type something or need the full power of a real computer you open it and are presented with a color screen and keyboard.
Such netbooks are likely to make e-readers entirely useless. Battery lifetime of the Touch Book is 10 hours. How much more do you want to work or read each day? Over night it charges up ready for another 10 hour off grid use.
The iBooks app is great and the iPad can certainly be used as an ebook reader but it comes with a few caveats. The biggest is the glare of the screen. Depending on lighting conditions it is not as great a reading experience as an e-ink based reader. It is also heavier and does get noticeably warm after about an hour of use. Battery time is a lot shorter than your typical e-ink reader but with 5-7 hours of usage for the iPad you should be fine with nightly recharging. A big plus are the many apps you can get for the iPad. One app in particular is noteworthy for ebook readers: BlueFire Reader. This app allows you to read Adobe DRM protected ebooks as well as check out ebooks from libraries that offer ebooks. For more details see the article How to view DRM-PDF and DRM-EPUB ebooks on iPhone, iPad and Android.
The iPhone is therefore not a replacement for the readers discussed above - it is not the Sony or Kindle killer as some pundits try to portrait it. And I don't think anybody would buy an iPhone or iPodTouch mainly to satisfy his urges to read. But if you already have such a gadget you can certainly fill a few idle minutes here and there with reading without having to carry around another device.
The only way the iPhone could seriously compete in the ebook reading space is when Apple figures out how to incorporate a flexible screen that opens up to 3- or 4- times the size of the current screen. Then my friends hold on, because that will be the day Sony and Amazon will not forget.
Written and updated by Chris Wasshuber.
Simon Lea (09/09/2008)
Thanks for this Chris. Borders are currently promoting the iLiad in their stores over here in the UK. As far as I'm aware they plan to sell them instore for £399. At that price, you are absolutely right, people are much better off buying a small laptop. I have an Eee PC, bought from Amazon for £200, and although it doesn't have the screen resolution of any of the eBook readers, its small size makes reading eBooks a lot more comfortable than a home PC or regular laptop. In addition, you can write documents, access the internet and play games.
I do a lot of writing and a lot of reading and so will at some point in the future own an eBook reader and a laptop. But at the current time the iLiad is too expensive to justify giving up using the Eee Pc for eBooks.
John Fells (10/15/2008)
I was very grateful to Lybrary.com for bringing to my attention the Sony 505 PRS ebook reader. I had wanting to buy one for some time and the various reviews helped me to make up my mind and I now agree with Chris that the Sony PRS 505 is by far the best when price and features are considered. I can download ebooks from a variety of sources without restriction. I encountered a problem when attempting to read a password protected PDF. It could not be opened. However a friend directed me towards a password removal software for 10 dollars on the net, so no more PWD problems. Another disadvantage is not being able to search for a WORD or CHARACTER as one can do in a normal PDF, but it is after all a reader and as such it does a fantastic job. It has an SD Memory Card slot and a memory stick duo slot. A sync facility for ease of connection to a PC and file transfer. Ebooks can be grouped into collections so they can be easily organised in the ebook reader. And as a bonus an MP3 player and image player. The e-reader is really easy on the eye. Sharp black lettering on a grey screen and the font size can be adjusted by the simple push of a button which changes the size of the page to fit the screen. Really easy and makes for enjoyable trouble free reading. A back light would have been helpful for low light conditions but I suspect it would have effected battery life, which by the way seems more than satisfactory. I am still now about 5 days later running on full charge. The unit comes with around 30 books already installed but I couldn't wait to log on to Lybrary.com and download another Lewis Ganson PDF. On The Legacy PDF (Heirloom Effect by Jamie Badman - not a Lybrary.com ebook) the images didn't appear on the reader which I find strange because I had no trouble viewing images on Lybrary.com ebooks. On the whole you will gather that I am very pleased with my PRS 505. It also comes with a plastic cover, just like a book.
Chris Ragaisis (01/22/2009)
I've been an early adopter of eBook technology since the Rocket was first introduced. What an offering! The screen readability was superior to both the first and second generation eBookwise readers. I've gone through several of those units, Palms, PCs, and finally the Sony Reader. I'm grateful that anyone offers professionally formatted books for ANY of the devices. I've had to do most of that, myself. Now of only the folks at Sony would provide a Mac interface for the Reader I'd be a happy camper!
Scott Robinson (09/17/2009)
This is a nice summary of Ebook readers. Although it is not possible to be complete, with a new one being announced just about every other week, I was surprised to see that you have missed an important one that has been out since the beginning of 2008. It is called the Jetbook and it has a specially developed non-lit (for clarity) LCD screen. Of the dedicated ebook reader screens mentioned above it is the best. Here's why.
Most of your listed readers are e-ink and are all pretty much the same and share the same problems. And although some of the weaknesses with this technology have been outlined above the major problem is the contrast. The typical contrast ratio is said to be a very poor 7:1 compared to newsprint which is 10:1. At 30% below the contrast of newsprint, e-ink is nowhere near it's quality (BTW computer screens are said to be about 1000:1). With such a low contrast I wonder if in fact it is appropriate for the visually impaired. Compare this to the Jetbook which is rated at a contrast ratio of 12:1, although still low it is 20% better than newsprint. In addition unlike the e-ink there is no flash of black to make the user queasy and the page refresh is almost instantaneous.
As people age the contrast ratio is the most important aspect to reading. Low contrast causes a much eyestrain. For this reason, in the current state of the technology, e-ink readers will not be the final answer for ebooks, whether it be in standard flat or flexible form.
Simon Lea (06/21/2010)
I went and bought the Sony PRS-600. Had it a week and I love it.
Simon Lea (02/14/2011)
Just an update. I'm still using my Sony PRS-600 and I still love love it.
Christoph Wasshuber (02/14/2011)
I have the Sony PRS-650 and I love it, too. It is a wonderful reading device. I use my iPad a lot, too, but not so much for reading. The SonyReader is ideal to always have a large selection of books ready to read at any given moment outside the home.
Salvador Calderon (04/05/2011)
I just received yesterday my Sony PRS 700 and quickly uploaded all my lybrary.com books. I'm so grateful of all the insight I got here to pick a reader. Salvador Calderón magicshowbuilder.com
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