The device that set off such a furore on this blog about The Death of Publishers and also resulted in a feature in the Bookseller has finally arrived in my hands. While I’ve only been using it for a week, I think it would be useful to share some first impressions of the Sony Reader – after all, if it’s supposed to herald the downfall of an industry, there’s no time to lose!
The first thing you notice about the Sony Reader is that it’s unexpectedly small. I’d seen photos of it, and I was imagining something around the size of a hardback, what with the screen that dominates the device, but the Reader is actually shorter than a standard paperback, and a lot thinner. I suspect that one of Sony’s design priorities was making it smaller than a normal book.
In fact, when you close the ‘cover’ of the Reader, it becomes even more svelte and diminutive, more like a Moleskine notebook than an actual novel. This is a device that won’t embarrass you if you read it on the tube, and it’ll fit into practically any bag. So far, so good.
Can the Reader measure up to real ink? No.
The contrast on the Reader’s E-Ink display is just not comparable to any book; it’s more like dark grey on light grey than black and white. It’s harder to read in low light, and if you have poor eyesight, it probably won’t be very comfortable. Despite this, it’s still perfectly acceptable for most people. I’ve shown the Reader to a few friends and they’ve all declared that it looks fine to them. The issue isn’t that text on the Reader is bad – it’s that real ink is basically perfect.
Real ink also doesn’t take two seconds to appear when you turn a page. This is not as irritating as it might seem, as you become used to the lag quickly, but it’s not desirable and it’s certainly something that’s being improved in other readers.
You’ll notice that in all of these photos, it’s perfectly possible to read what’s on the screen. This is not due to some camera or Photoshop trickery – it’s what it really looks like.
A lot of people think that it’ll be more difficult to use the Reader when it’s very sunny; this is probably because if you look at your phone or laptop monitor in direct sunlight, you’ll either see a blinding reflection or a very dim screen. Traditional LCD screens like these tend to be transmissive; they rely on a backlight that provides for very good viewing indoors or in shade (which is where most people use them), but poor visibility in the sunlight.
All dedicated eBook readers use reflective displays; they don’t use a backlight, and instead rely on ambient light to illuminate the text. In a way, paper books are simply eBooks readers whose display is broken; with both, you need at least some light to read from. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if future eBook readers had built-in illumination.
At this point, I should cover a rather important point that many people ignore. The Sony Reader doesn’t come filled with a huge library of books. Andrew Marr’s Iliad Reader might have come with dozens of free books, but don’t think for one second that that applies to the rest of us, unless you count a bunch of bestseller excerpts and a Star Trek novel as being on equal footing with Dickens and George Eliot.
If you want to add or remove books, you need to connect the Reader to a Windows PC (it doesn’t support Macs*) and run the Connect Reader software. Connect Reader serves the same purpose that iTunes does for the iPod – it helps you manage the books on your Reader, and it lets you buy eBooks from their store. That’s where the similarities end, because I would hate to give you the impression that Connect Reader worked remotely near as well as iTunes does.
Let me give you a few examples. Firstly, everything is slow. Deleting a book takes five seconds. Adding a book might take a dozen seconds. Connecting the Reader takes time. Using the Connect Store frequently involves waits of ten seconds. This doesn’t sound that bad until you begin adding and deleting dozens of books.
There are all sorts of baffling limitations. You can’t edit any of the information on books, like correcting an author’s name or adding a genre. There is no ‘Synchronise’ option like there is on iTunes; yes, you can buy books and add them to your computer’s library while the Reader isn’t plugged in, but if you want to add them to the Reader, you’ll have to do them by hand – and the Connect Store won’t stop you from adding duplicates. You can only create ‘Collections’ (think ‘Playlists’) of books that are stored on the Reader itself, not on the SD card; if you plan on having more than fifty books, this will prove to be highly irritating.
The one good thing about Connect Reader is that if you register your Reader and say that you live in the US (they don’t check), then you can buy 100 Connect Reader Classics for free. These are well-formatted editions of traditional, out-of-copyright classics, such as Dickens, Conan-Doyle, Shakespeare, Eliot, and so on. You can find all of these from other sites, but it’s a nice gesture. Unfortunately my good mood evaporated when I discovered that after clicking the ‘Buy’ button next to a book, I was taken to my shopping cart (after a few seconds). From there, I would have to click ‘Back’ to get back to the list of classics (again, after a few seconds). Try multiplying that by 100: the answer is ‘bloody annoying’.
The Connect Reader software, and the Connect Reader Store, are pinnacles of poor design. They are slow, annoying and buggy. They would almost be deal-breakers apart from the fact that you don’t tend to buy or shuffle around as many books as you do songs; but I dread every single time I have to use Connect Reader. This is an real shame, because the hardware is pretty solid.
Another Way Around
Contrary to what I said earlier, you can use the Sony Reader on Macs. An enterprising programmer has written unsupported software (libprs500) that will allow you to manage your books on the Reader not only on Macs, but on Linux and Windows (if you want to ditch Connect Reader). Rather predictably, it’s a bit buggy, but in some respects libprs500 is actually better than Connect Reader: it’s faster and it has more useful features, such as the ability to convert all sorts of text formats into eBook.
One new feature is, quite simply, the killer-app for me – the application that makes it better than everything that’s come before, that makes the Reader worth buying. This feature will download the entire contents of the BBC News website, Newsweek and the New York Times, format them with a table of contents and links, and then add them as books to your Reader. It does this in a few minutes, and requires only a single click.
It works perfectly well, and means that instead of reading brain-rotting freesheets like the London Metro, I can read the New York Times on the tube. Try telling me that’s not cool.
As usual, I have to add all sorts of caveats. You obviously lose some formatting, all the images and all of the layout. Even at an A4 size, the Economist displays about five to ten times as many words per page as the Reader. But you have to pay for the Economist, and you don’t have to pay for the New York Times. It’s slightly amusing that I’ll probably spend more time reading newspapers on the Reader than books, the content it was designed for.
You can use the Reader in landscape mode, although this usually increases the text size to the point where it’s not really worth the bother. It does look nice, for about ten seconds, and then you get bored.
The Sony Reader has very good build quality. It feels very solid, made out of tough high-quality plastic and metal. You get the feeling that if you dropped, it would be fine. It probably wouldn’t survive being dropped in the bath though (the number of people who ask…)
The software is also fairly decent. A straightforward menu appears when you turn the Reader on. It’s a little slow to move between menus, partly due to the slow refresh speed of the display, but I don’t have any major complaints. Navigating the 103 books doesn’t take long, and there are all sorts of helpful features like bookmarking and the fact that the Reader will remember where you stopped reading for every book. Those features make up for the annoying wait that occurs whenever you open a book for the first time.
One serious oversight in the Reader software is the way it orders books by author. Authors don’t have a ‘last name’ field, so they are usually ordered by their first names – unless the last name has been deliberately put at the first (e.g. ‘Dickens, Charles). Unfortunately different eBook stores have different practices, which ends up rendering the ‘Sort By Author’ option useless.
Although the Reader is smaller than most paperbacks, it’s significantly heavier, at 330g. That’s about 25% heavier than Mr. Bank’s 330 page book ‘Raw Spirit’. This means that it feels surprisingly dense, and holding it comfortable takes a little getting used to; with only one ‘page’, it feels a bit small to be holding with both hands, but holding it in just one hand feels odd at first. I got used to it in a few days though.
The design of the Reader is uneven. It’s not clear to me why they bothered putting in two sets of page-turning buttons, nor why the little joystick on the right doesn’t turn pages. I’ve found that holding it as in the photo above is the most comfortable posture (my thumb is over one set of the page-turning buttons), which is good enough, but the button placement and selection seems ill-thought out.
The Reader has an SD card expansion slot. It’s possible to add and remove books on the SD card without invoking the dreaded Connect Reader, by simply copying eBook files back and forth.
A 2GB SD card costs about £10 and will hold well over 1000 books, which I would imagine is more than enough for most. The only problem is that the more books you have on the SD card, the longer the Reader takes to load.
The Sony Reader, after one week
It’s a bit of a mess, really. The software is terrible, the store is unpleasant to use and restricted to the US, the design is decidedly average and at $350, it’s not worth it.
But after you’ve struggled through Connect Reader or switched over to third-party software, and after you’ve spent hours figuring out how it all works and loaded it up with books and newspapers, it’s really quite pleasant to use. Being able to carry around 100 books in your bag and jumping to your favourite passages is something that’s not been possible until now. It’s also tough to beat the feeling of reading your favourite newspaper on a crowded tube carriage, without having to fumble with the pages or find a bin to put it in.
The problem is, it takes hours to figure it out. Who’s going to bother doing that? I’m an early adopter, someone who’s used to messing about with first-generation technology, and even I found it incredibly irritating to use. Most people will be stuck with Connect Reader. Unbelievably, it’s not the hardware that’s holding the Sony Reader and other eBook readers back, it’s the software.
I was on the tube today, reading an article on the way to a meeting, when the guy sitting opposite me asked me about the Reader. This is a shocking occurrence – people hardly ever talk to stranger on the tube, and I can only put it down to extreme curiosity and the fact that he was a foreigner. In any case, he said that he was thinking about getting one for his mother, and wanted to know if you could change the size of the text.
You could, I said, demonstrating. He nodded, and I showed him a few pages from the book. Finally he asked me how much it cost and whether he should buy it.
I hesitated, and said that I wouldn’t have bought the Sony Reader for the full price. Instead, I recommended that he wait until next year when the second-generation of eBook readers become widely available.
I was disappointed that I had to say this, but it’s the truth. The Sony Reader just isn’t ready for the mass-market. But the fact that this stranger wanted to buy one for his mother shows that the mass-market is certainly ready for eBooks.
You can see all the photos in this article in a slideshow, with additional captions:
* What follows is a rather embarrassing and instructive tale of my first few hours with the Sony Reader. Like many other early adopters, I had researched the Sony Reader quite extensively and had found all sorts of third-party applications and books to put on it. After I had messed about with it an hour, I decided I should upgrade the Sony Reader’s firmware. This was an official upgrade, and it required Windows.
Being a geek, I have a Mac. Being even more of a geek, I have software that lets me run Windows within OS X. I proceeded to launch Windows, congratulating myself on my craftiness, and plug in the Reader for the firmware upgrade. About a minute in, it stalled.
I took the USB plug out and then put it in again. No response – the Reader insisted that it was still ‘installing firmware’. I tried a soft reset, which only brought me back to the same stalled screen. A hard reset didn’t even work. I tried every single recovery technique I could find on the web, and nothing worked. Having only received the Reader a few hours earlier, I was left with a non-functioning brick.
Like I said, it was embarrassing.
Now, throughout all of this, I had assumed that it had stalled because I’d done something wrong, like unplugging it while it was transferring books over on the Mac. But after discovering a forum post about the Reader, I realised it might have nothing to do with that. When you upgrade the firmware of a device, you are ‘reflashing’ the chip. It doesn’t really matter what ‘reflashing’ means, but the process of reflashing something over a USB cable is very sensitive to timing delays; sometimes a faulty USB cable will cause these delays.
I knew that my cable was fine, but perhaps there was something else causing timing delays. That something else was my computer itself – by running Windows within OS X, as a virtual operating system, all of the USB instructions were being subtly delayed. This hadn’t caused any problems with any other USB devices I’d used before, but it just wasn’t good enough for the Reader. I booted into Windows fully (you can do that on Macs as well), plugged it in, and all was well.
The moral of the story is, don’t be a smartass – no-one likes it, especially not finicky electronics.