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May 29, 2007

Gear Review: Sony Reader


When the Sony Reader appeared on store shelves last September, it didn't make the kind of splash a lot of people expected, and in the months since it hasn't sent waves rippling through the industry. Tech reviewers were less than whelmed by the Readers feature set--no backlighting, no search, no annotation, no wireless web streaming--and they considered the price, $350, to be way too high. Literary types, on the other hand, dismissed the Reader in a rather haughtier manner. They saw it not only as a poor substitute for a book, but as a threat to the hallowed tradition of "the book," another broadside from the over-stimulated, attention-deprived, caffeinated present on the deep-thinking and ever-threatened literary tradition.

To these arbiters of judgment, I offer a single and uncontestable fact: My 80-day circumnavigation would have been much less pleasurable without my Sony Reader. Thanks to it, I was able to take part--whenever I wanted, and for long, memorable stretches--in one of my most favorite of activities: reading.

The Reader is two things that a book isn't. It's slender--a mere half-inch thin--and it's dense. It can hold up to 80 e-books. Unlike books, it requires a battery, though the Reader lasts longer on a single charge than any electronic device I can think of save a quartz watch. The promotional literature claims it can display up to 7,500 page views before needing to be charged. I did not put this claim to the test, but on my six day train-ride across Siberia I never came even close to running out of juice. Several times a day I would hole up in my cabin and bury my nose in the Reader, sometimes for hours at a time. By the time I arrived in Moscow, I had used all of one quarter of battery life.

The Reader's most compelling quality, however, is that it's easy to read. Its readability is the very reason the unit was hailed as a breakthrough. The screen technology is not Sony's; it is the brainchild of a company called the E Ink Corporation, which, for some years leading up to the Reader's release, had been participating in a somewhat publicized race to develop electronic ink. The Reader's six-inch screen has 166 dots per inch (a regular computer has 72 dpi) and four levels of gray scale. It's not as easy on the eye as a book, but it sure beats reading text off a cell phone or laptop. Set the font to geriatric and you can stare at it for hours at a time without a hint of eyestrain.

To me, though, the most interesting thing about the Reader is that it changed the way I read. For years I have been in the habit of reading a lot of books at once. A pile of, at minimum, six books sits beneath my bedside table, all of which are in some state of being read. I might read one book on a given night, and then not return to it for a week, or maybe a month.

With the Reader, the process of switching books is elegant and rapid and books soon seem cumbersome by comparison. To put a book down, you press a button. To bring up another, you press a few more. The entire process takes no more than six or seven seconds and can be done without one's head leaving the pillow and the result is that I began reading as many as four books in a single sitting. I would change books whenever the impulse struck. Sometimes, this would happen after three hours, at other times after 30 seconds. I might leave and come back to a particular book two or three times in one sitting. I guess you could call it book surfing, and when you're stuck on a six-day train journey through Siberia, it's just the thing.

Is the Reader better than books? In a word, No. A book has body; the Reader does not. You can't write notes in the margin of the Reader, and you can't read the notes others have left. (Not yet, at least.) Does it have faults? Yes. It's too expensive, for one. The user interface is less than intuitive. "Turning" a page means waiting for a long, clunky second for the screen to refresh. It would be nice if you could flip to particular pages, or search for specific words. And the catalogue of books available on Sony's Connect eBooks online store has a long way to go.

But to compare the Reader to books is to miss the point. The device is particularly well suited to one thing: traveling. On a long journey, where packing light is required, it's a no-brainer. And there's a compelling case to pack a Reader on trans-oceanic flights or a trip to the beach, given that you're not going to cram eight titles into your carry-on or beach bag. The fact is the Reader can mean the difference between reading a little and reading a lot. That's something worth celebrating.


I couldn't agree with you more. Traveling with 'enough' reading material is just plain tiring and annoying. If I don't, I have to hope I'll run into a lending library in (for example, from a recent trip) the rain forests of Costa Rica! Now that I know about the Sony Reader, I'll take one on my next trip, no matter the cost.

Next time try an mp3 player with a couple of hundred audio books from freebie sources like Librivox or Podiobooks, just the thing for travelling!

I am traveler myself and enjoy readings what you have wrote. May peace be with you and travels.

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