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This year Sony tested the patience of e-book fans like me by twice delaying the release of its new PRS-500 reading device, originally promised for the spring. The company finally started taking orders over the Web in September, and the gadget can now be purchased at electronics stores and select Borders bookstores. Was it worth the wait? That depends on the size of your wallet.

The Sony Reader’s main selling point is its black-and-white “electronic paper” screen, which is not, of course, made from trees. It has been advertised as a far better imitation of real ink on paper than the LCDs found in laptops, cell phones, and earlier generations of e-book reading devices. After curling up for a couple of weeks with a unit loaned to me by Sony, I’m happy to report that the device lives up to its billing. It isn’t a replacement for paper–but it’s enough of an improvement on older generations of e-book readers to impress this veteran student of the technology.

In fact, I’d say the Sony Reader is the first e-book device that’s good enough to appeal to a large swath of readers, even given its hefty $350 price tag. The only major drawback of the system–and, in fairness, it’s one that has marred almost every attempt at making electronic books into a mass-market product–is that content for the device, which must be downloaded from Sony’s Connect eBooks retail site, is overpriced.

But early adopters, at least, aren’t daunted by high book prices: so far, Sony hasn’t been able to ship enough devices to keep up with demand. Personally, I’d been waiting for Sony to release an English-language e-book reader since 2004, when the company introduced its first e-book device, the Librié, in Japan. My interest in electronic-paper technology dated back to 1999-2001, when I served as managing editor for a technology news site called eBookNet. (The site was owned by a now-defunct startup called NuvoMedia, which manufactured the Rocket eBook, an elegant little device that captured my fancy when I first reviewed it–for Technology Review, in fact–in 1998.)

Even back then, I was already aware of an electronic-paper technology being developed by E Ink, a Cambridge, MA, startup founded in 1996 by researchers at MIT’s Media Lab. The scientists’ clever idea: sandwich millions of tiny, liquid-filled microcapsules between two layers of electrodes, the top one transparent. Floating inside each microcapsule are thousands of positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles. A negative charge applied at a given electrode on the lower layer pulls the white particles to the bottom of nearby microcapsules and pushes the black particles to the top, creating a black mark at that spot (the equivalent of a pixel in an LCD screen). The technology held out the promise of both higher resolution (since the colored particles are smaller than conventional pixels) and longer battery life (since the particles stay in place, without any further expenditure of electricity, until the user calls up the next page).

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