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A Good Read

The new Sony Reader is the coolest e-book device yet–for those who can stomach the price of e-content.
November 8, 2006

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 PRS-500 holds hundreds of digital books and displays them on a unique “electronic paper” screen invented by MIT Media Lab researchers. (Credit: Sony)

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).

I’d long wanted to see E Ink’s technology, which Sony licensed for the Librié and the new Sony Reader PRS-500, in action. And as it turns out, the Reader’s six-inch-diagonal display is a beauty to look at. It’s 800 pixels high and 600 pixels wide, giving it a resolution of roughly 170 pixels per inch. That trounces a standard LCD’s 90 to 120 pixels per inch, which means the edges of printed characters appear sharper and less jagged than on other displays. In fact, grayscale images on the device look even sharper than halftones on newsprint, which have a resolution of 85 to 150 dots per inch. Text on the Reader still isn’t quite as sharp as the text in newspapers or paper books. But the screen’s contrast ratio–the brightness of the whites, measured against the deepness of the blacks–is a respectable 8:1, which puts it on par with newsprint.* The Reader’s screen doesn’t quite achieve the crispness of black text on the thick, bleached pages of a hardcover book, but then again, neither does the print on the pages of paperbacks.

Sony was also careful to make the 0.25-kilogram device comfortable to hold and easy to operate. It has only two important buttons: Page Forward and Page Back. Pressing them with the left thumb requires even less effort than turning the pages of a printed book. And you can press those buttons up to 7,500 times before the Reader runs out of power, according to Sony. I believe it. I charged the device only once, used it for more than 20 hours, and never came close to depleting its battery.

One particularly lovely feature–which does, however, run down the battery faster–is the user’s ability to listen to music with the device’s built-in player while he or she is reading. The Sony Reader may not be the first device that can display e-books and play songs, but to my knowledge it’s the first that can do both at the same time.

In sum, the Sony Reader is so well engineered that it’s no longer reasonable to dismiss e-book devices solely on the grounds that they aren’t as simple, readable, or enjoyable to use as printed books. Sony’s system has only two flaws worth noting. One is that the screen often shows a faint ghost image of the previously viewed page, due to the fact that a few black particles remain near the top of the microcapsules after some of the page’s black pixels change to white. To “erase” more particles, Sony programmed the entire screen to flash black between pages, rather as if one were shaking an Etch-a-Sketch. But this results in an annoying flicker.

The other flaw, as already mentioned, is the price of e-books at Sony’s Connect eBooks site. The site offers a decent range of titles, including many current bestsellers. Most of the publishers working with Sony charge less for electronic editions than for print hardcovers, and Sony further discounts these prices. Walter Mosley’s Fortunate Son, for example, lists at $32.95 in hardcover, while the electronic edition is discounted to $17.95, and Sony Connect sells it for $14.36. But I just can’t see average readers paying that much for e-books, which, after all, have about as much physical substance as the digital signals that flit through your PC. A $5.95 paperback may have onion-skin-thin paper and almost invisibly small type, but at least it’s a concrete thing you can hold and put on your shelf. E-books may not be seen as a viable alternative to print books until they’re so cheap that their ephemerality doesn’t matter. Until publishers and hardware makers can turn e-books into a sensible economic proposition, the way Apple’s iTunes Store has done with $0.99 downloadable songs and $1.99 TV shows, I fear the technology will languish.

The prospect of a $1.99 bestselling novel is unthinkable within today’s publishing culture–yet every author and publisher knows in his or her heart that e-books will, at some point in this century, begin to outsell print books. What may be most significant about the Sony Reader, then, is that by bringing the technology of e-reading up to snuff, it is clearing the way for inevitable changes in the economics of publishing. Whether those changes come about soon enough to keep Sony’s device on store shelves is doubtful. But I believe they will happen, just as surely as iTunes and the iPod have upended the music business.

* The original version of this story incorrectly implied that the text on the Reader screen, at 170 pixels per inch, is sharper than text on newsprint. In fact, newsprint text has a resolution of 300 to 1000 dots per inch. However, as the story now states, the resolution of grayscale images on the Reader’s screen does exceed the typical resolution of halftone images published in newspapers (85 to 150 dots per inch).

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