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Sony’s e-book reading device is the most ingenious to date. It may fail anyway.

In 2006, Sony tested the patience of e-book fans by twice delaying the release of its PRS-500 reading device, originally set for the spring. The company finally started taking orders over the Web in September, and the gadget can now be bought at electronics stores and some Borders bookstores.

Sony Reader (PRS-500) $349.99 www.sony.com/reader

It was worth the wait. The Sony Reader’s selling point is its black-and-white “electronic paper” screen, which has been advertised as a far better imitation of 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 lent to me by Sony, I’m happy to report that it lives up to its billing. It isn’t a replacement for paper–but it is the first e-book device that works well enough to appeal to a large swath of readers, even given its $350 price tag.

If electronic publishing is to take off, a good reading device will be necessary but not sufficient. Sony’s system for delivering e-books has a key weakness: content is too expensive. At the prices Sony and its publishing partners are charging for the e-book versions of current hardcovers, just 25 books will set you back about $350. The same problem has derailed almost every attempt at making electronic books into a mass-market product.

I’d been waiting for Sony to release an English-language e-book reader since 2004, when it introduced its first e-paper device, the Librié, in Japan. My interest in electronic-paper technology dates back to 1999-2001, when I served as managing editor for a technology news site called eBookNet. The site was owned by a 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 1999. NuvoMedia is now defunct, the victim of high e-book prices imposed by publishers and an ill-conceived merger with Gemstar-TV Guide International. Most of its competitors went down, too. Sony was one of the first to reënter the market.

Even in my NuvoMedia days, I was aware of the technology being developed by E Ink, a startup in Cambridge, MA, founded in 1997 by researchers at MIT’s Media Lab (see “Electronic Paper Turns the Page,” March 2001). Their 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 beneath the transparent electrode; clusters of these marks make up the equivalent of a black pixel in an LCD screen. This held out the promise of both higher resolution (since the pixels can be made smaller than those in LCDs) and longer battery life (since the particles stay in place, without any further electricity use, until the user calls up the next page). And this is the technology that Sony licensed for the Librié and the Reader PRS-500.

I’d long wanted to see E Ink’s technology in action. And as it turns out, the Reader’s six-inch-diagonal display is a beauty. 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 characters appear sharper and smoother than on other displays. The Reader’s screen doesn’t achieve the crispness of black text on the thick, bleached pages of a hardcover book. But the contrast ratio of the Reader’s screen–the brightness of the whites measured against the deepness of the blacks–is 8:1, which puts it on a par with newsprint.

Sony was careful to make the quarter­-kilogram device, which weighs about as much as a two-thirds-full can of soda, comfortable to hold and easy to operate. There are special buttons for navigating from any page in an e-book to the table of contents and to various chapters; there’s another button for changing the text size, a helpful feature for the bifocals crowd. The device lacks a search function, but you can skip through a book in 10 percent (or 10-page) increments, and there’s a bookmark button.

The only two buttons you have to remember, though, are the ones for paging forward and back. 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 once, used it for more than 20 hours, and never came close to depleting its battery.

But if you buy a lot of e-books from Sony’s online bookstore, you will quickly deplete your wallet. The “Connect eBooks” store is to the Reader what iTunes is to the iPod and is almost as easy to use; customers browse titles using a Windows program provided with the Reader, download purchased e-books to their PCs, and manually synchronize their Readers with their PCs. The store offers a decent range of current and backlist titles, at prices comparable to those Amazon charges for print books. For example, the electronic version of Walter Mosley’s Fortunate Son, which lists at $23.95 in hardcover, is discounted by the publisher to $17.95, and further discounted by Sony to $14.36. (Amazon charges $16.29 for the hardcover.) But I can’t see readers paying that much for e-books. A $5.95 paperback, cheap as it may feel, is a concrete thing.

In fact, I doubt that e-books will be seen as a viable alternative to commercial print books until they’re so cheap that their ephemerality doesn’t matter to buyers. With iTunes, Apple has demonstrated that for downloadable songs and TV shows, this magic price point is $1 to $2. Because reading an e-book is so different from reading a print book, e-books aren’t directly comparable to downloadable songs, which can sound just as good as CDs. Still, I’d guess the magic price point is quite low; personally, I wouldn’t pay much more than $5 or $6, or about the price of a low-end paperback.

Of course, high book prices aren’t the only reason the Sony Reader may be slow to catch on. Many ­people’s pockets and purses are already stuffed with more gadgets than they’d like. A dedicated e-book reader may not make the cut. And while Sony’s device is capable of displaying Word files, PDFs, gray-scale graphics, and RSS feeds (including news stories or blog entries downloaded each day from the Web), it doesn’t do any of these things as well as laptops do.

Still, when it comes to pure readability, the Sony Reader proves that e‑book technology is finally good enough to appeal to parts of the mass market. In fact, it may be just the first of a new generation of reading devices: in November, iRex, a Dutch spin­off of Royal Philips Electronics, started shipping the iLiad e-paper device (which looks remarkably similar to the Sony Reader but costs more than twice as much), and rumors in the blogosphere indicated that Amazon was working on its own e-paper device. Now hardware makers and content providers need to settle on a business model that makes sense to consumers. Economics, not ergonomics or engineering, will determine whether the second coming of e-book devices lasts longer than the first.

Wade Roush is a Technology Review contributing editor.

Sony Reader
(PRS-500)
$349.99
www.sony.com/reader

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