Sony Reader: Part 1 (of 4)

At Digital Life

In my first post from Digital Life, I wrote the following about the Sony Reader:

Sony Reader — Let’s get this out of the way first: you do not want to buy it. As impressive as the e-ink screen is (and it is damned impressive!), it has a fatal flaw: refresh. To move from one page to the next, the entire screen turns black and white — an ugly and distracting black and white that seriously deteriorates the reading experience. This is too bad. I kept wondering for hours afterwards if there wasn’t some sort of clever cross-fade animation Sony could devise to make it better. The Oh. My. God. Moment came in picking it up. This is a masterpiece of design and engineering. It is what a totable computer should be. This is what the Nokia 770 and all UMPCs should be like. Just this exact size and thickness. This is science-fiction come to life. It is worth your time to get to any store that has it just to hold it.

I am now formally retracting that first sentence:

Let’s get this out of the way first: you do not want to buy it.

It’s important for me to put that initial report in context.

(Anyone impatient for a full report about using the Sony Reader can go to Mobileread and read an excellent account here. Of all the reports I’ve read, this comes closest to grokking the Reader.)

I hadn’t expected the Sony Reader to be at Digital Life. In fact, I went to the show to see just one thing: the new Treo 680.

I came across the Reader in a display off to the side of Sony’s large exhibit. It was in a cradle on a display that included brochures about the device. That’s all I saw at the time. I marveled at the screen. When I went to change the page, that full-screen refresh hit me and my visceral reaction is the same as I think many non-tech people will have: horror and disgust. There’s just no getting around that initial reaction. I think it will initially be detrimental to sales. I picked up a brochure and left the show shortly thereafter.

I had no plans to return to Digital Life the next day. But that evening, looking over the show guide, I saw that Pepper Computer had given a presentation. Then I saw they also had a booth (which I had managed to miss!). Seeing the new Pepper Pad 3 was something I wanted to do, so I dropped everything for the next day to return to Digital Life.

Then I read the brochure for the Sony Reader and was brutally assaulted by a “Columbo Moment” — it mentioned the Reader could do RSS! How could I see that demonstrated?

During the course of that second day, I wound up at PC Magazine‘s large multi-part suite where they were exhibiting a great variety of products. One of them was the Sony Reader. And it had some demonstration RSS feeds on it: Lifehacker and Slate. I was warned that I wouldn’t like what I was about to see. These feeds were done by the Sony software bundled with the Reader. There are only two words to describe what those two RSS feeds looked like: absolutely tragic! The formatting was horrible; ads were included that took up a full page, yet which occupied only one-third of the vertical space — with the rest of the space remaining blank! Plus, the Lifehacker feed was over 500 pages! And that was for just a single sampling of one day. My heart was broken.

I’d also remembered from the Reader brochure that it could accept PDFs. It just so happened I had recently dropped close to twenty PDFs onto the 64MB RS-MMC on my Nokia 770 (it has a built-in PDF Reader). And I was carrying the adapter for the card! So we inserted the card and after a few spins of two arrows chasing one another in a circle, the PDFs were listed in the Books menu of the Reader.

Unfortunately, like all PDFs, these were formatted for an 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of paper. The text was very tiny. It also tended to be gray instead of deep black. The PC Magazine people told me it was possible to rotate the screen, but they didn’t recall how to do that. They suggested I go to the Sony exhibit.

Back at the Sony exhibit this time, I saw what I had missed the previous day: an entire row of Sony Readers set up for people to fondle! I was also introduced to someone from the group responsible for handling it in the U.S.

We talked. And talked. And talked. I asked many questions, he gave many frank answers (he was, I think, afraid not to: he’d read my past writings online!). I promised I would not quote him at all nor mention his name or position at Sony. Done.

We popped in my 770’s RS-MMC. He rotated the screen (by holding down the Size button for several seconds). The range of readability varied from one PDF to the next. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I wasn’t excited by what I saw. Unless a PDF is specifically scaled for the Reader’s screen (as its onboard User Guide is), PDFs on it will be just slightly less aggravating to use than on the Nokia 770.

He gave me a light demonstration of the unit. I didn’t intend to bang on it just then. I wanted to digest our conversation.

At home that night, I did some research online, following some of the bread crumbs he’d dropped into the conversation (who can spout full URLs off the top of his head?). I chewed on what he said some more.

I went back for the third day of Digital Life, armed with a bunch more questions. There was a lot more talk. I still wasn’t focused on the Reader, though; the Pepper Pad 3 was still taking up prime real estate in my head (I posted about it the previous night).

I said that I’d seen the SD slot (located at the top left of the “spine”) the previous day, but not the slot for the Memory Stick. It turned out to be one slot for both. That really impressed me: not only did Sony relent and let this group use SD, they also allowed SD to mingle with their Memory Stick! Anyone familiar with The Sony Way understands what a huge concession this is.

I was then told the Reader could also play music. Two sample tracks were already on the Reader. I was given a set of noise-cancelling headphones (the kind with the large cushioned cups) to sample the tracks. The audio jack is at the botttom right corner of the Reader. This is the first time a jack at the bottom of a device has made sense to me: the cord won’t dangle over the screen, blocking the text.

It was, of course, very noisy at the Javits Center, particularly near the Reader area. I didn’t care for the music, so I didn’t pay much attention to sound quality and I didn’t even check the volume level to see if it was maxed (a “Columbo Moment” I had later that night at home!). Music — or any MP3 or AAC audio file — can be played in the background while reading a book. In fact, this is the preferred method if audio must be used at all. Keeping the audio player open refreshes the screen each second as the Elapsed Time counter and Progress Bar are incremented, really eating up the battery. On the left side of the Reader (its “spine”) are two buttons to control volume (+/-); pressing both together pauses. What I forsee happening here are people — OK, maybe just me — eschewing the side buttons and just unjacking the earbuds when, say, a phone rings, and then forgetting that audio is still playing in the background. There is no indication while in a book that audio is playing. I suggested a tiny musical note icon be added to the status area.

Looking at my RS-MMC later that night on the 770 via its File Manager, I saw the Reader left a folder called “Sony Reader,” in which there was a folder called “Database,” inside of which was a 9K file called “Cache.XML.” (I did not have anything on the 770 to open the file.)

I returned for a third day to really test the audio again. This time I pulled my cheapie jWin MP3 player out of my pocket and popped out its 128MB SD and put it in the Reader. I had MP3s of Girls Don’t Cry demo songs on it and was eager to check the sound quality. This time I used the basic necklaced earbuds that came with the jWin; no noise cancellation to get in the way or skew the output. And I made sure the volume was cranked to max. Damn! Not only could I easily hear the Girls above the din, the quality was very fine. My reaction to audio in the Reader is that it’s probably something I’m unlikely to use unless I’m unable to carry the jWin for whatever reason (e.g., not wanting it in an outside coat pocket during frigid weather).

I looked at a full manga installed on one of the demo Readers. Its Info screen revealed it was a wee bit over 60MB(!). The Reader has 64MB of user-accessible memory (most likely Flash). Sony’s brochure, which is designed for non-tech buyers, touts an “80 book” capacity. Not when those books are manga! (Fortunately, manga afficionados tend to be tech-savvy otaku.)

Another wise move — if not yet another concession — by Sony is that the bottom port to link the Reader with a PC is a standard mini-USB connector (CLIE owners will tell you of their frustration due to Sony’s affection for proprietary ports!). And I do mean PC: like using the iTunes Store, using the Sony Connect online service to buy ebooks requires a Connect host program in the vein of the iTunes media manager. It will run on PCs only, and requires XP. No Mac, no Linux (and I don’t know if it can run on a Mac running XP, although in theory I see no reason it wouldn’t work). I think the lack of Mac compatibility is a mistake by Sony. iPod sales really exploded once Apple made iTunes PC-compatible. I think Mac compatibility, in a likewise manner, would make Sony Reader sales explode. Mac people would buy the Reader like mad.

The Reader can also display photos. Some people might dismiss this, but people have kept photos on monochrome CLIEs (and Palms) — myself included. Photos look surprisingly sharp. No need for another photo album? Then think maps. Or diagrams.

The last thing I wanted to see was the Reader’s AC adapter, Just In Case. It turns out to be one of those practically-weightless adapters Sony also produced for its CLIEs.

Finally, I tried something stupid. Yes, really stupid. I own a pen scanner, the QuickLink Pen, which I usually have with me. About five years ago, one of the then-WizCom Tech people recounted an absurd tech support call they got: A purchaser wanted to know if he could scan text off a computer monitor! Ha ha. Well, that popped to the top of my mind, seeing that paper-like Reader screen! So, I tried scanning. It didn’t work. I did this on the third day. On the fourth day, one of the Sony people was still curious about that, so we brought a Reader outside to try! Still no go. Two things worked against it: the reflective plastic surface of the screen combined with the bright sunlight. However, connect the dots.

I ultimately came away from Digital Life excited by the Sony Reader. But I wanted some uncrowded fondle time with it. I got that at SonyStyle. I discovered some things you’ll want to read about in Part Two.

3 Responses to Sony Reader: Part 1 (of 4)

  1. […] From the reviews I’ve read (here, and here) this is not a perfect product, but it sounds like the Sony Reader is a reader that is finally good enough to use. A product that will actually be comfortable to hold, won’t hurt your eyes and won’t restrict what you can can download onto it. Even if it doesn’t take off like the iPod did, it should offer some market traction. […]

  2. […] Mike Cane left a comment in response to my post about the Sony Reader. He said he hoped I’d write about the possibilities of socialising books on the Internet. Ever eager to please, here I go… […]

  3. […] Sony was first to the mass-market eBook device market 2) Then Amazon came along with the Kindle and stole it from […]

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