My New Favorite Gadget (no, not the iPhone)

Sony Reader 2006 I’m sure you were expecting me to talk about the iPhone, but I will refrain, mostly.  My friend Jud is actually waiting in line at the Apple Store in Boulder and graciously offered to buy me one (thanks Jud!) if there are any 8GB models left.  I predict that they will under-allocate the 8GB models and sell out fast on the 8GB version.  Most anyone who will pay $499 for a phone will pay $599 for a phone, so why not go all in and get the 8GB?  But I digress.  I can’t proclaim the iPhone to be my new favorite gadget until I actually spend some time using it.

My wife bought me a great gift for father’s day:  the Sony Reader.  I’ve been using it for a couple weeks now, have read two books on it:  Orwell’s classic 1984, which came pre-loaded, and Freakonomics, which had been sitting on my real-world bookshelf for some time now, but I never got around to reading it.  But I’ve had a lot of airplane time lately, which offers the perfect setting for getting some uninterrupted reading done.

It has been a long time since I’ve been so excited about a new gadget.  The e-ink display is 170 dpi and has contrast almost as good as a paperback book and is a pleasure to read.  I’d say it is 90% as good as reading on real paper — no eye fatigue and a way more pleasant display to read from than a laptop screen.  And the form factor is great too.  I can carry dozens of books around now in a book smaller and lighter than I’d normally lug around on a plane.  I have a nasty habit of reading brand new releases, which means I pay more than I should and that the hardcover books weigh more than they should.  Problem solved with the Sony Reader.

Now that I have sung its praises, it is time for a few gripes and suggestions.  In a perfect world, the pages would "turn" a bit faster.  Clearly the refresh rate on this early generation e-ink display needs to be sped up.  But I can fantasize how some day it will be full color in 300 – 600 dpi, at which point it will be on a par with paper.

I use the included cover that folds over the screen to protect it, so it does feel and look like a book when you hold it in your hands.  But ideally (though it would be expensive) I would love to see a display on both sides when the book is "open", just like a real book.  It would be great to have two full pages to read before changing pages.  I suspect that there would be slightly less eye fatigue if you had two e-ink pages to read, since I am sure that the slightly different angles you view the pages from while reading a book serves to prevent, um, carpal eyeball syndrome or something.

And the PDF file reader is pretty lame.  My brother sent me some PDF files to read and I was dismayed to find out that I could not zoom in on them, which rendered the text far to small to read, even on the high-res e-ink screen.  And I think the placement of the two sets of page-turn buttons (both on the lower left quadrant of the device) is a bit odd.  If you are going to put two sets of buttons that do the same thing on the device, they shouldn’t be so close together.

Finally, I have to complain about the Sony Connect e-Bookstore and related client software.   Right now, with about 15,000 titles, the selection is thin and the browsing experience isn’t that good.  These guys need to take a lesson from iTunes and Amazon about how to property merchandise goods online.  I’m sure this will improve as the selection grows, but right now it feels like there isn’t much there there.  And the fact that there isn’t a Mac client for the Reader is also very annoying.  Luckily I run BootCamp and Parallels on my mac so I wasn’t left out in the cold, but I’m sure a high percentage of the early adopters on this book are also Mac users.

Anyway, despite all the above bits of criticism, this is a great product and I am really enjoying it.  If you are an avid reader and particularly if you are an avid reader and a road warrior, you will really enjoy the Sony Reader.  And happily, my biggest complaints are the amount of content available and the client software, both of which should improve over time.

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