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Gadget Patrol: Sony PRS-300 ebook reader

I read ebooks. I've been doing so since around 1997, on a variety of handheld gadgets; the convenience factor of having a bookshelf in your pocket over a few kilograms of dead tree in your shoulder bag shouldn't be underestimated, and if you travel a lot, well — a random empirical test suggests the average mass market paperback weighs about 250 grams, and a hardbound novel about 660 grams.

Reading ebooks on a PDA or phone has two drawbacks: battery life, and screen size. Battery life probably won't hit you until the next time you're 35 hours late on an 18 hour three-sector flight ... but most PDAs or phones are only good for 3-7 hours of reading before it's time to swap power packs (assuming you're carrying a spare). Screen size is another headache. Ageing eyes (mine have been working for 45 years now) have difficulty resolving tiny text. (I discount dealing with glare from backlit screens, a common objection you hear from the anti-ebook folks; if you can watch TV for 30 hours a week you can deal with an LCD.) So it's nice to have something a bit larger ...

I acquired my first dedicated ebook reader two and a half years ago: a Sony Reader PRS-505, their third generation ebook. The marketing proposition for ebook readers is that rather than a backlit LCD or OLED display, they rely on electronic paper — a very low power consumption, greyscale reflective display technology that has much the same visual feel as newsprint. You read using ambient (reflected) light, just like a book, and it only consumes battery juice when you update the display (i.e. by turning pages).

The PRS-505 had pros and cons. Pros: good screen, light weight, ability to render PDF and RTF files as well as Sony's own proprietary LRF ebook format, and an SD card slot for additional storage, internal memory presenting as a USB mass storage device if you cable it up to a computer. The battery life was amazing: on that 35-hours-late trip it was still showing three bars out of four when I arrived, having read about three books en route. The cons: well, Sony's software for starters (it's awful, and back then was Windows only), useless extra bells and whistles (I did not buy it for its MP3 playing capabilities, or to use it as a monochrome digital picture frame — if the MP3 player got activated accidentally it could drain the battery in less than six hours, with no warning), and bad ergonomics.

The software was not, ultimately, an obstacle, thanks to the sterling work of programmer Kovid Goyal, whose application Calibre makes a much better ebook library manager than anything Sony's development group have barfed up; it's open source, cross-platform, and feature-rich, and among other things can convert ebooks between a dizzying range of file formats. The one thing it doesn't handle is DRM. But DRM on ebooks is ... well, I won't buy any electronic product protected by DRM that I can't unlock. (And unlike most readers, I'm in a position to email editors and say "is the manuscript of $HOT_NEW_NOVEL ready yet? If so, email me a copy and I'll blurb it for you." Which is to say, I have slightly different relationship with the publishing world from most readers.)

There are some minor annoyances. Sony's readers (at least the 505 and 300) don't come with a power brick. They will charge over USB ... but many USB chargers don't deliver enough juice, and if you plug them into anything other than a live computer there's a good chance you'll drain the battery instead of topping it up. There's a socket for a separate charger, but Sony seem to think that £30 is a sane price for one. Tip: it uses the same plug, current, and voltage as a Playstation Portable, and PSP power bricks are lot cheaper and easier to find.

But in the end it was the ergonomics that got to me. If you read books on screen, you will be in intimate contact with the ebook reader for hours on end. And the page turn buttons on the PRS-505 were diabolically stupid in their placement: bottom-left of front, or middle of the right edge. I got cramp in my thumbs, turning pages. Not good.

A couple of months ago, Sony began a major roll-out of new ebook readers, and after playing with the new models in a store and doing some research on alternatives from the likes of Irex and Amazon I settled on a Sony
PRS-300 — the pocket-sized stripped-down member of the range.

What I have to say about the PRS-300 after a couple of months with it is: win. It's about the width and weight (220 grams) of a slim mass-market paperback, but about a centimetre shorter: jacket pocket sized, in other words, and light enough not to make the jacket sag. It doesn't have memory card slots or an MP3 player or a web browser and wifi and other bells and whistles; instead, it has half a gigabyte of onboard storage (enough for about a thousand novels) and does just one thing. It's a single purpose device, in other words, but a properly designed one that does the job well (and the page turn wheel is in the right place, easily usable with either hand and no joint-busting contortions). It does everything ebook-wise that the PRS-505 did, including reading Adobe Digital Editions (a more universal standard for DRM lock-in) and the ePub common ebook format.

I rejected the bells-and-whistles approach for a reason. Firstly, things like Amazon's whispernet or wifi suck battery power like crazy. Secondly, I'm used to getting books onto my machine by using a library program on my main laptop. The argument that an ebook reader should also let you browse online bookstores is fine as far as it goes — but it rapidly leads to feature-creep (and price rises). I'm not enchanted by Amazon's policies on Kindle ebook sales, and I see no prospect that Sony or Barnes and Noble or the other retailers will be any better with respect to balancing consumer rights against the powers that DRM give them to control your reader. So the online stores aren't attractive to me. When I want to read a book, I don't need distractions; I need a simple display device that does one thing well — puts pixels in front of my eyes. Oh, and it had better be cheap, in case I accidentally drop it in the bath or leave it in a hotel room. The PRS-300 isn't cheap, but it costs a lot less than its competitors, and I reckon the price will come down a long way in 2010. (It'll have to, if it's going to stay on the market and compete with the bells'n'whistles brigade.)

Note that, implicit in this discussion, is the assumption that I'm reading non-graphical works of English-language fiction. If you want to largely read other types of text, the PRS-300 will suck. It'd be useless for colour comics, useless for large PDFs such as RPG manuals, and poor for text books. Unlike more expensive readers it doesn't support annotation of texts. (I'm not convinced we're anywhere remotely close to a proper digital textbook reader yet — not unless your definition stretches to something like the Asus Eee T91 and a five-hour battery life.)

But if what you want to do is to read novels in regular lighting conditions without having to worry about running out of battery power, the PRS-300 is the way to go.

UPDATE: My wife is looking for an ebook reader that supports annotations. The catch: she is 100% Mac-based (and allergic to Microsoft products — if a piece of software runs on Windows, it's inappropriate to her needs). Anyone got any recommendations?




I've noticed bookeen supports multiple os and dosen't seem tied to a particular DRM store, bit I've never used one.


J: The Bookeen device looks broadly similar in spec to the PRS-505, only less appealing design and reads Mobipocket files rather than ePub. No annotations either. Also: not readily available in the UK. (I'm not averse to grey-market imports, but I prefer to see an example of what I'm buying first.)


Am I the only person who prefers a backlit bookreader so I can read as a car passenger at night, or I can read in bed with the light switched off, and only have to flick the reader off when I go to sleep?

Readers aren't dependent on ambient light like a book is - this is a big advantage. Of course, I use the device with the worst battery life on earth - the iPhone.


Richard@3: No, you are not. The backlight was an essential part of all my ebook reading devices, and I've been through a bunch of them (Palm Vx, SE P800, Benq-Siemens EF81 and now a Nokia 5800XM). However, the only occasion when an LCD/OLED screen is absolutely and completely crappy (other than incidences of 35-hour-long stuckedness Charlie mentioned) is the beach, where I am always struggling to read in glaring sunlight. Another problem with the beach is that I was pretty reluctant to leave my brand new (then) 350 euro cellphone unattended while snorkeling. Since my needs are exactly the same as those outlined above by our host, and having time to wait for a potential drastic price drop before I hit the beaches in 2010, I have to ask...

@Charlie: you mention that you use the device to read "non-graphical works of English-language fiction". 99% of the time, so do I. However, occasionally I load my 5800 with a text written in a language that relies heavily on various diacritics, not to mention that even English-language fiction occasionally contains some funny characetrs, so I have to ask - how is the UTF-8 support on the device?


iPhone + Stanza's been win for me; I'm kinda afraid what'll happen to Stanza once Amazon gets to Kindle-izing it though.. Of course, I usually read longer books in dead tree format, but 0g extra weight (I use the 'phone also as mp3 player which I keep with me anyway) is a winner ;)


Thanks for your review Charlie. I've recently been flitting about between a kindle, the sony pocket / touch, and the iriver story. I'm not entirely comfortable with Amazon's track record in handling their ebooks, and I want to limit how much cash I invest in something which still feels like early-adoption (despite the tech being a few generations down the line).

The sony pocket was seeming like the best choice for me, but I need to do more research into where I'll be able to source the books from. I'm in Ireland, so I'm not even sure I can buy from the online sony uk store (without actually going through with buying a book). CC'd and out-of-copyright books are a given, but I have to ask what seems to be the standard question in these discussions: does anyone know of any other alternative online ebook shops? Most I've found seem to have a very limited range of books.


I'm also a big fan of the Sony Readers (I'm the random who was going to ask you to sign my PRS-505 at Sci-Fi-London only to find when I wandered up to say hello that the screen had died - Sony fixed it and sent it back within a week, which was nice) and I think the new(ish) Sony Touch (PRS-600) might work for annotation. I only had a quick play, and I think it allows you to make notes and attach them to text, but I'm not sure if that actually does inline annotation. They have an SD slot so book management can be done through that on whatever platform and I assume the internal memory will popup on a Mac when you plug it in via usb - that's what happens with my 505. If you want some management software then Calibre (http://calibre-ebook.com/) works nicely on the Mac and it's free.

They're also available in the UK and there should be at least one stuck to a stand in your local Waterstones to poke at.


Sebastian: good question. I'm monolingual, but a quick google suggests the Sony readers support UTF-8. (They also support OpenType fonts, although getting them onto the device requires a bit of hackery.)

Markus: I believe Amazon acquired Lexcycle (the company behind Stanza) because Stanza is an ePub reader; they wanted an insurance policy against Mobipocket (which they also own, and which is the platform the Kindle DRM'd file format is built on) losing out in the market. It's more likely that the Kindle will acquire Stanza characteristics than vice versa -- but there's no guarantee Stanza will remain available (it's not open source, unlike the reader in Calibre, or FBReader).


Nice writeup, thanks. My dad has a 505, and he ran into that "power drain due to insufficient charger" problem on vacation. Sad that Sony couldn't be bothered to avoid that happening...

I own one of the older Cybook Bookeen models, and the ergonomics are horrible. You have to click the SHARP edge of a STIFF control to turn pages, so turning pages gets painful quickly.

I now own a Kindle and love it. But I'm in the US, so Whispernet is handy. Also, the kindle's bookmark sync between the kindle, ipod, and pc applications is a very nice feature.

But the PRS-300 sounds like a nice system too, thanks for the info.


I was on the point of buying a Sony PRS-300, but the one thing that put me off was the lack of an SD card reader. Since the other devices I mostly used to read ebooks were my phone and netbook, I wanted to be able to swap the card back and forth. I solved my problem by buying a Hanvon N516 (http://www.ebuyer.com/product/176445), a Chinese brand which I'd never heard of, but had a similar hardware spec as the Sony, same size screen (probably the same e-ink panel), but had the SD card slot wanted, and better still, I could replace the firmware with the OpenInkpot Linux distro (http://openinkpot.org/). That not only gave me a nicer interface, but supported more formats (I don't have to convert all my Mobipocket files to ePub, yay!). Only downside is that it doesn't support DRM in either it's original firmware or with OpenInkpot, but since none of my ebooks have DRM on them (any more), that is not so much of a problem. Cost £30 less than the Sony, including a fairly robust (fake?) leather wallet.
Of course I'm going to have to keep joining Worldcons to ensure I keep getting those DRM-free versions of Hugo nominated fiction, but I can live with that.



My kneejerk recommendation for your wife is the Barnes & Noble 'Nook' ebook; it's capacitive touch screen inset below the e-paper screen allows for a soft keyboard to do annotations with very similar to the iphones on-screen keyboard. It appears to be the most elegant solution for the annotations themselves.

The Nook has it's downsides, however. First, it's a Barnes & Noble offering, which means limited availability (US only as far as I know - does B&N have locations in your neck of the woods?)

The Nook also cannot -export- it's annotations, which is sort of made of fail.

If that is a deal breaker, you probably want to go with the Sony E-Reader Touch; it includes a touch-screen overlay on the e-paper surface, and will allow exporting of the annotations using Sony's...limited, shall we say, ebook software package.


I had (actually still have) a bookeen cybook3. It suffered a fatal screen accident a few months back and the price of sending it back to be repaired was significant so I've never done that. There are a lot of things to like about the bookeen - simplicity being the main one - but it suffers from the problems of expensive and fragile screens that seem to be true for pretty much all e-ink readers.

Instead, after a couple of months of mooching around thinking, I've been using the Netwalker. Since I know Charlie has one - it was his fault that I bought one in the first place - he might perhaps get his wife one of those. Since it is a computer you can certainly use it to make notes - annotations of the ebook text I'm not sure - and as it is a computer you can easily get the documents/books on or off using whatever network stack you wish or by doing the obvious of plugging in an external USB drive.

As Richard @3 notes the backlit nature has a plus in that you cna read it in the dark - though there is a minus in that you may suffer from problems is bright sunight (though the netwalker is definitely better than my old eee 701 in sunlight).


My favorite ebook reader (until it died) was a grey-market Sharp Zaurus C860--Linux-based, clamshell PDA with, among other things, a decent web browser and an SD card slot. Got me through many a staff meeting ...

Haven't found a replacement yet; my wife was very upset I wasn't interested in the Sony last holiday season, but I refuse to use anything that doesn't support html (webscription has too much of my limited spending $).


David G - you need a Sharp PC Z1 Netwalker which is the successor to the Zaurus. Charlie reviewed it a couple of months ago


Daniel: yes, all the online stores have a limited range. As quite a lot of books are only published in one format, or a couple of formats, being able to transcode between formats enables you to buy more of them. So one thing you can consider doing is widening the range of formats you can read.

For example, you can download Mobipocket reader, generate a PID (a unique-to-your-computer identity number -- ebook stores ask you for this, so that they can generate ebooks locked to that machine). This isn't much use if your ebook reader doesn't digest Mobipocket files, but if you go looking for the appropriate Mobipocket DRM-cracker (naming no names you want 4DeDRMfiles, which contains MobiDeDRM-0.02.py -- a python script). With DRM stripped out, you can then use Calibre to convert your legally-purchased ebooks and read them on a non-Mobipocket device.

(Note that the tool I mention is no use for reading someone else's DRM'd files; you need to give it the correct PID "key" before it can unlock an ebook. I'm not advocating piracy; I am, however, suggesting that honest ebook purchasers might like to be able to still read their purchases after their current piece of electronics has bitten the dust ... as they generally do within a single handful of years.)

Burke: no, Barnes & Noble don't trade in the UK. (Borders did, but ran into trouble, sold off their stores a couple of years ago, and Borders UK is now in either bankruptcy protection or liquidation.)

I should have said: export of annotations is mandatory.

I've suggested to my wife that she plays with a friend's Irex Iliad, but the Iliad has numberous drawbacks, and Irex's successor models are nose-bleedingly expensive (and the software's a work in progress). If only Apple made a tablet Mac ... but they don't (yet), and I am not sufficiently rich to casually buy her a Modbook for Christmas.


FYI: Adobe's ADEPT DRM (used on ePubs and PDFs) is trivial to remove. You should be able to find the scripts at your favourite torrent aggregator.


Moderation note: please don't post URLs linking directly to DRM unlocking tools here. If you do, I'll delete them. (I'm pretty sure posting direct links to "hacking tools" is illegal under UK law, and I'm not prepared to risk having my entire internet presence taken offline.) Discussing their existence is, I believe, still legal.


Feorag could try the Sony's larger sibling, the "Touch Edition". You don't need to use the not-really-tolerably minimalist Sony software but can instead get away with Adobe Digital Editions for DRM purchases before cleaning the files and then Calibre for proper file management on the Mac. Cleaning the DRM off still requires a Windows environment (dual boot? virtual machine? I've seen instructions for both, but I've ended up with a single purpose dual boot for cleaning). The rest runs fine on my Mac. I have the Touch and it handles annotations properly IMHO. Pop into a Waterstones and give it a try...


The Pocketbook 360 supports annotations. Here is a review of it:



I'm waiting for the Plastic Logic ereader with a screen large enough for textbooks.


> The catch: she is 100% Mac-based (and allergic to Microsoft products — if a piece of software runs on Windows, it's inappropriate to her needs). Anyone got any recommendations?

Hmmm. Trade her in (actually, "downgrade"!) for a Windows compatible wife?


In terms of annotation, I would take a look at the Kindle 2 or DX (I have a DX, which I use for novels and scientific papers). Annotating actual ebooks is pretty painless (and, as I recall, the annotations are fairly easy to export, although I have not used them much at all)... however, it cannot annotate PDFs at all, which is staggeringly lame when you are reading a thirty page scientific manuscript and want notes for when you are discussing it in lab meeting.

In the interests of a balanced view of the Kindle, I will note that their DRMed-to-Hell-and-back store is staggeringly lame (it is cute that you can get books wirelessly, but I bet I have used the wireless card to pull data from wikipedia more than I have used it to browse their store). I think it is a good product and in its current incarnation, performs admirably as a book reader and as a solution to the researcher's dilemma of having huge stacks of dead tree.


Has anyone tried out an OLPC for that purpose? The display should be ok, you can even annotate and show off your I'm-helping-the-3rd-world credentials ...


I've only been gawking at it from afar, but the Cool-er sounds to your wife's specifications. A Mac-compatible Linux-based reader sets it on top of my potential holiday-check thieves. Although no reports on battery life yet as far as I have read.

Gizmodo Review


"I'm not convinced we're anywhere remotely close to a proper digital textbook reader yet"

Here's an interesting attempt: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/business/06novel.html?_r=3&partner=rss&emc=rss


You might want to check out the txtr Reader:


It's a hybrid approach that uses an online platform for browsing and managing your library and a sync application to actually transmit your data onto the reader, thus offloading the overhead of a browsing interface to your computer. Obviously, you can sync on Macintosh computers.

Anyhow, it's not expected to ship until next year, so that might be a little bit too late for your wife.


Nice to know, that the PDF part is woefully inadequate. That's the main thing I want an eReader for, and until you mentioned that, I was very interested in the Sony. I want to be able to carry a library of technical resources with me, and be able to search them. And the bulk of the resources I use are PDF's of commercial books. For day to day reading, about the only thing I have time to haul around to read, is a host of magazine subs. All of my leisure reading of books is at night, so I don't mind having the dead tree editions. They look nice on the shelf as well.


Kent, PDF is a really shitty format for ebooks. If you want a reader that can render them, you need something with the screen of the Kindle DX -- but not the Kindle (no PDF capability, AIUI).

The problem with PDF is that it was designed for a fixed output device size (i.e. standard size sheets of dead tree). Ebook readers don't generally conform to those sizes, and when you scale, say, an A4 page down to the A6 of the PRS-300, it doesn't look so good.


Yeah, I know it's not a great format. Sadly, it's the format that most technical publishers use to push out the books in, if they make them e-available at all, at least in the world I work in. I'm a Windows sysAdmin (waits for jeers and scorn to die down). So I just want something I can tote around a shelf of references with. And it has to have a working search as well. Simple needs, really. :)


I got an Asus Eee T91 because it was shiny and could fold down and be held like an e-book and the text moved by touch screen. It is however too heavy for many people I am sure, at just under a kilogram. Moreover I get about 4.5 hours battery out of it, and at the moment it runs Windows XP, I'm sure it could be a lot better on linux. The touchscreen is kind of handy, whether writing post it notes or moving PDF's around on screen. (I read a lot of them, a lot of my course reading is available as PDF)

The keyboard is just big enough to use, I've typed half an essay on it before now without real trouble. If they could give it a slightly longer battery life and a bit more power (they used a less powerful processor to extend battery life and do away with fans and suchlike) then it would be really good. As it is it does the job I wanted it for, which was a portable workplace/ PDF reader/ netbook, rather than a stand alone full spectrum computer, since I have my desktop for that.

But it is in no way an e-book reader.


charlie@28: "you need something with the screen of the Kindle DX -- but not the Kindle (no PDF capability, AIUI)."

Can you explain this about the PDF support. The Kindle specs say it does support PDF natively (both old and new versions with current S/W).


Charlie@28: Yeah, PDF was created for print consistency, before ebooks. There is no standard size, actually. But once selected, the page size is fixed. That, and many other things, are to ensure than WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get), and then when you send the file to a printer, it will be RIPed exactly as at some other printer around the globe (well, not really "exactly," as dot screens do vary: if you look at the print with a loupe, you may see different dot patterns in CMYK build areas; but it will look the same to naked eye).


I have become somewhat allergic to Sony. This started when I found that my Sony DVD player refused to play DVDs that were region free. I was further soured when they used their CDs as a trojan to install rootkit software. At this point I just feel that Sony's content divisions are influencing their hardware designs and that this is bound to surface at some point in their eBook readers. It may be irrational of me, but for me Sony has lost the shininess of it's brand, possibly permanently.


Alex: Sony lost their brand-shininess within five years of Akio Morita's death. Nevertheless, Amazon are at least as poisonous in DRM terms.

(I thought the Kindle DX couldn't do PDF. Obviously I'm behind the times.)


DavidG @13. As a fellow webscriptions user, I am in a similar position to yourself. But you do know that once you have purchased a title choose to download in whatever format you like, if it is available? And in my experience they usually have several format-versions of the work. So it isn't a killer blow to the Sony, in fact you can have one version on your laptop and a different one for your reader if you want. Also on the Baen CDs that they send out if you buy the hard copy, they usually have at least .doc and .rtf versions as well as html. I have just loaded over 21 novels in rtf from a Baen CD onto my Sony PRS505.


As of a couple weeks ago, the Kindle 2 got updated with PDF support (firmware update); the Kindle DX has always had native PDF (as the goal was to sell it to lab denizens like me).


Is there something like a free "integrated e-reader platform" for WinXP? I use my Asus EEE netbook as e-book-reader (actually, Acrobat Reader, with the screen turned 90°) and that works okay for me. But something like a tool to bind them all would be nice.


I am always amazed when some of those who recommend the kindle do so with full knowledge of its major failings yet have still bought into it regardless. Why would you buy a device where a supplier can, HAS, removed your purchase without permission? They might as well have sneaked into your house at night to steal your books and left you a little note on the bedside table (thanks Cory Doctorow). So you can load non-DRM crippling ebooks onto it but a business which does this does not deserve my custom.


I bought a Kindle 2 last spring and was very enthusiastic about it for a few months, but after Orwell-gate I lost the enthusiasm and haven't bought any ebooks for it in months. It's a really good device for its primary purpose, but the evil DRM implications have totally soured me on it.

I am also allergic to Sony after their rootkit and other shenanigans (though they do seem to be getting better about the proprietary storage thing).

The Nook looks interesting, but I'm loathe to spend more money on another eReader that primarily features locked down content.

I think that eReaders (and their legal content sources) just aren't at the point yet where I'm comfortable with the compromises. In the meantime, my dead tree shelves continue to groan under the weight of new purchases...


I'm getting interested in ebooks, but I haven't purchased any reading device yet. For me, the dealbreaker is that I'm a connoisseur of good book design, whereas ebooks are essentially HTML and can reflow on a differently sized screen, destroying any serious design. I wonder what could be done to address this, short of designing different versions for different devices from scratch (which, of course, is impractical).


@Charlie: did you evaluate the PRS-600?


Interesting travel-IT experience: today, I tried to plug my Sennheisers into a Boeing 747-400 in-flight entertainment system. A few minutes later I noticed that they were becoming uncomfortably hot inside my ears.

The presence of a 3.5mm jack is not necessarily informative about what might pass through it...


guthrie@30 "I got an Asus Eee T91"

The 4.5h battery life can be improved on by switching off wifi + bluetooth and setting the CPU to "power saving" (600 MHz). For just plain reading and not too many background processes, that should get you close to 6h. Better get used to fiddling with the power setting.

And no, as far as I gather from people who have tried, Linuxes do not improve battery life. For that, plain old XP with unnecessary bells turned off, is difficult to beat.

"But it is in no way an e-book reader."

There is at least one use case where T91 beats anything E-Ink - when you need to (occasionally) read in low light. The weight you will get used to. What can be problematic is dimensions. PRS 300 (and even 505) you can easily carry in your pocket. Pockets that you can fit a T91 in exist - I happen to own one, but I doubt they are common.


My main requirement in an ebook reader was also annotations. When I read a book (even a novel) I constantly underline and write marginalia.

I've had a Kindle for the keyboard when it came out and then the touchscreen Sony reader which I use now.

Both, frankly, suck at annotations even though they are capable. I'm not sure of the technical details on how either store annotations, but they both tend to get slower and slower the more annotating you do on a single book.

So by the time I'm on my 100th annotation, it takes the Sony Reader a good 15-20 seconds to actually commit the annotation and return me to a point where I can advance the page. (Same thing also would happen to me on an old Mobipocket reader, so I assume it is endemic to the way annotations are handled in general in ebooks -- which someone seriously needs to fix).

For the most part, I've just given up on annotation on ebooks readers, which is unsatisfying.


I bought a PRS-700 earlier this year. Yes, the glare issues are as bad as the press says it is. That said, the touch-screen page-turn feature is something I'm simply in love with. The PRS-600 (which is shipping, unlike the PRS-700 which has been yanked) also has the touch screen, but not the glare issues of the 700. The finger swipe to flip pages thing means you can grip it any old way you need to, so long as you can overhang a finger on the screen. It means I can vary my hold on the reader so I don't get cramps. It's downright handy when I'm mindlessly stirring something on the stove and have the reader propped up on the counter with one hand at the top, I can flip pages without breaking any kind of stride.

I got a mail from Sony yesterday announcing that they're ditching their proprietary LRF format for EPUB. No word on if there is DRM on the files like the LRF stuff, but I consider the format change to be progress.

It does have an annotation capability, but I haven't used it much. It has an on-screen keyboard that you can use with the built in stylus or pointy-fingernail, but is just as responsive as that eInk display suggests. Not for long notes, or quick jots. It takes intent to make a note. I suspect this would annoy someone who takes many notes.


Hanvon N516 Demo at CeBit 2009 (YouTube video)

The Sony PRS-300 doesn't have the touch-screen feature that the N516 has, and there are other similar machines with varying features. PDF with DRM? Look at the Bebook Mini.

But not this Christmas for me, I think.


I agree with you on the 505; in fact, I'm still using mine. (I tried a 700, but the glare finaly became too much for me. The 700's backlight wasn't so great either; I now just carry a small flashlight [smaller than the key next to it on my keyring] with me, which works just fine.) Just like the 300, the 505 reads EPUB and Adobe Digital Editions books. If yours didn't, possibly you just need a software upgrade. (Or did you have a 500, which needs to be sent back to Sony for an upgrade?) Or you could just hack it and put your own Linux on the system, instead of the Linux Sony gives you, if you're into that and have the time.

But EPUB (without DRM) is the way to go, I think. It's XML, which is kinda eww, but it's open.

I don't find the ergonomics so bad at all. They're far from brilliant, but I don't get cramped hands or anything from them.

I don't even use Calibre; I just plug it in and copy files over as I would to a USB hard drive.

Obviously that means I'm in agreement with you on the DRM issue. That, in fact, is one of my issues with your publisher. I'm happy to pay a reasonable amount for a book for books (I spend more in a year at Fictionwise.com than my reader cost), but I won't buy the DRM'd stuff. Fortunately for you and your publisher, I do own three or four of your paper editions, but let them know they'll see another $20 or $30 from me if they make non-DRM versions of your books available. (And thank you for the free ones you've already made available.)

As for a reader that supports annotations: the display isn't quite as nice, but what about a Sony PRS-600? You'd have to hack just a little to export annotations, but they're in an XML file on the card or on the USB storage device that comes up when you plug in your reader.

For those asking about where to get things to read on your Sony Reader, I use, in no particular orders: manybooks.net, www.baen.com/library/, webscription.net, fictionwise.com, and feedbooks.com. (I don't even use the Sony store!)

The Sony readers, at least my 505, do not support characters outside of ISO-8859-1. I find this a bit odd, since the original version of this bit of hardware was the Sony Libre, marketed only in Japan, and used for reading Japanese. But that vanished for some reason, and now Japanese people say "Sugoi!" when they see my descendent of a device they had four years ago.


Hi. I've been contemplating getting an ebook reader for a while but last week I got a chance to play with one in the British Library (they've got some on display) and was sorely disappointed. They have such a lag between page turns it quickly gets irritating.

I've been using an old Handspring Visor Edge PDA as an ebook reader for about the last 3 years (in fact it's the only use I've ever found for it). In the spirit of recycling I'd heartily recommend dusting of that old decrepit PDA and giving it a go. Sure the battery only lasts about 8-10 hours on one charge and my 8meg version can only hold about 10 reasonable sized books but how much more do you want? The page turns are quick and the books can be navigated easily. The PDA also is very light and just about pocket-sized.

You can download a free palm DOC reader (CSpotRun) http://handheld.softpedia.com/progDownload/CSpotRun-Download-6430.html and a free text to DOC convertor (MakeDocW) http://www.pierce.de/makedocw.html and you're away.

I use mine all the time for reading ebooks, dumps from discussion boards and rss feeds.


Toby @41: no. The PRS-600 is too big and has too many bells and whistles -- I wanted something small and pocketable and single-purpose. (Also, a brief experiment with the digitizer, in a shop, suggests that the screen latency would drive me mad if I tried to use it for note-taking.)

Curt @47: I upgraded the ROM on my 505, but the ergonomics still drove me away. (Note: I'm left-handed. The 300 appears to be designed with ambidexterity much more in mind.)


USB chargers - generally need a USB2 charger for more recent stuff. Anything sold for iphone compatability (with a USB socket not an iphone plug obviously) should put out enough charge.

I have heard that you have to be careful of where you use some chargers. Spain's mains supply is just low enough to make the PSP chargers drain them instead of charging.


Aidan: actually, no it doesn't. I've tried a couple of different USB wall-warts, and the iGo multi-tip adapter. The Sony Readers seem to want to draw more than the spec 5v/500mA from USB. Some USB devices draw up to 1A, and I suspect the Sony Readers are in this class.


FrancisT@14: You almost made my day--the Netwalker looked like just what I want for the holidays, until I realized the screen doesn't swivel. It also seemed a bit big for a PDA. I miss both my Zauri, for the PDA functions, as an ebook reader, and even being able to fiddle with Perl when it was slow at work. Once I replaced the Sharp ROM ...

Kevin@35: I do realize WS has multiple formats ... but I'm not about to fire up (gag) Word just to read a book, and I'm not interested in proprietary or DRM formats.

What I really want is a PDA, with a decent-resolution screen, preferably hackable with Linux ...


Of all the e-book readers I have looked at, I still like the iRex iLiad the best. They simply got the ergos right on this one. Plus it has built in support for marking up documents. I really like the large "page flip" bar which is right under your left thumb.

Only real down side it price. The Sony is somewhat less capable, and a bit clunkier to use, but is about a 1/3rd the cost.


Mark: the Iliad has drawbacks. Notably: apparently they didn't implement sleep properly -- the screen digitizer hardware requires polling on an ongoing basis, so the machine has a battery life of 9-12 hours on a charge (unless you shut it down completely, in which case it takes 30-60 seconds to boot). Also, it not only requires a wall-wart of its own as a charger, the charger has to plug into a dock in order to get juice into te thing. What this means is that you have, in addition to a large-ish reader, about 300 grams of extra hardware and cables to carry around if you expect to use it for more than one day on the road.

DavidG: Your current options are the Sharp Netwalker, Nokia N900, or OpenPandora (which -- shockingly -- looks like it's about to ship in the next few weeks). I'd recommend avoiding the Viliv UMPC tablets (brain-dead BIOS means they won't show any OS other than WinXP the networking and digitizer chipsets).


Charlie, the 3rd travel drawback to an eBook is that, at the moment, you can't use them until your plane is at cruising altitude. That means you're stuck while your plane circles the airport for 3 hours, or is stuck in 2 hours of taxiing.

For me this is the big one, and the reason I always carry one emergency paperback with me.


John: I wouldn't advise other people to do this, but ...

The reason for the no-electronics-during-takeoff-and-landing rule is: if something goes wrong and the crew need to evacute the plane, they don't want a bunch of passengers who are so wrapped up in their personal electronics that they don't get the message or won't leave their laptops behind. I therefore take the injunction a little less religiously than some.

(But the ebook gets switched off and goes in the seatback pocket as the plane approaches the runway threshold, and stays there until the seatbelt light going off: and again, from when the flaps begin to go down until we're off the runway and taxi-ing towards the terminal building. If I'm ever in a situation where I need to evacuate from a plane in an emergency, I have no intention of being distracted.)

Another plus for the Sony Readers is the lack of wifi -- something with no radio stage that consumes on the order of 10mW of power isn't going to be capable of emitting the kind of RFI that might be of concern to the airline industry.


An e-ink reader I looked at in Borders had a rather startling 'flash to black' effect when you turned the page. Do they all do that? If so, do you get used to it?



Every eInk reader I've tried had that flash. It's one of the limitations of the technology. That said, the flash is getting faster. The PRS-505 era reader is markedly slower than the newer PRS-300 and 600 readers. If I remember right the Kindle1 has the same screen lag as the PRS-505.


How many airlines have gate-to-gate entertainment systems? They help with the non-cruise ban on personal devices. Air NZ make this feature a definite selling point.


Charles Stross wrote: "It'd be useless for colour comics." Well, yes, if you wanted to read them in color. But they work fine in grayscale. (Provided that you are reading them with the book positioned close to you-- in a "reading in bed" or "curled up on the couch" position-- reading at a "book sitting on table" distance would result in too small text.)

You can see some shots in this quick and dirty photographic review I put together in the first couple of days that I had my 300: http://www.scribd.com/doc/19625804/Sony-Reader-Pocket-PRS300-Review


Curt Sampson@47
"But EPUB (without DRM) is the way to go, I think. It's XML, which is kinda eww, but it's open."

From what I can tell, it's sort of other way around. XML is not the problem while the openness apparently is.

An epub is basically a zip container - if you rename it to .zip you can unpack it and see what's inside. The standard specifies two things. Firstly the XML that should be in the .opf file that tells you the basic metadata and the order the html and image files that form the book. Secondly, the standard describes (reasonably limited) subset of html that should be supported by reader software.

Thing is, noone seems to pay much attention to the second part. As a result, epub files from different sources often contain wildly different and rather wierd html. Writing reader software that renders all that mess in more or less reasonable manner can be quite difficult.

Also, one thing that the epub standard does not specify at all is the DRM. As there is still no end in sight to DRM as general problem and of course everyone has to come up with their own scheme for it, we may well end up with multiple proprietary sorts of DRM-crippled epubs.


Speaking as a left-hander (re 47, 49) and reasonably large consumer of ebooks (largely due to space constraints I have had to drastically reduce input of new paper to my home), I have not found the PRS505 control positioning to be a major issue myself.

The major problem with ereaders generally is . . . they just ain't books. There is nothing like opening a new book for the first time. That said, they have their (fairly limited) place, esp. if you are a big reader and travel a lot. Calibre looks like a great tool too.


Anappo you're wrong. Epub is completely open and standard. It mandates a standardised subset of xhtml (the extras are not relevant to ereaders). There's an epub checker that will test your epub for conformity, and its pretty easy to manage. Now its true that different epub readers are happy to accept non-Xhtml, but that's a different matter. And this usually comes down to their rendering engine (Gecko, etc). Write a conformant epub is pretty straightforward, unless your source html is totally fucked up. I know, I've done several PD books.

I like epub as a standard. You can use any tools you like to create an epub as its simply a zip file, XML and XHTML. While hacking epubs is trivial (you can easily restyle a book using CSS, for example). And for things that will reflow sensibly its a good standard. The only problem is footnotes, though ADE has an extension that handles these.

My guess is that DRM for epubs is in practice going to be Adobe. There's not really any competition on the horizon, and within a year Sony look like having serious penetration. Given that it is easily removed...


My wife bought me a Sony 505 as a birthday present and I love it far more than I expected to. However, you do need to customise it. www.mobileread.com is a great resource for this, and anything ebook related.

The Sony fonts are not very good, but decent freeware fonts are available which are also UTF-8 compliant. Droid is a good choice, though other fonts are prettier. You can either replace the fonts by flashing the firmware (there's a hack), or (my preference) just place the fonts on your internal drive and reference them in epubs CSS (this requires you to strip the DRM on epubs, but hey, why wouldn't you).

Epubs mostly are pretty quick to turn. The larger the individual sections of a book, the slower it becomes. Calibre is good at modifying books that have been poorly constructed to split the book up properly.

Also its worth using calibre to set up defaults that you like (page margins, font sizes, paragraph spacing). This can make a huge difference to the reading experience.

The thing that surprised me the most is how rapidly I grew to prefer the ereader to books. Wasn't expecting that.


Charlie, If the charge time on the iLiad is as bad as you say, then I could see why it would not be a player.

A while back the US Air Force was looking at using the iLiad for their maintenance manuals. Paperless, easy to push updates, etc. Large enough format to see drawings clearly and much lighter than the paper versions which are several inches thick.

When I looked at one, charge time seemed ok, but it did have a dedicated wall wort. I liked that it had support for compact flash and other memory cards, but that's probably not that important to most folks.

S.M. Stirling is now using a Kindle when he does signings/readings due to the convenience of having all of his books in one little widget (including the not yet released ones). This would be true of any e-reader though.


@57 Alex asked about the flashing black refresh of eInk displays.
" Do they all do that? If so, do you get used to it? "

I have a Bookeen Cybook Gen3, personally I do have it enabled, but I do not normally notice the flashing refresh, so I guess that I am used to it.

The Gen3 firmware does have an option to turn it on or off.

If you turn it off, after a number of screen changes you may get a slight blurring or ghosting, because the screen driver hardware isn't totally clearing the screen each time before displaying the new page.

I don't know if other readers allow you to turn the flashing refresh on and off.

This feature may or may not be available in some of the newer eInk screens.

I think that allowing the programmer to choose the screen refresh method it is (or was) a standard feature of the API of the eInk display driver.

This url is for the API of the display driver chip from an eInk prototyping kit from a couple of years ago.

Note there seem to be four ways to refresh the screen.
See section 2.2



"USB chargers - generally need a USB2 charger for more recent stuff. Anything sold for iphone compatability (with a USB socket not an iphone plug obviously) should put out enough charge."

Actually, Sony is quite clear on this in its documentation -- you simply cannot recharge Sony Readers from a standalone USB charger...you *must* hook them up to a USB port on a computer.

Given how many devices are able to charge from standalone USB chargers, this is another (small) design flaw in the product.

I still think the Sony Reader is the best eink device available, but that has more to do with the even bigger problems with the other devices rather than Sony hitting it out of the park in their design.


Annotations on the kindle (and bookmarks and highlighted passages) go into a plain text file that you can access when the kindle is connected to a computer via USB. Each entry in the file includes relevant information to determine which book the entry goes with. No page numbers, of course, because that's meaningless when you can change the amount of text to a page. It has a different numbering system.

Charlie:"The problem with PDF is that it was designed for a fixed output device size (i.e. standard size sheets of dead tree). Ebook readers don't generally conform to those sizes, and when you scale, say, an A4 page down to the A6 of the PRS-300, it doesn't look so good."

True. When they recently updated the Kindle 2 to allow it to read PDFs, they also enabled manual orientation change, so like the DX you can use the K2 in a landscape orientation, or upside down, or whatever. (Unlike the DX, you have to select it manually, because it lacks the accelerometer.) Viewing PDFs in landscape helps with the text size (even on the DX), although it's a bit clunky due to the page breaks often ending up mid-screen.

Alex:" Do they all do that (flashing)? If so, do you get used to it? "

I hardly notice it anymore. At most, it's a moment to look up and check what stop the subway is at. I assume it's required because they're essentially moving physical, charged objects that are either dark or light. When a spot turns from dark to light, the dark particles need to be moved away from the screen surface and sent to the back, while the light particles need to move to the front.

Leonid: " For me, the dealbreaker is that I'm a connoisseur of good book design, whereas ebooks are essentially HTML and can reflow on a differently sized screen, destroying any serious design."

Amazon has a special DRM'd ebook format, I think they call it Topaz, which includes typographic information. One book I read, "Against the Gods" by Peter L. Bernstein, pretty much matched the paperback. Characters on the Kindle even exhibited the same kinds of letter shape variation that you can get in a printed book due to, I suppose, plate wear or the way ink was distributed across the plate. You could still vary the text size, so it wasn't a simple PDF scan. It's almost like they scan the text and then break it into words, which are flowed.

Other books are, as you note, pretty much HTML with a default font.


I will add that the Kindle's wall wart is a lovely, tiny little thing with a USB connector.


Jon: under the hood, most of Amazon's Kindle ebooks seem to be just DRM'd Mobipocket files.

Which is fine by me; I can read 'em on the PRS-300.

(No, the PRS-300 cannot read DRM'd Mobipocket files. But I can unlock and convert them.)


"Jon: under the hood, most of Amazon's Kindle ebooks seem to be just DRM'd Mobipocket files."

Yes, this is true. But a fraction are the special Topaz files. On my DX I have 61 files, 11 of which are Topaz format. The topaz is a modified Mobipocket which can carry embedded fonts.



Went to Waterstones after work and purchased my digital crack pipe. I loaded it up with my Fictionwise purchases, and so far it looks pretty good.

On the comics side, I did try loading a random comic I had lying around (XXXenophile) -- that's drawn in black-and-white, so the graphics are fine, except it is somewhat small. Based on that, I'd expect a B&W comic in the standard US/UK size to be fine on the Daily Edition or Kindle DX. Japanese comics are generally published in B&W, in two different sizes -- the smaller (for the collections, not the weekly manga magazines) is either A6 or "Ko B6". I would expect a PDF at that size to be perfectly legible. Unfortunately, I'm not seeing anything out there other than the w4r3z; I'll look at the Japanese-language stuff later.


And I found an interesting bug in the PRS-300 -- the epub file that Calibre generated from crawling zdnet caused the reader to crash when turned to page 34. Interesting number, that. Filed a ticket with Sony, so we'll see what happens there.