Hey, Princeton! You should have waited for Sony

While I'm not comparing the Sony Reader PRS 600 directly to the DX, which is quite a bit larger, the little Sony easily satisfies complaints that have been pouring in from Princeton students to whom Kindles were deployed this year.

The Wall Street Journal and ZDNet's Andrew Nusca, among others, are reporting on the general dissatisfaction with the Kindle DX in Princeton's pilot program for the device.

I, on the other hand, spent last night exploring Sony's touch-enable PRS 600 Reader. We ordered 5 Kindle 2's and 5 of the Sony Readers to evaluate their utility both in mainstream educational settings and for their potential as assistive technology and the Readers just arrived. Guess what? The Sony crushes the Kindle in virtually every way from an Ed Tech perspective.

While I'm not comparing the PRS 600 directly to the DX, which is quite a bit larger, the little Sony easily satisfies the Princeton students' complaints.

In particular, students identified the difficulty in highlighting and taking notes on the Kindle. This is done through a fairly kludgy joystick-based interface. The Sony Reader? Just grab the stylus, enter note-taking mode, and you have the option of entering notes with an on-screen keyboard (that responds to both fingers and the stylus), writing directly on the touch screen, and highlighting by dragging the stylus over text. Annotations are easily removed with the stylus by clicking on the eraser tool.

The device can also be used to take notes directly in a separate note-taking application. Again, you can use either the stylus or on-screen keyboard, although the latter is too big for serious BlackBerry-style thumb typing and too small to touch type.

The Mac and Windows software (your eBook library) that comes with the device addresses one of my major concerns about e-readers as well: high-resolution color images are visible within the library, allowing you to view a color e-book in the flexible EPUB format on your computer while still being able to take the text and low-resolution, gray-scale images with you on the Reader.

The eBook library itself provides an iTunes-like interface to the eBook store as well as the ability to drag and drop media from your computer into your library. When the Reader is connected via USB, it's a simple matter to grab any content (music, images, PDFs, text and RFT files, and other EPUBs), drag it into your library and then sync it with your Reader.

No, the Reader isn't perfect. You can still only manage 5 Readers on a single computer, making deployments to large numbers of students difficult if you want to manage content centrally (this could be simplified by loading PDFs or EPUBs onto SD cards, though, which can be used with the Reader). There is a delay rendering handwritten notes on the e-ink screen (it's brief, but requires some getting used to). It also lacks the immediate access to books afforded by Kindle's Whispernet.

However, the integration of Google book search with the eBook library application means that literally hundreds of thousands of books are available for free the minute you get a Reader set up on a computer. I've already grabbed Newton's Principia Mathematica, the works of L. Frank Baum (including The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, just in time for some holiday reading with the kids), and a number of free modern books offered by publishers. I've loaded up a few PDFs that I regularly reference (the data manual, for example, for our state reporting, since it's that season as well, and our state educational frameworks/standards). All for free.

As I found a couple years ago when I purchased a beast of desktop replacement laptop, bigger isn't always better. I couldn't wait to pass that thing, despite its incredible speed, screen real estate, and serious storage, onto my kids and downsize to a MacBook. The same goes for the Kindle DX (and even the Kindle 2, which is still slightly heavier and larger than the Reader). Students need portability, ease of use, and flexibility. I'm still waiting for higher-resolution and color e-ink, but for now, the $300 Reader has my vote for educational deployments.