e-book readers are an interesting class of device. Some think they are the classic example of a solution looking for a problem, while others find them invaluable for carrying around large quantities of information. Sony has been targeting US users who hold the former view with its Reader for some time. That product has now made it across the pond, where its main competitors — in the absence of Amazon's Kindle — are the iRex iLiad and Bookeen Cybook.
The Reader PRS-505 is smaller than you might expect. It measures 122mm wide by 175mm tall by 7.6mm thick and weighs 260g. It comes encased in a brown leather-look pouch that adds a little to the overall size and weight. You’ll need to carry the Reader in its pouch to avoid scratching the screen or casing, or otherwise damaging it. Magnets at the top and bottom edges of the pouch help to keep it closed when the device is in transit.
The Reader isn't really pocketable — unless your pockets are capacious. Like a real book, it will normally need to be carried in a bag.
The screen is slightly smaller than the page size of a regular paperback book — just 6in. from corner to corner. There's a trade-off between portability and usability here: a larger screen would make the device more unwieldy and heavier.
Sony's ability to produce great design really comes to the fore in the Reader PRS-505, which is the most visually attractive device of its kind.
The metal casing is matte silver on the front and back, with shiny edging top and bottom. Sony has built more buttons into the Reader's fascia than we've seen on other e-book readers. Beneath the screen are two banks of controls centered on large circular D-pads. Down the right edge, no fewer than 10 small buttons sit in a vertical line with a further two outside them. If this sounds like overkill, don't worry: we found Reader very easy to use.
The top and bottom edges carry a range of connectors and a couple of additional buttons. The main on/off switch, at the top, is a slider. Next to this are readers for Memory Stick and SD-compatible media. The bottom edge offers a USB port, a 3.5mm headset jack, a charging connector and a volume rocker.
The Reader PRS-505 ships with a USB connectivity cable, a software CD, a CD containing 100 classic books and a printed quick-start guide. The complete manual is on CD. You don't get an AC adapter: the connector is a common enough size, though, and you may already have the necessary 5.2V adapter. If not, the Reader PRS-505 will charge via USB.
The Sony Reader PRS-505 handles various file formats, including RTF, Microsoft Word, TXT and PDF. It will also display JPEG, GIF, PNG and BMP graphics, although its 8-greyscale display has obvious limitations in this respect.
The Reader PRS-505 can play music in MP3 and AAC formats (not DRM, though). There's no speaker, so you'll need to use headphones to listen to music. It also supports some specific eBook file formats — Sony's proprietary BBeB and the more widely used EPUB. Sony has partnered with Waterstone's to sell the Reader PRS-505 in the UK and the company has a catalogue of available e-books.
The Reader PRS-505 has 192MB of user-accessible internal memory, which is enough, says Sony, for around 160 eBooks. Sony supplies its own software for managing e-books, and you'll need this to move content from your computer to the Reader. Mac OS users will be disappointed here: the PRS-505 only supports Windows (XP and Vista) systems.
The device would not read files we simply copied onto an SD card, which will irritate those who don't like having too much third-party software on their computers. More importantly, it precludes obtaining files from computers that don't have Sony's software installed. You can't for example, take an SD card containing an important document from a work colleague, pop it into the Reader's card slot, and peruse the file.
Like the other eBook readers we've reviewed, the Reader PRS-505 has an E Ink screen. This technology has several advantages: the 8 levels of greyscale sit on a pale-grey background; there is no backlight, which means there's no glare from the screen. All this makes the PRS-505 very easy on the eye — we could read on the device for just as long as we'd read a conventional book, with no noticeable eye strain.
Another advantage of E Ink is that it only draws power when a page refreshes; when an image is being displayed, there's no power consumption. This helps to give the Reader PRS-505 a claimed battery life of 6,800 page turns. Naturally, this will be reduced if you also listen to music through the device.
The Reader PRS-505 is straightforward to use. The vertical column of buttons labeled 1-10 corresponds to menus on-screen — lists of works, for example. You simply press the button representing the menu item you want. The two buttons outside this column take you back and forward through the pages. You can also move through a book using a large round button in the lower left-hand corner, which left-handers may be more comfortable with.
A small button lets you toggle through three zoom levels for on-screen text, while another lets you place a bookmark on a page. A bookmark is rather neatly indicated by a turned-page graphic in the top right-hand corner of the screen.
The other large circular button is a scroller that handles movement around a screen. Finally, a small Menu button takes you back to the main menu.
Performance & battery life
The main problem with the Reader PRS-505 is the slow speed of screen refreshes. In our tests, every single 'page turn' brought unwanted attention to something you simply don't notice when reading a paper book.
Battery life is very good, although if you like to listen to music while reading, you'll need to recharge fairly regularly.
Sony's Reader PRS-505 is the best-designed e-book reader we've seen. However, it's still unlikely to be an everyday replacement for paper. As far as business users are concerned, it doesn't let you take notes, or display in colour. Many professionals will already have a notebook PC that can supply these functions.
Away from the office, bookish types may find it hard to relinquish the pleasure of holding 'treeware'. That said, the ability to carry multiple books in the space that one paperback would occupy is a significant advantage when travelling. Whether it's £200-worth of advantage is another question.