The war of e-readers has nearly come to an end. Amazon currently rules the market with their Kindle, and soon to be multiple Kindle devices. Barnes & Noble has their offering, and both B&N and Amazon offer 3G on their devices for wireless sync. Other companies have their own offerings, but most lack 3G and apps for smartphones, their own online stores for book purchases, and any other special features.

Sony is one of the few companies that has stuck with e-readers in light of the competing publishing giant and online superpower. Sony’s latest, the Reader Wi-Fi, arrived just after Amazon announced the Kindle Touch, a similar device with only a few physical buttons but an e-ink touchscreen. The Reader has exactly that, a touchscreen navigation system like the older Reader model, except this time with integrated Wi-Fi. But will it be worthwhile after Amazon’s Kindle Touch releases next month?

The Sony Reader Wi-Fi is a 6” e-reader that is just 3/8th inches thick. It’s small and thin enough to fit in a pants pocket. The screen itself offers a resolution of 600×800 and has the same e-ink technology found in the last generation of Kindles. A glossy black bezel surrounds the dull white screen, which gives it a very classy look and feel. It includes 1.3GB of available space, which is more than enough room for several hundred long books, as well as room for a microSD card up to 32GB.

Besides the five physical buttons (left and right page turn, home, back and menu), the Reader has a power/standby button on the bottom of the device, beside a 3.5mm audio jack (for audio playback), the microUSB connecter, and a reset button. The back of the Reader has a black matte finish, which is easy to grip. At just 5.9 oz, the Reader is light enough to comfortably hold in one hand for quite a long time. However, the reality is that it’s a two-hand only device.

Because of the physical size of the Reader, turning pages (accomplished by a swipe gesture on the screen or by pressing the physical button) requires two hands unless you rest the Reader on something. That isn’t a problem – it more closely resembles the actual experience of reading a book – but I almost wish there were an area on both sides of the bezel to turn pages back and forth, like a touch-sensitive button. However, I’m equally sure it would cause its fair share of problems if so implemented.

The screen is clean and crisp, nothing I wouldn’t expect from the E Ink Pearl display that we’ve seen in the past on several eReaders. The overall form factor is the best I’ve ever seen on an eReader; it’s comfortable, easy to hold and store, and it looks great. The Sony Reader is the device I want sitting on my coffee table in the morning, in my living room or den table for a relaxing read, or at my workbench for a quick break. It’s sleek design is both inconspicuous and a pleasure to look at.

The screen itself is remarkably accurate for touch sensitivity, thanks to running a highly altered version of Android (see below) and the screen technology itself. Page flipping is easy, selecting specific words works properly nearly every time, and touching the screen is a pleasure. And because it isn’t a glossy display, fingerprints don’t stick. Smear your hand all over the E Ink display and it’ll still be just as easy to read.

It also runs a version of Android, which is interesting. Grizzled Android users will be able to tell pretty quickly, but otherwise it’s as barebones as Android gets. The notification drop-down is there, menus function the same, and it’s even the same browser. I was even able to benchmark the browser and compare it to other Android devices. See the performance below.

The interesting thing about the Reader is that it scored less than half, according to the Browsermark benchmark, of what the the iPhone 3GS and Samsung Galaxy Tab scored. That may seem slow by today’s standards (just look at the HTC Flyer), but pretty quick for an eReader. On the Sunspider test, the Reader was the slowest, but not by that far. The Reader was able to process Javascript pretty well, all thing’s considered. Which is great, of course, if you plan on using the web browser often.

I almost wish I could run more benchmarks, but it would require rooting the Reader, finding a way to get the Android Marketplace on the phone, and then installing several benchmark applications. Of course, it is an eReader, so there’s really no need to benchmark I, but I will say that it is surprisingly fast for a device made just to read books.

Using the browser I was able to enjoy read-only websites with relative ease. People who spend their time reading online will certainly enjoy doing so on the Reader, though it does take some getting used to. The display flashes in and out of new pages and long pages that require scrolling, which is about a second per screen load. Web pages themselves load pretty slowly, but then again it is an eReader.

The Reader also comes with a stylus. The Reader has no place to store the stylus, so it’s intended for home use. Writing on the Reader is very accurate, so much so that I wish there were a feature to use the Reader for PDF signatures. However, the drawing app is more of a fun timewaster than a good way to take notes or actually draw pictures. Like on the HTC Flyer, users can also take hand-written notes in books, but I haven’t found the feature to be particularly useful.

Sony offers several ways to get new books. The Reader store features over 2 million books, though is only available (in the tested format) for US and Canadian users. There is also access to Google’s public domain library, which is filled with probably the best literature. Finally, users gain access to their local libraries where they can check out books, assuming you have a library card. The latter two are both excellent features, and books are easy to get using nothing but the Reader itself. Users can opt to download ebooks to their computers and transfer them via USB to the Reader, but with a Wi-Fi connection, there really is no need. However, to access public libraries users will need to be a member and have a library card.

What did surprise me about the design is just how delicate the reader can be. Look at the image above. I took a quick 4-day vacation, packed with two books, my iPad, the Reader and clothes. I didn’t end up reading all that much, but the Reader still managed to take a beating while sandwiched between two books. It worked and continues to function properly, but the glossy sides are now much uglier from negligible scratches.

Battery life is rated at over a month with minimal Wi-Fi usage, or 14,000 page turns. I couldn’t test the battery life to that extent, but I will say that while running my benchmarks (see above) the battery life quickly drained from 75% to about 20%. My benchmarking protocol is pretty extensive, so the power drain isn’t surprising. With heavy Wi-Fi usage from both BrowserMark and Sunspider, plus the processing requirement, it’s actually a surprise that the Reader didn’t completely lose power sooner. If you use Wi-Fi and use the Reader even somewhat infrequently, expect to recharge it once a week.

I’m overall impressed with Sony’s latest Reader Wi-Fi. It’s the kind of ebook reader that we all kind of expect. It’s fast, smooth, very capable and very light; the epitome of Sony’s Reader line. The only real downside is the $150 pricetag, which is $50 more than the Kindle Touch Wi-Fi, and the same price as the 3G model (or $10 more and $40 less than the ad-free models). However, it’s clear to me that Sony isn’t after the read-your-book-on-all-devices consumer. Instead, they’re interested in the simple, this is my ereader consumer that likes to use one device for reading. And in that case –  at least for now – the Sony Reader Wi-Fi is king.

Editor’s Rating:

Rating: ★★★★☆

Great

Bottom Line: Readers who just want a one-device eReader are going to love the Sony Reader Wi-Fi. It’s very light, attractive, easy to use, comes with plenty of useful internal and internet functions, and even fits in the pocket. However, it dings easily and doesn’t sync to other devices, so if you are always on the go and want an eReader that works wherever you are, look Amazon’s or B&N’s way. Or if you love playing around with the internal software, then the Reader Wi-Fi and heavily modified Android OS is going to be a lot of fun.

You can buy the Sony Reader WiFi from Amazon for $149 or from one of the retailers found below.

Pros:

  • Light, solid build, comfortable to hold one-handed
  • Excellent screen for reading and touch-functions
  • Internet and book-finding and sharing functions are superb

Cons:

  • Glossy sides damage very easily
  • Expensive compared to even 3G models and future competition



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.