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article imageReading Books in the 21st Century: the Sony E-Book Reader PRS-505

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     Dec 13, 2008 in Technology
Now that Christmas is in the air, you might want to take a look at the Sony E-Reader PRS-505, either for yourself or a loved one who loves to read books. How useful is it? Let's take a good look at an exciting device.
What is an e-book reader and why would you want one?
Many people have heard about e-books and e-book readers by now, but not everyone may know what they are. An e-book is nothing more than a book that has not been printed, but that sits as a file on your computer. You use a program to read it. The most used program for this is the Adobe Acrobat Reader which can be downloaded for free, and which most people know. E-books are fantastic because computers have large capacities, and it is quite possible to have several hundreds, even thousands of e-books on a standard hard disk.
The trouble with these e-books, however, is that you cannot take them with you, unless you use a laptop. Even then, it is fantastic, because even on the smallest of current laptops, it is possible to store hundreds or thousands of e-books. Imagine carrying a typical 4 to 5 pound laptop with, say, 3000 books.
Unfortunately, laptops do have significant disadvantages. First, there is the weight. Even the lightest ones usually weigh at least a kilogramme or so. While that is ridiculously light in comparison to an entire library, it is not the type of thing you want to carry around for an afternoon walk in the park. And that brings us to an even more important point: chances are you will not be able to read your books on your laptop in the park, because you will not see anything on the screen in bright sunlight, unless you put a big black impenetrable cloth on your head and laptop, like photographers used to do way back when. There goes your pleasant afternoon in the park.
Even if you are not in the park, but somewhere else, you need to take into account that the battery life of a laptop is limited. Current laptops last a bit longer, but that is only really true if you have a relatively new battery. So, carrying an adapter becomes a necessity, adding to the bulk and the weight, not forgetting that trees in parks usually don't have outlets to plug it in.
Reading while commuting with the subway or the bus, is very impractical, even more so, while waiting for them. Let's also not forget that, for most laptops, the keyboard sits in front of the screen, making it quite awkward to hold and read. So, in all, while laptops can be great, they are very far from ideal.
In comes the e-book. E-books are quite a bit smaller and lighter than laptops. Because they have no keyboard, you can hold them like you would hold a book. Their main advantage is that you can read them outside, even in the brightest sunlight, because their screen is quite different from a laptop screen. Their screens are said to use e-ink or electronic ink.
Another important advantage is that, because of the way e-ink works, e-book readers consume nearly no power while you are reading. They only need power to switch from one page to the next. Once the page is displayed, they hardly use any power at all. This is why battery life for e-books is not expressed in hours, but in page-flips.
Sounds good? Well then, let's have a look at the one e-book reader that is actually easily available in Toronto: the Sony Reader PRS-505. I will assume that you have basic knowledge and experience with computers. Since you are reading this on the Internet, this is a reasonable assumption. If you are not, you will need the help of someone who is able to understand what I wrote, and you will need her/his help to use the reader as well.
Presenting the Sony PRS-505 e-book reader
Sony Reader PRS-505
Sony Reader PRS-505
Bart B. Van Bockstaele
The first thing that strikes you when you see the Sony E-Reader PRS-505, is that it is about the size of a typical pocket book, and very much thinner than most. There is a silver/grey-coloured version, but there are other colours available. In the Sony Store in Toronto's Eaton Centre, they have a red one on display. However, it looks quite cheap and plasticky in comparison to the silver version.
It is approximately 17.5cm x 12.2cm and 8mm thick. It weighs 252 grammes. This is without the cover that comes with the device. However, since it is an electronic device, with a screen that can obviously be damaged, this is not the way you will want to use it. I strongly advise to use it with the cover, which comes with the device. In that case, the dimensions are 18cm x 13.2cm, with a thickness of 1.5cm, and a weight of 340 grammes.
The reader comes with approximately 192MB of usable internal memory. According to Sony, an average e-book needs about 1.5MB. That means a storage capacity of about 128 e-books. In order to have a point of comparison that everyone can try, I have downloaded the King James Bible from Project Gutenberg, which takes about 3.5MB. In other words, the internal memory of the reader is enough to store about 54 Bibles.
On top of that, the reader comes with two memory slots, one for Memory Stick Duo, and one for SD cards. More information on this follows.
As the name suggests, the reader is meant for reading. It can also play music and display pictures. I'll look at these last two functions first.
Playing music
The reader can play unencrypted MP3 and AAC files. I do not recommend this too much, for it is a bit of a hassle, it depletes the batteries quite rapidly, and the functionality of it is very limited. Playlists are not possible. On top of that, the reader does not care about the structure of your data. It scans the entire memory, internal, Memory Stick and SD, and then makes an alphanumerically sorted list. Sounds great? Not really. I put Handel's Messiah, Bach's St. John's Passion and Mozart's requiem on the reader. The names of the audio files, started with 01, 02, 03... What did the reader do? Right. It sorted the files like this:
01 Messiah First piece
01 Requiem First piece
01 St. John's Passion First piece
02 Messiah Second piece
02 Requiem Second piece
02 St. John's Passion Second piece
...
That may be OK for popular music or separate songs, but I do prefer to hear all pieces of the Messiah together, not intermingled with pieces of other works that I also want to hear together. One solution would be to name the files thusly
Messiah 01 First piece
Messiah 02 Second piece
...
Requiem 01 First piece
Requiem 02 Second piece
...
St. John's Passion 01 First piece
St. John's Passion 02 Second piece
...
Solves the problem, right? Not quite. Apparently, the reader also looks at the tags inside the MP3 files. In other words, you have to check and change those as well. Not worth the trouble, if you ask me.
Viewing pictures
The reader can show pictures, individually or as a slide show, but keep in mind that this is a black and white device that can display no more than 8 levels of grey. Those colourful Christmas pictures of the family will look rather drab. Also, the ridiculous file sorting I described for audio files is also valid here. Honestly not worth it, except in some very specific cases where you need information where colour isn't important, and where you want to magnify the pictures. However, magnifying pictures takes time, usually several seconds, so it is rather tedious. I most definitely do not recommend the reader as a photo album.
Reading books and other documents
This is where the reader shines, although its shine is somewhat on the dull side. It can read a number of different formats: PDF, Text, RTF, BBeB, EPUB. Sony says that the reader can read Word files, but this is a bit of a stretch. Strictly speaking, this is untrue. Word files must be saved as RTF files in order to be read.
If you read books that have been typed, i.e. pure text files, the reader performs like a charm. If the text is too small, it can be magnified two times as there are three modes: small, medium and large. When magnifying or reducing, the text reflows beautifully. This makes the reader excellent for novels, Bibles, poetry, philosophical works... any and all "pure" texts.
Sony Reader PRS-505
Sony Reader PRS-505
Bart B. Van Bockstaele
The problems start when the file you use does not only contain text, but also pictures. The files will display beautifully in the standard (small) setting. Magnification is possible, but you will not be able to see the pictures in that case. I am rereading Richard Dawkin's "The Selfish Gene" right now, and it is rather annoying to have to reduce the image again in order to see the pictures to which he is referring in the text.
It gets even worse when the books you are reading have been scanned. This means that they are essentially pictures, not texts. Magnification is not possible in this case, but this must be qualified.
Strictly speaking, it is possible to magnify a text, even a scanned one, but it is very limited. How? By turning the screen horizontally. The screen has a width of 600 pixels, and a height of 800 pixels. By turning it 90°, this becomes a width of 800 pixels, or 33% more. So, a magnification of 133% is possible.
In order to be able to still show the entire page, every page is split in two half pages, an upper and a lower half.
An important fact to remember with scanned pages is that the margins are scanned as well. That means that much of the real estate of the screen contains no information, it is just wasted on white space. That width of 600 or 800 pixels becomes very small indeed. For many scanned books the text will remain illegible because the letters will simply be too small, even with a magnifying glass.
If you work with PDF files that are scanned, and if Acrobat has OCR'ed them (has tried to recognize the text), the reader will display the scan in "small" mode, and the OCR'ed text in "medium" and "large" mode.
It is also important to note that scanned books take a lot more space than pure text files. So, let's look at storage.
How much can be stored on the Sony Reader?
The King James Version of the Bible, which I have downloaded from Project Gutenberg, has 2644 pages, and takes 3.5MB. Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, 1st edition, from Project Gutenberg (completely typed) has 427 pages and takes 950KB, the same book, scanned, has 556 pages and takes 94.3MB or 100 times more. I said earlier that the internal memory was enough for 54 King James Bibles. If we take this factor 100 as a reference, only half a Bible would fit if it had been scanned.
In other words, a large memory can be very important. Do not forget that we are still at the beginning of the electronic age, and that the vast majority of books are not (yet) available electronically and must therefore be scanned. Expanding the reader's memory with memory cards is therefore probably a necessity.
Memory Cards
According to the manual, Sony's proprietary Memory Stick Duo allows for a maximum storage capacity of up to 8GB. Mysteriously though, it also states that operation of all Memory Stick Duo is not guaranteed. I have no idea what that actually means. The manual also states that SD cards of up to 2GB are supported. Again, there is the mysterious mention that operation of all SD Memory Cards is not guaranteed. The salesperson in the Sony Store knew just as much about the Reader as most of us know about the mathematics of cosmology: nothing at all. As far as I have been able to find out, the readers that Sony sells at this moment, can also read SDHC cards with a capacity of more than 4GB. How much more, remains a mystery.
This means that the maximum total capacity of the reader is at least 192MB (internal) + 8GB (Memory Stick) + 2GB (SD card) or 10.2GB and that the current absolute possible but not guaranteed maximum could be 192MB (internal) + 16GB (Memory Stick) + 32GB (SDHC card) or 48.2GB. That means at least 2,900 Bibles and a non-guaranteed maximum of about 13,700 Bibles. I have contacted Sony to confirm this, and I have received a response, but the response was merely the information mentioned on one of their web pages, information I know to be outdated and wrong. So, I'll have to insist to get a real answer from someone who doesn't view the reader as just any other shampoo.
Keep in mind that the information I mentioned earlier, indicated that scanned books can easily need 100 times
more storage space than pure text files. In that case, these spectacular numbers of 2,900 and 13,700 Bibles are suddenly reduced to 29 and 137. That is still quite a bit to carry around, but it is hardly equivalent to a large library.
How functional is the reader?
In one word: very functional. For a device that is still in its infancy, the functionality is very complete.
Storing books on the reader can be done in different ways. The best way is probably to connect the reader to your computer with the USB cable supplied with the device (only Windows XP and Vista). When you do that, you will see that three removable hard disks have been added to your computer: One for the internal memory, one for a Memory Stick (even when there is no Memory Stick present), and one for an SD card (even if there is no card present). Simply copy files to the reader by dragging them to these removable disks. It is also possible to make folders, though the reader will not display them, it will only display the files in those folders.
It is also possible to use Sony's free software for this. With this software, you can create "collections." These are a type of shortcut to books you want to group together. Since the books are not actually transferred to different folders, you can include one book in several collections. Be aware that a collection must reside on one device: the internal memory, a Memory Stick or an SD card. It is not possible to create a collection that contains books that are on different devices.
You can use this software to buy e-books from Sony's store. Beware: they can be pricey! While some books cost less than 10 CAD, others can cost 250 CAD. It is also important to note that Sony boasts that it has tens of thousands of books, but that is a lot less than you think. For most of the fields I am interested in, there is very little choice. This may be the case for you as well. There is a very good chance that you will end up scanning your own books because they are not available anywhere.
The last way to transfer books to the reader is by simply inserting the cards in your computer, but given that this probably ends up being more trouble than just connecting the reader to your computer, this may not be too desirable.
The list of the books that are stored on the device, can be seen in three different orders: by title, by author, and by date. This is, of course, on the condition that these data have been entered in the files, usually the "Property" settings.
For each and every book, the reader keeps a history of the pages you have already read. Great for quickly returning to a page. You can also choose to go immediately to the first or the last page, and you can choose to continue reading on the last page you accessed. If a book, such as a PDF file, has a table of contents, the reader will use it and you will be able to access it as such.
When a page of a book is displayed, you can also type a page number. Be aware that this page number will usually not be the number printed on the page if you are reading a scanned text. Jumping to this page can be a slow process, anywhere from 2 seconds to more than a minute.
Last, but most certainly not least, you can bookmark pages. A nice touch is that the reader will store bookmarks separately for each book, but also all together in the main menu. Suppose that you have 3 books in which you have bookmarked 2 pages. You will be able to see these bookmarks when you select the book. If you are in the main menu, it will show all bookmarks. That means that you can jump to a specific bookmark in a book without first looking for that book.
For every book, there are also 3 "utilities" available: you can remove all bookmarks, clear the reading history and delete the book.
How fast is the reader?
Not fast at all. The reader is very slow device, and this is a damning problem. Opening a book can take anywhere from 3 seconds to a full minute. The same is true when you are looking for a specific page. Screen changes, for example to go from one menu to another, nearly always take several seconds. Even going from one page to the next will take at least a second or two, often much longer. Two seconds doesn't sound like much? Most people think that, until they have to wait for it. Casually browsing a book is invariably a very time-consuming process.
Worse, the reader sometimes simply hangs up on you, and it may then be necessary to use the reset button. At other times, the reader will simply reboot. Naturally, it will only do that after you have already looked in high hopes at the screen for a minute or two. Luckily, these events are somewhat rare.
Is the reader worth having?
Yes, without a doubt, I must say yes. However, the quirks, the disadvantages are far from negligible and because of them, this is very much an early adopter device and you may want to wait a few more years until the technology becomes more mature. It takes a good dose of enthusiasm and idealism to be really happy with the reader. For that reason, I can only advise to have a good look at the device before you buy it.
Addendum
The reader is perfect in sunlight, but unusable when it is dark, since it does not have any built-in lighting. Sony does sell a little device to illuminate the screen. It works rather well, but it just about doubles the thickness of the device. It also becomes quite a bit heavier.
A new model came out just recently, the PRS-700. This one has a limited functionality touchscreen, that is not very reliable. It also has built-in lighting. The lighting comes from built-in led's and is rather unpleasant. For the rest, it is nearly identical to the PRS-505. Many people report that the touchscreen makes the screen a lot harder to read. The PRS-700 is an extra product, it does not replace the PRS-505, which Sony continues to sell.
I have uploaded quite a few pictures of the PRS-505, in order to enable you to see how the reader looks in actual use.
More about Sony e-book reader, Prs-505, E-ink