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No longer do you need to travel with a carry-on full of books to read.  Take a Sony PRS-500 e-Book Reader instead.

But do understand both what the unit can and can't do before making a decision to save trees and read eBooks in the future.

 
 
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Sony PRS-500 e-Book Reader review

Store hundreds of books in a slim reader
 

The Sony PRS-500 Portable Reader System is about the same size as a paperback book, but thinner.

Its 6" diagonal screen displays text, graphics and low-res black and white pictures.

Easy controls make the unit simple to use.

But, bottom line, reading an old fashioned book is still simpler, easier, and more convenient.

 

 

e-Book technology has been a long time coming, and with plenty of disappointments to date.

The concept of storing hundreds of books digitally promises to potentially revolutionize the printing/publishing industry, just like MP3 technology has revolutionized the music industry.

But the reality delivers much less than the promise, and the twin evils of copy protection and predatory pricing take away most of the remaining potential benefit.

The Sony PRS-500 Portable Reader System was released late in 2006.  But is it yet a reader for the mainstream public?  The answer to this is, at best, unclear, and we're left with the definite impression that this is a technology still in its infancy and perhaps best left alone by all but the most avid early adopting gadget lovers.

The Sony PRS-500 Portable e-Book Reader System - What you Get

When you buy a PRS-500 e-Book reader you get the unit itself complete with a vinyl fold over cover that protects the unit's potentially fragile glass screen.

It also comes with a multi-voltage charger, a USB cable, a CD Rom with the Connect reader software and an operation guide in PDF format, plus a Quick Start guide fold open sheet.

The Connect reader software, necessary for buying books from the Sony bookstore and for transferring books to the reader unit, currently works only with PCs.  It is not Mac compatible.

The unit has a built in Lithium ion rechargeable battery that is claimed to be good for about 7500 page views (see discussion on battery life below).

It measures 6.9" x 4.9" and is about 0.5" thick, or, with its protective cover, about 1/10th of an inch thicker.   It weighs 11.6 oz with cover.

By comparison, a paperback book measures about 6.9" x 4.1" and varies in thickness from just under an inch to considerably over an inch, and in weight from about 6 oz and up from there.

In other words, the e-Book reader takes up about half the space of a regular paperback book, and weighs as much as one or two paperbacks.  You're immediately saving on space, even if it is replacing only one single paperback book, and if it is replacing a hardback book or more than one paperbacks, you're saving on weight as well.

The unit comes with a miserly 90 day warranty, plus a one year parts-only warranty.

The unit also has some sample portions of books preloaded on it, and often there is a promotion at the time you buy the reader giving you a credit to be applied to books you subsequently purchase through Sony's Connect book store.

I bought my unit at Borders, where it listed for $350 and had a $50 credit against future eBook purchases, plus some free titles from a selection of older, out of copyright, books.  Sony are currently (Aug 07) selling it direct for $300 with no credit against future purchases.

Using the Sony PRS-500 e-Book Reader

The unit is quick to turn on - about 3 seconds for the page to become visible.  And as for turning off, there's never any need to turn it off (although it times out after about an hour and turns off automatically).

When the unit was first activated, it connected to the internet and updated its firmware from version 1.0.0 to 1.0.02, and in early August, I manually updated it again to 1.0.03.  There have been no further updates as of 11/19/07, but you should keep a watch on their support website to ensure you continue to have the latest version of the reader's firmware (and also of their Connect software that interfaces with their book store and manages your eBook collection).

The controls on the front of the eBook reader are reasonably simple and intuitive.  There are two different sets of controls for page turning, each allowing you to turn one page at a time either forward or backward.  There is a font size button that toggles through two or three different font sizes for the text you are reading.  A mark button allows you to create or remove a virtual bookmark in your book.  A menu button and five-way control stick provide some assistance moving through menus, and a row of ten buttons numbered 1 - 0 (ie 1 to 9 then 0 at the end) allow you to directly choose menu options, and to jump through an open eBook in tenths.

Apart from an on/off button on the side, there are no other controls.  It would be nice to have a way to flick through a book, perhaps ten pages at a time, as well as page by page (electronic page turning is a surprisingly slow process) and other controls like a 'next chapter' button or an index button would be nice, and why not have some type of direct search facility too so you can directly search for text in the book.

Perhaps all these things and more might come in future eBook readers.  But for now, this unit is limited to simply displaying pages in a book, plus also allowing for some picture display abilities and the capability of playing music (MP3 and AAC) files.

Hopefully the unit's protective cover does a better job of protecting the screen than it does of protecting the buttons, because I've several times opened the unit up only to find it on a totally different page than where I left it, as a result of inadvertently having the buttons bumped and pushed while the unit was being carried.  This is annoying, somewhat akin to having a bookmark fall out of a regular book, but finding the right page to continue reading from is much more cumbersome because it takes time to electronically 'turn' each page.

The time to turn each page is a noticeable and even slightly annoying feature.  From when you press the page turn button until when the next page displays on the screen, there is a noticeable delay, lasting just over a second (I can turn 3 - 4 pages in 5 seconds).  This mightn't sound like much, but it is appreciably slower than turning pages in a regular book, and over the course of a 1000 page e-Book (about the same as a 400 page regular book) you end up spending as much as 15 - 20 minutes just turning pages.

Each page turn is also a bit disconcerting, because the unit first 'flips' every pixel on the screen so what was a series of lines of black text on the grey screen becomes a black screen with grey text briefly, then it flips back to the new page of text, with what the eye interprets as a brief 'flash' of light in the process.

The main index of the unit gives you the ability to sort the books stored on it by author name or title name, but if you choose author name, it sorts alphabetically based on the author's first name, rather than last name!

eBooks for the Sony PRS500

The good news about an eBook is that it takes up almost no space or weight.  You could potentially fit 2000 eBooks onto a single 2GB SD card (the card costing a mere $35), and you could have ten of these SD cards - giving you a massive library of 20,000 books - in less space than a box of matches.

That is the good news.  eBooks take up much less space.

The not so good news?  You'd have difficulty getting 20,000 eBooks - there's only a limited range of titles available in electronic format.  And the even worse news - don't go looking for any big bargains when buying eBooks.  Just because you're saving a tree, and saving the publisher big bucks in terms of printing, freight, distribution, and retail margins doesn't mean the savings will flow to you.

And, for more bad news, the eBooks you do buy, at inflated price, will almost certainly have bothersome copy protection on them that restricts what you can do with the files.  Simplistic explanation - they never truly become 'your' eBooks, unlike real books.  You can't conveniently loan them to friends, give them away, donate them, or sell them to the second hand book shop.  Neither can you make notes in the margin, underline key passages, or do anything else with the files.

If these issues don't discourage you, and you're pressing on, then the best source for eBooks for your Sony PRS-500 is, unsurprisingly, Sony's Connect Store.  As of November 2007, they claim to have a range of over 20,000 titles in their web based store, most at some small discount off the comparable printed book price.  This includes a section of 'classic' books - older books (ie 100 years or more old) that are no longer copyrighted, which they sell for $1.99 each.

20,000 titles might sound like a lot, but by way of comparison, a typical Barnes & Noble bookstore carries between 60,000 and 200,000 titles (the manager of my local store proudly tells me he has 160,000 titles on his shelves).  So 20,000 titles is a woefully small number, and there's every chance, if you're looking for specific books by favorite authors, that you'll be disappointed.  For example, don't go looking for best sellers such as any of the Harry Potter books, or any Tom Clancy thrillers.

Even more ridiculously, some authors have some titles but not others available.  For example, I went looking for Sir Winston Churchill's six volume series 'The Second World War', only to find two of six books weren't available.

There are other eBook retailers on the internet, but the types of copy protection loaded into their files are usually incompatible with the type of copy protection and file format supported by the Sony reader.

Unprotected files in pdf, txt, or rtf format are also supported on the reader, and MS Word doc files can be converted automatically to rtf equivalents and also read.

Some websites provide free eBooks - mainly either self published by authors who can't get their work published normally, or old titles with the copyright expired.  Project Gutenberg is the best known of these, with about 20,000 titles directly available, and some 100,000 available through themselves and other affiliated sites.  Other sources include Manybooks.net (about 17,000 titles) and Feedbooks.com.

EBooks generally are less than 1MB in size each, although this varies depending on the size of the book and whether there are any pictures included or not.  This means a typical eBook is very much smaller than a typical MP3 song, and it can be downloaded to your computer and PRS-500 very quickly.

The PRS-500 Screen and its E Ink Technology

The key part of any book reading device, and a key new feature of the Sony e-Book reader, is its screen.  A regular old fashioned book, with black type on a white sheet of paper, is actually one of the most ergonomically perfect ways of reading text that exists, and even today, most digital displays are inferior to plain old paper.

Clearly a device that is intended for extended reading needs to have a good quality display, or else eye strain will become an appreciable constraint.  The Sony e-Book reader scores at best averagely in terms of the quality of its screen.

It looks like a regular, un-lit LCD screen, but it actually uses a very different type of technology, called E Ink.  The differences between regular LCD displays and E Ink displays are mostly 'behind the scenes' - the end result, for us as readers, is very similar.

But these differences are important.  The main enhancements offered by E Ink are two-fold - a higher pixel density on the screen, and less battery power used.

Pixel density

The more pixels (or dots) per inch, whether on a printed page or a display screen, the clearer the type becomes, and the easier it is to read, especially in smaller sized fonts.

The PRS-500 uses a 6" diagonal screen, measuring approximately 4.8" x 3.6".  It has a resolution of 800 x 600 pixels, which translates into a pixel density of 167 pixels per inch both horizontally and vertically.

To compare resolutions, a typical full sized computer screen has about a 75 - 90 pixel per inch resolution.  A poor quality laser printer gives 300 dots (or pixels) per inch, a better quality gives 600 or 1200 dpi, and inkjet printers sometimes offer considerably more.  Offset printing (eg of a book) can give even better resolution, perhaps equivalent to 2000 or more dpi.

So, the Sony eBook reader is appreciably clearer than a regular computer screen, but much less clear than good quality printed material.  In theory, one could say that the eBook reader, with 167x167 = 27,889 pixels per inch is 143 times less clear than a 2000 dpi printed page, but the actual perceived difference in quality is not nearly as great as this calculation implies.

Our feeling is that the 167 pixel resolution struggles to be barely adequate at displaying clean clear weighted and serifed fonts at anything other than foolishly large sizes, and using the PRS-500's smallest display setting (with the most words per page) makes for way too tiny letters with insufficient pixels per character.  This is clearly an area which needs further improvement, and E Ink already make at least one screen with appreciably higher pixel resolution.

Another perspective of the 800 x 600 resolution is to simply compare it to the resolution on your computer screen.  Chances are your computer screen is 1024 x 768 (65% more pixels than 800 x 600) or 1280 x 1024 (nearly three times as many pixels), and possibly even higher resolution.  An 800 x 600 resolution, a total of only 480,000 pixels (compare this to a camera with millions of pixels) is, these days, of low quality rather than high quality.

The eBook reader's screen would benefit from, and really needs, increased resolution.

Battery power

The E Ink screen only uses battery power when you are changing pages.  The easiest way to think of this is to compare it to an Etch-a-Sketch - it uses power to make each pixel 'on' or 'off' - ie, to be light or dark, but once each pixel has been set, it doesn't require any more power to keep it in that state.

This has great benefit for a book reading application, where the usage is typically having a 'page' of information set and then left unchanged for some time before the next page is then set.  In other words, you only use power to 'turn' each page, rather than while reading each page, so you can read as slowly or as quickly as you like with no impact on battery life.  You'll get the same number of pages reading from a battery charge.

Another minor advantage of this type of technology is that there is no flicker.  Whereas regular computer and video screens are being re-drawn many times a second (anywhere from 25 up to 100 or more) the E Ink technology paints a solid image on the screen.  This is a good although minor feature.

Other screen considerations

The E Ink screen does not have any backlighting, so you need to have reasonable light around you to read the text on the screen, and if you're reading on an overnight flight, you'll need the overhead light on.

The images on the screen have very low contrast - they are about 7:1 contrast, which compares to almost 1000:1 on a regular computer screen.  This makes the readability much poorer on the E Ink screen because the grey/black type doesn't stand out clearly from the grey background.

The screen is monochrome, and supports six levels of grey as well as black and white.  This makes it possible to display low quality black and white photos and other graphics as well as simple text.

The screen has a very wide viewing angle.  It claims a 170 viewing range - viewing all the way from one side to the other would be 180.  I found the practical effective viewing angle to be less than this, but it was still very wide, both horizontally and vertically, and not a problem.

The slow refresh rate on the screen means it would not be possible to display animation and movies.

Font size

eBooks that are stored in Sony's own format can be displayed in three different font sizes - small, medium and large.

In our ergonomic and well lit office, we at first boldly thought the small size was acceptable and easy to read, but once we started reading many pages of text, and in poorer light, we quickly increased the font size to medium, and suspect some readers will prefer large.

We found the medium size font to be barely adequate in terms of displaying clear weighted serifed fonts, with the thinner strokes of the fonts fading away almost to nothing (ie single pixel width).  But a larger font size becomes ridiculously large, like the writing in a young child's picture book.  The screen would be much better to read from if it had higher resolution.

It is good that you can choose from three different font sizes on some eBook formats.  But not all formats support these different size selections, and if you're downloading free eBooks in other simpler formats, you might find yourself stuck with only the font size coded into the file, which could potentially be inconveniently small.

Battery Life

The unit claims a battery life of approximately 7500 page turns.  On the face of it, a 7500 page battery life is excellent, but this claim needs to be carefully understood.

E-pages are smaller than printed pages

A page on the e-Book reader is not the same as a page in a regular book.  Pages on the PRS-500 have fewer words on them than pages in a typical book, so 7500 e-pages is actually substantially fewer regular pages.

For example, the hardcover book 'The Reagan Diaries' has 784 pages in its print version.  But the e-Book version has many more pages - variously 2095, 2910 or 4342 pages, depending on if you use small, medium or large sized fonts.  I use medium sized fonts, and so each 'real' page is the same as 3.7 electronic pages - in this case, the 7500 page life equates to only 2020 real pages.

This conversion factor varies from book to book, depending on how each book is laid out (font size, spacing between lines, margins, etc).  Another hardcover book, 'Stalin's Ghost', with 352 pages in the print edition, equates to 546, 746 or 1137 pages on the PRS-500.  Each 'real' page equates to 2.1 electronic pages at medium size.

For paperback books, the 416 page book 'Lost Light' equates to 710 e-pages with medium font (a 1.7 multiplier) and Dan Brown's 384 page 'Digital Fortress' equates to 1008 e-pages (a 2.6 multiplier).

Averaging out these four random selections suggests a 2.5 multiplier to get an approximate conversion.  In other words, on average, 7500 e-pages using medium sized fonts is the same as about 3000 pages in printed books.

Pages turned compared to time switched on

The very good news is that the e-ink display used by the PRS-500 only uses battery power when the information on the page is turned, not while the page is being displayed (unlike normal LCD type screens).

There is also no backlight to use up power, so you can apparently leave the unit on without worrying about using up battery life, and you can read pages slowly or quickly, because the only battery use is when you change pages.

So battery life should remain unaffected by how slowly or quickly you read, and that should make it possible to get consistent figures for battery life, expressed in terms of page turns.  This number will gradually decline - like all rechargeable batteries, each recharge has slightly less power stored than the previous one.

Actual testing

My first use of the unit resulted in a nasty surprise - after an estimated 2000 page turns, the unit died on me in the middle of a long flight, leaving me with nothing else to read or do for some hours.  I'd accepted their claimed 7500 page turn battery life at face value, but clearly the reality was something greatly less.

Accordingly, I did two formal battery life tests, using the unit and counting the page turns to when the battery indicator changed from four to three, then from three to two, two to one, and from one bar to stopping working (the indicator has four bars).

But after having done those two tests, I found a new firmware release on Sony's website which mentioned some fixes to do with battery life, and so redid the test one more time, getting an appreciably longer battery life.

  The results are as follows

 

Test One (no SD card)

Test Two(with SD card)

Test Three (with SD card)

Test Four (with SD card)

From 4 to 3 bars

841

820

820

2150

From 3 to 2 bars

708
1549 total

993
1813 total

2333
3153 total

855
3005 total

From 2 to 1 bar

802
2351 total

882
2695 total

1370
4523 total

30
3035 total

From 1 bar to zero

10
2361 total

1496
4191 total

1382
5905 total

795
3830 total

Total Pages Displayed

2361

4191

5905

3830


So what to make of these widely varying results - an informal test with about 2000 page turns, then two formal tests with increasing battery life (2361 then 4191 page turns) and two more tests with new firmware but widely varying battery life (5905 then 3830 page turns)?

Perhaps the battery needs to be conditioned - ie fully charged and discharged - a couple of times to bring it to maximum capacity.  And the new firmware may have improved the battery life.

It seems fair to conclude that, in an optimum environment, the unit is capable of up to 6000 page turns, if used in a concentrated short period of time (any battery's charge slowly dies over time whether being used or not).  But it also seems fair to conclude that, on average, you're not likely to get more than 4000 page turns.

Even if we accept the 6000 figure (which we never achieved in real life testing, but to give the benefit of the doubt to Sony), and recognizing that it takes an average of about 2.5 page turns on the unit to make the equivalent of a single page in a printed book, this means the unit can display about 2400 printed page equivalents on average, but as few as 1200 printed page equivalents in some cases (with large fonts and printed books with lots of words per page).  This is probably more than sufficient for most people on a long flight, but you'd likely want to recharge the unit before your return flight.

I asked Sony's support people about the shortfall between their claimed battery life and my measured results, but got nothing more than mumbled statements about battery life varying depending on how it is used.

Such disclaimers can fairly apply to things like cell phones (where the battery is used very much more when you're on a call than when the phone is on standby, and where the battery usage also varies depending on signal strength) or MP3 players (where volume, sampling rates, and the amount of time the screen is illuminated all impact on battery life) and cameras (the amount of flash per photo is the key variable here).  But, with the way that the E Ink system uses a constant amount of power per each and every page turn, it would seem that battery life should not vary much at all, and it is difficult and disappointing to reconcile a real world 4000 page turn life with a promised 7500 page turns.

Problems recharging the PRS-500

In theory you can recharge the e-Book reader either by using the supplied mains charger, or via a USB cable, taking power from any USB power source such as a desktop or laptop computer.

Charging via the multi-voltage mains charger was easy and straightforward, with it taking about four hours to fully charge the unit.  This is a fairly slow charge rate, but that is perhaps a good thing because the slower you recharge a battery, the less harm done to it and the greater the number of recharge cycles you can expect.

But who among us wishes to travel with yet another charger?  And the PRS-500 has a particularly bulky charger - rather than a simple small wall brick charger, it has a cord to connect the charger box to a mains outlet, and a second cord to then connect the box to the reader unit.

I was delighted to see that Sony sensibly also allowed for the unit to charge via its USB port.  Because almost all modern electronics units use the same 3.7V Lithium ion batteries, and because the USB specification allows for a 5V, 0.5A power feed to be passed through the cable, and thirdly because the electronic circuitry to regulate and control the battery recharging is now so small that it can be included in the unit rather than in a dedicated charger, it is very common to find many electronic devices (including cell phones, cameras and MP3 players) that can be charged via a USB cable.

But.  Sony has managed to sabotage its good idea with a ridiculously stupid implementation.  For unguessable reasons that make no apparent sense whatsoever, the USB charging option can only be used if the unit is not fully discharged.  It can be used to 'top up' the charge on a unit, but if you've exhausted the unit's battery, it can only be recharged with the official power supply, not with a USB cable.

On one occasion, I went from having two bars (ie what looked like half) power remaining to zero power in a mere 11 page turns.  So there's always a danger you'll end up fully discharging the unit, or alternatively, to protect against that, you can only use the unit until it has started showing two of the four bars remaining (which can be in as few as 2000 - 3000 page turns).  This means that you pretty much have to always travel with the bulky mains power charger too.

I'm unaware of any other device that suffers from such a stupid limitation.  What on earth is Sony thinking of to release such a badly designed unit?

Where to Buy

The Sony eBook reader is available at various online retailers, plus can be purchased in many Borders retail stores, or direct through Sony's website.  It seems to be presently priced at $300.  We expect pricing to gradually trend downward over time.

Note that the PRS-500 is currently only being sold to people with US addresses.  This is probably something to do with licensing of the eBook titles.

Summary

The Sony PRS-500 eBook reader is a credible step closer towards a truly convenient way to electronically store and read books.

But, while an improvement, many people may feel it is not yet good enough to warrant the $300 investment, and those who are wavering may be discouraged by the too-high cost and crippling copy constraints of the eBook files themselves, and/or by the very limited selection of books available.

The unit definitely needs a better screen - higher resolution, better contrast, and faster redraws, plus ideally the addition of color - to make the reading experience easier and more pleasant.

Recommended only to early-adopting gadget lovers and avid readers.  Ordinary people are best advised to wait until prices drop and capabilities improve.

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Originally published 10 Aug 2007, last update 19 Dec 2013

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