December 18, 2007 1:19 PM PST

Sony Reader felled by the classics

Sixty-five seconds.

That's the amount of time it takes for the Sony PRS-505 Portable Reader System to let you into War and Peace. You click the book title from the Reader's library, wait one minute five seconds while the book loads, and you're back to the Napoleonic era.

Actually, you're not completely back. You have one more click to go. With a paper book, this process takes about a second.

The delay is one of the many kinks in the software of the Reader. For the past few years, critics and even company executives have complained about the quality of the software in the company's MP3 players, the Connect media service, and other products. Mostly, I chalked up the complaints to garden-variety Web 2.0 whining from the tech community. One of the reasons I ordered a test unit of the Reader was to see how far Sony has come in improving its navigation.

Sony Reader

I also think that electronic books represent a huge opportunity. Books consume paper and weigh a lot. Despite the decorative appeal of many books--who doesn't have an unread copy of Moby Dick prominently displayed on their shelves--many could go digital. And right now, Sony is letting users download 100 classics (Animal Farm, The Inferno, and so on) for free. It's the best deal I've seen since I got two grocery bags full of Signet Classics for $20.

Unfortunately, the electric library remains a work in progress. Here are a few other surprises with the Reader and the Connect service:

• The load-up time
The load-up time, I've discovered, depends on the length of the book. At 3,423 pages with the smallest font (4,757 pages in the medium font, and 7,269 in large font), War and Peace takes more time than any other book I've tried. Our Mutual Friend, the Charles Dickens classic at 2,678 pages, comes in at 16 seconds. Pudd'nhead Wilson, at 428 pages, takes only about five seconds. Anything less than 400 pages takes about three seconds.

The Reader apparently insists on loading up the entire book before you can read it. Since most people don't read entire books in one sitting, this seems a bit weird.

• No hourglass
After you select a book, there's no hourglass or other symbol to let you know your request has been registered. So you begin to hit other buttons. Unfortunately, each of these commands get executed in a serial fashion. So let's say you decided to read The Da Vinci Code (selection No. 5 in the library) after nothing happened when you selected War and Peace. Nothing happens again. So you select book No. 1 in the menu, The Secret Sharer.

You don't get The Secret Sharer. You get the copyright notice on War and Peace, because the Reader went first to the No. 5 selection on the War and Peace index page and then the No. 1 selection on the Table of Contents. Until I figured this out, I found myself being thrown randomly around the place.

For spastic people, the slow pace and lack of signals from the machine clearly is a problem.

• No search on the Connect main page
You can search the Connect service with your PC, but if you want to download books, you need to search through the Reader connected to a PC. However, in that mode, there is no search bar on the main page. You have to go one level deeper to select a category--literature, sports, etc.--to get a search bar.

Then, the search function works only for those subsections. If you search for "Gibbon" under literature, nothing comes up. If you search under "Gibbon in history," you get The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Again, weird.

• Lots of specials
On the Connect front door, there is a tab for special deals. After you buy a book, the Web site also shows you a tab for special deals. But the specials offered under these two tabs are different. It's only a problem if you want to buy another book on the first specials page you were on. The free classics, for instance, are available only on the front door.

• Registration
I can't recall how I actually registered the device, but it took about five minutes and somehow I got it accomplished.

But here's the good news: it's actually a very cool piece of hardware. The screen, from E-ink, looks very paperlike and causes less eye strain than reading an LCD screen. The downloaded family photos also look somewhat realistic. The screen itself is somewhat delicate. One shopper told me he visited three CompUSAs and in two, the Sony Reader on the display was broken.

The MP3 player worked as well as any MP3 player. No complaints there. After awhile, you could see how this could become a portable media device. With a headset and a cellular chipset, it could function as a phone. Upgrading the screen to color would make picture and video viewing possible.

Who knows? Something like this could make Sony the king of portable devices. Or it could become a long retreat from Moscow.

See more CNET content tagged:
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24 comments

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"Registration"
"Registration
I can't recall how I actually registered the device, but it took about five minutes and somehow I got it accomplished."

There we go with that pesky "journalism" again.
Posted by mjm01010101 (126 comments )
Reply Link Flag
"Registration"
"Registration
I can't recall how I actually registered the device, but it took about five minutes and somehow I got it accomplished."

There we go with that pesky "journalism" again.
Posted by mjm01010101 (126 comments )
Reply Link Flag
A *Sony* device to read books? Get serious
First, why would anyone buy anything from Sony? Not only have their products slid markedly in quality and their customer DISservice is amongst the worst, but the company that Sony hired to build the rootkit, SunnComm, wasn't qualified for that sort of work (they made false claims of working with other companies as well) though they were good Elvis impersonators. Really.

Go read up on Sony's actions:
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://substantialsimilarity.org/wp-content/uploads/subsim/2007/12/disaster-final.pdf" target="_newWindow">http://substantialsimilarity.org/wp-content/uploads/subsim/2007/12/disaster-final.pdf</a>

Second, why should I buy an unreliable and faulty Sony "reader" and pay $20 for books, when I can download the same books onto my PDA from Project Gutenberg for free, and then use my PDA for a myriad of other things besides reading?

The decision was a no-brainer...I mean Sony's decision was a no-brainer, mine was the smart choice.
Posted by zxcv1234zxcv (12 comments )
Reply Link Flag
ebook
I would agree. I am half way through Crime and Punishment on my Palm 755p smartphone. The convenience is incredible.
Posted by nrr333 (4 comments )
Link Flag
Sony Reader Ignorance
First, why would anyone comment about something that they know very little about? The Sony Reader is hardly an unreliable or faulty device. Also, those same books that are available for free on Project Gutenberg can also be transferred to the Sony Reader and read for FREE.

I've read ebooks on the small screen of a PDA for years and the experience of reading on the Sony Reader is much more pleasurable.
Posted by csmith75 (9 comments )
Link Flag
A *Sony* device to read books? Get serious
First, why would anyone buy anything from Sony? Not only have their products slid markedly in quality and their customer DISservice is amongst the worst, but the company that Sony hired to build the rootkit, SunnComm, wasn't qualified for that sort of work (they made false claims of working with other companies as well) though they were good Elvis impersonators. Really.

Go read up on Sony's actions:
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://substantialsimilarity.org/wp-content/uploads/subsim/2007/12/disaster-final.pdf" target="_newWindow">http://substantialsimilarity.org/wp-content/uploads/subsim/2007/12/disaster-final.pdf</a>

Second, why should I buy an unreliable and faulty Sony "reader" and pay $20 for books, when I can download the same books onto my PDA from Project Gutenberg for free, and then use my PDA for a myriad of other things besides reading?

The decision was a no-brainer...I mean Sony's decision was a no-brainer, mine was the smart choice.
Posted by zxcv1234zxcv (12 comments )
Reply Link Flag
ebook
I would agree. I am half way through Crime and Punishment on my Palm 755p smartphone. The convenience is incredible.
Posted by nrr333 (4 comments )
Link Flag
Sony Reader Ignorance
First, why would anyone comment about something that they know very little about? The Sony Reader is hardly an unreliable or faulty device. Also, those same books that are available for free on Project Gutenberg can also be transferred to the Sony Reader and read for FREE.

I've read ebooks on the small screen of a PDA for years and the experience of reading on the Sony Reader is much more pleasurable.
Posted by csmith75 (9 comments )
Link Flag
MP3's are not enough
MP3's are not enough for these devices to be a success. Now only if they could read the book back to me as well. Then I wouldn't have to have a book on CD and on in the reader. There is no reason they can't put the reading functionality in the device.
Posted by Grumpyz77 (19 comments )
Reply Link Flag
MP3's are not enough
MP3's are not enough for these devices to be a success. Now only if they could read the book back to me as well. Then I wouldn't have to have a book on CD and on in the reader. There is no reason they can't put the reading functionality in the device.
Posted by Grumpyz77 (19 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Have you tried any others?
There's no nice way to put this: Sony's readers suck.

They're gorgeous, and the e-ink display is wonderful, but when it comes to actually using them they just ... suck. The e-ink display isn't fast enough for their UI, and rendering is horribly slow. Books are unbelievably expensive and there aren't very many of them. It supports exactly zero popular e-book formats.

I wanted to like Sony's book, I really did, but it is just not a good unit.

I've been watching the other players come (and usually go) and none of them had the right mix of price, capability, and document availability. Until a few weeks ago, that is, when Amazon released the Kindle.

Reviewers have panned the Kindle for all kinds of reasons -- the ergonomics seem almost senseless, the user interface is decidedly weird, and it's really expensive. But let me tell you first hand: It doesn't suck. At all. They lose against Sony in the looks and ergonomics department, but smash the ball out of the park when it comes to actually using the thing.

First and foremost Amazon has gone a long way towards fixing the book availability problem. They have almost five times as many titles as Sony, and their titles are much less expensive -- less expensive than paper. I want to see them expand their catalog a lot, but they do have a lot of current titles by major publishers that have been sorely lacking with other readers.

The Kindle's odd LCD-on-the-side UI is unusual but completely solves the interactivity problem e-ink displays have given their long repaint cycle. I hate click wheels with a passion but the interface is simple and it works.

Using a cellular network for data transfer is a stroke of genius. WiFi is faster, and it would surely make web browsing less painful (it's a lousy web browser, barely better than my phone), but WiFi is nowhere near as broadly available as Sprint's cell network. For downloading documents it works rather well, and having Amazon's store at your fingertips almost everywhere is really a nice feature. (And the lock-in is good for them, of course.)

What surprised me, though, was that the Kindle supports a couple of different e-book formats in which I already had titles. None of the DRMed titles are supported out-of-the-box, of course (although there are hacks for Mobipocket titles), but even without them about a third of the e-books I purchased for my PDA opened just fine. It doesn't do PDF, for which it is repeatedly knocked, but PDF is not a popular book format (at all, and for good reason). Still, the PDF-to-Mobipocket converter works ok on many documents so even here the Kindle is not really shut out.

I know I'm sounding like a salesman, and I'm sorry about that. In truth I recommend that most people wait for at least the next revision -- which should be much cheaper and fix a lot of the bugaboos in the current product. If you want a good electronic reader and you're relatively price-insensitive, though, the Kindle is a pretty nice little unit. Even if it is kind of ugly.
Posted by jimafrost (31 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Sounds like a Kindle owner
Jimafrost, you sound like a Kindle owner trying to justify his purchase. The Sony PRS-505 supports quite a few formats including RTF, which, in my opinion is quite universal. Sony is working closely with Adobe so that their Digital Edition will work with the Reader. Not sure if that'll be offered on the Kindle.

If there's a formatted book you need converted to the Sony format then use libprs500.exe that you can download free from the website. I've been using libprs500 to convert books I've downloaded from sites and it works perfectly. I also use libprs500 to download Newsweek, BBC newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, and a few other newspapers for free. Oh, did I mention that it's FREE? How much did you need to pay for those subscriptions on your Kindle? On the Sony eBook site you can download feeds from Engadget and other websites...for free. Did I mention previously that I'm able to load FREE books and convert them for FREE and put them onto my PRS-505 without any hassles? With the Kindle you'll need to pay to have Amazon convert and email the book back to you.

So if the Kindle has all those books, how many of those 90,000 books are you actually going to buy and read? Granted the Sony site has 28,000 books available, but with Borders just about to join up I'm sure that'll change. Plus as I mentioned previously I can go to a website, download a book from, say, Gutenberg.org and throw it right into my Reader. Wireless is nice for the Kindle, but your battery life will suffer. 3 days of use with your Kindle is a far cry from over a week or two of use with the Sony Reader.

So overall, I think your assessment of the Sony is shortsighted and really sounds like you love your Kindle and are trying to justify spending $100 over the Sony Reader's $300 price.
Posted by watsdamattau (18 comments )
Link Flag
Correction
Books are unbelievably expensive for the Sony Reader? I just took a look at a couple of books on their bestsellers page and compared them to Amazon's books and most of the time they either matched their prices or were a dollar or two higher. Hardly, what I would call unbelievably expensive. I even took a look at the most expensive book (Get Rich, Stay Rich, Pass It On) on the front page and it was actually five dollars cheaper than the Kindle version.

I believe that Sony dropped the prices of their books along with other ebook stores like Fictionwise to compete with Amazon.

As far as formats, the Sony Reader supports TXT / RTF / PDF (unencrypted), along with Sony's proprietary format. These are popular formats as far as Project Gutenberg and other sites are concerned. Amazon chose not to support the popular Mobipocket format that other sites sell and which Amazon sold as well. Instead they created their own proprietary version and alienated all those people who had purchased Mobipocket books from Amazon.

I'm not saying the Sony Reader is perfect, but just trying to clear up some misinformation.
Posted by csmith75 (9 comments )
Link Flag
Have you tried any others?
There's no nice way to put this: Sony's readers suck.

They're gorgeous, and the e-ink display is wonderful, but when it comes to actually using them they just ... suck. The e-ink display isn't fast enough for their UI, and rendering is horribly slow. Books are unbelievably expensive and there aren't very many of them. It supports exactly zero popular e-book formats.

I wanted to like Sony's book, I really did, but it is just not a good unit.

I've been watching the other players come (and usually go) and none of them had the right mix of price, capability, and document availability. Until a few weeks ago, that is, when Amazon released the Kindle.

Reviewers have panned the Kindle for all kinds of reasons -- the ergonomics seem almost senseless, the user interface is decidedly weird, and it's really expensive. But let me tell you first hand: It doesn't suck. At all. They lose against Sony in the looks and ergonomics department, but smash the ball out of the park when it comes to actually using the thing.

First and foremost Amazon has gone a long way towards fixing the book availability problem. They have almost five times as many titles as Sony, and their titles are much less expensive -- less expensive than paper. I want to see them expand their catalog a lot, but they do have a lot of current titles by major publishers that have been sorely lacking with other readers.

The Kindle's odd LCD-on-the-side UI is unusual but completely solves the interactivity problem e-ink displays have given their long repaint cycle. I hate click wheels with a passion but the interface is simple and it works.

Using a cellular network for data transfer is a stroke of genius. WiFi is faster, and it would surely make web browsing less painful (it's a lousy web browser, barely better than my phone), but WiFi is nowhere near as broadly available as Sprint's cell network. For downloading documents it works rather well, and having Amazon's store at your fingertips almost everywhere is really a nice feature. (And the lock-in is good for them, of course.)

What surprised me, though, was that the Kindle supports a couple of different e-book formats in which I already had titles. None of the DRMed titles are supported out-of-the-box, of course (although there are hacks for Mobipocket titles), but even without them about a third of the e-books I purchased for my PDA opened just fine. It doesn't do PDF, for which it is repeatedly knocked, but PDF is not a popular book format (at all, and for good reason). Still, the PDF-to-Mobipocket converter works ok on many documents so even here the Kindle is not really shut out.

I know I'm sounding like a salesman, and I'm sorry about that. In truth I recommend that most people wait for at least the next revision -- which should be much cheaper and fix a lot of the bugaboos in the current product. If you want a good electronic reader and you're relatively price-insensitive, though, the Kindle is a pretty nice little unit. Even if it is kind of ugly.
Posted by jimafrost (31 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Sounds like a Kindle owner
Jimafrost, you sound like a Kindle owner trying to justify his purchase. The Sony PRS-505 supports quite a few formats including RTF, which, in my opinion is quite universal. Sony is working closely with Adobe so that their Digital Edition will work with the Reader. Not sure if that'll be offered on the Kindle.

If there's a formatted book you need converted to the Sony format then use libprs500.exe that you can download free from the website. I've been using libprs500 to convert books I've downloaded from sites and it works perfectly. I also use libprs500 to download Newsweek, BBC newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, and a few other newspapers for free. Oh, did I mention that it's FREE? How much did you need to pay for those subscriptions on your Kindle? On the Sony eBook site you can download feeds from Engadget and other websites...for free. Did I mention previously that I'm able to load FREE books and convert them for FREE and put them onto my PRS-505 without any hassles? With the Kindle you'll need to pay to have Amazon convert and email the book back to you.

So if the Kindle has all those books, how many of those 90,000 books are you actually going to buy and read? Granted the Sony site has 28,000 books available, but with Borders just about to join up I'm sure that'll change. Plus as I mentioned previously I can go to a website, download a book from, say, Gutenberg.org and throw it right into my Reader. Wireless is nice for the Kindle, but your battery life will suffer. 3 days of use with your Kindle is a far cry from over a week or two of use with the Sony Reader.

So overall, I think your assessment of the Sony is shortsighted and really sounds like you love your Kindle and are trying to justify spending $100 over the Sony Reader's $300 price.
Posted by watsdamattau (18 comments )
Link Flag
Correction
Books are unbelievably expensive for the Sony Reader? I just took a look at a couple of books on their bestsellers page and compared them to Amazon's books and most of the time they either matched their prices or were a dollar or two higher. Hardly, what I would call unbelievably expensive. I even took a look at the most expensive book (Get Rich, Stay Rich, Pass It On) on the front page and it was actually five dollars cheaper than the Kindle version.

I believe that Sony dropped the prices of their books along with other ebook stores like Fictionwise to compete with Amazon.

As far as formats, the Sony Reader supports TXT / RTF / PDF (unencrypted), along with Sony's proprietary format. These are popular formats as far as Project Gutenberg and other sites are concerned. Amazon chose not to support the popular Mobipocket format that other sites sell and which Amazon sold as well. Instead they created their own proprietary version and alienated all those people who had purchased Mobipocket books from Amazon.

I'm not saying the Sony Reader is perfect, but just trying to clear up some misinformation.
Posted by csmith75 (9 comments )
Link Flag
cyrillic alphabet
I wonder if Sony-Reader supports cyrillic alphabet?
Posted by netmate (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
cyrillic alphabet
I wonder if Sony-Reader supports cyrillic alphabet?
Posted by netmate (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
if you can't spare 65 seconds then get a life!
I don't usually reaspond to somthing like this but I couldn't belive what I was reading! 65 seconds, my god! How Dare they put out a product that takes 65 seconds to load somthing! they should be flogged, they should be tared and feathered! Keel haul them!

Give me a freaking break! Take a walk around the houseand lok out the windows, pet the dog or the cat, Feed the fish, stop and smell the roses! then go back and read your book becasue by then it will be loaded!
Posted by Mike Van De North (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Luddities unite (not really)
Ordinarily, I'd agree with you but that's not why people by digital readers. If an iPod took 65 seconds to load a song, Apple stock price would be about $500 less than it is now, and Steve Jobs would be selling pencil erasers on the street corner.
Posted by QuetzalcoatlUSA (120 comments )
Link Flag
if you can't spare 65 seconds then get a life!
I don't usually reaspond to somthing like this but I couldn't belive what I was reading! 65 seconds, my god! How Dare they put out a product that takes 65 seconds to load somthing! they should be flogged, they should be tared and feathered! Keel haul them!

Give me a freaking break! Take a walk around the houseand lok out the windows, pet the dog or the cat, Feed the fish, stop and smell the roses! then go back and read your book becasue by then it will be loaded!
Posted by Mike Van De North (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Luddities unite (not really)
Ordinarily, I'd agree with you but that's not why people by digital readers. If an iPod took 65 seconds to load a song, Apple stock price would be about $500 less than it is now, and Steve Jobs would be selling pencil erasers on the street corner.
Posted by QuetzalcoatlUSA (120 comments )
Link Flag
no loading but calculating page breaks
Loading large books is slow because the reader is calculating where the page offsets should be. It needs to do this in order to give you the page count at the bottom of the screen. Perhaps this could be done on a separate thread in order to keep the UI more responsive. One way to work around this is to open the book in the PC reader software first. This causes the same pagination load to be done but on your PC with a much more powerful processor this is much quicker. Then when you copy the book to the reader ( using the reader software ) the page offset information is copied as well so it doesn't need to be calculated at first file open time. Hope this is useful.
Posted by ianm74 (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
no loading but calculating page breaks
Loading large books is slow because the reader is calculating where the page offsets should be. It needs to do this in order to give you the page count at the bottom of the screen. Perhaps this could be done on a separate thread in order to keep the UI more responsive. One way to work around this is to open the book in the PC reader software first. This causes the same pagination load to be done but on your PC with a much more powerful processor this is much quicker. Then when you copy the book to the reader ( using the reader software ) the page offset information is copied as well so it doesn't need to be calculated at first file open time. Hope this is useful.
Posted by ianm74 (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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