Sony Reader: the verdict (SBP column)

The arrival three weeks ago of a Sony Reader into the office sent this arts reviewer into a bit of a flap. In many respects, the Sony PRS-505 Reader looks like an extremely inviting little device. Contained between tan mock-leather journal covers, the light and elegant Reader offers its owner the opportunity to download hundreds of books from the internet and read them on its surface. Essentially, it’s an iPod for books. 

But as someone who reacts to technology incredibly badly — I’ve even been known to quibble about the advantages of predictive text — the Reader posed something of a challenge. Books I love. Computers? Not so much. Could I adapt to an electronic reader? I wasn’t optimistic.

I’ll be honest, I spent the first couple of days ignoring it. I’d cast it the odd guilty glance — and then scurry back to reading my proper book that came with comforting real pages, real ink and a real cover. When, for the purposes of a survey I was doing for my radio show, I popped into a few Dublin bookshops to find out what other readers thought of the device, I discovered that I wasn’t the only frightened bookworm in town. While some purred over the Sony Reader, many others reared away from the gadget with alarm in their eyes.

They loved real books, they said. Books — proper, physical books — held vivid memories for them. They remembered the tea stains from a time they were in Italy or a particular edition that a partner had bought for them. They loved the shape of books, the colour of them; they liked to browse, make their decision about what to read in the bookshops. Real books were a comfort, an indulgence; they would not abandon them easily.

But they were practical too — and this is where the Sony reader should find its following. The device has 192MB of storage — which will allow the reader to read 160 books on the device. There’s also potential for memory expansion — there are SDHC and MemoryStick Duo slots in the top of the player, which means that your storage capacity for books can easily be hugely increased. The Reader — which costs around €250 — can also play unencrypted MP3 and AAC audio files. And old, out-of-copyright books can be downloaded for free.

There are flaws evident in the device. For one thing, it doesn’t have a touch-sensitive screen — so, for people used to an iPod, the Reader already seems a little outdated. It’s not back-lit, so a good light source nearby is vital. And reading a book on the device can be cumbersome at times — flipping from page 240 to page 200 is harder than it should be. It’s also impossible to make notes as the Reader does not come with a keyboard.

But it also has unexpected advantages. Almost every person interviewed said they were concerned that the e-reader screen would hurt their eyes. In fact, the matt screen is incredibly easy on the eyes — and the Reader allows you to make the font bigger or smaller. If you were planning on travelling, it would definitely be worth having one around. In generations to come, meanwhile, you can easily imagine kids going to school with just one electronic reader in their schoolbag — all their school books having been downloaded onto it.

All things considered, although it needs improvement, the more I investigated the Reader, the more I liked it. I have to give it back to Sony tomorrow. Luddite though I am, this particular bookworm will be sorry to see it go.

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