Sony e-reader – hands on

I attended the Sony Reader demonstration with one thing in mind – to buy an Amazon Kindle later that day. Somewhere between seeing the Sony Reader and forcing the European Product Manager outside to demonstrate its display in bright sunlight, I changed my mind. I realised quality eReader devices were not just novel to Amazon. I turned a page.


On paper, the products are pretty similar. They both store more books than you’ll ever need, although the Sony Reader Touch has an expandable memory of up to 32GB (perfect for listening to music). They’ve both got massive battery lives of about three weeks, and they both have eInk displays.

Despite these key similarities, the first thing that strikes you about the new Sony Reader is how un-Kindle like it looks. While the Amazon device seems to imitate a piece of A4 paper, both the Sony Reader Touch and the Pocket look and feel more like paperbacks. Aluminium paperbacks.

Then you turn it on. When it boots up (in less time than the Amazon reader) you realise that the screen is very Kindle-like. Which is a great thing. The two devices uses the same eInk screen, with massively improved contrast and faster refresh rates over the older version.

The result is an almost identical reading experience, brilliant reading in bright sunlight and the feeling that you’re reading from tree-originating paper.

Unusually for eInk displays, Sony’s addition of a touchscreen has absolutely no effect on the quality of the display. Normally, a resistive touch layer dulls the screen (as screen on previous models), but Sony has innovated their way out of this constraint.

They use a Sony-unique infra-red touchscreen technology to ensure that you can flip pages with your fingers, or annotate with the included stylus, without hindering the reading experience. There is no screen dulling at all.

In fact, the addition of a touchscreen makes the reader a complete delight to use. Not only can you swipe to change page, but you can also double-tap words for definitions (or translations in up to 10 languages), highlight text with your finger and perhaps most importantly, use the new image-heavy interface.

Books can still be chosen by clicking the titles, however there’s also the option to choose books based on their cover image. Sure, the images are in black and white (they’re not miracle workers!) but it’s a nice addition, one that makes it feel like you’re choosing a book from a shelf, rather than opening a text document on the PC.

Of course, you shouldn’t judge a book reader by its cover, which is why Sony have been working on some massive book deals. Not only can you purchase books from any major book publishers in the UK (except Amazon – those fiends!), but you can also download books from Google at That means 500,00 free books are at your disposal, and are easy to download.

They’ve also started a library scheme. Which may sound dull, but it actually enables you to digitally download eBooks from libraries in 50 councils around the UK. You don’t even need to go into the dusty building – perfect for asthma-suffers and lazy people.

Digitally find the book, chose to download and it is yours for 14 – 21 days. After a set period, the book will automatically return itself. If you’re not quite done, simply click “re-borrow” and it’ll be delivered back to your device.

Strangely, publishers are still running this like a normal library. The institutions will have to buy a certain number of licenses, each representing a book. When all of them are rented out, you’ll not be allowed to borrow the book until a previous copy is returning. A bit archaic, perhaps, but its up to the publishers and libraries, not Sony, to sort that out.

The Sony Reader also promises “intelligent PDFs”, where the text reflows to fit the screen’s zoom level – something the Kindle sorely lacks. Sony also claims that PDFs are quicker on the Reader – and they are quick – but we didn’t get to try a side-by-side with the Amazon offering.

As well as reflow, the Reader offers page a quick-display of pages when you’re scrolling through. Hold down the page change button and it’ll preview the up-coming pages with no visible refresh time, making browsing for a certain page a cinch.

All in all, the new Sony Readers are pretty exciting. If Amazon hadn’t decided to dramatically undercharge for the Kindle, massively undercutting the rest of the market, then the Sony Reader may be the perfect choice. As it is, the £109 Kindle is more pocket-friendly than the Reader Pocket, which rolls in at £159 with a smaller, 5.5″ screen and no music playback.

The Reader Touch is full-sized and fully-featured, but will set you back £200 – an extra £50 on the premium Kindle.

The final chapter on the issue will come next week, when we’re getting an extended hands-on with the Reader. We’ll let you know whether the added functionality is worth the premium price.