A few months ago, I decided that, once school ended, my life would need a good medium-term goal, something at once worth more than a single rainy week (like catching up with The Wire) but that I’d accomplish before… oh, say, 30. All the better if it provided an excuse for a new gadget! I’m happy to say that I think tackling the Great Books catalog hits the bullseye on all criteria. It’s unquestionably ambitious. And since almost all the works involved are in the public domain and thus available online, and since my eyes would likely bleed agony if I exposed them to that much more of a computer screen, a state-of-the-art approach to reading ancient writings is in order. Enter the Sony Digital Book PRS-505.
Now, you’ve probably heard of the Amazon Kindle. I haven’t seen one in person, but I ended up going with the Sony reader because 1) it advertised “PDF support”… note the intentional scare quotes; and, 2) it cost $100 less. As it turns out, the sketchy “PDF support” of the Sony reader ought not to be a deal maker for anyone. And I can imagine that Amazon offers a wider selection of recent ebook titles to download. But the PRS-505 is still a first-class product, and I recommend mine without reservation.
The reason you would buy an e-reader would be to, well, read… that is, to read digital content that you download off your computer onto a peripheral that is infinitely easier on the eyes than a computer screen. Therein lay the first feature of the Sony Digital Book that strikes you: its monochrome screen makes text look like a page in a actual book. When I first saw the PRS-505 at the SonyStyle store in San Diego, I thought the employees had put out one of those lame cardboard place holders because the words on the screen were so crisply rendered. Imagine my surprise when I pressed the “Turn Page” button and the content changed! Yes, it’s that indistinguishable. And you can adjust the text size at any time to be even nicer to your eyes. I rerender all my ebooks into the largest font size now just to add a few more years to the life of my retinas.
You download content off the internet — either from the Sony store, which admittedly pales in comparison to Amazon — or from sites like The Online Literature Network which host books in the public domain. The PRS-505 can store these files internally or, my preferred option, can take a Memory Stick or SD card. It reads TXT, RTF, Sony’s proprietary LRF format, and, ostensibly, PDFs. The PDF renderer, however, is abysmally slow and borderline unusable: you can’t zoom in on PDF content, nor can you resize text to readably fit on your screen. Luckily, you can usually convert PDFs to TXT or RTF files; formatting is even preserved in the latter case. Speaking of conversion, I’d be surprised if there weren’t a way to convert Amazon Kindle files to a more universal format, so the parochial Sony ebook store probably shouldn’t be an issue.
The device itself is light and solid looking. Unlike the Kindle, the PRS-505 has no keyboard, just a few sets of navigation buttons and a column of 10 numbered buttons for the user interface and for skipping pages. Some people miss the gradual transferal of pages from one side of the book to the other as they progress. Me, I’m fine with the page counter at the bottom of the screen. On balance, I love the look and feel.
It does have drawbacks, however. One of the few annoyances I’ve encountered is skipping pages: I had to read discontinuous chapters in John Maynard Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace for my economic history class. It’s a publicly-available work, so I downloaded the raw TXT file to my reader. When it came time to skip chapters, though, I had to randomly jump to a page number and then flip-around to see which chapter I was in, since the reader can’t know which chapter you’re on in a raw TXT file (the specially-formatted files you buy off of ebook stores don’t have this problem: like many paper books, the reader will display the chapter number in the upper right-hand corner on every page). What makes this experience excruciating is the 1-second delay in turning pages, which really adds up when you’re flipping blindly looking for a particular passage. There’s also no way to highlight individual content, though you can “bookmark” a page and return to it quickly later.
These aggravations aside, I’m delighted with my e-reader. I can’t say whether the Sony would still be superior if my cup of tea were new releases rather than relics of the public domain: again, I haven’t tried buying an Amazon Kindle ebook and converting it, and even if it weren’t possible, I’m not sure the Kindle is worth the $100 premium. For my needs, at least, the Sony is impressive enough.
UPDATE: Turns out Kindle ebooks are DRM-encrypted, so at this point they’re incompatible with the Sony Digital Book and unconvertible. The good news is that someone is bound to crack the DRM. The bad news is that even if you didn’t share books the way you shared music and videos, you’d probably still be on sketchy legal footing taking a Kindle file and converting it to a Sony-friendly format. Food for thought.