The e-book challenge: Sony Reader PRS-700 takes on Amazon's Kindle 2

The Kindle 2 e-book reader has become one of the best-known consumer tech products. Now, Sony's Reader PRS-700 is trying to get on top.

When Amazon.com Inc.'s Kindle 2 hit the market in February, nearly universal acclaim made one think that most of the population of the U.S. was about to burn their books and grab their Kindles (that is, if they could afford one). And some of that reaction was quite justified -- the Kindle uses an e-paper display to provide a clean, very readable display, and its 3G connection (which Amazon calls "Whispernet") offers users a quick, extremely easy way to purchase and read literature.

In fact, a lot of readers have adopted the Kindle with great enthusiasm. For example, a friend of mine, a teacher with a well-stocked library of texts and reference books -- and a small apartment -- has already gotten rid of most of his fiction collection, happily determined to read all his novels through the Kindle. I'm sure he's not the only one.

But the Kindle isn't the only e-book reader out there. Prominent among its rivals is the Sony Reader. The latest version, the Sony Reader PRS-700, was recently released and also offers an e-paper display. While it doesn't boast a 3G connection, it does have backlighting and a touch screen.

Both of these e-book readers cost around the same -- as of this writing, the Kindle 2 cost $359, and the Sony Reader PRS-700 was priced at $350 -- and both have their advantages and disadvantages. In order to find out which one suited which readers, I tried out both.

This was an informal test, so I didn't run any performance figures. What I did was live with each of these over the course of a few days -- uploading books, reading, carrying it around -- to try to figure out what the differences were and how well they suited at least this reader's lifestyle.

So now that the bloom is off the Kindle rose (at least somewhat), which of these two e-readers should you buy, assuming you are in the market for one?

Amazon Kindle 2

From the moment I unwrapped it, I was impressed with the Kindle 2.

To begin with, the e-ink is fantastically easy to read (as it is on the Sony Reader -- I could see no advantage in either). There is a moment when you "turn" each page that the screen blackens and then resolves, which does take a bit of getting used to.

Amazon Kindle vs. Sony Reader
The Sony Reader PRS-700 (right) is slightly smaller than the Amazon Kindle 2 (left).

Another first impression that I didn't expect was the weight. The Kindle 2 weighs 10.2 oz., not including the case. Although you wouldn't expect a device that weighs slightly under a pound would be a problem, these things can start to add up if you already carry a mobile phone, a media player and/or a notebook (or even a netbook). And that's only my everyday walk-around-Manhattan gear.

One thing that adds a couple of ounces, and a few inches, to the size of the Kindle is the keyboard located under the 6-in. diagonal display. As small keyboards go, it isn't bad -- I had no trouble typing in search terms or using it to tweak either the font size or the voice. But I much preferred the design of the Sony Reader, which, because it uses a touch screen, eliminates those extra three inches from its length.

That being said, it didn't take me very long to get used to the Kindle's controls, which are located to the right and left of the display. They aren't hard to find. A Next Page button is on the left edge of the unit, with a smaller Prev Page button above it. On the right, you'll find the Home, Next Page (yes, there are two Next Pages, one on each side), Menu and Back (what I would think of as Esc) buttons, along with what Amazon calls a five-way toggle switch, which can be pushed up, down, left or right or pressed down.

I had no problem with the toggle switch, which somewhat resembles a tiny joystick. However, I found it difficult to accommodate to the location of the Prev Page key -- my brain kept telling me that, if I wanted to go back to the previous page, I should hit the left-hand button directly across from the right-hand Next Page key as if I were paging back. As a result, instead of paging back, I went forward another page.

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