Sony Reader Pocket Edition: Good reading in a small package

Sony's smallest e-book reader is lightweight, elegant and offers a touch screen -- but no wireless features.

The market for e-book readers has become cluttered with devices, many of them worthy. Three of the latest to hit the shelves are updates to Sony's Reader line: the Sony Reader Pocket Edition ($179.99), the Touch Edition ($229.99) and the Daily Edition ($299.99).

I looked at the Sony Reader Pocket Edition (Model PRS350), which, at 6.25 x 4.25 x .40 in. and 7.76 oz., is ideal for people who want to minimize the weight of their technology.

Sony Reader Pocket Edition
Sony Reader Pocket Edition

What does it do? The Sony Reader Pocket Edition is not only lightweight and slim, but offers a 5-in. E-Ink Pearl touch screen, which is brighter and more responsive than any of the previous Sony models and rivals any of the E-Ink displays available on competing products.

The touch screen is, in fact, one of the selling points of this device, and it's a good one. Those of us who have become used to touch screens on other devices such as smartphones will find the Pocket Edition very easy to navigate. It not only lets you page through a book easily, but offers other advantages as well; for example, if you double-tap on a word, you can get a definition from one of several dictionaries.

The Pocket Edition is a simple device. It offers a single micro-USB connection (which is used both to power the device and transfer data), an on/off switch and a stylus. It also has five slim silver buttons below the screen for Page Back, Page Forward, Home, Zoom and Options.

The home screen lets you select from your library of books (with the one you were last reading displayed prominently at the top of the screen), periodicals, collections of books, and any notes you have taken.

The Zoom button allows you to adjust the size of the type, with a choice of six sizes; you can also zoom in and out using a sliding control or choose to view your document with different-size margins or with two or three columns of text.

The Options button gives you access to a variety of features, including bookmarks, word logs (a list of the words you looked up in the Pocket Edition's dictionary), search, and the option to delete a book. You also can go to another page or a page that you previously searched on, and you can adjust the display's brightness and saturation levels.

Options also lets you add notes, either by drawing them in using the stylus that rests within a slot on the unit or by typing them in using an on-screen keypad. Strangely, while there's a separate icon (that comes up when you choose Notes from the Options menu) for adding a note by drawing with the stylus, you have to double-tap on the highlighted part of the screen to get the keypad to appear, which didn't always work for me. An icon for the keypad would have been a lot easier.

The Pocket Edition comes with its own software, the Reader Library. It installs (on both Windows and OS X computers) the first time you connect it to your e-reader via a USB cable, and thereafter opens every time you connect the e-reader to your computer. The Library lets you organize your e-books, transfer them onto and off of the reader, and purchase new ones via Sony's Reader Store. The software also offers links to free sources such as Google Books, and you can import text files and other documents from your computer. The Sony Readers are compatible with ePub, PDF, BBeB Book, text and RTF formats; for images, they can handle JPEG, PNG, GIF and BMP. The unit comes with 2GB of memory, 1.4GB of which is available to the user.

What's cool about it? I was very impressed with the readability of the display -- I had no trouble reading it in very bright sunlight -- and with the design and interface of the device as a whole. The Pocket Edition is small enough so that it isn't a burden to slip into a pocket or a bag, even if you're already carrying a notebook or other devices.

I also liked the ease with which I could import documents. The Sony Readers are less restrictive than the market-leading Kindles, mainly because they use the close-to-standard ePub format; as a result, I had the choice of either using Sony's Reader Library to find books or simply getting e-books from external sources and importing them. It took me only a few seconds to import several PDF and RTF documents that I needed to read for work -- a much less burdensome process than getting similar documents into a Kindle.

What needs to be fixed? The Pocket Edition (and the slightly larger and more feature-filled Touch Edition) doesn't connect wirelessly to the Internet or any e-book vendor. This could be a real problem in a market where people like to be able to purchase books without having to physically connect to their computers -- especially considering that the Sony Readers are priced fairly high in comparison to their competitors. For example, the Kindle Wi-Fi, which has a 6-in. non-touch display, sells for $139, about $40 less than the Pocket Edition.

In addition, unlike the Touch Edition, which sports Memory Stick Pro Duo and SD media slots, the Pocket Edition doesn't include any kind of expansion slots and doesn't offer any kind of audio support -- so you can't read and listen to music, which would have been nice.

Bottom line: The Sony Reader Pocket Edition is an excellent tool for portable reading, especially with its improved touch screen and its ability to easily accept a variety of document formats. Whether it can thrive in a market that also includes wireless devices at lower prices is uncertain, however.

Barbara Krasnoff is reviews editor at Computerworld. When she isn't editing or reviewing, she blogs at The Interesting Bits ... and Bytes; you can also follow her on Twitter (@BarbaraKrasnoff).

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