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.

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The Menu key brings up a context-sensitive menu on the right side of the screen. If you want to move to another book in your library or make a purchase at the Kindle Store, you use the toggle switch to get to your selection and press down.

The first thing anyone wants to do with a Kindle is buy a book to read. I have to admit that the experience of buying a book through the Kindle is gratifying -- simple and fast. You can find a book by browsing through your selection or searching for the name and/or author. You can then check out the user reviews (the usefulness of which depends on your opinion of Amazon's user reviews) or, better yet, download a selection from the book (and some of these selections are fairly generous).

Have you decided you want the book? Select Buy Now -- you need to be a registered Amazon member, so your credit card information is already recorded -- and the book is immediately downloaded in the background while you continue to browse or go back to whatever you were reading before.

Of course, there can be glitches -- and with the usual luck of a reviewer, I happened to find one. I ordered a copy of a biography, Harpo Speaks! by Harpo Marx and Rowland Barber, and got an error message stating that the book could not be downloaded. I tried again -- several times. No luck.

Luckily, Amazon.com seems to have its technical support staffers well trained. I went to the Web site and used Amazon's callback system, where you type in your number and get a call back from support. I explained my problem and was routed to a tech person who helped me delete the five or so unsuccessful downloads I had initiated, determined that the problem was a faulty initial download, and helped me try again -- successfully.

I have to admit, it was very neat to be able to sit around wherever I was -- a doctor's waiting room, a living room, a bus -- and shop for my next book via Whispernet. Once I had made my purchase and downloaded the book, I could turn off the connection to save battery power.

Amazon Kindle vs. Sony Reader
Amazon Kindle 2

I found that, in general, more-popular books tend to cost around $10; others, such as academic texts or less-popular nonfiction books, can head toward $20. Older books, especially those in or near the public domain, can cost under $1 (for example, a copy of Through the Looking Glass cost 79 cents).

By the way, if you're a reader of older books but would rather get your public-domain literature without the extra charge, there are ways. For example, Feedbooks.com offers a Kindle Download Guide. If you go to the Web site using your Kindle and download the guide, you can then download a variety of Kindle-friendly books that are either in the public domain or were written by authors who want to distribute their works free of charge.

Amazon has apparently thought through the user interface of its Kindle 2 very carefully. The device includes many small touches, which, I have to admit, aren't important in the long run but are rather endearing. For example, I enjoyed the way it uses illustrations of famous writers or of literary references during its "sleep" mode; it was fun to close the cover and wonder what illustration I would see when I opened it up.

You can easily bookmark a page by bringing up the menu. You can also use the keyboard to enter your own note that is then associated with the point in the text at which you entered it. This is a very nice feature that lets you, in essence, annotate any text you're reading. You can also get definitions of words within the text by resting the cursor on it; the definition shows at the bottom of the page.

I also tried out the text-to-speech feature, and while it still isn't anywhere near as nice to listen to as having a human reading the text, it isn't bad. I tried it on what a friend pronounced the ultimate test of any speech-to-text software -- Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky" -- and it didn't do badly, although it couldn't seem to parse the actual word jabberwock. Certainly, if you're busy preparing a meal and don't want to stop in the middle of a chapter, the feature is a useful one -- but it isn't how I'd choose to discover most of my literature.

The Kindle is a fine reading tool and has a lot of advantages over the Sony Reader and other rivals -- its marketing is smart, its interface is well thought-out, and it is very good at what it does. Whether it or any other e-book will actually replace the traditional book has yet to be determined.

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