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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Sony Reader PRS-700

The Sony Reader hasn't gotten anywhere near the publicity the Kindle has garnered. That's too bad, because while the Reader doesn't boast the 3G network that the Kindle provides, it has some rather snazzy advantages of its own.

On first glance, the Sony Corp. device has a much more user-friendly interface than the Kindle. It takes about two seconds to figure out how to navigate the Reader's touch screen via the icons (the Reader comes with a stylus, but I tended to use my fingernail). I also like the way you can turn pages by swiping across the page -- it's a much more natural gesture, especially for a device that's trying to emulate a dead-tree book.

Because of its lack of a keyboard, the Sony Reader is somewhat smaller and just a bit lighter than the Kindle, which may sound negligible at first, but is actually a distinct advantage.

Most of the face of the device is taken up by the display. A series of discreet buttons just below the display allow you to (in left-to-right order) go up one screen level, page back, page forward, go to the home screen, do a search, change the text size and go to a general options screen so you can go to a specific page, create or edit notes, go to the table of contents, etc.

As with the Kindle, there is a power switch on top, although the Sony actually shuts off, while the Kindle only goes into sleep mode. The Sony also includes something that the Kindle 1 had but the Kindle 2 lacks: a slot for SD memory cards (and, in the case of the Reader, the Sony Memory Stick Duo). As a result, while the Sony has less built-in storage than the Kindle -- 20MB vs. 2GB -- you can save as many books, documents, audio files, etc. as you want.

The SD slot also makes the Reader easy to use as a work tool, as I found over a weekend when I needed to read a long PDF document. I was able to download it from my netbook, save it to a memory card and pop the card into the Reader, which immediately pulled all the readable documents on the card -- including my PDF file -- into its table of contents. Seconds later, I was reading the document on a very comfortable display.

Amazon Kindle vs. Sony Reader
Sony Reader PRS-700

Other hardware controls include one for volume, a standard audio minijack and a switch that provides you with two levels of backlighting, which means you can use the Reader in low-light situations without having to carry a book light around with you. As with the Kindle, you can adjust the text size to suit your comfort level. Besides five preset sizes, the Reader adds a "Zoom in" feature that lets you magnify and reduce the text as much as you like.

In place of the Kindle's physical keyboard, the Sony Reader offers a touch-screen-based keyboard for text searches, either within a book or within your entire library. You can also bookmark your pages.

The Sony charges through its USB connection. According to the specs, it takes about four hours. There is an optional AC charger available for $30 that can cut that time to two hours. Sony asserts that you can get about two weeks or reading on a charge (presumably, without running it on the backlight).

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