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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A major advantage that the Sony offers -- at least, for those of us who have already amassed our own digital book libraries -- is the ability to accept documents in a variety of formats without having to go through any kind of "translation," as is necessary with the Kindle. The Sony Reader can handle BBeB, ePub, .txt, RTF, Adobe PDF and Microsoft Word documents.

Another plus associated with the Reader's more traditional method of obtaining files is that you can easily add images, such as family photos, and audio files (in the MP3 and AAC formats). So while you can't listen to a somewhat robotic voice read to you, as with the Kindle 2, you can enjoy listening to music while reading with the Sony.

Sony's approach to adding notes to the text you're reading is a bit different than Amazon's -- in Sony's case, you can mark out what passages you want to note by hitting a "highlight" icon and indicating the text on the touch screen. Originally, I reported that the Sony doesn't let you add your own written notes. I was wrong -- a reader pointed out that, by tapping in the corner of a bookmarked page, you can bring up a keyboard and a space to type in a note. A small square in the "downturned corner" indicates that there is a note on that page.

Unfortunately, the Sony falls short in one of the most crucial tasks for any e-reader: the ability to easily download books and other products. In this area, its ease of use doesn't come near to that of the Kindle's. Besides the fact that you have to actually physically connect the Reader to your computer via USB (which isn't difficult, but is not nearly as convenient as simply clicking to the Kindle Store), the software that the Reader uses isn't as slick as it could be.

The eBook Library is the application (for Windows only, unfortunately) that allows users to purchase books, obtain free books from the Google Books repository and manage their files in general. You move your documents from your computer to the Reader manually by dragging and dropping them from a list in a main window to the Reader listing that appears in a side menu when you connect the Reader to your computer.

This process is not a big deal to most savvy computer users, but it doesn't have nearly the ease of use that could move it into Kindle territory. It's become clear that e-readers, like other consumer-oriented products, need to be usable by people who are otherwise uncomfortable with technology. If you have to search for how to move a book from your computer to your device, that's one step too many.

With that said, I didn't find it difficult to either find a book or make a purchase using the eBook Library. Within a minute of logging in, I had downloaded two Mark Twain novels from Google Books without any problem whatsoever.

The process of buying a book is nearly as simple. You can search for a book or browse down through categories. The selection didn't seem, on an informal search, to be nearly as comprehensive as Amazon's (not surprisingly). Not only didn't it have the relatively obscure but recently reissued Harpo Speaks!, but it also didn't have Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, a best-seller from two years ago.

I was, however, pleased to note that you can purchase short stories separately for about $1 to $2 each, something that those of us who enjoy short fiction appreciate.

I ended up purchasing a copy of a small-press book -- My Life in Speculative Fiction, by Richard Bowes -- for $4.74; the same book was priced at $3.99 for the Kindle version.

However, while I was able to negotiate the purchase and transfer of the book without problem, I can't say it was anywhere near as simple as purchasing a book using the Kindle. While the Reader is an extremely worthy device with several advantages, until Sony can match that particular feature, it will probably continue to follow Amazon in the e-book marketplace.

Conclusions

Whether you want to purchase an e-reader depends both on how much of a reader you are and how comfortable you are reading from a netbook, a smartphone or some other mobile device. There are sources for electronic literature that don't involve a dedicated gadget. In addition, iPhone users can now access much of the Kindle's functionality.

If you want an e-reader and have an spare $350 to spend, you have two good choices. The Kindle is an extremely well-built product that has several major advantages over the Sony Reader, the most prominent of which is the ease with which users can obtain reading material. The Whispernet connection, which lets anyone quickly download books from Amazon.com's extensive Amazon.com, is a distinct plus.

However, savvier tech users may want to consider the Sony Reader as an alternative. The Reader accepts a number of common document formats, is smaller and lighter, offers a touch screen and built-in backlighting, and lets you listen to your favorite tunes while reading. If its software were easier to use and if it offered a better collection of books in its store, the Sony Reader PRS-700 could truly be a contender.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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