Other Media Review

Sony 505 Review by Test Driver Mary

Used by permission of Sony Electronics IncI seem to have been one of the lucky few who had no issues with the postage service – my e-reader arrived very quickly (I have a 505) – so I didn’t have to wait with bated breath (good thing too – my artistic talents do NOT hold a candle to Brandyllyn’s). Since I travel a lot for my job, I went into the trial hoping that the e-reader would be a good solution to my book haulage problems (especially with the airlines getting really stingy about luggage).

So you have some idea of where my preferences lie – I’m not a writer. I AM a voracious reader. Books are almost like crack for me. If I find a book I love, I am highly likely to go and buy every book in print by that author (especially a series that I enjoy). I discovered the “Dresden Files” by Jim Butcher the week before the e-reader trial – and bought (and read) the entire series in a week. My name is Mary, and books are my drug of choice. The day the package arrived was a bit like Christmas morning, with the obligatory eager tearing off the wrapper. My first impression was “wow, this is a lot smaller, lighter and thinner than I thought it would be – maybe I’m going to have to squint a lot”. Straight to the office I went, loaded up the software, made an account on the Sony bookstore, hooked the reader up and let it charge. Maybe I’m just a little too vanilla, or not far enough out on the cutting edge of technology – but I had absolutely no issues getting set up, charged up and loaded up with reading goodies. I was all set – and I never even opened the instructions (my motto in life: when all else fails, read the instructions… but not until every other possibility has been exhausted).

Now, I don’t know about you, but one of my favorite places to read is in bed. Especially when it’s raining. So I was all set to crawl under the covers and read in the dark to my heart’s content. I then discovered my first disappointment: no backlight. To be fair, books need lights too, but somehow with a backlight on my watch, my cell phone, my iPod, my laptop… I’ve been conditioned to expect a backlight on electronic devices. Yes, yes I know… you can buy a booklight to attach. But c’mon – it’s a device intended solely for reading – what genius decided that you can do without a light to read by (or will always have one handy)? Actually, reading in bed with the reader was a pleasure – it was easier than with a book (no pages flapping over, no thick spine to contort my fingers around, no pages falling out from having broken said spine).

Over the next couple of weeks I took my reader to all the places I usually take a book: to school, to the doctor’s office, to work, to a restaurant (I read at the table when I’m on my own) and on the plane. Very handy, and the battery lasted a long time without a charge – rather impressive. The downside… people kept admiring it, asking what it was, asking me about it and in general interrupting my reading. I got more reading done at home than on the road.

I do have a few small gripes about the reader.

a) The menu button isn’t intuitive. It took me days to figure out that to get out of the book I was in, and back to the main menu, I needed to keep pressing the “menu” button. I then had to work out how to navigate back into the book (thankfully the chapter can be selected in the table of contents).

b) That was the second problem: having to menu surf back to the top menu, and then forward to get back to where I was is a pain in the you-know-where. I’ve since learned that if you bookmark, getting back is easier, but still… is a “home” button too much to ask for?

c) Speaking of buttons – they need to be bigger. Two tiny buttons you have to press with a fingernail, and one other built into a directional button just don’t work well. Granted, if they’re too big you could accidentally turn a page, but there has to be a middle of the road solution.

d) Pages take a couple of seconds to turn (I hit the button before I reach the last line and it works OK – but the flash/flicker is annoying). As someone else said: the reader has ONE function (to be read from) and it should do that flawlessly. No flicker, no delay turning the page.

e) Not enough contrast on the screen – there needs to be an adjustable control. Lighting where I would have had no trouble with a paper book, required turning on the light for the e-reader. I had to increase the font size (which is depressing – makes me feel old). Increasing the font size wasn’t even a good solution, since that increased the number of page turns (see above) and the resulting formatting was also weird and bothersome to read.

f) No wireless meant I could only buy books at home – I couldn’t ‘impulse’ buy even if I wanted to

Some things that were great:

a) easier to handle than a book. Seriously, holding it to read from it was very comfortable – even more so than a paper back. Very natural – no need to hold it in odd positions to be able to use it. The screen could stand to be a tad bigger, but it’s much better than trying to read on something the size of a postage
stamp (eg: my Blackberry).

b) much easier to carry on the plane than books – it even fits in the seat pocket! Barely takes up any room in the bag, and I would never have to choose between books and clothes again :)
c) battery life is terrific. I didn’t need to take a charger with me on a week long business trip (this is huge by the way – don’t get me started on a ‘every device has a separate freaking charger’ rant – just about my entire briefcase is filled with chargers).

d) the cover does its job – and doesn’t get in the way. I like that it was included with the reader.

e) the metal frame feels very sturdy, and not at all cheap and plasticy In general, I was very pleased with the reader, and think digital books are definitely the way to go in the future.

However, the sticking point for me is not the device (which would be a great solution for me) – the problem is the medium. Warning… rant ahead.

As Sarah has pointed out before, the way publishers, bookstores, Amazon and everyone else are treating DRM is nuts. I just want a book, and I want to be able to buy it from whomever I want to, wherever I am, and know the darn thing is going to work on whatever reader I have… just the way I can with a paper book. The whole idocacy with Amazon removing Animal Farm from readers’ Kindles was way too “big brother” for me. If I’ve paid for the book… I OWN IT. Period. I’d like to see Barnes and Noble try to come and remove any paper book I’ve
bought from my own home! Why in the name of ever-loving-sense would it be different with digital books? I’m in business – and this makes absolutely no sense to me from a business standpoint.

a) there’s already a high cost of entry for digital books. You must own a computer and/or an e-reader – both of which are expensive. The responsibility for backing up the collection is the readers’, and if the “format” changes, the entire lot could become unusable – flushing a lot of money down the cyber sink-
hole.

b) to grow the business, publishers are essentially going to have to convince readers to change from paper to digital – changing behavior developed over centuries. You’d think they’d be trying to ensure there were as few barriers to entry as possible.

c) digital is going to reduce costs substantially if publishers can convince the majority of readers to go digital. Economics 101 people!

d) Pissing off your customers is a bad business strategy – and the more restrictions put in place, the more unhappy consumers you’ll have. Take notes from the record industry publishers – make it easy or your business is going to decline in a big way.

I buy my books from three sources: Barnes and Noble, Amazon and the airport booksellers. Barnes and Noble is where I go to browse – and even if I were to go fully digital, I’d still go to B&N because I’ve discovered that (for me) books are a very visual thing. Does the cover attract me? What catches my eye on the displays? What do the fab B&N staff recommend? I spend a fortune on books, and if I went digital, B&N (where I live) might just collapse. Like Sarah, if I could buy digital books at B&N I would – after I’ve found the ones I want by visually
browsing. Bookshops are like the spa for me – I go there to relax, enjoy and find unexpected pleasures. How many stores do you know that let you tuck into the merchandise over a cup of coffee in a comfy chair before you’ve even paid for it – or even if you don’t end up buying what you’ve consumed? Bookstores are the only ones I’m aware of. I do NOT want to give that up – and I realize that I can’t expect to get that experience forever if I’m not throwing some cash their way. Equally, why can’t I buy a digital book from the airport booksellers? Yeah, the e-reader stores a butt- load of books – but if I’m just not in the mood for any of them, then I’m back to shelling out for a paper book that I have to cart home (because with the e-reader I can’t even buy them wirelessly).

Which brings me to my biggest gripe with Sony. Their bookstore sucks. Several times when I’ve logged on intending to buy books… it’s down. The purple swirly arrow of boredom appears every time I click on a new category or book (I have a fast PC and super-fast internet connection… so I KNOW it’s not me). It doesn’t have the features that Amazon does (especially helpful… the “peek inside” feature – which Sony doesn’t have). Hell, I can’t even read the blurb on the back of the book jacket. Amazon may be da debil… but they do a terrific line in
almost replicating the bookstore experience. I usually go to them when I’m looking to save money on books by authors I already know I like when I’m not in a hurry for the books (4 for the price of 3, free shipping, delivered to my door). It’s not a comfy chair and a cup of coffee – but it’s damn close.

I freely admit, I’m not into searching out multiple sites where I can buy books in a format the e-reader will accept (unlike other test drivers – I had no digital books before I got the e-reader). Either I have to change that – or I’m locked into a proprietary store – with whichever e-reader I buy. If the press releases are true and the forthcoming Plastic Logic reader will only let me buy books from B&N (unless they’re in PDF) then that’s one more freaking proprietary reader. Why… why, why, why would Amazon, B&N and Sony do this shit? I
understand it’s an almost irresistible temptation to lock anyone who buys a device into buying books only from you – but hell, it’s a shortsighted, greedy, moronic decision. It will make people like me – who want the least fuss possible – actively seek out a reader that will accept PDFs and then find publishers who I can buy from directly – skipping the booksellers entirely. So far, none of the e-readers seem to be a killer device (the way an ipod was). Why would a bookseller want to restrict their potential customer pool by only allowing the books they
sell to be read on only one device? Is your product books or e-readers? If it’s books: make them open format and compete for your customers by offering a better service or price than your competitors. If its readers, make them able to read any format and compete for your customers by making the best device.

I’m a big fan of the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Stupid. When I find something I like, that’s simple and works for me – I stick with it. There is no way on God’s green earth that I’m going to buy multiple e-readers at $300 a pop, just so I can buy books from wherever I want. Piss me off enough and I’m the kind of customer who will go to great lengths to ensure you will get.not.one.single.penny.more from me. Note: if the price of the readers was a helluva lot lower, I might feel differently (if it was $50 per unit, I could maybe see my way to buying
multiple readers).

Phew. I feel better now! Bottom line for me: while I love the promise of digital books, the ease of carrying a library around in my purse, not giving up any more floor space to bookshelves – the whole digital publishing/proprietary format – and its attendant greedy and hamfisted attempt to straightjacket customers into buying only from one publisher – far outweighs the positives.
I think I’m just going to sit back, watch the players duke it out, and see what happens when the dust settles.

Until it does, digital books are probably not for me – it’s not like I don’t have a paper alternative to keep me high on words, squeeing over fabulous stories and buying everything an author ever wrote!

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    ghn says:

    There _are_ booksellers that are sensble on the Don’t-Read-Me issue. Baen is one, Samhain is another, and there probably are other e-bookstores that also offer several formats and no (insert expletive of your choice here) DRM infestation. Fictionwise used to publish more books without DRM than with it until B&N bought them, but there is still a lot of Multiformat (which offers you a choice of formats and no DRM) on the site. And of course there are places where you can download books for free: The Gutenberg Project website and http://www.manybooks.net are only two.

    And there are ways to get rid of the crippleware…

  2. 2
    Elizabeth says:

    I think I’m just going to sit back, watch the players duke it out, and see what happens when the dust settles.

    Me too. Especially as I’m in the UK, so take all the issues Americans have and then add some more and that shows how far we are from getting things rolling with eReaders.

  3. 3
    Jennifer says:

    I’ve been reading these reviews with great interest.  I bought myself the Sony 505 back in March.  I can say without a doubt that I love it.  Love.it. 

    Like the reviewer above, I had no issues setting it up or getting it going.  I was logged on and shopping for books within 15 minutes of getting it home and out of the box.

    I agree with most of the comments I’ve seen.  Yes there is a bit of a lag when changing the pages.  eh, it doesn’t bother me, after almost 6 months and 150 books I’m used to it now.

    Also, like a lot of your reviewers, bookstores are my spa of choice.  I used to spend my lunch hours pouring over new releases and would regularly return to work with 8 to 10 new books.  All of those books are now piled in boxes in my garage.

    When I started working from home I missed my daily forays to the bookstore.  Ordering online didn’t have the same appeal because if I saw a book I wanted to read I wanted to read.it.now.  Yes, I realize I have issues with delayed gratification.

    Perhaps because I’m in Canada I have a different view of the whole ebook experience.  My options are ore limited and Kindle isn’t one of them.  Hearing about the Kindle was actually the first exposure I’d had to e-books and I waited patiently for almost a year to find out if it would be coming to Canada.  I loved the idea of the wireless option on the Kindle and the idea that I could order a book anywhere/anytime was heady.  But alas, it was not to be.  Finally I couldn’t wait any longer and went out and bought the Sony. 

    In the store I checked out both the 505 and the 700 and ultimately decided on the 505.  I didn’t like the backlight function with the 700.  I felt it made it too much like reading off my blackberry – too electronic, whereas the e-ink of the 505 read more like a print book.

    I’d planned on buying the book light accessory but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.  I do a lot of reading in bed beside my daughter.  She likes to listen to music while she’s falling asleep and I use the backlight from my iPod to illuminate the eReader.  Necessity is the mother of invention right?

    All in all, I’ve been thrilled with my purchase.

  4. 4
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    I agree with everything Mary and Elizabeth have said.  Give it a couple years and most of the bugs will be worked out (hopefully!) the various companies will decide it’s in their best interests to work together, and the price point will plummet to something reasonable (again, hopefully) and maybe then I’ll be ready to give up the dead tree habit.  But so far, e-readers just feel like an expensive and rather pointless gimmick to me, and nothing I’ve seen makes me want to rush out and buy one.  I have “real” books that are over a hundred years old, and guess what?  THEY STILL WORK.

    spamword:  instead63
    Think I’ll buy 63 used paperbacks instead.

  5. 5
    ferridder says:

    There are two (or more?) shortcuts that you may find handy:
    To go to the top level menu, push and hold the menu button.
    To go to the bookmark list, push and hold the bookmark button.

    All DRM formats (except maybe Sony’s?) have been cracked, so with a bit of effort, one can buy books from anywhere.

    I agree with the convenience and instant gratification angles.

  6. 6
    Lisa J says:

    I’m with Jennifer.  I love the 505 I bought a couple of months ago.  My experience has been nothing but positive.  The backlight issue is no big deal for me, although I did buy a small booklight for a couple of dollars at Wal-Mart and use it when there just isn’t enough light.  So far it is working fine.

    My books are all purchased in PDF format from Samhain, EC, and others who sell only DRM free.  I have not used the Sony Store for any of my books.  PDF is best for me because when it is slow at work I can read books on my PC at work.  Also, I have a netbook and I could read on it if I really had to, but the battery life isn’t great on it and my eyes get sore after a while.

    All in all this is one of the best technology purchases I have made.  There is nothing better than walking around with 400 + books at my fingertips.

  7. 7
    Theresa says:

    Thanks for the great review of the Sony 505, Mary. Out of all the reviews that I’ve read on here, I think yours hits on most of my issues with the eReaders. I’ve decided that I’m going to hold off buying one until the things that bother me (and you) are resolved.

  8. 8
    lijakaca says:

    I’d definitely love to get an e-reader, since I live in a condo and space is at a premium.
    Several things are stopping me – mostly the same as other have mentioned:

    DRM/lack of portability – I’m not willing to spend the time cracking and reformatting books. I don’t want to buy a reader until a standard is established across at least 80% of books published, so I can be sure that if I want a book, it will be available in my format.

    Expense – The books have to be comparable to paperbacks in price – I’m not rich, I never buy hardback, and I usually wait for deals to buy several at a time. Otherwise, I’d only buy a few a year, and borrow the rest from the library or family. I’m not subsidizing a publisher/bookseller’s sunk costs into the technology – you can’t convince me that producing and keeping the books available digitally is more expensive than the whole physical printing and distribution process. And if DRM costs weren’t inflating the complexity it should be even cheaper. Now get off my lawn! (I sound like a cranky old lady)

    Backlight – I guess this is not major, since I can always turn on a light nearby, but it would be nice.

    It sounds like battery life isn’t an issue, but it would be nice if they shared chargers with other gadgets (yeah, this might be a pipe dream).

  9. 9
    Mary G says:

    Thanks for everyone’s comments – and I apologize for inflicting a hideously long review on you!  I’m more or less off the soapbox now (I had just finished trying to find some books and got rather narked about the whole process and then wrote the review).

    I appreciate the info that there are workarounds to get the books DRM free and that there are some sellers that don’t try to manipulate their customers in the first place (if I end up buying an e-reader of my own I will definitely be searching them out).  But here’s the thing: books are pretty darn convenient to begin with.  I was hoping that the e-reader would make my voracious reading habits even MORE convenient – not less.  I’m not a tech guru and I don’t aspire to be one. Reading on the e-reader was terrific – getting the books I wanted on to it was less so.  I just want to be able to easily pick up a book I’m interested in… and read it.

    My personal opinion: the first bookseller/e-reader maker that produces a less expensive, wireless, DRM free e-reader that is pretty user friendly and not butt ugly will have a hit on their hands. But not until a) they make it as easy to buy as ‘real’ books (which are everywhere – even in grocery stores) b) they cut the DRM crap and c) sell e-books for substantially less than their paper versions (which don’t have the initial investment problem of buying a device).

    Oh – one last thing. Lijakaca – I gotta give Sony kudos. The e-reader charger is interchangeable with their PSP charger. One charger for multiple devices = win.

  10. 10
    RKB says:

    @MaryG

    My personal opinion: the first bookseller/e-reader maker that produces a less expensive, wireless, DRM free e-reader that is pretty user friendly and not butt ugly will have a hit on their hands.

    Let us hope that the rumored Apple Tablet will be the answer.  Apple has figured out the hard way that people really hate DRM on their music, thus the whole iTunes store is now DRM free.  If Apple sold DRM free books on the iTunes store it would give Amazon a run for their money.

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