Now that I’ve poked, prodded, played with, dropped, and otherwise abused my Sony PRS-700 eReader (thanks again to the generous folks at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books for giving me the opportunity to test drive one of these babies!) it’s time for The Review.
In order to fit my review in the wordcount requested by the Smart Bitches, I basically had to resort to bulleted lists and incomplete sentences. It was horrifying. Worse than that, it was boring. Drier than the thanksgiving turkey at Aunt Edith’s.
Taking pity on me, the Smart Bitches graciously permitted me to ramble.
*cracks her knuckles* Obviously, they had no idea what they were getting into.
“Hold on to yer lug nuts, it’s tiiiiiime for an overhaul!”
The faint of heart will find the original bulleted lists at the bottom of the post, nestled lovingly in the TLDR (too long, didn’t read) section.
Quick Start Guide
As noted in The Arrival, a Photolog, the “Quick Start Guide” is anything but. I have an easy guideline for any company compiling a user guide – if it is more frustrating and complex than a road map, you have failed. Even roadmaps nowadays are coated in plastic and easy to unfold and refold. The Quick Start Guide had every detail of legalese in multiple languages, printed on both sides of super thin paper the size of my living room. I didn’t figure out how to use the eReader, but I did find a shortcut to Albuquerque.
I’ll grant you that any user guide tends to be fairly unpopular. The number of people who read the average “Quick Start Guide” is probably pretty slim.
However, the target audience of the Sony eReader is *gasp* readers! And guess what? I’ll bet most of us who just spent a metric boatload of milk money on an eReader are probably going to read the instructions, at least once.
I vote that the design of the widget, machine, or doohicky should be user friendly enough to not need explicit instructions, but that’s beside the point.
The POINT is that I actually have a few questions whose answers may lie buried somewhere within the dizzying expanse of tiny printed text on that Quick Start Guide, and I am afraid to open the ruddy thing as I may not get it refolded again. Which observation brings up another guideline for technical writers – do not terrify your readers. Even The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy followed THAT rule.
Charging the Batteries
Before I could use the device, I had to charge the batteries.
This may seem like an innocent statement, but it takes a long time to charge up. I was unprepared to wait until tomorrow (when it comes to new toys, tomorrow is always CENTURIES from NOW) before I could start truly twiddling with all the bits and bobs, adding content and wiping away the drool.
Overnight is enough to charge the battery from empty. I believe some users clocked it in at around 4 hours, but this is why I like to cook in the crock pot. Set it up and forget it. Anything longer than one hour is “overnight” by my internal clock.
I’ve used up the batteries from full to empty in about 3-5 days of light/medium reading, with pretty heavy use of the backlight feature. I’m happy with the battery life.
Additionally, I cannot use the eReader while it is charging.
I’m sure there’s a reason for this, but it’s very frustrating when every other machine I own is still usable while it’s sipping on its electric margaritas. This is the first device I’ve ever had that sulks in the corner and refuses to talk to me, as if recharging were some dirty and sacred act.
How Does it Feel
I love deadtree books. I do. The smell, the sound of the pages turning, the feel of the book in my hand – a myriad of details and sensory input which meld together in my head and equal “reading”.
Can the eReader possibly stand a chance when measured against such a love?
The eReader is slim and slightly larger than a paperback book. It is an excellent size for holding in my hand, and has just enough of a surprising heft to it to make it feel solid. I liked the heft – I hope that as the eReaders get more advanced, they don’t lose that extra weight.
The 700 I’m test driving came with a black leather(ish) case. I don’t even know why they bother to sell the cases separately. I can’t imagine having the eReader without it – as far as I’m concerned, it’s a necessary expense that should be calculated into the cost of the reader itself.
The leather case is incredible. Very nice feel, slight texture, no sign of popping seams or scarred edges despite my being less-than-gentle with it when plopping it in bags and purses. I’m a notorious seam-popper, so I probably find that more impressive than some people would. Sometimes I feel guilty walking into a shoe store, as my very presence no doubt causes a tiny symphony of ping, sproing, pop sounds as the shoe seams spontaneously rupture.
The reader feels good. It doesn’t feel like a regular book, granted, but it does have a stylish air to it. I feel quite prosh carrying it around in its trendy little case, and it satisfies at least some of the handfeel of carrying around a book, without the concern for bending and ripping pages, or the worry that the book will be too large for the Purse Of The Week.
READING A BOOK
The eReader came with some free sample material, including the first chapter or so of a variety of books, some music, and some photos. I’d like to note that having your book as a free, pre-loaded sample on the eReader is some pretty genius marketing. I read every one of those samples.
Anyrate, the screen is very easy on the eyes. I did feel that the text versus background contrast could have been sharper. I have perfect vision (much to my foolish youthful dismay – I always thought glasses looked so classy and distinguished). I cannot imagine what someone with dodgy eyesight might think of the contrast, but I doubt it would be complimentary.
The magnify feature of the eReader worked well where it worked well, and worked miserably where it did not. Another note for those with poor eyesight – the quality of the eBook really shines in this arena, as all of the “official” eBooks and pdfs that I got worked well, and many of the freebies tended to have some formatting issues when magnified.
The screen glares badly when exposed to direct light, making it difficult to read in sunlight or with bright overhead lighting.
The built-in lighting on the eBook see-saw’d drunkenly between awesome and pathetic.
I love that it is part of the machine, and not some other widget I have to keep track of and try not to lose or break.
The lighting hugely improved the visibility of the text in low-light conditions, but it isn’t a true back-light. “Track lighting” along the left and right sides of the device with two brightness levels illuminated the text, but because they were “spotlights” shooting in from the sides, I ended up with uneven lighting across the eBook, which, in turn, gave me the only eye strain or headache I felt when using the eReader.
I still feel that the convenience of having it on board the machine itself outweighed the small bit of discomfort when using it, but I believe it could be better designed.
Turning The Page
The most obvious and lauded feature of the PRS-700 is its touch screen. My friends all have iPod Touches and I’m jealous, so I requested the 700 model specifically for its touch screen.
If you are expecting iPod touch-esque sensitivity from the 700, you will be disappointed.
I felt like I had to put far too much pressure on the screen when using my finger to navigate and submit commands to the screen. I’m also nervous when it comes to expensive technology, and felt that digging my finger into the screen every time I wanted to turn the page might cause pixels to erupt or displace the magic fairy goo inside the screen that makes it work.
By the time the first week had passed, I was using the little stylus for all of my touch-screen needs. The stylus seems to require very little pressure, and I never did get used to how hard I had to press using my fingers.
Speaking of the stylus, could I get something a little more…solid? I feel like an ogre trying to use a tool designed for a fairy every time I pick it up. I handle it delicately, as if it might snap in half at any moment. Plus, I dropped it once. It was like playing Where’s Waldo, only this time Waldo is wearing camo gear and huddling beneath a pile of dead leaves, snickering at my inability to locate him. He probably also had a sniper rifle.
Again, designers, do not terrify your users.
The page turn is slow. Sometimes alarmingly so, and I found myself re-turning the page mid-motion and thus accidentally turning TWO pages because I wasn’t patient enough for the page turn to go. I have somewhat gotten used to the delay, but every time I turn the page, I get tipped, juuuust a little, out of the story. Page turning should never be intrusive.
And speaking of intrusive, the page turn also causes the screen to flash in a semi-epileptic way. This contributed to my concern that I was actually damaging the machine when using my finger to turn the page, and I’ve only semi-gotten used to even now.
Much better would be a page-turn animation, and maybe a turn-offable audio clip of a page turning. Lose the flashing, and up the reaction speed of a page turn.
Navigating Through The Book
I did finally find a way to bookmark a page, but it takes somewhere in the neighborhood of five clicks to bookmark a page. Really? Five? Website usability cautions against more than three clicks to perform a common function, I can’t imagine that device usability is all that much different. Give me a little circle at the bottom right hand corner of the page that I can tap with the stylus to bookmark a page. There, wasn’t that easy? Also, because I didn’t read the Quick Start Guide and still break into a cold sweat at the thought of opening it, it took me a few weeks to even find the Bookmark feature.
Turning multiple pages is a pain. More than once, the book randomly decided to skip forward or backward a few pages after I closed the cover. Some might argue that I bumped or nudged it, thus causing the page turns, but that’s preposterous. Obviously, I am innocent of these charges.
Regardless, “finding where I was” is easy for me in a deadtree book, as it’s easy to flip through the pages and skim it. Additionally, I have a physical indicator of “how far into the book was I” by remembering how the book felt – were there more pages on the left than the right side when I was reading? This is a learned behavior, sure, but I do it without truly thinking about it.
With the eBook, I have to think about it. There is a little page gauge at the bottom, but I don’t read what page I’m on at the end of each page – I eagerly flip forward to the next page. That’s how I read. That’s how authors WANT me to read.
Trying to skim back to find what page I’d actually been on is difficult, as the delay and page flash makes it nearly impossible to skim pages to find out where I was. The page slider and “go to page” functionality were nice, but don’t get the job done. Unfortunately, I don’t also have a suggestion on fixing this one, though removing the flash and delay will help.
The Table of Contents (now with clickable hyperlink karate-chop action!) was fabulous on those eBooks that provided it. Another great feature that makes them worth buying rather than snagging from a freebie site.
The eReader allows the loading and unloading of music. I tried a few mp3s that I own, though I’ll admit that I didn’t try any with DRM that I’d purchased through iTunes. I imagine they wouldn’t work. The reader isn’t intended to be an mp3 player, so I didn’t really evaluate it on that. I could, however, plug in some headphones and listen to music while I read, which was great for those times I want to read somewhere annoying and noisy. Like the bus. Or times that I want to just be left alone. Like the bus. (Granted, you could use the headphones without actual music to accomplish the second).
The music player was minimal and functional…but I couldn’t figure out how to delete songs without going through the “back door” and using the USB connection to directly edit the files on the reader.
In addition to music, I was surprised to find the eReader allows pictures. The photos flash twice (seriously, cut it out with the flashing) and take a while to load, but the end result is crisp and pleasant…and black and white. Sorry, no color allowed. I uploaded my favorite picture of the hubby and some of my art, and I was pleased with the result. I don’t know when I’d actually USE this, but it’s neat. No good for actually displaying a portfolio, though. Too small, and no color.
A small irritant was the inability to set the display orientation for each picture independently. If I moved it to landscape orientation, it shifts the entire eReader to landscape orientation – books, menu, and all.
The user interface of the device was clunky at best. Requiring multiple clicks to accomplish common tasks is one thing, but requiring a combination of button presses and screen presses needlessly complicates the use of the eReader. The menu should be totally accessible from the touch screen.
The touch screen was nice, but that doesn’t mean its okay to put the page turn buttons in the most inconvenient spot on the book. Using them is awkward rather than intuitive.
When deleting a book, the “Are you sure you want to delete this book?” message is nice, but how much nicer would “Are you sure you want to delete ‘Getting Rid of Bradley’ by Jennifer Cruisie?” (NOOOoOooOoO! I don’t! It was a mistake! *flail*)
Is it really necessary to make it so difficult to delete music and pictures?
A lot of key functionality is hidden behind that unassuming “Option” button. As Ulla would say from The Producers – “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” Make it easier to access, really work on the UI and usability of the device. We’re paying a lot of money for this thing, it shouldn’t feel like the UI was an afterthought.
The UI isn’t terrible, by any means, but it’s not as great as it could (and should) be.
I can do a text-search on a book.
Let me pause for a moment as a choir of angels descends to dedicate a glorious aria to the searching of eBooks.
Okay, we’re back. I may not do a search on the latest romance novel that I’ve read, but I by golly wish I could do searches on textbooks, or on my own manuscripts, or any informational books that I buy. When I’m hanging ten with google, the ctrl+f feature is never more than a quick keystroke from my fingers. If I want to know where a word is, I can find it. The lack of a Find function on paper books is sometimes a staggering disappointment to me.
Also, you can add notes to a book. Find a particular passage hilarious? See a point in your manuscript that needs to be edited? Just add a note! Highlight the text, and the eReader stores it for easy access from the main menu, and immediately jumps you to the page the note was on.
It remembers where I was. I can go to the menu, tool around in the images and music, or even turn the thing OFF, and it knows where I was. The last page of the last book I read is accessible from the main menu, or if I turned off the reader on that page, it immediately starts up there. I love this more than peanut butter.
It is, and I cannot overstate this enough, convenient. It is very convenient for me to store multiple books in one tiny container, and be able to take it anywhere without worrying about the size of the book or bending/tearing pages. It is convenient for me to sit down and read at work without Nosy Nellies or Chatty Cathy’s gossiping about just how risque my book cover is. Is the blush in my cheeks from reading War and Peace? Perhaps it’s a sci-fi thriller, or a swashbuckling adventure, or a sultry vampire romance? IT’S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS, that’s what it is! MUAHAHAHAHA!
One thing I didn’t expect is the feeling of power that I got. I can read -anything-. I’ve always wanted to read some of the classics – Count of Monte Cristo, Sense and Sensibility, Little Women, but I’ve always had something holding me back. Somehow, a digital book makes me feel free to read whatever I want, and I’ve found that I’m reading quite a lot using this handy little device. Some of the free Valentine’s Day Harlequins, and free Baen eBooks have been gathering pixel dust on my laptop but are now being ruthlessly devoured.
How handy would it be for a bible? No large book to tote around, and you can highlight passages and get your bible study done, then neatly flip over to the newest Steven King novel when you’re done!
I feel empowered by the eReader, and I cannot think of a better word for it. I am drunk on it, giddily adding book after book and throwing caution to the wind, shocking librarians around the globe with my hedonistic behavior.
The Sony PRS-700 eReader allows what I would term an acceptable number of file types. PDF, TXT, RTF, and then the proprietary Sony book types as well.
I can’t imagine the frustration of purchasing a library’s worth of eBooks in a particular format, only to upgrade your reader and find that they no longer display properly.
JPG is the standard for image types, MP3 is the standard for music…why can’t eReaders all get along and join in one big happy family and choose a gorram file type, already? The concern about whether or not an eBook works on an eReader is stupid, backwards, and exceptionally damaging to publishers. Readers just want to read the friggin book already, they don’t want to have to worry about whether or not the book they bought is only going to work on SOME readers but not others.
And let’s not get started on the stupidity of DRM, or we’ll be here all day.
*hops off her soap box* One of the reasons I advocate the Sony rather than the Kindle is the file type issue, but it’s still not perfect. However, that being said, I was content with the file types I was able to load.
Plus, I use Scrivener for my writing, which exports the manuscript in RFT format. I was able to load my manuscript on the eReader, which was seventeen different flavors of awesome.
First off, the lack of a direct USB port on the eReader boggles my mind. Seriously? That’s like having a taxicab with a roll-up door. Let me plug a flash drive into this puppy.
Sony does get kudos for making the “loading content” USB cord the same as the “charge my batteries, baby” cord, although an extra cord if I wanted to charge via a wall socket would have been a nice touch.
As to actually loading the content – I admit, I cheated.
When you plug the eReader into a machine, it becomes a new drive, just like a USB drive. I tooled around in the folder structure, found the folder that stored the books, and drag-dropped my darlings directly into it. (Sony, please make this easier by not obscuring the folder names.)
Sony wants you to use their software.
And that, my friends, is where things start to get sticky.
The eReader came with Sony-specific software – eBook Library (EBL for short. EBL is pronounced ebil which sounds like evil. It’s science.)
First off, if you aren’t running Windows XP, expect some hoop-jumping. I won’t regale you with the sordid tales from the other Smart Bitches Test Drivers (no doubt they will do so themselves) but let’s just say it’s ugly. Vista users have a workaround, but it’s not built into the CD that was sent with these readers. Although Sony has reported upcoming Mac-compatibility, Mac users are currently SoL.
I guess Sony figured Mac users didn’t read, I dunno. My assumption is that Mac users are willing to pay more for quality electronic equipment, but hey, what do I know? I’m only a Mac user.
Luckily for me, I actually DO have Windows XP running on my home desktop computer, so I was able to bypass the install-induced headache. Sony, however, appears to be an equal-opportunity headache inducer, so I got my fair share regardless.
I was a bad little test driver and I did not attempt to load my existing eBooks onto the eReader via the eLibrary software. All of my existing eBooks were on my Mac laptop, so it was easier for me to just plug and drag-drop.
Buying from the Sony eBook Store
First and foremost – I love my browser. I’ve known my browser for years. We’ve bonded, like peas and carrots.
I really, really, really, really (was that enough ‘really’s? No, one more, I think) really dislike it when I am forced to use someone else’s software, for no reason I can fathom, to do browser-like activities.
The Sony eBook store is set up similarly to Amazon (good call there, book readers are already accustomed to the user interface of Amazon), but it’s got its own quirks and failures.
There are a lot of books in the Sony eBook store, which is good. It is difficult to filter/sort/navigate those books, which is bad.
Harlequin, in an awesome gesture of generosity, awarded the test drivers $25 gift certificates for Harlequin books in the Sony eBook store. Rock on, right?
Well, it would have been on like Donkey Kong, if it weren’t for the fact that I couldn’t filter the results by “Harlequin”. I had to click on “Romance” and then page through a dizzying array of books, scanning for those with “Harlequin” in the details. This meant that what should have been a 30 minute book-buying session turned into a three hour slog-fest.
In addition, the book descriptions were all oddly formatted and broken – I don’t think I looked at a single book with a pretty and complete book description. The author information was usually blank, and the reader reviews were sporadic at best.
It was as if someone put me on a tiny, leaky rowboat and equipped me with an eyedropper. “Fill the eyedropper with only the BEST drops of water, Tami!” they yelled as they untied the rope and set me adrift.
In the end, I managed to cross reference some reviews (and some recommendations from fellow Test Drivers helped!) and I found myself with $25.64 worth of eBooks. While attempting to pay the sixty-four cents, my credit card was rejected. “Something is wrong with your card,” they said, and I was too tired and irritable to fix it, so I dropped one of the books rather than attempt to find out which exact bit of data they disagreed with.
And I had to do all of this without the comfort of my browser and the ability to open new tabs or look at multiple books at a time.
Help me to help you, Sony. Help me to help you.
Authorizing the Reader
In order to actually put some of those painstakingly acquired books onto the eReader, I had to authorize it.
Simply plugging the device in caused it to appear in the eLibrary software, which was nice. However, I couldn’t right click on the device and Authorize, which was my first guess at how to do so.
Dropping the books onto the unauthorized device resulted in a message box saying that I needed to Authorize the device (gee, ya think?) and a query as to whether I’d like to do that now. (You bet yer sweet bippy I do!) Unfortunately, every time I tried this, the eLibrary software cranked for a while and then spat out a Page Not Found error. Awesome.
The Quick Start Guide of Doom simply said that I should “follow the instructions”. Great.
So I went to the Sony eBook store home page and saw not one link, ad, or image that attempted to give me a breadcrumb trail to follow so that I could authorize the blasted thing.
(*sob* I just want to REEEEEEAD!)
Thankfully, someone else in the Test Drive circle had already solved the problem – I had to go into my account and Authorize the device there. Once I knew that, the process was quick and simple.
If only it had been quick and simple from the start.
The Sony PRS-700 appears to have quietly disappeared from digital shelves everywhere, but I recall the price as being over $300. The 505 model is still available, and it’s clocking in around $280.
That’s a lot of money, folks. If you think about it, there are laptop computers in this price range.
This is an eReader. It reads eBooks. Sure, it also plays music and stores music, but it’s not a phone, it’s not a speech-to-text note taker, it’s not a gaming device. It is a single-purpose displayer of electronic text. Don’t get me wrong, it does that one thing very well, and far better than a laptop or any other device currently does, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a lot of money.
This price puts the eReader in the “Luxury” category. Publishers should want an eReader to be considered a “Necessity” for readers, not a “Luxury”. Luxury items are rarely accessible to the average consumer, and the fact that the eBooks are priced similarly to paperbacks (and sometimes hardcovers, for shame!) means that right now, it is a luxury to have enough money to not only buy the reader, but also buy books to put on the reader.
All of the other negatives, foibles, and hitches that I’ve mentioned about the eReader would be acceptable in a bargain-priced device, but I find them somewhat horrifying in such an expensive one.
If you spend the money on a luxury hotel, you’re paying for everything from a bellboy in a suit who offers to help carry your luggage to the expensive Egyptian cotton towels stored in the bathroom. You’re paying to be pampered.
The Sony 700 eReader, for all that I love its convenience, gives you bargain functionality at luxury prices. I would absolutely buy this device at a lower price point. eReaders are incredibly, wonderfully, marvelously useful. It’s cool to be living in the future, where devices such as this are even dreamed of, let alone available. Even so, the price tag makes my poor little wallet shrivel and whimper, and my negatives are just strong enough to outweigh the positives.
The way I see it, it would take one of two things to make me buy one (and I’d actually prefer the latter).
- Drop the price
- Get rid of DRM
- Pick a standard eBook format
- Fix the UI
** SBSarah: This was written before Sony announced they were adopting the ePub format for their bookstore. ]
I believe we’re not far off from the day that I will buy an eReader (though that could just be the hope talking). They will never replace my love of a deadtree book and I will always get my “keepers” in hardcover as often as I can, but the everyday business of reading is easier and (dare I say it?) more fun when using an eReader.
TLDR (Too Long, Didn’t Read)
- The convenience of the eReader is indescribable. I’d expected to find it neat to carry multiple books in a single reader, but I was unprepared for just HOW convenient it would be.
- The Sony PRS-700 eReader is slim, tidy, and lightweight without sacrificing a solid feel. It slips easily into even my small purse, and it’s just a swift motion and I’m back at the exact point I’d left my adventure.
- I can bookmark pages.
- I can magnify the text if it’s difficult to read.
- The built-in lighting flicks on easily.
- I can do a word search on the book (bliss!).
- I can highlight and make notes.
- I can take my WIP manuscript with me wherever I go, without breaking my back or needing a second bag.
- It plays music.
- It stores images (black and white only, but very crisp).
- I can read anything. Classics, romances, erotica, fantasy, sci-fi. No heavy phonebook-sized books frighten me, no risque book cover betrays my pleasure, no wrinkled and torn pages mar my enjoyment.
- Adding books to the eReader using the drag/drop method was easy.
- I want an eReader now, more than ever.
- The page-turn flickers alarmingly and has a slight, annoying delay.
- The user interface is clunky and bloated – too many “clicks” required to do common tasks, such as bookmarking.
- Some user interface actions (such as skipping forward through multiple pages) are difficult to find.
- Accidental page-turning still happens, just often enough to be irritating.
- Using the stylus on the 700 touch-screen ended up being my method of choice – I felt like I had to press too hard in order to use my finger, and I feared I might damage it otherwise.
- The “Quick Start Guide” needs to be completely revamped to be more user-friendly.
- The screen glares
- Although the built-in lighting is nice, it’s uneven and thus imperfect.
- The stylus seems too delicate (even though it’s not, it SEEMS to be).
- The Sony eBook store and software is a mess. Requiring software which doesn’t work on a Mac and only grudgingly on Vista is silly when a website works for everyone.
- The store isn’t user friendly. Books are difficult to search and filter, reviews are spotty, book descriptions are improperly formatted and often incomplete. Authorizing the device was a trial. In short, the Sony eBook store sucks swampwater. Fix it, or you’ll scare away paying customers.
- DRM is stupid – the only people it restricts are the good guys. Pirates know ways to get around it, and DRM just makes normal shoppers become pirates out of self-defense. Learn from the mistakes of others, I beg of you.
- The price. Honestly, with all the UI issues, I can’t even comprehend a price tag of $200 to $400 dollars, snazzy touch screen or no. The extreme fabulousity of an eReader notwithstanding, the price is too high for what the device does. The eReader is specifically tailored to read books and is thus more convenient than a laptop, but it’s still a difficult price tag to swallow.
I want one, but not at today’s prices. The “bad” items are all things I expect to be fixed or tweaked as the eReader hardware and software matures (and are all inconveniences or irritations at worst), and the “ugly” items are beyond my control.