Sony’s new eBook readers: first-look review

I’ve just returned from an event to launch the new generation of Sony eBook readers and I came away as intrigued as I was impressed. The new Reader Touch Edition and Reader Pocket Edition were on show, and lovely devices they are indeed.

Sony's new eBook readers: first-look review

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The big news is touch has been introduced across the range, and the key thing to note is that Sony has done away with the old resistive overlay, which made the previous Touch reader such a poor reading device – the layer introduced glare and made it uncomfortable to read, particularly outdoors.

The new touchscreens use infrared sensors built into the the screen bezel, a bit like the optical technology used in Sony’s all-in-one PCs, and that means you get to enjoy the next generation E-Ink Pearl screen in all its “naked” glory, while being able to flick pages back and forth with your finger, double tap words to get definition from the built-in dictionary and even take handwritten notes with the memo app and stylus. It worked well too, requiring only the faintest brush to turn pages, select zoom levels or bring a book up for reading.

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Both screens boast the same old resolution as before (600 x 800) – one 5in the other 6in – but Sony claims they have a whiter background and increased contrast. It’s clearly a big improvement and nearly as good the new Amazon Kindle’s screen, as a quick side-by-side test at the event revealed. Sony provided samples of its rival for comparison.

Both also sport 2GB of internal storage, improved 10,000 page-turn batteries, and are lighter and slimmer than their predecessors. But what the new models don’t have is any kind of wireless connectivity. The prices are high too. You can pre-order the Pocket from Waterstones for £160 and the Touch for £200 and the devices go on sale officially from September 17.

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What intrigued me at least as much as the new hardware though, was the announcement of Sony’s two-pronged attempt to lure readers away from the charms of the huge Amazon bookstore. With Sony eBook readers it’s no longer just about the hardware.

The first part of this is Sony has hatched a deal with Google to place a custom search of Google books on the Sony website, opening an estimated 500,000 titles up for quick and easy download. Google’s standard book search doesn’t let you filter results in this way, so finding titles you can take away on an eBook has, up until now, been a hit and miss affair.

The second, and more interesting development, is support for free eBook loans from local authority libraries, a feature the Amazon Kindle doesn’t support. If you’re lucky enough to be a member of a local library supporting the service (50 have signed up so far – here’s a full list) you’ll be able to visit its website, tap your library card number in and borrow any book in the eBook catalogue, for free, for a period of 14 or 21 days.

The odd thing about this is it works in a very similar way to the good old bricks-and-mortar library. While a title is out on loan, it’s unavailable to others to borrow (unless the library has purchased multiple copies); it only becomes available again once the loan period expires and the book removes itself from your reader.

To be fair, this isn’t something exclusive to Sony; other readers which support the DRM technology needed can also be used to borrow books in this way, and owners of older Sony readers will also benefit. It’s also clear that the system’s still in its early days: on my local authority website I found only 398 titles available for loan.

But with Sony’s huge presence in the eBook reader market, and the new ability to borrow books as well as download old ones for free, it could very well herald a turning point for eBooks in general. All that’s needed now is for local libraries to put more money into their eBook catalogues.

Look out for a full review of both Sony readers in the coming weeks.

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