August 28, 2009 3:00 am

Sony tries to turn the e-reader page with Kindle killers

When Sony introduced the first commercially available electronic book reader in Japan four years ago, I was among the lucky few in the west to get their hands on a review unit.

I liked the hardware but was disappointed by the lack of low-cost content. The Sony Librié was a flop in Japan and Sony lost its early lead in the emerging e-reader market to Amazon, whose Kindle reader made its debut in the US in November 2007.

The wireless-enabled Kindle family has proved that the market for easy-to-use e-book readers is real, growing and not just limited to early adopters.

Sony has learnt its lesson. In addition to announcing the planned launch in December of a wireless touchscreen e-book reader (the Reader Daily Edition), it has brought out two readers that combine elegant styling, ease of use and advanced technology. They also have access to a huge library of free and low-cost content.

Sony has cut the price of bestsellers in its eBook Store to $9.99 and embraced the open ePub standard, which will ensure that owners of the Pocket Edition and Touch Edition have access to more than 1m free pub-lic-domain titles from Google and e-books from public libraries.

Like the Kindles, Sony's e-readers use E Ink's electronic paper technology, which produces an easy-on-the-eyes display that needs battery power only when changing pages. Sony says owners will be able to change pages up to 7,500 times between charges.

Both the Pocket Edition, which comes with a 5in screen and is designed to fit easily in a small bag, and the Touch Edition , with a 6in touchscreen, are affordable. The Pocket Edition costs $199 in the US (£179 in the UK), the Touch Edition $299 (£249). They went on sale in the US this week and will be available through an exclusive deal with Waterstone's, the bookseller, in the UK shortly.

The top-of-the-range wireless Daily Edition, which has a 7in touchscreen that can be viewed in portrait or landscape mode and will use AT&T's 3G mobile network in the US, will cost $399. In contrast, the Kindle 2 costs $299 while the larger-screen DX version - which is geared to newspaper and textbook viewing - costs $489. Both these devices,however, are available only in the US and lack the touchscreen interface of the Sony Touch and Daily Edition models.

I have been testing the Sony Touch (PRS-600) this week and comparing it with some of its rivals. Weighing in at 10.1oz, the Touch is small and light enough to hold comfortably in one hand, thanks in part to its rounded "spine" and ultra-slim design.

It comes with a soft case, a USB cable to connect to a Windows PC or Mac, and a quick start guide.

The first time you connect the Touch to a PC you are invited to download and install Sony's eBook Library software. The next step involves creating an account at the company's eBook Store, where you buy and download new titles or access free ePub content.

The eBook Library software includes an iTunes-style interface that enables users to "drag and drop" content on to the reader and manage files.

Sony's new e-readers can play MP3 audio files through a headphone jack, display digital photos on the screen, and - unlike some of the competition - display user-created PDF and text files.

The touchscreen is reasonably responsive, although I found it worked best using the slide-out stylus to draw on the screen, make notes using a virtual keyboard or annotate a document. In fact, most activities can be accomplished using the touch interface - including, of course, turning a page.

I was surprised, however, to discover that the default configuration for turning a page is to swipe your finger from left to right, rather than from right to left as you would if you were turning a physical page.

Fortunately this "problem" is easily solved using the options button (one of five physical buttons just below the display), which also enables users to make other changes including changing the display orientation.

Nevertheless, the touch interface is easy to use and, in my view, much more natural than the navigation buttons on the Kindle and most other e-book readers. Like its rivals, the Touch includes an onboard dictionary that allows users to look up the meaning of a word by simply tapping on it. It also features five font sizes.

The 512MB of onboard memory - enough to store about 350 books - is rather miserly, although users can boost this using expansion slots that take Sony's Memory Stick Pro Duo or SD flash memory cards.

Overall, in spite of some slight niggles, I think the Sony Reader Touch Edition is a worthy competitor in the e-reader market and its touchscreen and support for the open ePub standard clearly differentiate it from Amazon's Kindle devices.

Personally, however, I miss the wireless connectivity and instant gratification of the Kindle 2 and plan to wait for the more sophisticated and flexible Sony Reader Daily Edition before making the leap into the digital e-reader market.

In the meantime, I will continue to use the free Kindle App that runs on the iPhone/iPod Touch and which delivers most of the benefits of the Pocket Edition without requiring me to carry yet another device.

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