In early 2007, Sony put out the PRS-500 Portable Reader System, which most people know as the Sony Reader. While Sony got a lot right with the PRS-500, critics--this one included--noted a handful of shortcomings that made the potentially groundbreaking e-book reader less appealing than it should have been. Now, less than year since the PRS-500's release, Sony has released the PRS-505 "Reader Digital Book," which also retails for $300. On the surface, the two Readers look pretty similar, but the new PRS-505 boasts some subtle yet important improvements.
For starters, Sony has made the new Reader slimmer by about 0.2 inch--though not any lighter. At 6.9 inches high by 4.9 inches wide by 0.3 inch deep, the Reader is somewhere between the size of a standard DVD case and a short trade paperback novel. It's bound in a leather protective cover, and weighs about 9 ounces. The new reader is available in two colors: silver or metallic blue.
The new Reader has the same overall design as the original model--it looks like an oversized PDA, with the screen taking up the top three-quarters of the front panel. As part of the upgrade, Sony's sought to simplify the button layout and navigation on the Reader. The results are mostly successful, but some quirky elements remain. The little raised joystick-like navigation button has been replaced with a flatter four-way nav button with an "Enter" button in the middle. We preferred this arrangement but found the directional pad a tad stiff (perhaps it will loosen up with time).
There are still two separate buttons for turning pages, but that's an effort to accommodate left- and right-handed people. There are basically two ways that you hold the device in your hand, and depending on how you're holding it, your left thumb will either be resting on the left bottom corner of the device or higher up on its side, where a second set of page-turning buttons sit. It's also worth noting that Sony's moved the memory expansion slots from the side of the device to the top, making them easier to access.
In other improvements, the 600x800-pixel screen--or approximately 170 pixels per inch, according to Sony--now offers eight scales of gray instead of four-grayscale (the screen measures approximately 4.9x3.6 inches), which increases the contrast ratio and makes it slightly easier to read. The first thing you notice about the screen when you turn on the device (it takes a few seconds to fire up after you slide the power switch) is that it's a high-contrast monochrome display that isn't backlit. Technically, it's an electrophoretic display, which Wikipedia describes as "an information display that forms visible images by rearranging charged pigment particles using an applied electric field."
Like some other electronic paper products, the Reader uses "E Ink" technology, which serves to make the letters and words on the screen look more printlike in their appearance--it's quite impressive if you haven't seen the technology in action before. With the Size button, you can choose among three font settings (small, medium, and large), but even at the smallest setting, you're still getting fewer lines per page than you would with a printed book. For example, George Orwell's 1984 comes out to 767 pages on the Reader (on the medium font size), far longer than the printed version. You can also switch between landscape and portrait mode, though chances are you'll naturally hold the device vertically like a book and stick to portrait mode most of the time.
Overall, we liked the way text is displayed on the screen, and we didn't suffer eye fatigue over long reading periods (at least not any worse than what you'd expect from reading a standard book in a decently lit environment). With the earlier PRS-500, it was a little bothersome that when you turned a page, the screen took a second to refresh (it goes to black and essentially blinks). This is referred to as a "ghosting" effect and it appears to be an inherent downside to E Ink technology. It's still apparent in this newer model, but Sony has managed to slightly shorten the refresh time. The PRS-505 feels slightly zippier than its predecessor, but there's still some noticeable lag--and that may irk some users.