It's hard for some people to imagine, but Sony was the first major brand to offer an e-book reader back in 2006--beating the original Amazon Kindle to market by at least 14 months. Since then, however, the company's e-book strategy has been one step forward and two steps back as it plays catch-up with upstart competitors Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.
Consider the 2010 Sony Readers: the models pioneered e-ink touch screens months before the Nook and Kobo, but most models inexplicably omitted Wi-Fi--instead requiring readers to tether to a PC to download new e-books. Those Sony Readers were also priced far above competing Kindle and Nook models at the time.
A year later, Sony has updated its Reader line, and this time the company is more in tune with current e-reader features. Instead of three Reader models with various pricing and feature sets, Sony now has one $149 model, the Sony Reader Wi-Fi PRS-T1. It does come in three colors (black, red, and white). The Reader Wi-Fi retains the responsive touch screen of its predecessors and, as the name suggests, adds Wi-Fi. And unlike the Nook Touch, the Sony has support for audio--though not audiobooks, apparently.
In all, it's a very solid e-reader. The only problem is it doesn't do much to distinguish itself from the competition: Barnes & Noble and Amazon offer cheaper models with similar or identical feature sets, and the content offerings of their respective stores are more extensive. That's doubly true of Amazon's new, aggressively priced 2011 Kindle models, which include the $99 Kindle Touch with Special Offers--basically a product that meets or exceeds the specs of Sony's product for $50 less.
Design and features
While the Reader Wi-Fi is essentially a redesigned version of last year's PRS-650, the new model has an all-new chassis and weighs less, partially due to an all-plastic, rather than metal, casing. In fact, at 5.93 ounces, this Sony weighs a hair less than Amazon's non-touch-screen Kindle (5.98 ounces) and has very similar dimensions.
Overall, the Reader Wi-Fi has an elegant, classy look, and we liked the design. Our only real complaint was that the glossy finish on the border around the touch screen (think of the finish on the original PS3) shows fingerprints, at least on the black model we reviewed; we suspect the white version won't show the fingerprints as much. This isn't a huge deal, but it's worth noting.
Sony was actually the first to license and include Neonode's infrared touch-screen technology in last year's PRS-350, PRS-650, and PRS-950 Readers. Since then, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and now Amazon have incorporated the technology into their latest touch-screen e-readers. Because that technology uses infrared sensors to register touch gestures on screen, it's allowed e-reader manufacturers to make touch-screen interfaces without adding an extra screen layer that would reduce contrast.
The Reader Wi-Fi brings along that same touch-screen technology and looks and feels more similar to the Kobo Touch than to the new Nook, which has rounded corners and is a little wider because it has "hard" page-turn buttons on the sides of the screen. As you can see, the Reader Wi-Fi's hard buttons are along the bottom of the screen.
With Wi-Fi now aboard and the inclusion of a microSD card slot for expanding beyond the built-in 2GB of memory, the Reader Wi-Fi is on par with its competitors from a specs perspective. The Reader Wi-Fi's one bonus feature is the inclusion of audio support, which means you can listen to music while you read--a notable upgrade from the no-audio Nook and Kobo models.
Here are the key specs of the Reader Wi-Fi:
- • Price: $149
- • 6-inch Clear Enhanced touch screen (16-level grayscale E Ink Pearl V220 screen)
- • Neonode infrared touch-screen technology (same as Nook Touch)
- • 1GHz Intel processor
- • Weighs 5.93 ounces
- • 6.8 inches by 4.3 inches by 0.35 inch (HWD)
- • MicroSD expansion slot for adding additional memory
- • Built-in Wi-Fi (no 3G)
- • 2 GB built-in memory (stores around 1,200 e-books)
- • Text and handwritten note-taking capabilities (stylus included)
- • Up to 5 weeks of reading on a single battery charge (with wireless disabled)
- • 12 embedded multilingual dictionaries (2 English language and 10 translation dictionaries)
- • Six adjustable font sizes to customize
- • USB 2.0 data and power connection (Micro-USB)
- • Supports PDF, Microsoft Word, and other text file formats, as well as EPUB/ACS4 and connection with Adobe Digital Editions
- • Supports public library lending in U.S. and Canada
- • Reads JPEG, PNG, GIF, and BMP image files
- • Reader Library software for PC and Mac
- • Plays back MP3 and AAC audio files (headphone jack on board)
- • Available in black, red, and white
- • Integrated access to free Google Books
- • Pinch-to-zoom support on screen
- • Limited-edition PRS-T1HBC (also $149) includes a voucher to download free "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" e-book from Pottermore Web site
The touch screen on previous Sony Readers worked very well, and Sony is letting users choose between using their fingers or an included stylus to take notes and handle highlighting (alas, there's no storage slot for the stylus built into the device like there was on the PRS-650, so you'll have to be careful not to lose it). Protective cases with or without reading lights will also be available, but a case doesn't come with the device.
While the touch screen may not be quite as responsive as that of the iPhone (due to the slightly laggy nature of e-ink), as we've said before, this type of interface is ideal for e-readers because it allows the designers to cut down on buttons and whittle the device down to just slightly bigger than the screen itself. It also allows you to type on a virtual keyboard when searching, note taking, and entering URLs into the browser.
The touch screen isn't just for navigation--you can also mark up text with the included stylus, jot down notes (you can use the virtual keyboard or the stylus for handwritten notes), and turn pages with the swipe of a finger. We also liked how you could hold your finger down on a word to bring up its definition in the built-in dictionaries (there are 2 English-language and 10 translation dictionaries). Better yet, beyond the dictionary definition, you now also have the option to look the word up in Google or Wikipedia using the device's built-in Web browser.