The Sony Reader is a Remote Scottish Beach

Last week I bought a Sony Reader PRS-650, which Sony would like you to call the ‘Touch’ and I like to think of as my personal remote Scottish beach. Sony’s eReader devices are currently locked in competition with the Amazon Kindle, a wonderful creation with wifi and 3G Internet connectivity, and the ability to buy books direct from Amazon without connecting to a host computer. The Sony has none of these things, and currently costs £70 more, if you want an equivalent six-inch screen. So why did I buy the Sony? These two devices are both excellent, so it wasn’t an easy decision.

This is my first eReader with a reflective, e-ink screen, but for two years now I have been reading books on my iPod Touch, and before that on a Palm PDA (actually a Sony Clie running the Palm OS). I had reached a point where I wanted to spend more time reading eBooks, but the iPod’s small screen was holding me back. Past generations of the e-ink screen technology never seemed good enough to me, but reviews of the Kindle, and the little time I spent with the Sony in Waterstones, convinced me that things have changed. The new screens refresh quickly, and they are sharp, and clear. It was time for an upgrade.

I like the look of the Kindle 3. Apparently it has a great screen, and the wifi seemed, at first, to be a killer feature. Why would you not want to have some access to the Internet, after all? But there are plenty of ways in which the Kindle doesn’t suit me. For one thing, the Kindle is designed, first and foremost, to drive sales from the Amazon Kindle store. And just as in the early days of iPods and iTunes, Amazon sees fit to encumber its books with copy prevention software (DRM) that stops them being read on other devices. Certainly you can put books in other file formats on the Kindle, but crucially, so far, not the open ePub format (with and without DRM) used by all the other eReaders.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the Kindle and the Sony Reader are doing different things, and addressing different markets. Perhaps they are not really competing at all. The Kindle has the Amazon store all sewn up, so if you want easy access to recent books, and don’t mind about the DRM locking you and your ebooks into an alliance with Amazon forever, that’s the one you should go for. It’s convenient, it’s slick: it’s an iPod for books.

What Sony is doing is slightly different. Sony is a hardware company, so while it would prefer customers to buy ebooks from the Sony store, ultimately what it wants is for people to buy Sony devices. Sony doesn’t really care where you get your books from as long as you read them on a Sony Reader.

Perhaps because of this, Sony has added features that apply more to documents in general, not just books. The Reader comes with a stylus, so you can write freehand on documents like meeting agendas, or in the margins of books. You could draw a diagram, or a map, or play noughts and crosses, or hangman, with your kids. Chess and Backgammon would work well too (you listening, Sony?). If you prefer to type there is a decent on-screen keyboard, though it is a little slow, and the touch screen allows you to highlight text with your finger, or swipe to turn pages.

I’ll be using it mainly for reading out of copyright public domain books. In some cases these are the kinds of books you don’t get to take out of libraries because they are too valuable. In the past I might have had to travel to read them, but Google has brought the archive to my couch. I’ll be reading other things too: books from Feedbooks and Project Gutenberg, and I may even buy some modern ebooks. I dislike the idea of DRM, but I can see two cases where I might not care about it so much: throwaway, read it once paperbacks, and technical manuals that will go out of date quickly. Anything I might want to keep for a while, and might want to read again, I’ll buy in an open format, such as a physical book. If you buy a book, or download music, that is encumbered with DRM, you have to see the transaction as a loan. And speaking of loans, the Sony Reader allows you to borrow ebooks from a large number of public libraries, including the one here in Liverpool.

The Sony Reader has different features from the Kindle, and in some ways is it less convenient and less slick. As a piece of hardware it is beautifully designed. It is solid, and nice to hold; the touch screen is very good indeed. What clinched the deal for me though, was the lack of wifi or 3G. One of the things I love about physical books is the lack of distraction. Books offer a glorious absence of any possibility of reading a blog, searching Wikipedia, or checking for email. And that brings me back to the remote Scottish beach, one of the few places remaining on Earth where access to the Internet cannot be taken for granted. It feels good to be unhitched from email, and Google, and Twitter once in a while, and my new eReader is going to take me there.