A year ago, Sony introduced three new Digital Readers to the market in an attempt to claw its way back to the top of the category it pioneered long before eReaders were cool. The Touch Edition was the first of the family to come with touch functionality, and the company claimed it would make the digital reading experience more closely resemble the dead tree version. But a glare-prone display and sluggish performance marred the advantages of touch. And then both Amazon and Barnes & Noble undercut the electronics giant on price earlier this year. Now Sony is at it again: Its revamped Touch Edition ($229) fixes the prior generation's biggest issues, but is the asking price still too high?
At a glance, the Touch Edition looks almost exactly like the previous generation. Sony chose to stick with the overall aesthetic and weight, which is definitely a good thing. At 6.6 x 4.7 x 0.4 inches, it's one of the smallest eReaders with a 6-inch display, and coming in at just 7.6 ounces, it weighs slightly less than the Kobo Wireless Reader, and an ounce less than the Kindle 3G (8.7 ounces).
Though light, the Touch feels solid due to its black metal case, and it has an elegant aesthetic due to the chrome buttons on the front and the strip that lines three sides of the device. On top you'll find the power slide and memory card slots for Memory Stick and SD. The included stylus fits snug in a port on the Touch's right edge. The headphone port, volume rocker and recessed reset port are on the bottom along with the USB port. The miniUSB jack has been replaced by the (more standard) microUSB jack. There's also no longer a separate power port for the A/C adapter--the Touch comes with an adapter for the USB cord.
Click to enlarge
The buttons on the front remain unchanged and are minimal, as the main navigation tool is the display itself.
The Sony Readers utilize high-contrast E Ink Pearl displays, the same technology used in the second-gen Kindle DX and the Kindle 3G. The previous generation of the Touch had a second layer over the E Ink display to facilitate the touch functionality. In response to criticism that this lessened the quality of the screen, Sony went a completely different direction with the new Touch. Now there are IR sensors around the edge of the screen that detect and track movement, be it a user's finger or the stylus.
As a result, the E Ink display is bright and crisp. In a side-by-side comparison with the Kindle 3G, the Sony Reader's text looked crisper, though the Kindle had slightly deeper contrast. The bigger drawback on the Touch's side is the lack of font choice. While the Kindle has three available fonts, the Sony just has one.
Compared to the older version, touch functionality is more responsive and sensitive, which we appreciated. The only time we encountered an issue was when working with handwritten notes in the Memo app or within books. There was a tiny but discernible lag as we drew lines with the included stylus, the thin mark appearing milliseconds behind the tip. When we made slow, deliberate marks, the Touch was able to keep up. But when we wrote at our normal pace or in cursive, the Reader Touch struggled, and the resulting chicken scratches were harder to read than our normal handwriting. Using the tip or pad of our finger produced similar or worse results.
As a result, it was difficult to be precise when making handwritten notes or scribbles on a book page. However, there is still a text note function. The on-screen keyboard lags a little when typing, but not as much as the previous generation. We managed to type quite fast with the stylus, but the pad of our finger provided just as much accuracy.
The Touch's UI is mostly the same as before. The main menu consists of large icons designed to be navigated with a finger, and the interface is simple. Most users should have no trouble navigating and understanding how to use the Touch Edition right out of the box.
As is appropriate for a device designed for touch navigation, all of the elements were a bit oversized, so we never had to struggle to click the element or text we wanted with the pad of our finger. Some smaller elements were easier to get to with our fingernail or the stylus.
Another advantage over the previous generation of Sony Readers is the improved response time, though there's still about a one to two second wait between tapping an icon or a button and seeing the results on-screen. Part of this is due to the refresh rate of E Ink, part of it is the software. But we no longer accidentally pressed buttons twice thinking that the device hadn't registered the command.
Click to enlargeSony added a few new features to the Reader's software, many of which allow users to customize some aspects of the display. Under the Options menu within books, the Adjust View menu lets you choose between several different Brightness and Contrast settings or create a custom adjustment. Hit the zoom button and, in addition to the 6 text size options, users can also select a Page Mode that offers several options for viewing text, including some margin adjustments. From here users can also choose a zoom level with pan and scan ability. These last functions are more useful when viewing PDFs than ePub books.
Just as with the first Touch Edition, users can swipe to turn pages or use the physical page turn buttons on the left side of the device. We much prefer having page turn buttons on both the left and right as this is more ergonomically comfortable. The swipe to turn is, as we've noted before, cute and fun, but is ultimately less comfortable. It makes it much harder to use the Touch Edition one-handed.
Sony has made some improvements in this experience over the last generation. Now users don't have to swipe across all or most of the screen to turn. We were able to just flick our thumb in the right direction, but this did not always work and it took several days to get into a groove with it. We wish that, like smart phone apps, the Reader allowed us to tap the edge of the display in order to turn.
Page turns are even speedier than before, taking a little less than 1 second (sometimes close to a half a second) to turn when using the buttons on the lower left. When swiping, turns take 1 second.
As we read Alaya Dawn Johnson's Moonshine, we found that we were able to stay immersed in the book most of the time. But whenever flicking didn't turn the page as expected, our exasperation increased.
Users with large libraries will appreciate the ability to make custom collections on the device. There are a few auto-generated groupings as well, such as unread books and periodicals. Otherwise, the Reader sorts books by date added, title, author, file name, and latest read.
The Sony Store now boasts more than 1.2 million eBooks, both free and paid. New York Times bestsellers start at $9.99, but there are bargain books available for less than $5 and up. Stieg Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo cost only $5.21 as of this review.
The store also has 40 magazines and newspapers available for digital subscriptions. Like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, users get a 14-day free trial before the subscription kicks in so that users can try before they buy.
In addition, the Touch can also read DRM-protected eBooks from other stores that utilize Adobe's DRM scheme. This includes Powells.com and Kobo/Borders.
Since the introduction of the Touch, Pocket, and Daily Edition Readers last year, Sony has been a big supporter of digital lending. Owners can read digital books loaned from compatible library systems, of which there are several thousand. Users who wish to find libraries with eBook collections can do so via the Library Finder application linked from Sony's store at sonysearch.overdrive.com.
Software and Ecosystem
Click to enlargeThe desktop software for PC and Mac is the easiest way to get Sony books onto the non-wireless-enabled Touch Edition. Users can also manage their library from here and either sync the entire thing to the Reader or choose books selectively. Once we'd entered our account information we were able to browse or search for books, purchase, and transfer them all from within the program. Owners can also use the Reader software to facilitate transferring library-loaned books.
Currently, Sony does not have apps for smart phones or tablets. However, the company has promised that mobile apps for the iPhone and Android will come out before the end of the year and will allow synchronization between multiple devices.
Sony claims that the Touch Edition's battery will last up to 14 days, which seems short for a device with no wireless connectivity. In our hands-on time, we used the device for 10 days without charging it, and the display showed 25 percent remaining.
Notes, Highlights, and Music
Within books and documents, we could highlight passages of text and create hand-drawn notes and then export them as an RTF document via the Sony Reader desktop software. Highlighted passages end up as text, but any page with hand drawn notes will end up as a small, embedded image that we found hard to read on screen and once we printed the file.
Outside of books, users can create free-form drawings or typed notes that utilize the on-screen keyboard. These are also exportable into image or text files, respectively.
For users who like to listen to music while reading or are fans of audio books and literary podcasts, the Touch can play unprotected MP3 and AAC file formats. There are no speakers, so you'll have to settle for listening via headphones.
Click to enlargeThe Touch Edition comes in two colors: black and red. Sony offers two other touch-enabled eReaders, the Pocket and the Daily Edition. The $179 Pocket is very similar to the Touch but has a 5-inch display and lacks the ability to play music. The $299 Daily Edition has a taller 7-inch display and both 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity.
Currently, the Sony Reader Touch Edition sells for $229. As it costs more than both the Kindle ($139 for Wi-Fi, $189 for 3G) and the Nook ($149 for Wi-Fi, $199 for 3G), Sony has an uphill battle convincing consumers that touch capability and a more tightly focused reading experience is worth giving up wireless. Many consumers prefer the convenience of being able to buy books and keep their library updated without having to connect to a computer. However, the ability to navigate by touch is instinctual for many, and this eReader satisfies in that regard.
The problem is that for just 20 bucks more than the Touch, you can get the Nook Color ($249), which sports a color touchscreen, access to magazines and children's books, and a small but growing number of apps. In this price range we prefer Barnes & Noble's device, but if you want touch and an E Ink experience in one package, the Touch Edition is worth a look.