Has the iPod for Books Arrived?

Sony’s new e-book gadget, reviewed.

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Sooner or later, people will do most of their reading on portable digital devices. If this horrifies you, then worry not: You have some time. But if you’re impatient for the paperless future, you can embrace it now. Sony has introduced the $350 Reader e-book and the 10,000-title, big-publishing-house-backed Connect e-book store. The one-time consumer-electronics superpower clearly hopes the pair will become something of an iPod + iTunes for books.

The Reader is being hawked as a product for book lovers, not one exclusively for geeks. You can buy the Reader online and at SonyStyle stores now, but it’s supposed to roll out at 300 Borders locations later this month. The books promoted on the Connect home page are those you’d find on the front table of your local bookstore: Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, Bob Woodward’s State of Denial, the inescapable Freakonomics. The message in the marketing is that the e-book is about to go mainstream.

What will you get if you, a run-of-the-mill bibliophile, buy the Sony Reader? Well, you’ll be getting an understated gadget, styled soberly and about the size and weight of a slim trade paperback. It won’t turn heads, and your nephew probably won’t be yanking it out of your hands, but it’s also a lot more interesting to show off to your friends than the latest Treo.

Essentially, you’re paying for the screen. The 6-inch display, which is made using E Ink technology, looks surprisingly like paper. It’s very sharp, doesn’t flicker, and can be viewed from any angle, even in bright sunlight. It’s supposed to be easier on the eyes than an LCD, and it definitely was on mine. Because E Ink is “image-stable,” it takes no power to keep an image displayed once it’s on-screen—that means the Reader only eats up battery life when you turn pages. You’re supposed to get 7,500 page turns on a single charge.

E Ink has a lot of potential for low-power applications and, I imagine, signage—since it can be read at every angle. But it also has significant drawbacks relative to LCD screens. We expect our electronics displays to dazzle, but the Reader’s is dull, and its palette is Etch A Sketch gray. There are also problems with “ghosting,” and since it has no backlight, you need a clip-on light to read in bed. Unfortunately, the slightly reflective screen tends to bounce the beam into your eyes. The biggest problem with E Ink is that it has a very slow refresh rate—around a second to turn a page. Though that doesn’t sound like much, it’s quite a pregnant pause: Clicking through the Reader’s menus is tedious, and page turns quickly become a bore.

The Reader works well for plain-old, front-to-back reading. As long as you don’t do a lot of flipping back and forth, the device won’t let you down. But it doesn’t have a search function, nor will your book’s index or table of contents be hyperlinked to the pages they reference. So, ironically, it’s significantly easier to find information in a paper book than in its digital equivalent. Sony’s e-content is also read-only: You can bookmark a page, but you can’t add marginalia. In this way, at least, the Reader is a step backward—its Japanese predecessor, the Librié, did allow annotations.

Some people will love the Reader. The ability to increase the font size of any book on the fly will be a boon to the visually impaired. It would be a thoughtful gift for a frequent traveler who tears through a lot of best sellers. And I suppose there’s an advantage in the anonymity the Reader gives you—nobody can judge you by your book’s cover. The people at Harlequin think so, anyway, and are among the major partners in the Connect store.

As a big reader and a technophile, I should also be in Sony’s target demographic. I think the device looks great, and I can see myself reading whole books on its display. But I’m disappointed by the Reader, and not primarily because I wish I didn’t have to wait for Version 2.0 for faster page turns, a search function, and whatever bonus features are surely in store. I’m disappointed because Sony has been so conservative in its idea of what an electronic book should be.

The iPod has succeeded because people are willing to spend money and put up with diminished sound quality in order to carry their music collections with them. Sony is clearly hoping that the same key feature—portability—will sell readers on e-books. But the Reader’s advantage over the competitive technology (i.e., paper) ends at portability. Sony’s product literature boasts that the Reader is “the biggest revolution since the printed page.” This is a laughable tagline on its face, but it also emphasizes how far from revolutionary the Reader is. You can store books on it and read them. But that’s it. It doesn’t extend or amplify the capabilities of the book in any meaningful way.

The conventional wisdom holds that other e-book platforms have failed for two reasons: Their display and battery technology weren’t good enough, and there wasn’t enough content available. E Ink is supposed to be the solution to the first problem, and an iTunes-like store—such as Connect—is supposed to solve the latter. But this view is too narrow. Sony is stopping at books, when it should be making a device that allows people to curl up with all of the written content that’s currently stuck in their computer, as well. The Web has proved that dictionaries are more useful as searchable databases, and Wikipedia shows that “books” can be dynamic and editable. Hypertext online novels are a reality. Google is in the process of digitizing and indexing millions of books. Soon, reading a chapter of a book will no more depend on owning it than reading an individual article requires you to trek to the newsstand.

Here’s what I want in Reader 2.0: a device that allows me to browse the news on my subway ride to work and that serves as a second screen for reading and research during the work day. I want a platform for Web connectivity, searching, and hypertext. And, yes, I’ll take a small gadget that lets me read a few pages of a novel before I go to sleep. But as things stand now, I’ll stick to the paperback on my bedside.