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Summary:

Sony’s new Wi-Fi Reader is the only e-reader it introduced this year. It’s good that Sony is streamlining what was an unnecessarily complicated product line, but now that all the eggs are in one basket, how does the device stand up to the competition?

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Sony did something very wise when it refreshed its e-reader lineup this fall. It streamlined it and released just one 2011 model, the PRS-T1, or as it’s colloquially known, the Sony Reader Wi-Fi. But can Sony’s new focus help it keep up with Amazon, the e-reader juggernaut that seems to be going in the opposite direction of Sony with many new models to choose from? Read on to find out.

Hardware design

The Sony Reader Wi-Fi is, in my opinion, better looking than its predecessors. The white version Sony sent me has a fairly thin bezel around the 6-inch touch screen, providing just enough room for fingers to hold on to it.

 

The slightly rubberized back is grippy without feeling sticky, and I like that there are no seams on the back of the case. I might be revealing some OCD tendencies here, but I absolutely hate when I can feel where one part of the back of my Kindle meets another and the edges of the two pieces aren’t quite flush. The Sony doesn’t have that problem, and actually feels more solidly constructed overall than the latest entry-level Kindle, which I reviewed in September.

The fact that the Sony Reader is slightly taller (though also not as wide) as the Kindle, and the placement of its page-turn buttons (a welcome addition despite the presence of touch controls) means that I can’t use it as easily one handed, however. That’s been the best benefit of the 2011 Kindle: the ability to use it comfortably with one hand, including page-turning via the back/forward buttons lining the sides.

Touchscreen/Display

The Reader has a high-contrast e-ink screen that’s easy to read, and you can actually tweak brightness and saturation options to achieve a look you feel more comfortable with. While these features are nice to have, in practice the default settings seemed best to my eye anyway and basically were on par with the latest Kindle.

Touch was remarkably responsive, and swiping through pages and tapping interface buttons was easy enough even with my somewhat thick fingers. Sony also includes a stylus with the PRS-T1, which you can use to make handwritten notes on any page. That, and the ability to draw on blank pages and save them to the device were actually two of my favorite elements. Having an e-reader that doubles as a sketchbook is definitely something I could grow to love.

The picture I drew on my e-reader. Never thought I'd be typing those words.

My big problem with the Sony Reader’s display is that unlike the Kindle, it does a complete flash to refresh with every page turn. I’d gotten used to only seeing that happen every five or six page turns on my latest Kindle device. Going back to having it happen every time I navigate to a new screen is actually surprisingly hard to get over. If you haven’t yet been spoiled by the latest e-ink tech, however, you probably won’t notice this quirk.

Turning pages with the Sony Reader Wi-Fi actually isn’t all that pleasant. It works as advertised, but making a swipe gesture for every page turn gets old, quickly. Luckily, Sony has included hardware page turn buttons too, which is much more pleasant when you’re actually flipping through a book. Having both on the device is a smart move by Sony.

Features

As mentioned, I’m quite impressed by the Sony Reader’s ability to act as an e-ink sketchbook using the included stylus (or, for less accurate results, your finger). You can even save your doodles as screenshots and then transfer them to your computer just by navigating to the appropriate folder without installing any additional software.

The Sony Reader also supports MP3 and AAC playback, which the basic Kindle does not (the upcoming Touch and Touch 3G do), and has a microSD card slot for memory expansion up to 32 GB (no Kindle offers expandable memory). Its battery lasts a month per charger, just like the entry-level Kindle’s.

The touchscreen also allows you to zoom in on any content using simple pinch gestures that Apple users will be familiar with, and you can search within any book with just a couple of taps. The on-screen keyboard is well-designed and responsive, too.

Sony also offers a lot more in terms of font customization options vs. the Kindle, but for me, that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. I found that in general, the overabundance of options on the Sony Reader provided much more opportunity for a user to get lost or overwhelmed with choice. Amazon sticks to a few, useful options that never require you to navigate too deeply into submenus.

Price and availability

Sony’s Reader Wi-Fi carries an MSRP of $149 in the U.S., and is available now, including in many international markets. The price of $149 is $10 more than the Kobo Touch and the Kindle Touch without special offers, and the same price as the Kindle Touch 3G without, but those products are both launching the U.S. only. Sony’s ePub compatibility also means it works with books from a wider variety of third-party stores, and with libraries both inside and outside of the U.S.

Verdict

Sony is asking more than its competitors, but it offers some unique features that those competitors don’t, including stylus input and hardware page-turn buttons. For me, though, those extra features aren’t enough to justify the additional cost of the Sony Reader over something like the base Kindle. If I can get a light, portable no-nonsense e-reader for $79 (or even $109, without special offers) that I can use with one hand and that has a faster page-turn rate, that’s what I’m going to do.

If you have more advanced needs (a device that both plays music and lets you read, for instance), and the Sony’s unique distinguishing traits are things you think you’d use often, then you won’t get quite the same experience from any other device.

Disclaimer: Sony provided the PRS-T1 unit for review purposes.

  1. For virtual keyboard personaly I using thumbs as on my Blackberry is really the most convenient. Reading a lot of format (not only purchased on amazon), annotate them, plus instant translation (I’m in France and read a lot of english pdf reports), and access with the browser to my PRO agenda via Google Agenda synchonization is also great.

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