the sony prs-300 and his robot girlfriend

After a few months of slowly edging toward the prospect, yesterday I bought an ebook. It’s a Sony PRS-300, which is their new “pocket reader.” It’s about the same size as my flattened hand, just a little thinner than my iPhone, and about the same weight as a paperback. Right now, I have it loaded with just over a hundred books and stories, and it’s about one third full.

Yesterday I read several short stories and most of a novella, which I finished this morning. There are a lot of things it doesn’t do that a book does, and a lot of things that it doesn’t do that a “real computer” could do. Despite these shortcomings, I think it is a pretty nice little device, and I’m almost certain to keep it and use it frequently. Here are some high and low points.

It’s really light. I can hold it in one hand for a long time before my hand gets tired. Because it doesn’t have a spine, I don’t have to hold it open with my fingers, so my hand is much more relaxed. Because it doesn’t have pages, I can read it entirely with one hand, tapping the “next page” button with my thumb as I go. Doing anything more complicated than “next page” is hard with one hand, because I want to use my left hand in order to keep my (preferred) right hand free. Unfortunately, the controls are on the right of the unit, away from my grip. Lefties might like this layout more.

Turning pages takes just a fraction of a second longer than I’d like. If I’m racing through pages, it’s frustrated, but most of the time I don’t care. I think I’ll get used to it. The less frequent but more severe frustration is that when I think I’ve misunderstood some earlier point, flipping back through pages to scan them is incredibly slow compared to paper. Still, this doesn’t come up all that often.

I used to often think that I would dislike being unable to write on an electronic book’s pages, but in reality I hardly write on the pages of my print books. Instead, I take notes on the bookmarks that I use in them. That means I can see all my notes in one place, rather than by flipping through the book. I have a huge stockpile of bookmarks, so I don’t mind permanently associating bookmarks with books. This isn’t as simple with electronic books, because I don’t use a bookmark, but I always have a notepad with me, so I can take notes there.

I wouldn’t mind a larger reading area with smaller controls, but it’s not a huge issue. At a font size that is easy to read, a page holds enough content that I don’t get frustrated by the tiny page turn delay. I think that’s all that really matters. Instant page turning will be nice someday, but for now I can live without it easily.

The menus are weird, but there isn’t much to select through, so it isn’t a big problem. Mostly you find the book you want and read it. There is a facility for grouping books into folders (“collections”) but you can only create them through the annoying Sony software. I’m pretty sure I can create them easily myself. They’re very simple entries in an XML file. I’ve found some code to do it, but the code is gross, so I’ll probably rewrite it and publish a library. Apart from collections and first time registration of the device (which is optional), it looks like I can avoid Sony’s software, so this is not a big deal.

There are a few other things that I think I’d like, which I know the Kindle has. A dictionary would be nice, but it would be hard to use without a keyboard or touch screen. The same goes for anywhere access to Wikipedia. All of Wikipedia’s article content is only about five gigs, which would be easy to access without network access, if you were willing to pay for the storage and perform regular synchronization. Still, without a good means to say what you want, it would be pretty tough to use.

In a sense, though, Wikipedia is probably better omitted. I want to read books on my reader, and Wikipedia is just a distraction. It’s a very fun distraction, but I’m better off without it in this context. Anyway, I have my iPhone, too. Putting a full keyboard would just encourage further distraction, possibly even perverse and terrifying hackery. My main reason to want a keyboard is to run Frotz to play interactive fiction, which seems like a fantastic use of an ebook. I would be able to do this on Kindle, but in the end I decided that if I can barely find time to play any int-fiction at home, I’m not likely to do so on the go. Anyway, I’d still need paper and pen to draw maps.

So, given that I have this device that I think is a pretty decent (and affordable) piece of hardware for reading, is there enough stuff to read? I think there is. Sony has the eBook Store for paid access to for-pay content. It might be an okay content source, but I’m not likely to find out. Using it requires that I use their horrible Sony Reader software, which I’d rather not do. I can’t buy books in my web browser, for some presumably awful reason. This is particularly frustrating, because it means I can’t access the “millions” of free public domain books offered by Google Books. So, what’s a bibliophile to do?

For now, my big source of books is Feedbooks, which has tons of public domain and original books and stories in lots of formats, including EPUB. I downloaded a lot of things I’ve been meaning to read as well as a number of random novels or short stories by self-published authors.

The most substantial thing I’ve read on the PRS-300 so far is His Robot Girlfriend by Wesley Allison. It was about a hundred pages and a decent read. Like a lot of self-published works it needed a lot more editing and internal consistency. On one hand, the totally inconsistent economics of the book drove me nuts. On the other, it’s pretty refreshing to read the work of authors who might never get onto the best seller list. Feedbooks and similar sites can act like the YouTube of writing. If you can write it and upload it, anybody can go read it.

The impression I’ve gotten is that Sony’s take on the ebook is more conducive to this kind of commons for content development, but I’m not entirely sure how right I am. I think at worst Amazon isn’t as bad as I think, which would not be too bad to learn.

So, to sum up: the price was pretty good, the device is enjoyable to read, and the only things I really don’t like are all related to Sony’s lousy software, which I can mostly avoid – and which hopefully they’ll fix over time. (I’m not holding my breath.)

I think I’m going to be happy with this.

Written on August 29, 2009
🏷 book
🏷 ebook
⚙️ hardware