Some Thoughts On The Sony Reader Digital Book

by James R. Stoup Nov 27, 2007

Yesterday I walked into a Borders bookstore and made a pleasant discovery, the Sony Reader Digital Book. I know, I know, the name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but maybe one day they will come up with a snappier name. In the mean time I’m just going to call it the DBR, digital book reader. As I was saying, I was really quite impressed with this device. That isn’t to say it doesn’t have any flaws, but I really do believe that the idea behind it is sound, regardless of how much polish it needs. But before I get started you must have an idea of what this device looks like. You can view the Sony Reader Digital Book at their main site.

The DBR does a couple of very important things right, and that is why I anticipate owning one in the future. In fact, it gets the most important thing right, it is easy to read. In fact, the screen is simply amazing. It doesn’t flicker, it doesn’t have an annoying glare and the resolution is perfect. The black and white screen is very conductive to reading and while you won’t mistake it for paper, it still comes remarkably close. Right after readability comes weight and power. This thing weighs only 9 ounces and is less than half an inch thick. Additionally, because of the technology behind the screen, it doesn’t use power when it displays your book. The only time it require power is when the display changes, meaning you turn the page. So, regardless of how slow a reader you are, you won’t run out of battery trying to get to the last page.

So, now that I’ve sung its praise’s a bit let me clue you in on some of its problems. The first major design problem I noticed was that this device isn’t completely sure of its identity. It doesn’t completely know what it wants to be. What I mean is that while this reader does an excellent job at displaying books, the designers apparently couldn’t resist the urge to tack on a few more features. In a way, it almost feels like they are trying to indirectly compete with the iPod.

And this is a mistake.

Actually, its an enormous mistake. Simply because if there were only someone at Sony with some vision they would realize that these two products should never compete with one another. Not ever. And trying to force this book reader to compete with the iPod will only make an otherwise great product fail at a goal it can’t possibly achieve. So, what should be done you ask? Well, the simplest answer is that this book reader should be redesigned with only one goal in mind, to display books.

For example, the DBR can play MP3 and AAC files. Why? I have no idea. I can’t think of one compelling reason why I would want that feature in this device. And please don’t someone say something stupid like “to listen to audio books of course!” Because that is just dumb. If I wanted to listen to audio books I wouldn’t be carrying around a MP3 player the size of a thin paperback (6.9 x 4.9 x 0.5 in to be exact) I would use an iPod. Imagine that.

Remember, the point of this device isn’t to listen to music. It also isn’t to watch movies, play games, surf the web, make phone calls or type documents. The iPod/iPhone does all of those things wonderfully and I see no reason to suspect they won’t continue to get better with each successive generation. However one thing the iPod family really sucks at is, get this, displaying books. Now if only there was a portable device that was designed to display books. . .

Like I was saying, the Reader has great potential, it just needs all of the useless pieces trimmed off. Put more clearly, someone needs to sit down and declare than anything that doesn’t directly relate to reading books has to go. Furthermore, the interface has to be usable in the dark, one-handed, by someone wearing gloves. Needless to say they aren’t there yet, but they could be with some effort.

Overall I would give the user interface (both the actual buttons and the OS it runs) a grade of C+. It does somethings right, but too many things are either too complicated or too unintuitive. For example, the device has 23 buttons on its front side in addition to an On/Off toggle on top. Read that again. 23 buttons. It is the electronic equivalent of a paperback book and apparently it needs almost two dozen buttons to make it work. That is bad design right there. The goal should be for the user to navigate everything with only one hand. Since the device is so small and so thin, the most comfortable way to hold it is from the corner with one hand. Thus it only makes sense that its interface be designed with that in mind.

Another problem with this device is the manner in which ebooks are loaded onto it. This thing has only a meager amount of built in memory and requires additional memory cards to be loaded into it for additional reading material. And of course the software to manage all of this, in addition to being of mediocre design, is Windows only! And of course we can’t forget that Sony wants you to buy ebooks from its dreadful Connect service. Which is just like iTMS, only horribly designed.

In that regards, my best suggestion for Sony is to get Amazon to give away free ebooks to anyone who actually buys an actual book from Amazon. Now, I know this idea has been suggested before by many people in many different reviews of Amazon’s new service, but I’m going to repeat it because it is a really good idea. In spite of all the short comings of this device, the biggest problem is that most people would probably never consider reading an ebook because they have never heard of it. However, if they suddenly started getting a couple with their latest book purchases from Amazon, they might start wanting to actually read them on something. And that would be Sony’s cue to sell them their nifty new player. Of course, this assumes these ebooks would be DRM free an in PDF format. Needless to say I’m not holding my breath on that one.

So clearly there are some issues that need to be worked out before this thing really takes off. And yet I am hopeful for this device. In spite of its many flaws I like it. In fact, being the avid reader that I am (in fact I just finished Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and am now reading Ken Grimwood’s Replay) a device like this really does get me excited. I would be more than willing to drop $200 on a Reader if Sony could get some of these problems worked out. I want to like this device and I can only beg Sony to fix things before Apple decides to enter the fray and really shows you how its done. The technology is there, all it needs is someone with a little vision.


  • Speaking of eBooks, Amazon just started pushing the ‘Kindle’ - a name which doesn’t really scream ‘eBook’ but is easier to chew than ‘Sony Reader Digital Book’. I haven’t really looked to closely at it, but it sounds like it doesn’t even require a computer OR a WiFi connection, it’s all EVDO (aka over the cell network) without any cellular fees. Additionally, it doesn’t appear to suffer from jack-of-all-trades syndrome, it just displays books. Still a lot of buttons, however:

    Andy R Hoffner had this to say on Nov 27, 2007 Posts: 2
  • My first thought when MP3 and AAC support was announced for the DBR was for languages, you can listen and read along with language books. Or people learning a language can use audio books along with the actual e-book in front of them, it’d be an immense learning tool.

    harpoon had this to say on Nov 27, 2007 Posts: 1
  • What about wanting to listen to music whilst reading a book?  Seems like a blindingly obvious reason for including a music player capability to me…

    Paul Howland had this to say on Nov 28, 2007 Posts: 38
  • Most places just call it the Sony Reader… No need to come up with new names. That’s too bas it sucks on the software end, especially with Windows-only software. I wonder how the Amazon Kindle is going to be with that? Their Amazon Unbox video download service is Windows-only. There’s been plenty of times I would have bought a tv show from them since they have stuff iTunes doesn’t…

    Bart had this to say on Nov 28, 2007 Posts: 23
  • Page 1 of 1 pages
You need log in, or register, in order to comment