Sony Reader

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Last January, Sony declared it would be the company to finally launch a successful e-book reader, dubbed — how about this for originality? — the Reader. Combined with a well-stocked e-book store, the device would have the potential to be a literary iPod. The product was delayed for months, but now that it has arrived, I'm excited by its performance and its potential. I love a good hardbound book, but if we're ever going to move on from pulped-tree matter, Sony is looking in the right direction.

The Reader is about the size of a trade paperback, though thinner, and instead of a liquid-crystal display, its 6-in. screen uses E-Ink technology. Each of its finely packed pixels can be white or black but they don't shimmer or emit any light, so the experience is eerily like looking at paper, high in contrast and relaxing on the eye. The tradeoff is that E-Ink can't yet refresh fast enough to show video, and even scrolling or zooming is a complicated business, but that's not the purpose of the Reader. Even without a backlight, you can read every page of any e-book in all of the same settings that you'd read a tome made out of old fashioned ink, paper and glue.

As much as it feels like a book, the Reader can still perform digital tricks. It is probably the first Sony product to read MP3 files that have been copied to an SD card, for instance. (It is one of the first Sony products to use SD cards as well as its own Memory Stick format.) I like to listen to classical music while I read here the book and the background music come in one device. The Reader can also handle photos, so throw a few photos into its internal memory if you must, but save your slideshows for your digital camera or even your cell phone.

Slideshow woes I can handle, but there are some shortcomings that this $350 device should have worked out by now. For instance, there's no way to turn the page with your right hand. Owing to its origins in right-to-left-reading Japan, the two sets of page-turning buttons have been located on the left hand side; reflexively, readers of Roman script want to turn the page on the right. It takes some getting used to. Still, because there is a directional pad on the right, my guess is that this could be fixed with a simple software update.

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