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Sony Reader - John C. Kirk

Aug. 14th, 2010

12:14 am - Sony Reader

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As anyone who's been to my flat knows, I have a lot of books (about 750 at last count). This means that they take up a lot of space, so I recently purchased a Sony Reader (PRS-300), and I've been impressed with it so far.

Backtracking a bit, in May 2000 I bought a Palm Vx (which cost about £250). I used it a little bit as a digital notebook, e.g. to store my shopping list, but its main role was to read ebooks. In particular, I bought some Star Trek novels from Peanut Press, which later changed its name to Palm Digital Media, then eReader.com, and is now apparently part of Barnes & Noble. This worked ok, but it was definitely inferior to the experience of a paper book so I wound up buying some books twice (digital first and paperback later). My Palm eventually stopped working, so I could only read the books on my PC, which isn't much use if I'm on the train. Also, eReader.com recently imposed Geographic Restrictions, so I can no longer buy Trek novels from the UK. It's not their fault, but it is rather annoying. Obviously there are other books out there, but I've found that it's surprisingly difficult to get hold of the ones that I actually want to read. So, there was no point in buying a new handheld device unless I could buy something to read on it. Fortunately that has now changed, and WHSmith have a decent selection of Trek novels.

There are a few different ereaders on the market, but based on billyabbott's experience I wanted to get a Sony Reader. There are currently two models on the market: Pocket (PRS-300, 5" screen) and Touch (PRS-600, 6" screen). The Touch version is more expensive, and I try to avoid smearing my fingers over screens anyway, so I went for the Pocket version. I then had the minor challenge of finding somewhere to buy it. Prices vary quite a bit if you shop around. In fact, I bought mine two weeks ago, and prices have dropped again since then; supposedly Sony are about to release two new versions (the PRS-350 and PRS-650), which may explain why the older versions are going cheap. John Lewis were charging £149 (now £139.95), Play.com charge £139.99, WHSmith charged £124 (now £99), and Sony charge £129.

There's a WHSmith branch and a Sony Centre in Croydon, so I tried to buy a Reader in person. WHSmith were sold out of the silver version the first time I went; they only had the pink version. The second time I went, they had the silver version in stock, but they charged £159 for it! Going back to the website, I found some small print: "Please note: Prices are for internet purchases only. Prices and availability in WHSmith Stores may vary significantly." Meanwhile, Sony do things the opposite way around: the price on the website depends on which Sony Centre you select. It costs £129 in Croydon and £159.99 at Westfield (Shepherd's Bush). Frankly, that's just bizarre. Anyway, since Croydon is cheapest and nearest, I went there. Again though, they were sold out of the silver version and only had the pink one in stock; the guy in the store tried to claim that it was "reddish", but I wasn't having any of that. I wound up ordering it from WHSmith, using their free "saver" delivery: I put in the order just before midnight on Sat 31st July, they dispatched it on Wed 4th August, and I received it on Fri 6th August. The only snag is that they insisted on sending it to my billing address. I don't know whether that's just because it was my first order from them, but it's a nuisance. I understand that they're wary of card fraud, but it would be good if I could register an alternative address with my bank (e.g. my work address), then that would be trusted by all the various retailers. Ah well, never mind: the package fitted through my letterbox, and I didn't need to sign for it.

(I've since found a blog post from someone else who had a similar experience: Sony Reader PRS-300 shopping experiment - High street vs online retailers.)

The main difference between the Sony Reader and other handheld devices (e.g. my old Palm) is that it uses "e-ink". That means that the screen doesn't emit light: there's no glare, but you need an external light source (e.g. daylight) to read it, just like a paper book. I'd heard of this, but I wasn't sure how significant it would be. When I plugged the device into my computer to charge up, it had a logo in the middle of the screen (a bit like a recycling symbol). I hadn't looked closely at the screen before, and I initially thought that this was a sticker that I'd have to peel off. So, it really does make a difference.

Billy bought the PRS-505, but the PRS-300 has a slightly different layout. In particular, the "change page" buttons are in the middle at the bottom (rather than in a corner), which makes it very easy to hold the device in one hand and change pages. That's useful if I'm eating lunch, or if I'm standing on a train and using my other hand to hold onto a rail, i.e. this is an advantage of the e-book over a paper book. It also means that I benefit from having a dedicated device, rather than using my netbook.

My main concern was about the speed of turning pages. With webcomics, I've found that I can read the same number of strips far more quickly in a paper book than when I'm clicking through the archives. The loading time doesn't feel particularly long, but there is definitely a cumulative effect. It takes me longer to read a page of text than it does to read the average comic strip, so the page transition time is proportionally less significant, but it's still an issue. With the Sony Reader, I've found that moving past the cover takes several seconds, presumably because there are so many more pixels involved. After that, changing page typically takes about half a second, but sometimes it sits there for about 5 seconds (particularly if I go backwards).

I've bought a couple of new ebooks from WHSmith, but I'd also like to read the ones I've already paid for. eReader.com will let me download new copies of those books by logging into my account (which would be handy if I lost my saved copies), so ideally I would just choose "epub" format from a drop down list and then put them on my new device. Unfortunately, eReader.com only support the "pdb" format, and they are protected by DRM (encrypted using my VISA card number). There is a workaround, but it's a bit convoluted, as described here: install Python, use a script to remove the DRM by converting the pdb file to HTML, install another program (Calibre) and use that to convert the HTML into epub format, then import the epub file into Sony Reader and drag it to my device.

I did this for all my books, then discovered a flaw when I tried to read one: each time a single character ellipsis (… rather than ...) appeared in the original text, it was replaced by a question mark. If I tried to read the epub file inside Calibre, the ellipsis was just omitted altogether. The same thing happened to some other special characters, e.g. bullet points. If I opened the HTML file in Internet Explorer, it all looked fine. On closer inspection, it turned out that the Python script was generating HTML files without a <head> section; in particular, that means that there was no character encoding specified, so Calibre had to guess which one to use, and the resulting output got a bit mangled. IE also had to guess, but it did a better job, so I made a note of which encoding it chose. It selected "Western European (Windows)", and if I changed that to "Western European (ISO)" then everything still looked ok; if I changed it to "Unicode (UTF-8)" then the special characters turned into empty black boxes. So, I had to customise the Calibre plug-in, as described in their FAQ. I tried ISO-8859-1, but that didn't work; cp1252 did the trick. The only snag is that I then had to delete all the converted books from my device and start all over again.

I can't really fault Calibre for this, and if it wasn't for Dark Reverser providing the free Python script then I wouldn't have been able to remove the DRM at all. So, it's just something to be aware of. For reference, I used ereader2html v0.03 and Calibre v0.7.13. One fringe benefit of this conversion process is that it allowed me to fix some typos in the original pdb files, e.g. hyphenation that appeared in the middle of a line. Anyway, the resulting files came out fine, except for a few places where I got odd page breaks (i.e. only one paragraph on a page where it wasn't the end of a section/chapter). Now that I've been through this process, I won't need to do it again: I will only buy epub files from now on.

As for purchasing ebooks, the various websites could make it easier. (Amazon do it well, but they only support the Kindle, and I'm not entirely comfortable about how much influence they have; that's a topic for another post.) Waterstones have their paper books and ebooks all lumped together, so you have to reapply the ebook filter each time you do a search. WHSmith are better, since they have a separate site for ebooks, but this includes several different formats (including audio books), and there's no way to limit it to epub books. Also, if I see a list of books then it would be helpful to click on an author's name, but I have to click through to an individual book first. I recently bought a paper copy of "The Tent, The Bucket and Me" (Emma Kennedy), but that's not available as an ebook from either site; similarly, I can't find any ebooks by Rob Grant or Robert Llewellyn. Hopefully the range will gradually expand, particularly for recently published books (where the publisher already has an electronic copy).

Ebooks aren't always going to be a good choice. They work well for a novel that's a stream of text, but I wouldn't want to read a technical book with code samples on a tiny screen. More generally, if you have a book that's been laid out for a particular format then it will suffer in the transition. For instance, I have a couple of books on wild swimming which include several colour photos, and they really wouldn't work on a small greyscale screen. Ultimately, though, it's not practical to store hundreds of paper books in my flat, whereas I can easily fit thousands of ebooks onto my PC's hard drive. (The Sony Reader will hold about 350 at a time, but I only need a selection of my complete collection on the handheld device.) So, I think that this was a worthwhile purchase, and it should help me to reduce my clutter.

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