PRS-500 e-Book Reader review
Store hundreds of books in a
The Sony PRS-500
Portable Reader System is about the same size as a paperback
book, but thinner.
Its 6" diagonal screen displays text, graphics and
low-res black and white pictures.
Easy controls make the unit simple to use.
But, bottom line, reading an old fashioned book is still simpler,
easier, and more convenient.
e-Book technology has been a
long time coming, and with plenty of disappointments to date.
The concept of storing
hundreds of books digitally promises to potentially revolutionize the
printing/publishing industry, just like MP3 technology has
revolutionized the music industry.
But the reality delivers much
less than the promise, and the twin evils of copy protection and
predatory pricing take away most of the remaining potential
The Sony PRS-500 Portable
Reader System was released late in 2006. But is it yet a reader for the mainstream public? The
answer to this is, at best, unclear, and we're left with the
definite impression that this is a technology still in its
infancy and perhaps best left alone by all but the most avid
early adopting gadget lovers.
The Sony PRS-500 Portable
e-Book Reader System - What you Get
When you buy a PRS-500
e-Book reader you get the unit itself complete with a vinyl fold
over cover that protects the unit's potentially
fragile glass screen.
It also comes with a
multi-voltage charger, a USB cable, a CD Rom with the Connect
reader software and an operation guide in PDF format, plus a
Quick Start guide fold open sheet.
The Connect reader software,
necessary for buying books from the Sony bookstore and for
transferring books to the reader unit,
currently works only with PCs. It is not Mac compatible.
The unit has a built in
Lithium ion rechargeable battery that is claimed to be good
for about 7500 page views (see discussion on battery life
6.9" x 4.9" and is about 0.5" thick, or, with its
protective cover, about 1/10th of an inch thicker.
It weighs 11.6 oz with cover.
By comparison, a paperback
book measures about 6.9" x 4.1" and varies in thickness from
just under an inch to considerably over an inch, and in weight
from about 6 oz and up from there.
In other words, the e-Book
reader takes up about half the space of a regular paperback
book, and weighs as much as one or two paperbacks. You're
immediately saving on space, even if it is replacing only one
single paperback book, and if it is replacing a hardback book or
more than one paperbacks, you're saving on weight as well.
The unit comes with a miserly 90 day warranty, plus a one year parts-only warranty.
The unit also has some
sample portions of books preloaded on it, and often there is a
promotion at the time you buy the reader giving you a credit to be applied to books you
subsequently purchase through Sony's Connect book store.
I bought my unit at Borders,
where it listed for $350 and had a $50 credit against future
eBook purchases, plus some free titles from a selection of
older, out of copyright, books. Sony are currently (Aug
07) selling it direct for $300 with no credit against future
Using the Sony PRS-500 e-Book
The unit is quick to turn on
- about 3 seconds for the page to become visible. And as
for turning off, there's never any need to turn it off (although
it times out after about an hour and turns off automatically).
When the unit was first
activated, it connected to the internet and updated its firmware from version 1.0.0 to
1.0.02, and in early August, I manually updated it again to
1.0.03. There have been no further updates as of 11/19/07,
but you should keep a watch on their
support website to
ensure you continue to have the latest
version of the reader's firmware (and also of their Connect
software that interfaces with their book store and manages your
The controls on the front of
the eBook reader are reasonably simple and intuitive.
There are two different sets of controls for page turning, each
allowing you to turn one page at a time either forward or
backward. There is a font size button that toggles
through two or three different font sizes for the text you are
reading. A mark button allows you to create or remove a virtual
bookmark in your book. A menu button and five-way control
stick provide some assistance moving through menus, and a row of
ten buttons numbered 1 - 0 (ie 1 to 9 then 0 at the end) allow
you to directly choose menu options, and to jump through an open
eBook in tenths.
Apart from an on/off button
on the side, there are no other controls. It would be nice
to have a way to flick through a book, perhaps ten pages at a time, as
well as page by page (electronic page turning is a surprisingly
slow process) and other controls like a 'next chapter' button or
an index button would be nice, and why not have some type of
direct search facility too so you can directly search for text
in the book.
Perhaps all these things and
more might come in future eBook readers. But for now, this
unit is limited to simply displaying pages in a book, plus also
allowing for some picture display abilities and the
capability of playing music (MP3 and AAC) files.
Hopefully the unit's
protective cover does a
better job of protecting the screen than it does of protecting
the buttons, because I've several times opened the unit up only
to find it on a totally different page than where I left it, as
a result of inadvertently having the buttons bumped and pushed
while the unit was being carried.
This is annoying, somewhat akin to having a bookmark fall out of
a regular book, but finding the right page to continue reading
from is much more cumbersome because it takes time to
electronically 'turn' each page.
The time to turn each page
is a noticeable and even slightly annoying feature.
From when you press the page turn button until when the next
page displays on the screen, there is a noticeable delay,
lasting just over a second (I can turn 3 - 4 pages in 5
seconds). This mightn't sound like much, but it is
appreciably slower than turning pages in a regular book, and
over the course of a 1000 page e-Book (about the same as a 400
page regular book) you end up spending as much as
15 - 20 minutes just turning pages.
Each page turn is also a bit
disconcerting, because the unit first 'flips' every pixel on the
screen so what was a series of lines of black text on the grey
screen becomes a black screen with grey text briefly, then it
flips back to the new page of text, with what the eye interprets
as a brief 'flash' of light in the process.
The main index of the unit
gives you the ability to sort the books stored on it by author
name or title name, but if you choose author name, it sorts
alphabetically based on the author's first name, rather than
for the Sony PRS500
good news about an eBook is that it takes up almost no space or
weight. You could potentially fit 2000 eBooks onto
a single 2GB SD card (the card costing a mere $35), and you could have
ten of these SD cards - giving you a massive library of 20,000
books - in less space than a box of matches.
the good news. eBooks take up much less space.
The not so good news?
You'd have difficulty getting 20,000 eBooks - there's only a
limited range of titles available in electronic format.
And the even worse news - don't go looking for any big bargains
when buying eBooks. Just because you're saving a tree, and
saving the publisher big bucks in terms of printing, freight,
distribution, and retail margins doesn't mean the savings will
flow to you.
And, for more bad news, the
eBooks you do buy, at inflated price, will almost certainly have
bothersome copy protection on them that restricts what you can
do with the files. Simplistic explanation - they never
truly become 'your' eBooks, unlike real books. You can't
conveniently loan them to friends, give them away, donate them,
or sell them to the second hand book shop. Neither can you
make notes in the margin, underline key passages, or do anything
else with the files.
If these issues don't
discourage you, and you're pressing on, then the best source for
eBooks for your Sony PRS-500 is, unsurprisingly, Sony's
Store. As of November 2007, they claim to have a range of over
titles in their web based store, most at some small discount off
the comparable printed book price. This includes a
section of 'classic' books - older books (ie 100 years or more
old) that are no longer copyrighted, which they sell for $1.99
20,000 titles might sound
like a lot, but by way of comparison, a typical Barnes & Noble
bookstore carries between 60,000 and 200,000 titles (the manager
of my local store proudly tells me he has 160,000 titles on his
shelves). So 20,000 titles is a woefully small number, and
there's every chance, if you're looking for specific books by
favorite authors, that you'll be disappointed. For
example, don't go looking for best sellers such as any of the
Harry Potter books, or any Tom Clancy thrillers.
Even more ridiculously, some
authors have some titles but not others available. For
example, I went looking for Sir Winston Churchill's six volume
series 'The Second World War', only to find two of six books
There are other eBook
retailers on the internet, but the types of copy protection
loaded into their files are usually incompatible with the type
of copy protection and file format supported by the Sony reader.
Unprotected files in pdf,
txt, or rtf format are also supported on the reader, and MS Word
doc files can be converted automatically to rtf equivalents and
Some websites provide free
eBooks - mainly either self published by authors who can't get
their work published normally, or old titles with the copyright
Project Gutenberg is the best known of these, with about
20,000 titles directly available, and some 100,000 available
through themselves and other affiliated sites. Other
(about 17,000 titles) and
EBooks generally are less
than 1MB in size each, although this varies depending on the
size of the book and whether there are any pictures included or
not. This means a typical eBook is very much smaller than
a typical MP3 song, and it can be downloaded to your computer
and PRS-500 very quickly.
The PRS-500 Screen and its E
The key part of any book
reading device, and a key new feature of the Sony e-Book reader,
is its screen. A regular old fashioned book, with black
type on a white sheet of paper, is actually one of the most
ergonomically perfect ways of reading text that exists, and even
digital displays are inferior to plain old paper.
Clearly a device that is
intended for extended reading needs to have a good quality
display, or else eye strain will become an appreciable
constraint. The Sony e-Book reader scores at best averagely in
terms of the quality of its screen.
It looks like a regular,
un-lit LCD screen, but it actually uses a very different type of
technology, called E Ink. The differences between regular
LCD displays and E Ink displays are mostly 'behind the scenes' -
the end result, for us as readers, is very similar.
But these differences are
important. The main enhancements offered by E Ink are
two-fold - a higher pixel density on the screen, and less
battery power used.
The more pixels (or dots)
per inch, whether on a printed page or a display screen, the
clearer the type becomes, and the easier it is to read,
especially in smaller sized fonts.
The PRS-500 uses a 6"
diagonal screen, measuring approximately 4.8" x 3.6". It
has a resolution of 800 x 600 pixels, which translates into a
pixel density of 167 pixels per inch both horizontally and
To compare resolutions, a
typical full sized computer screen has about a 75 - 90 pixel per
inch resolution. A poor quality laser printer gives 300
dots (or pixels) per inch, a better quality gives 600 or 1200
dpi, and inkjet printers sometimes offer considerably more.
Offset printing (eg of a book) can give even better resolution,
perhaps equivalent to 2000 or more dpi.
So, the Sony eBook reader is
appreciably clearer than a regular computer screen, but much
less clear than good quality printed material. In theory,
one could say that the eBook reader, with 167x167 = 27,889
pixels per inch is 143 times less clear than a 2000 dpi printed
page, but the actual perceived difference in quality is not
nearly as great as this calculation implies.
Our feeling is that the 167
pixel resolution struggles to be barely adequate at displaying clean clear
weighted and serifed fonts at anything other than foolishly
large sizes, and using the PRS-500's smallest display
setting (with the most words per page) makes for way too tiny
insufficient pixels per character. This is clearly an area
which needs further improvement, and E Ink already make at
least one screen with appreciably higher pixel resolution.
Another perspective of the
800 x 600 resolution is to simply compare it to the resolution
on your computer screen. Chances are your computer screen
is 1024 x 768 (65% more pixels than 800 x 600) or 1280 x 1024
(nearly three times as many pixels), and possibly even higher
resolution. An 800 x 600 resolution, a total of only
480,000 pixels (compare this to a camera with millions of
pixels) is, these days, of low quality rather than high quality.
The eBook reader's screen
would benefit from, and really needs, increased resolution.
The E Ink screen only uses
battery power when you are changing pages. The easiest way
to think of this is to compare it to an Etch-a-Sketch - it uses
power to make each pixel 'on' or 'off' - ie, to be light or
dark, but once each pixel has been set, it doesn't require any
more power to keep it in that state.
This has great benefit for a
book reading application, where the usage is typically having a
'page' of information set and then left unchanged for some time
before the next page is then set. In other words, you only
use power to 'turn' each page, rather than while reading each
page, so you can read as slowly or as quickly as you like with
no impact on battery life. You'll get the same
number of pages reading from a battery charge.
Another minor advantage of
this type of technology is that there is no flicker.
Whereas regular computer and video screens are being re-drawn
many times a second (anywhere from 25 up to 100 or more) the E
Ink technology paints a solid image on the screen. This is
a good although minor feature.
Other screen considerations
The E Ink screen does not
have any backlighting, so you need to have reasonable light
around you to read the text on the screen, and if you're reading
on an overnight flight, you'll need the overhead light on.
The images on the screen
have very low contrast - they are about 7:1 contrast, which
compares to almost 1000:1 on a regular computer screen.
This makes the readability much poorer on the E Ink screen because
the grey/black type doesn't stand out clearly from the grey
The screen is monochrome,
and supports six levels of grey as well as black and white.
This makes it possible to display low quality black and white
photos and other graphics as well as simple text.
The screen has a very wide
viewing angle. It claims a 170°
viewing range - viewing all the way from one side to the other
would be 180°. I found the practical effective viewing
angle to be less than this, but it was still very wide, both
horizontally and vertically, and not a
slow refresh rate on the screen means it would not be possible
to display animation and movies.
that are stored in Sony's own format can be displayed in three
different font sizes - small, medium and large.
ergonomic and well lit office, we at first boldly thought the small size was acceptable and
easy to read, but once we started reading many pages of
text, and in poorer light, we quickly increased the font size to
medium, and suspect some readers will prefer large.
found the medium size font to be barely adequate in terms of
displaying clear weighted serifed fonts, with the thinner
strokes of the fonts fading away almost to nothing (ie single
pixel width). But a larger font size becomes ridiculously
large, like the writing in a young child's picture book.
The screen would be much better to read from if it had higher
good that you can choose from three different font sizes on some
eBook formats. But not all formats support these different
size selections, and if you're downloading free eBooks in other
simpler formats, you might find yourself stuck with only the
font size coded into the file, which could potentially be
The unit claims a battery
life of approximately 7500 page turns. On the
face of it, a 7500 page battery life is excellent, but this
claim needs to be carefully understood.
E-pages are smaller than
A page on the e-Book reader
is not the same as a page in a regular book. Pages on the
PRS-500 have fewer words on them than pages in a typical book,
so 7500 e-pages is actually substantially fewer regular pages.
For example, the hardcover
book 'The Reagan Diaries' has 784 pages in its print version.
But the e-Book version has many more pages - variously 2095, 2910 or 4342 pages,
depending on if you use small, medium or large sized fonts.
I use medium sized fonts, and so each 'real' page is the same as
3.7 electronic pages - in this case, the 7500 page life equates to only 2020
This conversion factor varies from book
to book, depending on how each book is laid out (font size,
spacing between lines, margins, etc). Another hardcover
book, 'Stalin's Ghost', with 352 pages in the print edition,
equates to 546, 746 or 1137 pages on the PRS-500. Each
'real' page equates to 2.1 electronic pages at medium size.
For paperback books, the 416
page book 'Lost Light' equates to 710 e-pages with medium font (a 1.7
multiplier) and Dan Brown's 384 page 'Digital Fortress' equates to 1008
e-pages (a 2.6 multiplier).
Averaging out these four
random selections suggests a 2.5 multiplier to get an
approximate conversion. In other words, on average, 7500
e-pages using medium sized fonts is the same as about 3000 pages in
Pages turned compared to time
The very good news is that
the e-ink display used by the PRS-500 only uses
battery power when the information on the page is turned, not
while the page is being displayed (unlike normal LCD type
There is also no backlight
to use up power, so you can apparently leave the unit on without
worrying about using up battery life, and you can read pages
slowly or quickly, because the only battery use is when you
So battery life should
remain unaffected by how slowly or quickly you read, and that
should make it possible to get consistent figures for battery
life, expressed in terms of page turns. This number will
gradually decline - like all rechargeable batteries, each
recharge has slightly less power stored than the previous one.
My first use of the unit
resulted in a nasty surprise - after an estimated 2000 page
turns, the unit died on me in the middle of a long flight,
leaving me with nothing else to read or do for some hours.
I'd accepted their claimed 7500 page turn battery life at face
value, but clearly the reality was something greatly less.
Accordingly, I did two formal
battery life tests, using the unit and counting the page turns
to when the battery indicator changed from four to three, then
from three to two, two to one, and from one bar to stopping
working (the indicator has
But after having done those
two tests, I found a new firmware release on Sony's website
which mentioned some fixes to do with battery life, and so redid
the test one more time, getting an appreciably longer battery
The results are as follows
Test One (no SD card)
Test Two(with SD card)
Test Three (with SD card)
(with SD card)
From 4 to 3 bars
From 3 to 2 bars
From 2 to 1 bar
From 1 bar to zero
So what to make of these widely varying results - an informal
test with about 2000 page turns, then two formal tests with
increasing battery life (2361 then 4191 page turns) and two more
tests with new firmware but widely varying battery life (5905
then 3830 page
Perhaps the battery needs to
be conditioned - ie fully charged and discharged - a couple of
times to bring it to maximum capacity. And the
new firmware may have improved the battery life.
It seems fair to
conclude that, in an optimum environment, the unit is capable of
up to 6000 page turns, if used in a concentrated short period of
time (any battery's charge slowly dies over time whether being
used or not). But it also seems fair to conclude that, on
average, you're not likely to get more than 4000 page turns.
Even if we accept the 6000
figure (which we never achieved in real life testing, but to
give the benefit of the doubt to Sony), and recognizing that it takes an
average of about 2.5 page turns on the unit to make the
equivalent of a single page in a printed book, this means the
unit can display about 2400 printed page equivalents on average,
but as few as 1200 printed page equivalents in some cases (with
large fonts and printed books with lots of words per page).
This is probably more than sufficient for most people on a long
flight, but you'd likely want to recharge the unit before your
I asked Sony's support
people about the shortfall between their claimed
battery life and my measured results, but got nothing more than mumbled statements
about battery life varying depending on how it is used.
Such disclaimers can fairly
apply to things like cell phones (where the battery is used very
much more when you're on a call than when the phone is on
standby, and where the battery usage also varies depending on
signal strength) or MP3 players (where volume, sampling rates,
and the amount of time the screen is illuminated all impact on
battery life) and cameras (the amount of flash per photo is the
key variable here). But, with the way that the E Ink
system uses a constant amount of power per each and every page
turn, it would seem that battery life should not vary much at
all, and it is difficult and disappointing to reconcile a real
page turn life with a promised 7500 page turns.
Problems recharging the
In theory you can recharge
the e-Book reader either by using the supplied mains charger, or
via a USB cable, taking power from any USB power source such as
a desktop or laptop computer.
Charging via the
multi-voltage mains charger was easy and straightforward, with
it taking about four hours to fully charge the unit. This
is a fairly slow charge rate, but that is perhaps a good thing
because the slower you recharge a battery, the less harm done to it and the greater the number of recharge cycles you can
But who among us wishes to
travel with yet another charger? And the PRS-500 has a
particularly bulky charger - rather than a simple small wall
brick charger, it has a cord to connect the charger box to a
mains outlet, and a second cord to then connect the box to the
I was delighted to see that
Sony sensibly also allowed for the unit to charge via its USB
port. Because almost all modern electronics units use the
same 3.7V Lithium ion batteries, and because the USB
specification allows for a 5V, 0.5A power feed to be passed
through the cable, and thirdly because the electronic circuitry
to regulate and control the battery recharging is now so small
that it can be included in the unit rather than in a dedicated
charger, it is very common to find many electronic devices
(including cell phones, cameras and MP3 players) that can be
charged via a USB cable.
But. Sony has managed
to sabotage its good idea with a ridiculously stupid
implementation. For unguessable reasons that make no
apparent sense whatsoever, the USB charging option can only be
used if the unit is not fully discharged. It can be used
to 'top up' the charge on a unit, but if you've exhausted the
unit's battery, it can only be recharged with the official power
supply, not with a USB cable.
On one occasion, I went from
having two bars (ie what looked like half) power remaining to
zero power in a mere 11 page turns. So there's always a
danger you'll end up fully discharging the unit, or
alternatively, to protect against that, you can only use the unit
until it has started showing two of the four bars remaining
(which can be in as few as 2000 - 3000 page turns). This
means that you pretty much have to always travel with the bulky
mains power charger too.
I'm unaware of any other
device that suffers from such a stupid limitation. What on
earth is Sony thinking of to release such a badly designed unit?
Where to Buy
The Sony eBook reader is
available at various online retailers, plus can be purchased in
many Borders retail stores, or direct through Sony's website.
It seems to be presently priced at $300. We expect pricing
to gradually trend downward over time.
Note that the PRS-500 is
currently only being sold to people with US addresses.
This is probably something to do with licensing of the eBook
The Sony PRS-500 eBook
reader is a credible step closer towards a truly convenient way
to electronically store and read books.
But, while an improvement,
many people may feel it is not yet good enough to warrant the
$300 investment, and those who are wavering may be discouraged
by the too-high cost and crippling copy constraints of the eBook
files themselves, and/or by the very limited selection of books
The unit definitely needs a
better screen - higher resolution, better contrast, and faster
redraws, plus ideally the addition of color - to make the
reading experience easier and more pleasant.
Recommended only to
early-adopting gadget lovers and avid readers. Ordinary
people are best advised to wait until prices drop and
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10 Aug 2007, last update
28 Nov 2012
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.