Saturday, October 4, 2008

Sony Reader PRS-700: Part Two

When we last left off in Part One, I was standing there absolutely stunned by the new Sony Reader PRS-700.

But that was just the beginning of my shock and awe!

Let me go over the hardware design:

That press photo is actually a bit deceptive, but more about that point later.

Notice the new ribbing on the left side. This gives it a grip for people who prefer to use the Sony Reader without its cover.

Speaking of the cover, it attaches just like the one for the PRS-505. That is, there are two holes at the left side, top and bottom edges. However, the dimensions of the PRS-700 are different than the PRS-505, so existing color covers for the 505 won't work. For one thing, the 700 is slightly thicker than the 505. It's still surprisingly thin, just thicker than the 505.

The front of the new Sony Reader is clean, less immediately intimidating than past models. Notice the thin band of buttons beneath the screen:

Click = big

What's probably not immediately apparent is the continued genius of the hardware design. The three left-most buttons are where your left-hand thumb would go with a printed book. It's also where your left-hand thumb would go with the two prior models, the PRS-500 and 505 (if you're holding them properly!). So, that aspect of the design has been preserved, even though the buttons are different and now actually separate.

Let me remark here that the Option button brings up many options. One of them anyone who's used a PalmOS PDA will instantly recognize: Calibrate Screen! Remember: this new Sony Reader has a touchscreen!

Next is the Home button, right in the center. This brings us back to a brand-new Home screen:

(This photo really brought the Philips crapcam to it limits!)

Notice how large and finger-friendly the areas are. Continue Reading (with current book title underneath), Books (with the total number loaded -- internally and on card[s] -- underneath), All Notes (again with the number underneath), Collections (which has no number here, as there were none). Then Audio, Pictures, and Settings.

Remember, this new Sony Reader has a touchscreen. So each of those can simply be tapped on with a fingertip (or included stylus) to activate.

On the bottom side of it is a wrist strap/lanyard hole, Lighting control (Off, Setting 1, Setting 2), mini-USB port, headphone jack, power jack, and Volume/Hold switch.

Neither the left nor the right side edges have buttons.

At top is On/Off, a Memory Stick Mini slot, a Secure Digital (full-size) slot (yes, two slots), and the stylus well at the right (as with past Sony CLIE PDAs).

Viewing installed eBooks now offers two types of views. The classic Lists of the 505 as well as a new Cover view in which each icon is a miniature of the eBook's cover! This new Cover view can take a while to build. It immediately shows proxies and then builds the miniature cover for each eBook. Each Cover icon is large enough to be tapped with a fat thumb! I can see this view being useful when someone can't remember an eBook's title but does recall what its cover looks like.

One more point about these views. Remember those ten buttons the 505 had on its right side, to select eBooks? Those are gone now. In their place is an alphabetical tab system at the right side of the touchscreen in List and Cover views, sort of like the alpha tabs found in the iPhone's Contacts list. One of those tabs can be tapped on to, for example, select all eBook titles that begin with A or with T. This will be very handy for people who really put many eBooks on the Sony Reader. Being able to quickly jump to something has been much improved. No more page-page-page through Lists! (That's something I recently saw Dave Farrow have to do on the Reader Revolution cam! He's using the 505.)

Once a book has been selected, there is an enhanced Table of Contents which now includes being able to jump to each chapter of an eBook.

Within an eBook, there's the ability to move through it in several ways:

1) Use a gesture to change the page -- this can be a swipe to the left or right, a tap, or even a swipe up or down! This is totally user-selectable.

2) Use one of the three buttons at the bottom right (when using your left hand's thumb)

3) A new swipe and hold gesture that allows incredibly rapid page flips.

This is where I must stop to comment about eInk. Anyone who has ever tried a Sony Reader (or any eInk eBook reader) is familiar with the "black flash" that accompanies turning a page. That's still here on the new Sony Reader PRS-700, but it's greatly reduced.

But get a load of this: When using that new gesture I described above to rapidly page through a book, there is no flashing whatsoever!

The eInk acts as if it was a conventional LCD screen! (More about this point in Part Three.)

Once in an eBook, the fifth button at the bottom, Magnify, will bring up a dialog box(!) with five type size choices: S, M, L, XL, and XXL. That's two more choices than past models. In addition, changing type size is instant. No repagination delay! There's a brief flash of the screen but, boom!, done.

In addition, there is also a Zoom In feature. Here Sony has done something that's also absolutely stunning. A page of text suddenly acts as if it was a graphic. A slider appears vertically at the upper left of the page and manually moving that -- by fingertip or stylustip -- will zoom into the page. This might not seem practical for text, but it's great for illustrations. In addition to the Zoom In slider, four arrows appear at centered edge left, right, top, and bottom (think of Google Maps!). Those can be used to shift the page. However, just like the iPhone, a drag of the finger will also move the image around!

And again: There is absolutely no eInk flashing during this operation. Again, the eInk screen acts like a regular LCD screen!

By now, those who have a Sony Reader will be asking, Hey! What about Bookmarking?! This is where the touchscreen is now used. Double-tap at the upper right corner of an eBook's page to set a Bookmark! It's easy and intuitive! And yes, the folded-down corner graphic has been retained.

Two new operations have been added to eBooks: Notes and Search. Here you get to see some really great pictures, courtesy of Sony's Jim Malcolm who grabbed them for me on his real camera. (Which turned out to be a Great Thing, as the crapcam had gone on strike! Thanks much, Jim Malcolm!)

The above is showing Notes open (with a blank Note open above the keyboard), but that keyboard is also what appears when the new Search button is pressed. Notice the clean design of the keyboard and how the soft keys are large enough to be used with a fingertip! Notice also above the keyboard to the upper left are three words. These are the last three words that were used as Search terms. Grayed out is a Done button, to save the Note. At the upper right corner is an X to closer the dialog box. Again, the eInk acts like a regular LCD screen, when this or any other function is invoked. There is no flashing whatsoever!

One other way to invoke Search: Highlight a word and then press the Search button. The word will automagically be placed in the Search dialog box. Searching is breathtakingly fast. I tried it on a long eBook and there was no spinning wheel or any wait at all. Nor was there any eInk flashing as Search moved from page to page!

This is the Notes mode within an eBook itself:

Here you can see part of a word highlighted. That's right. In addition to adding notes, text can also be highlighted! At the top left of this screen is the Highlight icon, the Erase (Highlight Delete) icon, the Notes icon, Bookmark icon, and the X to close the Notes mode. Highlights can also be made invisible.

Tap the Highlight icon and drag across a word (an operation that is probably more suited to the stylus than a fingertip) to highlight it. After highlighting, tap the Notes icon to bring up the Notes mode (seen in the prior photograph), to add a text Note. (I don't know how long a Note can be, but in the prior photo notice the 1/1 enumeration. This might indicate very long notes can be created.)

There's also an area to see all Notes. This has a great feature too. Tapping on a Note will open the eBook it's from, to the page the Note is on! Each Note in the list view has a few words from the Note and the eBook's title.

I brought along an SD card with a bunch of eBooks I willy-nilly plopped onto it at the last minute: LRF, PDF, and ePub. I didn't get to systematically test these. This was a Just In Case on-the-fly kind of thing. I was able to put in the SD and try a few of the files.

Paul Biba from TeleRead was there witnessing all this. LRF and ePub went fine. The ePub, in fact, looked gorgeous. I ran into a problem with one PDF. The text reflow results were tragic. Biba said there was no way to tell what was happening with the file. He's had plenty of experience with this and said results vary depending on how a PDF was created. The text reflow software is from Adobe and needs improvement. I'm sure that's in the works too. Right now, this capability is best described -- with some PDFs, at least -- as Better Than Nothing. (I still recommend using the Sony guide to creating PDFs formatted especially for the Sony Reader.)

Three other items about this ad-hoc SD card thing:

1) The SD card was from my LifeDrive. It's 1Gb in capacity and Windows Explorer reports 564MB used. I have over one thousand files on it, mostly Palm DOCs and videos. It took several seconds for the Sony Reader to parse the files.

2) The Sony Reader added all the readable files to the Books total on the Home screen (there were 15 eBooks already in it; my files pumped the total to 33). In addition to the test files I dropped on the SD -- all of which were at the top level -- the Sony Reader plucked five text files from within my Launcher folder! (Note to Paul Biba and Jim Malcolm: Sorry, they weren't Palm DOC files as I mistakenly thought!) I opened one of these text files. The type size could be enlarged!

3) Keeping my record intact, I managed to thoroughly crash the Sony Reader! This happened twice. Once during one of the test files (I've forgotten which) and then a second time after a full reset (more about this shortly) during another operation (either Search or Notes). Don't worry! This will not happen with the Sony Reader that goes on sale next month! These were special demo units, not from-the-factory finished units! I wanted to mention this because crashing demo units is one of my burdens specialties. I would have been shocked if I hadn't whomped it!

That full-reset? It's accomplished by removing the stylus, unscrewing one of the tips to reveal the threaded portion, and inserting it into a wee Reset hole on the back of the Sony Reader. Just as in the old PDA days!

The full-reset gave me the rare pleasure of seeing the splash screen new owners will encounter when first powering-on their units. It says something along the lines of, "Welcome to the Reader Revolution..." and displays a BBeB Book logo, the Adobe logo, and the Sony logo. It's very exciting!

At the beginning of this post, I stated that the Sony press photo of the new Sony Reader PRS-700 was a bit deceptive. It is. Go back and look at the two great pictures Jim Malcolm took for me. Look at how the black tends to slip out of your vision, leaving you to see the page and the silver trim. It makes the Sony Reader look a lot smaller than it actually is. This new design really focuses your attention on the page.

I'm going to stop here. In Part Three, to appear tomorrow, I will give:

- my conclusions about the new Sony Reader

- details of what Steve Haber said about adding wireless to it

- what Jim Malcolm insisted were the facts regarding hardware pricing

- what someone from Penguin Books told me of their plans

- what I think the future of the Sony Reader is

- and more!

Go to Part Three!

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