Sony's New Readers: Better Still, Still Pricey

By  |  Tuesday, August 31, 2010 at 11:38 pm

Back in 2006, before the world knew what a Kindle was, Sony released the first modern e-reader with a power-efficient, glare-free E-Ink screen. It’s upgraded them and added new models ever since–and it’s announcing improved versions of all its models today, a week after Amazon started shipping its newest Kindle. The company gave me a sneak peek last week.

As before, Sony is the only major e-reader maker that offers devices in three sizes: the 7″ Daily Edition, the 6″ Touch Edition (with a screen the same size as the one on the standard Kindle and on the Nook), and the 5″ Pocket Edition. Last year’s Touch and Daily Editions had touch-screen interfaces that worked with a fingertip (for general navigation) or a stylus (for note-taking and other precision work). The big news is that the whole line now sports touch, including the Pocket Edition–and Sony has come up with a way to implement technology without adding a layer to the screen. (Last year’s touch Sonys had murkier screens than the non-touch competition.)

In my brief hands-on time with the readers, the displays looked good. (I wasn’t able to compare them side-by-side with other e-readers, but they were noticeably more legible than last year’s Sonys.) The touch input worked reasonably well, too. But flipping pages didn’t have quite the effortless feel of e-reading apps on an iPad, an iPhone, or an Android phone, and I think the Kindle’s less fancy input system–physical buttons and a keyboard–works at least as well for the basics of exploring books.

Beyond the improved approach to touch, most of the other upgrades in these new versions are incremental. All three sizes are slimmer and lighter than their predecessors–the Pocket Edition now comes closer to literally interpreting its name, at least if you’re talking about a jacket pocket. They have better PDF support, two English dictionaries, and ten translation dictionaries. The Daily Edition retains the AT&T 3G access of its predecessor, but adds Wi-Fi. (The Touch and Pocket Editions still require that you buy publications on a computer than then download them via USB.)

Here are the new Readers–the Daily, Touch, and Pocket Editions (not to scale):

Sony is also beefing up the reading material at its online store, which already has 1.2 million titles (a fair share of which are presumably public domain works) and a feature that lets you check out e-books from public libraries: The Harvard Business Review, Newsday, and other magazines and papers are on their way. And it’s announced plans to release Reader apps for iPhone and Android, letting you read books you purchase on a phone as well as a Reader device.

All in all, the changes look nice, and they’re in the same evolutionary spirit as the ones seen in the Kindle’s new versions. But one thing Sony hasn’t done is to join the aggressive price wars that Barnes & Noble started and Amazon has joined.

While Sony has cut prices compared to the ones its last-generation Readers started at, they’re still high: The Daily Edition is $299, the Touch Edition is $229, and the Pocket Edition is $179. True, the Readers have some of the nicest industrial designs of any e-readers, with aluminum cases rather than plasticky shells on the Kindle and Nook. Some folks might be willing to pay a premium for touch screens. And the Daily Edition’s 7″ screen is a plus compared to the 6″ Kindle and Nook.

But the Touch and Pocket Editions’ reliance on USB transfers is anachronistic in an era in which the 3G Kindle and Nook are $189 and $199 respectively and the Wi-Fi-only versions are $139 and $149. In order to get a Reader with a built-in wireless bookstore you need to spend more than twice the price of the Wi-Fi Kindle.

A Sony Reader with touch and wireless book buying and a price closer to to a Kindle would have been a highly competitive product. I kind of wondered whether one was imminent, but it’s not in the new lineup. If the Daily Edition had a much lower price or the Touch Edition had a slightly lower price and wireless capability, either one could be that e-reader. Which leaves me at least as interested in what Sony plans to do next as I am in these new products.

The Touch and Pocket Editions are available now; the Daily Edition is due to ship in November.

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