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Sony Readers Getting Some Things Right

Amazon's Kindles get most of the ink when it comes to e-books. But virtual bookshelves are more crowded than ever thanks to new entries from rivals. Sony, which has been at this for a while, recently unveiled three new models, including the Reader Touch Edition (PRS-600) that's the focus of this review.

Sony also dropped the price on best sellers and new releases in its eBook Store to less than $10, matching Amazon.

Too bad the most promising of Sony's latest devices, the $399 Reader Daily Edition, doesn't show up until December. It will feature a large 7-inch touch-screen, plus 3G wireless connectivity (through AT&T) that promises to let avid bookworms purchase content on the fly, just like on Kindles. The absence of wireless is why I've generally preferred Kindles to prior Sony Readers, and why I'd stick with Kindles for the moment.

Still, Sony's devices are better looking and not easily dismissed. The new 5-inch Reader Pocket Edition (PRS-300), like the Touch Edition available now, benefits from an appealing price. At $199.99 it's about $100 cheaper than the 6-inch Kindle. At $299.99 the Touch Edition matches the Kindle price and screen size.

Both require you to drag books from Sony's eBook Library software to a PC or Mac connected by USB - not difficult, just not as convenient as having titles download directly. The software is compatible for the first time with Macs.

The beauty of any of today's readers, of course, is that they let you schlep a boatload of books (and other reading materials) while you travel, without breaking your back.

Lots of companies are trying to get a read on the market. Asus is planning a hinged, dual-screen reader that may read somewhat like a real book. It's expected out before the end of the year. Upcoming devices from Plastic Logic and IREX Technologies will take on Kindle through partnerships with Barnes&Noble's eBook Store. Kindle books are currently on Amazon's own readers or the iPhone. Apple is also a potential wildcard in the e-book space.

Here's a read on the Sony I've been testing.

The basics.@ The Touch Edition can hold up to 350 books on 512 MB of memory, or extra titles if you insert optional SD or Memory Stick Pro Duo expansion cards. The Reader is thin, weighs just over 10 ounces, and comes in black, silver or red.

Sony says the battery lasts about 7,500 pages or two weeks on a single charge. Charging is handled through USB. I don't doubt it, though I haven't had it long enough to verify the claim. The device isn't backlit, so you can't read in the dark.

Readability.@ Like rivals, Sony does a nice job replicating the paper experience, though I detected a bit of a glare under some lighting conditions. The gray scale display has a resolution of 800 by 600 pixels. You can display pictures, but they don't look great. You can play audio files, too, using optional headphones.

Of course, most folks will just, well, read. You can choose from five different text sizes and change the orientation of the display from portrait to landscape. In landscape on one of the books I read - The Battle for America 2008 by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson - lines of text got chopped off the top or bottom of the screen.

You can flip pages with left-to-right or right-to-left swipes of your finger (or up/down in landscape). You have to apply a little pressure, and it's slightly awkward. At times I preferred changing pages by pressing physical keys below the screen.

In general the touch-screen operation could be smoother. Sometimes pages turned when I didn't intend them to. You can tap the screen to select a book or menu item. You can double-tap by the upper right corner of a page to bookmark it. Or you can double-tap a word to summon a dictionary definition. Also handy: You can use your finger or a supplied stylus to scribble notes on a page or a drawing.

What to read?@ Sony is embracing an open-door policy on e-book formats. It recently announced plans to convert titles in its eBook Store to the ePub format, an industry standard that is not supported by Amazon. Sony says it has more than 100,000 new releases and best sellers in the store. It also means that ePubs sold in the Sony store will be readable on competitive devices, albeit not Kindles. Sony Readers can handle Adobe PDFs and Word files as well as Sony's own proprietary eBook format.

Through Sony's software you can grab digitized and free "public domain" books from Google. More than a million are available. I found The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. You can also access your local library's e-book collection.

Reading best sellers and other works electronically may no longer be novel. But Sony and others are proving these are interesting times for e-books.

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