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[thanks to Sean McCune for this]

I am a glutton for punishment. I bought the original Sony Reader (PRS-500) when it first came out. When it worked right, it was pleasant reading a book on it. But it often flaked out on me. And it was kinda clunky and, of course, it didn’t work with the Mac. I had to run XP in Parallels to buy books and sync them to the reader. Then I bought the updated Sony Reader, the PRS-505. And now I’ve bought the Kindle. From this I can only deduce that I must have more money than brains and am a glutton for punishment. But I want the electronic book, e-reader, or whatever you choose to call it, to succeed. I want to carry around one thin device that can hold hundreds of books and get new ones from thin air. That being said, the current crop of devices are definitely still first generation attempts… or worse.

The Good

The Sony PRS-505 is an immense improvement over Sony’s initial attempt, the PRS-500. This device is thinner, with a metallic case. Think how much nicer the aluminum-clad iPod nano and iPod mini’s looked and felt over the earlier plastic-coated models. The PRS-505 has its own book cover that it is permanently attached to and which serves as a screen protector. The next and previous page buttons are excellently placed for use while holding the device like a book while reading, and are not in the way where they’ll get accidentally pushed (Amazon, buy a clue here). This device just feels nice to hold and read from.

The Amazon Kindle has the uber-cool ability to browse the Amazon Kindle store and purchase books wirelessly using Sprint’s high-speed cellular EVDO service. I don’t have to worry about whether it works with my Mac or not. No computer is required to purchase and load books onto the thing. The actual act of reading text on the screen of the Kindle is fairly decent. The contrast ratio, to my eye, is not quite as good as the Sony PRS-505, but its acceptable given the current state-of-the art of the e-ink technology that both devices use. And the Amazon Kindle bookstore has a much greater selection than the Sony Connect bookstore. That’s about all the good things to say that I can muster for the Kindle.

The Bad

The Sony device still doesn’t work with the Mac. Oh, it will show up as a drive on the Mac when you plug the USB cable in and you can drag the books on or off the device that way for backup or restore purposes. But to buy books you must still use the Sony Connect software which only runs on Windows. There’s still that annoying flash on the screen when you “turn” a page, but the Kindle has that as well. Its an unfortunate effect of the e-ink technology that will probably be with us until that technology advances a generation or two. The Sony Reader lacks any wireless capability (Wi-Fi or EVDO) for buying books. Finally, the battery seems to drain fairly quickly on the PRS-505… quicker than the original PRS-500. This is odd. The way the e-ink works is that the device requires no power to display a page once its drawn. Power is only needed to change the page. So when the device is sitting on the shelf it shouldn’t really drain the battery except by normal internal battery leakage. Why the 505 drains way faster than the 500, I don’t know. I hope its not that my unit has a bad battery that’s going to explode in my face while I’m reading it.

Other people have said it, but I must repeat it because its true. Whoever designed the Kindle obviously never bothered to try and pick it up and use it. Nearly the entire left and right edges of the device are covered by the next and previous and back page buttons. There’s no good way to pick this thing up without accidentally hitting a button that sends the Kindle off to some other page that you did not intend. Never, ever pick up this device without carefully paying attention to what you are doing. But after you’ve picked it up, what about holding it and reading? There’s almost no way to hold the thing for reading without accidentally hitting those paging buttons over and over again. I have found that I can hold it in a position that looks like I’m pinching the device between thumbs and index fingers. Its very unnatural and uncomfortable, but there’s only these two little spots to hold the thing without pressing the ill-placed buttons. The Kindle is also slow. I don’t know what kind of processor is in there, but it needs a little more oomph.

Both companies’ bookstores prices are too expensive. OK, sure, the Sony Connect store has to pay for bandwidth and the Amazon Kindle books’ prices probably have the Sprint EVDO service costs built in. But still, there’s no physical manufacturing and transport of books going on here. E-books should cost 20% of their physical counterpart. If that.

And Amazon, if you think I’m going to pay a couple of bucks a month to read blogs that are re-formatted for the Kindle using the EVDO service, think again. I have an iPhone and Google Reader for that.

The Ugly

The Kindle… I’m sorry. I just embarrassed for Amazon. Where to begin? The physical design is just so… to quote Cali Lewis… Commodore-64. Its cheap early 1990’s PC pearl colored plastic. Its big, bulky, clunky and looks like something I might have carried around at college… in 1985. That’s it! It looks like my HP-15C’s mutant cousin. Its about 3 times as thick as the Sony PRS-505 and slightly wider and taller. Just too big in all dimensions. Those idiotically placed paging buttons feel like I might snap them off when pressing them. All in all, the Kindle feels like device that I have to pay an insane amount of attention to when using or I will accidentally hit some badly placed control or break off some piece of cheap plastic. The user interface is also a piece of crap that looks like a DOS-based menu user interface style circa 1988.

Notice that I don’t really have anything to say about the Sony Reader in the “ugly” section. The PRS-505 is really a beautiful looking device… especially when what I have to compare it to is the Kindle.

The Result

I really like the Sony PRS-505. It feels good in the hand while reading and its easy to read from. I would like to use it more than the Kindle. The Kindle is big and bulky, incredibly ugly and looks dated compared to the PRS-505. But the Kindle doesn’t require me to fire up a virtual machine with Windows on my Mac to buy books. Being able to buy books anytime and anywhere the Sprint EVDO cellular signal reaches is a killer feature. I guess time will only tell which device’s drawbacks I will put up with. I want it to be the PRS-505 but I fear it will be Amazon Kindle because of the wireless book buying and no need for Windows.

The Hope

For the next gen device, I can only hope that Amazon and Sony will get together and mind-meld the EVDO service and Kindle store with the Sony reader device and scrap the Kindle device. Sony has already closed their Connect music store. They should do a deal with Amazon and close their Connect store and use the Kindle store, and put the EVDO modem in their device.

Alternatively, Apple should come along with a e-reader that eats both Sony’s and Amazon’s lunch.