Sony PRS-700 Reader Review: Blinding Glare Kills All Improvements

Though it must scare the crap out of the publishing biz, we will all one day carry ebook readers. In the US, Sony and Amazon have led the way with impressive E-Ink systems that prove that digital displays can be as readable as ink on paper. For this holiday season, Sony presented the $400 PRS-700 Reader, designed to improve on minor gripes we reviewers made in the past: It has a touchscreen, a sidelight and a cleaner button interface. Unfortunately, the "improvements" have taken away the very essence of the Reader—the easy-on-the-eyes screen. Read on to see why, if you buy this, you are dumb.

Seriously, this thing has a fatal design flaw. The translucent layer that adds both the touchscreen and sidelight functions picks up so much ambient light from every angle, it's impossible to read with even the most lowly of night-stand lamps turned on. I noticed it first in the bathroom, where there's lots of light, and then tried to read in bed, and ended up putting it aside, choosing instead the Kindle which, like the older Sony PRS-505, has minimal glare.

You can see it here, demonstrating the cover page of my test book, Why We Suck, by Dr. Denis Leary. The book was chosen arbitrarily (I wanted to read it), but somehow the title has become all too appropriate in the case of the 700:

Sony PRS-700 Reader Review: Blinding Glare Kills All Improvements

Even when I tried to minimize glare for a nice side-by-side shot, you can see how the limited light that does get through gives unpredictable texture to the Reader, while leaving the Kindle more or less unblemished:

Sony PRS-700 Reader Review: Blinding Glare Kills All Improvements

A year ago almost to the day, I showed you the Amazon Kindle and the Sony 500-series Reader in a face off that left a lot of readers caught in the middle. The Kindle had usability benefits—download direct to device; nice button array—that the Reader did not. Meanwhile, the Sony had a friendliness to third-party files that Amazon did not share. Clearly, in devising the 700, Sony believed it was adding in some killer advantages that could upset the $360 Kindle's popularity.

The new features are neat-ish, I will hand that to Sony. I particularly enjoyed flicking pages by running my finger to the right or left. It was intuitive enough that I simply guessed at the feature. The sidelight, too, can come in handy if you sleep with someone who's particularly photosensitive. I am fortunate enough to have a wife who doesn't mind me turning my light on after she's gone to sleep, but I can see how the sidelight could be huge for those in more oppressive domestic situations.

Sony PRS-700 Reader Review: Blinding Glare Kills All Improvements

Sony PRS-700 Reader Review: Blinding Glare Kills All Improvements

Sony PRS-700 Reader Review: Blinding Glare Kills All Improvements

Sony PRS-700 Reader Review: Blinding Glare Kills All Improvements

The button array, too, makes a lot more sense. In addition to intuitive touch commands, you have the forward and back page turn buttons, plus the Back, Home, Search, Zoom and Option keys, all which come with more-or-less clear intentions. (I say "more or less" because the 700's zoom is the same as the Kindle's font sizer—that is, however you set it stays that way until you change it, rather than being some temporary state of magnification.)

Sony didn't make much improvement to the eBook Library app that you need to run, on PCs only, to load DRM books onto the Reader, but to be honest, it doesn't need a lot. Books aren't like music—you're not managing thousands of them all at once, so a simple interface is the best. I still prefer buying books right there on the Kindle, but again given the slow-moving nature of books, I am not certain that's a make-or-break attribute. (For additional interface-comparison issues, much of last year's report is still relevant.)

So props, I guess, to Sony for rethinking the physical interface and for charging into the new territories of sidelighting and touchscreen. But seriously—seriously—did anyone bother to try to read a book on this thing before you started manufacturing them by the thousands? If you like Sony, buy the $300 PRS-505. As for the PRS-700, to use Dr. Peter Venkman's clinical terminology, that chick is toast. [Sony Readers (good and bad)]