eBook Shoot-out: The Amazon Kindle 2 Leapfrogs Sony's Reader

Small design changes can take a product from just okay to great

Photos: Sony (left); Amazon (Right)

While the eBook world is focused on the new Kindle 2 from Amazon, last fall Sony quietly issued the third edition of its Reader. For me, each new generation has made reading easier and increased the number of books I’ve read. And I say that as a person who, on the bell curve of People Who Read, used to roam the flat plains on the far side of Mt. One Novel a Year.

Even the first-generation Reader’s interface was, on the whole, excellent—good enough to make up for the bad desktop software needed to load electronic books onto it. The Reader’s best feature was its electronic ink from E Ink, which unlike backlit computer screens, is reflective, easy on the eyes, and can be read in full sunlight. As a happy Sony Reader reader, I had to laugh when Amazon’s Kindle 1 came out: Though also based on E Ink’s screen technology, the Kindle had all the visual flair of a flattened pizza box, and it supported fewer document formats than the Sony did.

Fast-forward to October 2008, when Sony shipped the third-generation PRS-700, with two new features that made it sound like The Future. First is the touch screen. You turn the page just by swiping the screen left to right to page forward, right to left to page back. Second, unique to eBooks, it has a sidelight for nighttime reading.

Then in February 2009, Amazon released the Kindle 2. Think of it as the same basic device as the Kindle 1 but with an Apple-quality industrial design—a big improvement, in other words. Meanwhile, Sony’s features, which sound so wonderful on paper, turn out to be hindrances when held in the hand. You invariably flip a page just by picking up the device, as it’s hard to not touch the screen. And the LED sidelighting is a big battery drain, yet you need to keep it on because—thanks to the touch screen—the contrast and glare got worse. It’s an odd step backward for the hardware experts at Sony.

And what of the Kindle 2? Amazon sent the Kindle 1 to beauty school. Instead of a riot of oddly placed (and even more oddly shaped) keys, the K2 controls are subtle enough to recede into the background, so you can concentrate on reading. It too has some interface improvements: Inadvertent page turning, which had been an even bigger problem on the K1 than it is on the new Reader, has been resolved with stiffer and smaller buttons on the K2.

Sony seemed to have had the edge when it came to the books themselves: The Reader accepts a variety of formats, and on this device you can more easily navigate through the library than on the Kindle. But getting books onto the Reader is still a pain in the neck, while the Kindle’s wireless service, which Amazon calls Whispernet, downloads books in less than a minute, anytime, anywhere.

Moreover, the Kindle has essentially won the format war: Amazon’s vast store of eBooks completely overshadows Sony’s. It now supports more file types than the K1 did, and its once-obscure MOBI/AZW format enjoys widespread support. Amazon seems fully engaged with the Kindle, while Sony appears to be growing bored with the Reader’s lackluster sales and may well let it join the Betamax, the MiniDisc, and the DAT in the dustbin of abandoned Sony hardware platforms.

If you’re new to eBooks, the Kindle 2 is the way to go.

About the Author

Harry Teasley is an artist and game designer who has been developing games professionally for over 16 years. A graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, he never touched a computer before getting a job at MicroProse Software to work on the original Civilization by Sid Meier. Working with Meier and other game design gurus at MicroProse quickly addicted Harry to games, game design, and the issues of problem solving in both creating and playing games.

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