The Sony Reader

After my initial negative reaction to my free Sony Reader, which I detailed in the blog post “When You Die, Can I Have This?” I promised not to give up too soon, not to dismiss the gizmo off hand. After all, I like books, I like reading, and I read books in multiple formats, so why not on an e-reader?

It only seemed fair that rather than fiddle with the software a little and jump around from book to book and page to page, then pass judgment, I should actually use the device in the way it was intended. I should actually buy and read a book—all the way through.

Here are the results of that experiment.

THE GOOD . . .

The book I bought from the Sony Library was Metropolis, by Thea von Harbou. This cost me $4.74, and wasn’t chosen at random. I’ve long been a fan of the old silent movie by (von Harbou’s husband) Fritz Lang, but I’ve never read the original novel. I’ve also long been a fan of classic science fiction, so this was a win-win for me: a book I was excited to read, in any format.

Sitting down to read, the device didn’t feel bad in my hands, and the book was interesting enough that after a few minutes each time I sat down to read I more or less forgot that I was reading an e-book on an e-reader and just enjoyed the book—kind of.

Sounds like a segue . . .

THE BAD . . .

Even with my new prescription reading glasses, the type was too small for me to comfortably read, so I had to bump the size up one click. That made it just fine, and the experience of reading it, in terms of the size and clarity of the type, was comparable to a tree book. What I just can not get past, though, is the utter lack of care or effort put into design. This is an engineer’s idea of what readers expect, which means it’s a stripped-down essential of what readers need. But what readers want is a book that looks as good as it is comfortable to read.

The ragged right margins, “what-were-they-thinking” font choices, line spaces between paragraphs, and editing acceptable only in a rough draft is just an insult to the reader, the authors, and the whole profession from Gutenberg on up. There’s more to a book than raw text, guys. Lots, lots more, and having had a chance to play with the iPad, I can tell you that whatever Apple’s doing, they seem to understand that, finally, and they will win because of it.

The screen on the Sony Reader is a dull gray I thought was too dark—much darker than even the cheap newsprint of a mass market book. There was considerable screen glare, too, even in muted, overcast daylight. That seems like something they could fix with some kind of anti-glare coating on the screen. But the battleship gray background I found depressing.

A Pink One . . . Fancy . . .


Sony’s web site says the battery is good for two weeks. I’m not sure what that means, but it will not operate for two weeks straight—as though someone is going to stay up for a marathon 336-hour Read-a-thon anyway.

Knowing I was conducting an experiment, I had a note pad next to me as I read, and kept track of the time I spent with the Reader actually turned on, as a real-time test of the battery life. One of my own initial complaints of the e-reader in general was that a traditional tree book doesn’t have a battery, and will never fail you on that score. But then in reality no one sits down and reads continuously for twelve, fifteen, or twenty hours, so I was curious as to how the Sony engineers approached battery life. What did they think was reasonably long enough before you set the Reader aside while it charged.

I began by plugging the thing into my computer. So, yeah, problems right away, which I won’t rehash from the follow-up post, but eventually I got the thing fully charged, so that all four of the bars in the little battery icon were full. With that full battery, I started reading.

While I’m writing this, I turned the Reader on and noticed that the battery was reading two of four bars. I spent a total of seven hours and forty-six minutes reading Metropolis, which is about the length of one long plane flight. For me it was a total of eighteen different sittings between May 17 and June 2. When I turned it off after finishing Metropolis, the battery still had three of the four bars, and since then I’ve had it on maybe another half an hour or forty five minutes. I suppose it’s reasonable to estimate maybe fifteen hours of battery life. Though I noticed that it went from four bars to three after six hours and sixteen minutes, which would actually average out to about twenty-four hours on one charge—but who knows how that imprecise little battery icon is calibrated?

Honestly, I think even the low end of that estimate (fifteen hours) is fine. As long as you have the USB cord and a computer handy, you shouldn’t have the thing crap out on you mid-sentence. It’ll require at least as much attention on that score as an iPod or cell phone, both of which I own and manage to keep charged—and only blame myself when they poop out on me.


My friend and editor Peter Archer told me he thought the dedicated e-reader was “a solution in search of a problem,” and I have to say I agree. I hold out considerable hope that the iPad will change my mind, once I’ve finished waiting through the first year—never buy a new Apple device in the first year. If you’re an Apple user, you know what I mean. The rest of you, just trust me.

But this funny little thing that only does one thing and doesn’t do it particularly well, can’t and won’t replace the 700+ books I still have on my shelves at home, and with the problems I’ve had getting it to work with my computer . . . had I paid almost $200—even the new lower $150—for this thing, I’d be pretty angry.

In the end, the cost outweighs the convenience.

Okay, it’s easier to bring this on an airplane than half a dozen books, but if you leave half a dozen $7.99 paperbacks on a plane, you’re out $47.49, but if you’ve bought those same e-books, and lose the Reader, you might still have the e-books in your Library, but the Reader ran you $150, so you’re still $150 in the hole. The risk doesn’t equal the reward—for me, at least. But I don’t tend to read that much when I travel, and I don’t stay away for long. One book and a magazine have always been enough for me.

That being said, there’s simply nothing this device does that a book doesn’t do better (and real typesetting and editing makes books better—they just really do), cheaper ($7.99 is always going to be cheaper than $7.99 plus $150), and easier (you never have to hope a tree book’s software is compatible with your computer—it isn’t, it never has been, and it never will be, so no time is wasted trying). And after all, you really only read one book at a time, right? Do you really have to carry ten of them around with you at any given time?

I don’t.

—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. I have the same Sony Reader and find it works well for a week of bus commuting, reading at lunch, etc, before it needs recharging. If you use it a lot, pay for the recharge cord — it’s faster than hooking it to your computer.

    I check out my reading material from the Seattle Public Library. They have literally thousands of titles (including all the new ebooks from Wizards) for nothing more than the cost of a library card (free if you live in Seattle, a nominal fee if you are in King County). You have 21 days to finish your choice and the book electronically returns itself so no worries about overdue fees. You can check out up to 20 titles at a time.

  2. stacy says:

    I actually read several at a time, and never know what I’m in the mood for, so often when I travel I take two or three, because what if I finish my current book? And what will I be in the mood for then?? I really think this way, and a lot of readers I know do, so an e-reader for travel is really a great convenience, especially given the way they charge for baggage nowadays. You’ll pay for the reader over the course of 2 or 3 trips if you pack a full suitcase lighter because of it.

    That said, I have only read manuscripts on my Reader, and it’s a Touch, so it’s a bigger screen. The contrast is annoying, but it’s outweighed by the alternative while on the subway: juggling reams and reams of paper.

    Screens tend to signal work for me, perhaps, because in reading finished books I can get away from work.

    But that’s a very specific editor’s point of view, and I’ve heard very different opinions from people who have different goals for their e-reader reading.

    And I definitely agree on the design thing. This is an interim device for me, until the iPad or whatever comes out to replace it eventually becomes more mature as a technology.

  3. Ah, I just found this blog because of your Twitter feed. 🙂

    Anyhoo, if anyone is interested I wrote a review of all the readers available for the iPad here:
    The Stanza reader came out after the review and I have used it but I have yet to post my thoughts as yet.

    And I recommend the iPad as the reader of choice because no other device reads as many different formats as it does. It’s the most versatile and comprehensive of all devices available.

    I very much prefer e-reading to the alternative, for a variety of reasons. I should write a post just on that topic. The short list is:

    * Yes, I do prefer carrying multiple books—and magazines—with me because I don’t know what I’ll be in the mood to read right at that time. Being able to choose right when I sit down for lunch no matter where I am is luxurious.

    * Nothing beats hearing about a book for the first time then having the complete text in my hands in—literally—under two minutes. Because of this, the amount of money that I spend on books a month has, no joke, increased tenfold.

    * I can read samples wherever I am and at my leisure—which has the added benefit of understand

    * There’s a moratorium on new physical books in my house because we have books piled on the floor because there’s no other place to put them. That has to stop while the acquisition of new books does not.

    * The e-reading experience can be very good and, depending on the reader you use, is customizable far more than you might otherwise think. Some of the ways are detailed in my review. From what you describe the central problem with the stand-alone device that is the Sony Reader mentioned above is the lack of customization of the reading experience itself.

    —Eric H.

  4. oops …added benefit of understanding how the book’s layout and illustrations will be affected by whichever reader I’m using. Will this book read well? The sample will tell me everything I need to know.

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