Group Test: electronic book readers
Take your library with you when you travel
Round-up As Sony's decision to finally release its PRS-505 Reader in the UK and its associated tie-up with Waterstones has served to raise the consumer profile of the ebook reader as a breed - and with Christmas thundering towards us - we thought we'd see how the Sony stacks up against the competition.
Sony's PRS-505 Reader: winner of the ebook beauty contest
For British consumers, the ebook selection comes down to Sony's Reader, French manufacturer Bookeen's CyBook, the iLiad from iRex and the new BeBook from Dutch company Endless Ideas. Of course, if we were writing this feature in the US, it would be a fair bit longer. But Amazon has still not seen fit to let the rest of us have a fiddle with its Kindle, while Astak seemingly has no plans to release its 5, 6 & 9.7in Mentor readers in the Old World either – though the 6in Mentor looks a lot like the CyBook albeit with added Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a touchscreen.
And, as we speak, the new Sony PRS-700 Reader – with LED back light and touchscreen – is about to go on sale in the States. It took the PRS-505 nearly a year to cross the Atlantic and, sad to say, we have no reason to expect that the 700 will make the trip any faster.
Legibility, usability, portability - the triumvirate of core ebook abilities and three boxes any ebook reader worth its salt needs to tick and tick well.
iRex's iLiad Second Edition: the biggest screen of the bunch
When it comes to portability the CyBook is the featherweight champion, weighing only 174g and measuring 118 x 188 x 8.5mm. Next comes the BeBook at 220g and 120 x 184 x 10mm then the Sony Reader at 260g and 122 x 175 x 7.6mm. The iLiad is a whole size larger: 155 x 216 x 16mm and weighing 420g. Oddly, the Iliad isn't quite rectangular, the top of the device curving up towards to the top right-hand corner. This serves no useful purpose that we could see and smacks of styling for the sake of styling which is never a good thing especially if the end result just looks odd.
All bar the Sony are made from black plastic making the silver aluminium Reader easily the winner of the ebook beauty contest.
Its extra size means the iLiad can house an 8.1in screen where as the others make do with a mere 6in panel. All four devices use the same basic electronic paper display - though the iLiad alone doesn't claim to be made by E Ink – so you get the expected black out of pale grey display and no built-in illumination.
Endless Ideas' BeBook: bookmarks set through menus
To be precise, the CyBook has a 166dpi four-level greyscale screen; the Sony a 170dpi, eight-level greyscale panel; and the iLiad a 160dpi, 16-level greyscale display. The BeBook's spec sheet was silent on this issue but it looked comparable to the CyBook. The screens on all four devices are very easy on the eye and provide good clear definition, technical minutiae notwithstanding.
That's only part of the story, though. When it comes to displaying copy not specifically formatted for its screen size, the CyBook has the edge due its ability to present fonts in any one of 12 sizes and by the fine job it makes of separating paragraphs and handling justification. The Sony runs the CyBook a very, very close second, while the iLiad makes good use of that extra screen size to present a nicely spaced page.
The BeBook isn't as successful at replicating a finely printed page, the lines being too widely spaced and paragraph returns lacking sufficient distinction. With no way of altering the line spacing, what we ended up looking at was just a little, well, messy.
Of course, this is really only an issue for newly published books which come with DRM and often in Mobipocket and EPUB format. The BeBook website is home to over 20,000 English language PDF books specifically formatted for it and they looked just fine on its screen.
Bookeen's CyBook: has the edge when it comes to displaying text
Speaking of ebook formats, all four readers support PDF, HTML and TXT files. The Sony Reader and the BeBook also support EPUB files, but the CyBook and iLiad don't. The BeBook, iLiad and CyBook support Mobipocket files, but the Sony doesn't. The Reader also supports Sony's proprietary BBeB ("BroadBand eBook") format.
If you want any more info on the devices file support we'd suggest a shufti at the manufacturers' own websites as getting too deeply into this can seriously sap the will to live.
Text on the iLiad...
Once loaded with media, the Sony proves the most straightforward and intuitive to navigate around. Let's compare how you bookmark a page. With the Sony you press the bookmark button. Simple. With the CyBook and BeBook, you have to open menus and click about hither and thither. With the iLiad you don't do anything, because it doesn't support any type of bookmarking. Only the Sony lets you access all your bookmarks, no matter what book they are in, from a single, central menu.
The same is true of navigation to a specific page. On the Sony, you simply type the page number using the number keys – a feature we flat overlooked in our original review. Both the CyBook and BeBook require you again to open various menus, and while the touchscreen iLiad should make navigation easier you still have to pluck the stylus out of the back and remember which icon does what.
The iIiad's page-turn bar is an interesting bit of design, though: a long rocker strip that runs up the left side of the device that you nudge to the left and right. Its was set to turn pages forward with a right nudge and back with a left when we go it, which seemed a little counter-intuitive. But luckily, if you rummage about in the menus, you can swap the directions around.
The iLiad also has a “Wacom Penabled technology” touchscreen which only works with the supplied plastic stylus. Loose it and you can't access a fair chunk of the UI. A replacement will set you back £14!
...and the PRS-505
Apart from having the most obvious navigation system, the Sony also has the fastest moving UI and menu system. While it certainly doesn't react as instantly as would the UI on an MP3 player, it does go about its business noticeably more briskly than the iLiad, CyBook or BeBook.
The speed of page turn is about the same across the board, and all do the 'flash' from black out of grey to grey out of black as they change. The CyBook can be set so that rather than flash, the text morphs into a new page. It's rather disturbing to watch so we wouldn't recommend it.
512MB of on-board storage plus SDHC cards
None of these devices are exactly bursting at the seams with internal storage, the iLiad coming with 128MB, the Sony 192MB, while the CyBook and BeBook both have 512MB apiece. All four devices do, however, have memory card slots. On the CyBook and BeBook, expansion means a single SD slot, but in both instances this includes support for SDHC cards of up to at least 8GB, the capacity of the card we used for the test.
The Sony supports SDHC too, but being Sony also comes with a MemoryStick Duo slot. The iLiad will let you stuff a USB stick straight into it, which is handy, while also supporting SD – though not SDHC – and CompactFlash.
Loading non-DRM content onto any of the readers is straightforward as they all appear as mass-storage devices when plugged into Windows, Linux or Mac boxes. Sony supplies the Reader with its Window's only eBook Library application which allows you to read your books on your PC as well as manage content on the Reader. For some reason, the BeBook only supports USB 1.1 making a rather leisurely transfer of data.
The BeBook, Reader and CyBook can all be recharged through the USB cable, though Sony also gives you the option of using a 5.2V mains charger. The iLiad is mains-charged only, a process which involves plugging a mains cable into the “travel hub” that then connects to the bespoke USB port. The same hub is needed to link the iLiad to a computer. It's not the most elegant way of doing things.
The CyBook's good for comics - even with a four-level greyscale screen
If you want your ebook reader to play music, forget the iLiad as it simply doesn't support audio files at the moment, though the presence of a 3.5mm earphones jack suggests a firmware update may address this in the future. The other three players provide basic support for MP3 files – and AAC in the Sony's case - though none support ID3 tags, so you files appear either in simple alphabetical order or with all track 1s, 2s, etc grouped together.
Like the iLiad, the Sony and BeBook devices have 3.5mm jacks. The CyBook has a 2.5mm jack and to make matters worse it is recessed to such an extent that neither of the two 3.5-2.5mm adaptors we had in the office would fit.
Not a great MP3 player
By nature, these clever E Ink displays don't draw power unless they are changing so all four devices will last a long time on a charge. Sony claim 6800 page flips, Bookeen claims 7000 for the CyBook, while Endless Ideas claims 8000. iRex simply states a battery life of 15 hours, but that's for a mixed use regime of taking notes, reading documents and generally mucking about.
In real terms, a full charge will probably see most users through the thick end of a week of reading. A word of caution, though: our test CyBook developed a habit of crashing regularly, though because it's a used and doubtless abused review sample, we're chalking this down to one-off issues with our device rather than any systemic failings with the hardware or firmware.
Comes with Wi-Fi... at a price
So, how big a hole will these things put in your pocket? Direct from the relevant companies, the CyBook will set you back £180, the Sony Reader £200 and the BeBook £220. The iLiad costs an eye watering £450. Of course, it comes with Wi-Fi, an Ethernet port in the travel hub and a touchscreen so you can make notes on it, but all that doesn't really have an impact on its abilities as an ebook reader.
Smartphones and PDAs
One of the most popular ebook readers of late is the iPhone, thanks to freeware reader application Stanza, available from the iTunes App Store and very good it is too.
The app gives you full control of how text is presented - font, size, colour and line spacing - and you can bookmark pages easily. It contains links to major (free) ebook suppliers so you can download straight to the phone, though it means there's no way to transfer books to your computer or load up files - PDFs, for example - of your own.
We'll be rounding up a range of good smartphone ebook readers - not just the iPhone ones - in the near future.
The BeBook is the first to fall by the wayside. It's a decent little device, but the way it presents Mobipocket and EPUB content simply isn't good enough and that's a major issue if you plan on purchasing DRM-protected - ie. recently published - content.
Next comes the iLiad. Yes, it does a lot more than the other three readers on test and has the larger screen but it's more than twice the price and we aren't sure how much use all that extra stuff will be to the your average buyer. The larger screen doesn't really justify the bigger size and weight, either, and the lack of a bookmark function is a drawback.
It's a close run thing between the Sony Reader and the Bookeen CyBook. The CyBook is wonderfully small and light, and for our money shades the Sony for legibility when presenting most formats. It does feel rather plasticky for something costing £180, though.
So the winner is the Sony. Why? Well, it's the best made and nicest looking of the four by some margin, and as is often said by fans of the iPod, it just works. Give all four of these devices to a ten-year-old and ask them to tell you which is the easiest to switch on, use and get familiar with, they will tell you the Sony. How do we know this? Because we tried it with a couple of ten-year-olds.
It's the little things: the dedicated bookmark button, the fact you can access all your bookmarks from the main menu rather than having to open up the relevant book first, and the menu layout. It just shows that Sony has been around the block once or twice when it comes to making a usable and desirable consumer gadget. The only serious drawback is the lack of support for Mobipocket files.