Many years ago, I read an article about this new experimental technology called “e-ink” which could potentially change how we read E-Books. Then in 2004, Sony announced the LIBRIe, the first E-Ink based E-book reader. And, yes I wanted one. But alas, Sony only made it available in Japan and that too at the hefty price tag of about $350-$400. Years passed by and I kept waiting for an E-book reader that I could hold in the palm of my hand. Then sometime in 2007 I learnt of Sony’s Reader (the famous PRS series). Its price tag was as large, but by then after years of painful reading on the computer screen, the price really didn’t matter. So, I was curious; would Sony consider selling this in India?

With great expectations, I wrote to Sony, hoping that the Japanese corporation might deem it fit to sell me one. But no, Sony India was in no hurry do me any favors. And so the wait continued, and in the meantime I read books on Microsoft Reader, painfully sitting on a chair, chained to my computer, and wondering whether there was a better way of doing this.

Then one fine day Amazon announced their cute little Kindle (of course, its anything but little), and suddenly reading e-books turned fashionable. The always on wireless made getting E-books as simple as dialing for Pizza. Along with the Kindle, there was an explosion of E-book readers, from new offerings from Sony and iRex to newcomers like Foxit, InterRead etc. Suddenly, Readers were the new “IT” gadget of the season and the E-Book had arrived.

But, for some strange inexplicable reason, no company sold these in India. You could find one of these devices in the US, Canada, Europe, South-East Asia, Japan, China, even Australia. But when it came to India, the land of Nobel Laureates, Booker prize winners, and a few hundred million readers, not one company even tried to hawk their wares in India. So, for a short period I gave up the very idea of ever buying one of these.

Then Sony announced its new line for 2009.Readers starting at $199? Sounded too good to be true. So, I tried to find a way to get one for myself. I hit a vein of good luck, when I learnt that one of my friends would be coming to India in October. He graciously agreed to pick up one for me, and after a long wait finally it arrived – my very own Sony Reader Pocket Edition or Sony PRS-300.It came in a large book-like case. I pulled it out of its outer packaging only to find another box inside. Sliding this box out of its cover, I opened it half-expecting to find another box inside. Instead, there it lay, snuggled its plastic packaging, fitting neatly in the box.

The box also had a quick start manual, a USB cable, guarantee card and a neoprene sleeve for the reader. I quickly turned it on and after setting the language and time; I was all set to begin reading. The 5’’ reader was actually bigger than I imagined it to be. In fact, my ideal reader is one that would hold at least as much text as a standard Microsoft Reader (LIT) page and this seemed to fit the bill. The text looked crisp against the whitish grey background, almost like paper and very unreal in its paper like quality. The reader felt quite solid, with its sleek design and metal body. Sony, I thought, has done an excellent job with the design of the device.

I spent the next few days converting a few books to formats compatible with the Reader. My main problem was that thanks to my MS Reader reading days, LIT grew to be my favorite e-book format and quite a few of the books I had were in that format. However, thanks to Calibre I was able to convert these to LRF quite easily. I also created a few in the ePub format (the new open format hailed as the next big thing by everyone but Amazon) using both Sigil and Calibre. I then connected the reader to my PC. And poof!! There went my Reader dreams. Microsoft Windows XP for some reason refused to recognize the device. So, I connected it to my laptop (MS Vista Home Basic) and  my books moved smoothly onto my Reader.

Since then it’s been a wild ride through the jungles of Hender’s Island, with all sorts of creatures springing from the imagination of Warren Fahy. I actually read for Fragment over two hours without feeling any eye strain. The page turn flash, which I initially thought would detract from the experience, was almost invisible as I descended deeper and deeper into Hender’s Island. The page turn buttons were a bit awkward to use, but I got used to them pretty soon. The thing I liked the most about my reader was the fact that it remembered where I left off. It also had a nifty bookmark feature as well as page numbers (unlike the Kindle). The page numbers though do tend to get a bit weird. The thing is that in ePub, if the ePub “page” does not fit on the screen completely (as is often the case), it is split across several pages, leading to odd numbers like “Page 3-4” (meaning end of page 3 and begin of page 4).

So far I haven’t had any trouble with TXT, LRF and RTF files.  The ePub files also display well, but the ones I created using Sigil refused to display on the Reader. PDF is a dicey issue. If the PDF is text only and has been created keeping in mind PDF re-flow, then the PDF file displays brilliantly well on the Reader. In other cases, though results may vary. I used Open Office to convert my DOC files to PDF to test on the reader, and they worked quite well.

The OS and interface of the device were also quite smooth and the device hasn’t hung on me so far. The OS though in my opinion needs some tweaking to make it more user friendly. Sometimes the status messages when formatting text from RTF or when the OS is busy, aren’t immediately obvious.

Lastly, about two weeks and 3 books later, the battery is still to die on me. This is quite spectacular given the fact that I am still running on a battery charged at the factory. Given my experience so far, I think I can reasonably expect the battery to able to give me the reading experience of several books on a single charge.

Initially, I also had an issue with the font. Basically, I didn’t like the narrowness of the font and how small it looked at the small font setting. However, after about two weeks of reading, the font has kind of grown on me. The narrowness doesn’t matter much now, after getting through a few books at that font. Also, I realized that the font looks small only in the sample books provided. It’s actually quite readable at the small setting otherwise, the small size being equivalent to the font size found in most paperback books.

I also haven’t had any issue with the “lack of features”. The storage provided on the device is more than adequate. For instance, I transferred about 36 books on to the device, and they occupy just under 30 MB. 36 books are gonna last me a long time, so I doubt I’ll need more storage in the form of a SD card slot anytime soon :). Ditto for MP3 support (prefer my cellphone to play MP3’s) and wireless downloads (doesn’t work well in India anyway). My only grouse is that the battery is sealed in the device. I would have loved it if the battery could be replaced by the user with minimum effort.

To conclude, I found the Sony Reader Pocket Edition (PRS-300) to be a solid e-book reader at a very affordable price. It supports just the right amount of formats and with the conversion tools available on the net converting to any one of the formats supported is very simple. So, if you are looking to get into the E-book world with an E-reader, the Sony Reader is highly recommended. I’m quite happy with mine 🙂

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