Within the last 60 days there has been a bevy of announcements of new ereading devices. Amazon announced what is popularly called the Kindle 3 and Sony has announced 3 new models — the 350, 650, and 950. How far behind other makers will be is hard to tell, but the upcoming holiday season should be a good one for device buyers.
So the question is this: Is this the time to take the plunge and buy a dedicated ereading device if you don’t already own one? The companion question, of course, is if you own one that is more than a year or two old, is now the time to “upgrade”?
I’ve made it clear any number of times that I am not a fan of Amazon. But that doesn’t mean the Kindle isn’t a good device — it is. For me, the Kindle continues to suffer from the same design flaws as always – (1) it reminds me of my laptop with its physical keyboard and (2) it doesn’t accept DRMed (digital rights managed) ePub files that let me shop at, for example, Barnes & Noble unless I strip the DRM from the B&N file and convert the DRM-stripped file to a format the Kindle likes. But if you shop for books exclusively at Amazon (a practice that I think has bad ramifications for all consumers), the Kindle is a good device, especially the new K3 with the enhanced eInk screen called Pearl.
Amazon’s new Kindle has several things going for it. First, the greatly improved Pearl screen. Second, the device has been made thinner and lighter and smaller, although the screen size (6 inches) remains the same. Third, is Amazon’s great customer service, the envy of the industry and something B&N and Sony should be emulating. Fourth, ease of use. And, finally, great new pricing — top-of-the-line (covers both WiFi and 3G forms of wireless) comes in at $189 and the WiFi-only version comes it at $139.
Sony’s three new devices — the 350, 650, and 950 — are greatly improved versions of current models (the 300, 600, and 900) and are also known as the Pocket, Touch, and Daily Editions, respectively. Each also represents a different screen size: the 350′s screen is 5 inches, the 650′s is 6 inches, and the 950′s is 7.1 inches. Like the new Kindle, these are the new Pearl screens.
Unlike the Kindle, which is menu and button driven, the Sony’s use a new touch screen technology on which you can use either your finger or an included stylus. If you love your touch screen cellphone or iPod-type device, you are likely to love Sony’s touchscreen technology as well. For those of us who aren’t acquainted with the technology, there may be a short learning curve.
Sony also has its flaws. Perhaps the most significant flaw is the failure to include a firmware upgrade that would expand the DRMed ePub capability to include the B&N flavor of DRM. This is significant because there are now 3 major places where one cannot buy ebooks for their Sony without stripping the DRM from the files: B&N, Amazon, and the iBookstore.
The inability to buy DRMed books from Amazon is an industrywide problem; Amazon has chosen to limit access to Kindlers and those willing to strip and knowledgable about stripping DRM and converting file formats. But B&N and the iBookstore sell flavors of ePub and Sony should have made at least the B&N flavor available. I think what Sony is missing is the point that there is a format war (think Betamax vs. VHS or Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD) and that winning the format war ultimately is more important than keeping customers from visiting other bookstores. (In this regard, the iBookstore doesn’t even amount to a blip on the radar screen. Steve Jobs and Apple would rather go down in flames than give up any control.)
The second flaw is in pricing. The Sony devices are more expensive than its competitors, although I think better built. The 350 is $179, the 650 is $229, and the 950 is $299. However, unlike the Kindle and the Nook (B&N’s entry), the 350 and 650 are not wireless. In this regard, I think Sony is right that most people really don’t care about wireless, not when they think it through. But it is the one point on which every reviewer downgrades Sony and upgrades Amazon. I think for a small (relatively speaking) group of readers, wireless is the decider, but if my experience is any guide, the lack of wireless isn’t even noticed. The Sonys are smaller and lighter than the Kindle but seem to be better quality in terms of build and components — and this is what Sony is banking on. The ultimate question will be whether consumers will think it is worth $40 more for a touchscreen and no wireless or $40 less for wireless but no touchscreen.
As I have said before, I own and love using a Sony 505 that soon will be 3 years old. My 505 works today as if it were fresh out of the box. It is solidly built and has several more years of life in it. But I think the time has come for me to upgrade. I thought about breaking down and going for a Kindle, but it isn’t going to happen. Instead, I’m likely to buy the new Sony 950 with its larger screen. It costs what my 505 cost 3 years ago and if it serves me as long and as well as my 505, it will have been worth every penny. My 505 won’t be going into retirement; my wife has claimed it.
How will I justify the price of the 950? One way is that I will be canceling my print subscription to the New York Times. Instead, I will subscribe to an electronic version of the print edition that I will receive on the 950 every morning when I’m ready to read the paper, not when my carrier gets around to delivering it. That will save me at least $25 a month, which means that in 1 year I will have earned back the cost of the 950.
But I began the article with the question whether now was the time to take the plunge. With the new improvements to the Kindle and Sony devices, I think the answer is yes — if you want a dedicated reading device. There are a lot of good, free and inexpensive ebooks available for all of these devices. If your reading interests extend beyond the bestseller lists, you can get a rapid return on your investment as well as be exposed to new authors.
I do suggest, however, that before deciding on any device that you compare features side by side. Kindles will soon be available in Staples and Target stores and Sonys are available at Best Buy, Office Depot, and Target. Don’t let reviewer hype of one feature sway you — check for yourself and think about how important a particular feature is or is likely to be to you. I don’t buy ebooks every day and when I do buy them, I tend to buy them in bunches of 3 to 5 books. To plug my 505 into my PC via USB simply is not much of a hassle, so wireless doesn’t count much in my decision-making process; other things are more important. You need to view these devices with your own priorities in mind.
Now is the time to think about the holidays and if an ebook reader is on your wishlist, to place your holiday order. For the Sony devices, see the Sony Style Store (350, 650, and 950), and for the Kindle, see Amazon (Kindle 3 and Kindle 3G). If past holiday seasons are any indicator, as soon as you decide which you want, preorder it. These readers have tended to sell out fast.