We live in a content-filled world – It constantly bombards us from all sides. Flashing lights and explosions, blaring music and a cacophony of voices greet us around every corner. From the normal work day, filled with LCD screens, to hours at home spent watching an LCD TV, looking at an LCD monitor and in-between peering at a small LCD on the phone, there’s precious little respite for our suffering eyes. Today’s generation are more at home with the nearly-infinite flexibility and capacity of electronic devices, than with the pulp-derived format of yesteryear. Fortunately, the time-honored and humble book has recently received a modern revival.
*Electronic Ink Displays*
The solution presents itself. Ebook readers have been around for a number of years now, differing fundamentally in the way the screen is lit. With ‘normal’ screens, a battery-powered light (like LEDs) illuminate the display from behind, often flickering at a far greater rate (around every 8ms) than our eyes can visibly detect, alike flourescent lights – leading to strain and tiredness. Each pixel is finely controlled to allow a specific amount of light from behind to pass through. The brightness of these backlights pale in comparison to a harsh external source, such as sunlight, or even a bright reflection, not to mention taking their toll in form of eye fatigue. Yes, even IPS displays as well.
Enter the e-ink reader, otherwise known as electronic paper. Electrophoretic displays, the most common implementation used in today’s common e-book readers, uses a layer of contained hydrocarbon oil around 100 micrometres thick, in which titanium dioxide particles are distributed. The oil is dyed dark and given a charge, then sandwiched between two conductive plates, which can then be controlled to move the particles towards the surface or below.
There are both pros and cons of this system. On the one hand, the resulting image looks extremely paper-like, being as easy to read in the sunlight, glare-free, clear, smooth and pleasing on the eyes. Since the dye is effectively floating in liquid and reliant on an external light source to be illuminated, there is no power draw while the image is static, resulting in extremely long battery life. The downsides are a slow refresh rate (because the particles physically take time to move around in the oil) and a lack of colour. The requirement for a light also means that pitch black reading is unsuitable. Youtube in 1080p, you will not.
The most common implementations of e-ink usually display around 16 shades of gray with the full 180 degree viewing angle. In essence, they are ideally suited for reading large passages of text as a paper replacement, but with digital benefits. Even after just a week of use, I’ve found myself more efficiently and enjoyably churning through long-postponed books and articles.
I’ve never owned an e-ink reader, but after reading Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs on my Asus Transformer in bursts as long as I could stand, I knew there had to be a better way. I scoured the market, with a seemingly endless list of readers to choose from. There were keyboards (like the earlier Kindles), various sideload book support (EPUBs), the ability to open and reflow PDF files (manuals come to mind) and the more recent touch-sensitive offerings. In the end, the limited availability of the Barnes & Noble Nook Touch and Amazon Kindle Touch in Australia were deciding factors for me, as well as the uncertainty of no-name generic readers. I knew I wanted a touch screen, having been spoilt over the past few years.
I bought both a Kobo Simple Touch and a Sony PRS-T1 Reader and set to work. It took only a day to decide the Kobo Simple Touch wasn’t right for me. There were three main factors here, the first one being rather minor, the background colour. E-ink displays have a constant back colour, usually a very light gray, but the Kobo had a darker gray, not so great for contrast. In addition, the on-device library management was too simplistic: The lack of tags or folders means all books are lumped together in one list. The only way, apart from paging through individually, is to know the name of the book you want to read. Constantly having to reach up to tap the screen when changing pages also became weary.
So there you have it then, the Sony PRS-T1. A successor to the PRS-650: a device oft-quoted in forums as flawed. Although it’s one of the more expensive (by reader standards) devices on the market, the Sony has a few things going for it. It’s the lightest, at 168g (vs 212g of the Kobo) and also the thinnest at 8.9mm (vs 10mm for the Kobo). The differences may seem trivial, but the physical dimensions matter when you end up holding the device in one hand for hundreds of hours. In addition, it comes in either red/white or black, with an option for a faux-leather case (with or without LED light).
In addition, the T1 has both an infrared touchscreen and a row of buttons set underneath a small brushed aluminium plate. A glossy (and thus marginally distracting) plastic bezel surrounds the screen, with the back of the device a pleasing rubberised grip, punctuated by a MicroSD expansion slot on the side. Curiously, Sony also includes a plastic stylus for those who wish to naturally annotate or take notes using the in-built drawing system, though without an integrated stylus holder on the device, many will end up leaving the stylus behind.
A headphone jack for audio output (there is no physical speaker on the device) adorns the bottom bezel, along with the singular MicroUSB port for charging/sync, a reset toggle and a power button. The rounded back helps with comfort, though more rounded front diagonal corners would have proved less distracting while reading, aesthetically speaking. The T1 is light enough to easily wield with two fingers, whilst packing a battery enough to power it for over a month (~14,000 page turns).
In short, the physical design of the device is one of it’s strongest points. It’s compact, it’s clean, it’s functional and it’s elegant.
If some of the buttons look familiar, it’s because the device runs on Android 2.2, just like the Nook Touch. However, you won’t be finding widgets, app drawers or GMail here, not yet anyway. Instead, Sony’s book library/reader takes centre stage, being your one stop shop for all things book-related. From here, you can also access your collections (effectively ‘tags’ that you can sort your books by), the Google Book store (which curiously didn’t work on the device) as well as any media on the device. The books can be displayed by cover and sorted by a variety of criteria, features which are conspicuously missing on some other readers.
The whole show is powered by an 800mhz Freescale IMX50 paired with 256MB RAM, plentiful for the purpose – resulting in relatively snappy performance. The IMX50 has been seen before in many generic Android tablets of yesteryear, a solid and reliable workhorse, especially in a light-duty device like an e-reader. 2GB of internal storage leaves around 1.2GB available for your own content (around 1000-1500 books), though I ended up using a 4GB MicroSD to boost the capacity up just in case. The infrared sensor is the same as found on the Kindle Touch and Nook Touch – it’s responsive, sensitive and supports multi-touch capability for pinching and zooming. The ability to intuitively select text and use the on-screen keyboard (which is very responsive) is a huge improvement over the direction pads of the Kindle 4 and Kobo Wifi.
In use, I found the T1 to be intuitive and functional. Reading books was far easier than on the tablet, despite the smaller screen. The device has three additional serif fonts and three additional sans-serif fonts (a total of 7), all of which are quite usable and eight font sizes – though I found Amasis to be the best fit for the display. Unlike some other devices, the T1 can also adjust cropping on the fly (for books with non-standard margins) as well as flip into horizontal mode for when you want a more comfortable grip.
I found myself using the page flip buttons far more often than swiping the screen to turn the page – the buttons are nearly exactly where you naturally hold the device which often does not even require you to move your hand at all. Note that the page does a full somewhat-distracting refresh at every page turn, instead of every half-dozen like some other devices.
Page numbers are absolute, which means even if you change font sizes or orientations, the page numbers display will show the ‘true’ page numbers – something that helps when attempting to communicate to others about the position. You can also hold the page turn buttons down to quickly scroll between the pages (though not as quickly as the Nook Touch). Other features include Table of Contents and a page slider to quick jump around. Pages can also be re-formatted in multi-column mode, though for books this is less than useful.
When holding down on a word, a definition from one of the in-built dictionaries (out of 9 dictionaries) immediately pops up on the bottom of the screen, with further bubbles for Google search, Wikipedia search, highlight and more – Note that the wi-fi connection (which supports B/G/N) enters power-saving standby mode after 5 minutes by default and takes about 15 seconds to re-connect from this state.
For those so inclined, bookmarking and note-taking via an on-screen keyboard, as well as being able to also draw on the screen (presumably to highlight or handwrite) are included, though you will need to either install the Sony Reader software on your PC to transfer the notes, or view the notes on the device itself. For those that are partial to additional software on their PC, the device can mount in USB mass storage mode, where you can either drag and drop books straight in or use a library manager. Note that updating the firmware on the device does not require the Reader software to be installed.
The web browser on the device is surprisingly capable. This is not an area which e-readers generally excel in and one which many may not even use, though the Android origins of the T1 comes into it’s own with a relatively snappy browser. I wouldn’t recommend doing heavy lifting with it, though in a pinch it can be invaluable. Scrolling is also unusually smooth, most likely due to the lack of constant refreshes, until you lift your finger.
I’d highly recommend the extremely capable and free Calibre book library manager. It converts between many popular formats (including from PDF / MOBI), respects Adobe DRM, can automatically fetch RSS feeds and convert them for your reader, gives you advanced tag/collection and naming formats and can automate the entire process of updating your device’s book library. Displaying pictures and audio on the device was painless, though I’d assume this is a niche task that not many people would resort to.
Even if you don’t convert your content, the T1 does support a surprisingly large number of formats, including the aforementioned EPUB and PDF (with an infinitely useful text size adjustment/reflow), JPG/PNG/GIF/BMP, MP3/AAC and TXT. You can also set the screensaver as a pre-set picture of your choosing, the cover of the book you’re reading, or just a blank screen – a pleasant change from the hard-coded screensavers of the older Kindles.
*Software / Modding*
Speaking of niche tasks, for the inquisitive, you might already be wondering just how unlocked the Android OS is under the hood. The good news is – quite. With one simple package (which is reversible), you can gain root access to the device, as well as install an alternative launcher of your choosing, resulting in a more familiar environment to start from – widgets and all. I found most programs installed and worked as normal, though you will be lacking official Google Apps (Market, GMail, Calendar).
The ability to access a calculator or unit convertor can come in handy at times. Also note that you can access the web versions of popular apps via the browser too, if you’re in a pinch. Of course, you can install the Kindle and Nook apps and read your books that way, although it’s important to note that smooth animations, the icing on normal devices, leads to extensive screen refreshes on an e-ink display – it’s less than optimal. On the flipside, you can sync your e-reader books to your tablet/phone with the Reader Android app.
Alternatively, you can install an alternative reader, such as FBReader, Moon+, ReLaunch or something else if you were so inclined, depending on your preferences. However, the in-built app storage space of the T1 is quite limited, and moving apps to SD has not been perfected in the most recent version of the software mod. Your mileage will vary.
There are a few sore points with the T1 which some will notice. The first is the intuitive interface, or lack thereof. With the combination of hard buttons borrowed from Android (Menu/Home/Back) as well as some on-screen controls, finding the functions you want often comes down to memorisation or exploration – though you will eventually learn where everything is. In addition, the ‘continue reading’ only shows one book at a time, meaning if you have a few books going at the same time, you will have to search for them manually or assign them to collections. These are UI design issues which could have been worked around.
In my use, I experienced no issues with ghosting, random page turning or stability issues within the OS, even before the latest firmware update was applied.
I’ve found that there is time and place for both an e-book reader and a tablet to co-exist naturally. The reader can never match the pure processing power, media consumption or responsiveness of a tablet, but can offer crystal clear text in bright sunlight and seemingly infinite battery life in a featherweight package. It’s also pocketable (barely), meaning you’ll end up carrying it to more places than you would the tablet. I’ve ended up sending long articles I run across during the day to the reader for consumption later on.
If you can overlook the slightly higher price of the T1 and the lack of in-built access to the extensive Amazon library, the T1, with it’s superb physical form factor and performance, should definitely be on your list of considerations. I have a feeling I’ll still be chugging through books on the T1 for years to come.
UPDATE: An alternative PRS-T1 Homescreen with more ‘recently read’ books is available. Note that it is a work in progress and also you require root access to change the homescreen. Full details here.
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