The technology may be nearly 2,000 years old, but paper is still pretty impressive stuff. It's inexpensive, durable, easy to read and biodegradable. Unfortunately, when you slap a lot of it together to make a book, it becomes awfully heavy. Hence the latest Harry Potter novel sits on my bookshelf, forlorn and unread, awaiting the wizard's spell that will somehow jam its bulky two and a half pounds into my overburdened laptop bag when I'm heading for a plane.
Sony may have the answer to this lapsed English major's dilemma with its Sony Reader device, the first digital book that's a practical substitute for the printed page. We saw a brief flurry of interest in e-books a few years ago, but they never caught on. Downloading digital books and magazines was a great idea, but reading for extended periods on a bright backlit screen, whether on a laptop computer or a custom-built digital book, is tough on the eyes. That's where the Sony Reader stands head and shoulders above its predecessors, employing new "electronic ink" technology to create a six-inch black and white screen that reflects light like paper does, instead of beaming it brightly into your face. It works equally well in bright sunshine or ordinary room lighting. What's more, the electronic ink display boasts higher resolution than does a computer screen—170 dots an inch (the same as newspaper printing)—which makes for a much more comfortable reading experience. At just 8.8 ounces and half an inch thick, portability is a key selling point, especially since the built-in memory holds roughly 80 books at a time. And since electronic ink technology uses power only to draw a new screen, not to keep it lit, the Reader has incredible staying power. According to Sony, you can read 7,500 pages on one charge (speed-readers presumably do better).
Sony is launching an online store to sell digital versions of books and magazines for downloading. Random House, HarperCollins Publishers, Penguin-Putnam, Simon & Schuster and Time Warner Book Group have announced plans to support the Reader, though we're still waiting for information on specific title availability and pricing. And you won't be limited to paid content. Software included with the Reader can translate personal documents, industry-standard PDF files and even copyright-free downloaded books for display on the device. The Sony Reader is scheduled to go on sale this summer for under $400.