It has been four years since the launch of the Sony Reader family in the US, but in Australia we've not had much of a look-in. Now, presumably because e-readers are finally gaining in momentum and popularity, two of Sony's models have finally arrived here. The Sony Reader Touch Edition, the larger of the two, is the third-generation model, and has only just been launched globally, and it's looking like it will be the most full-featured and affordable reader to date.
Unlike most other readers, the Sony Reader Touch Edition is constructed of sleek aluminium. One would think this would make it heavier than plastic models, but its smaller form factor combines to make it the lightest six-inch reader in Australia, coming in at 215g — 6g lighter than the previous holder of the title, the Kobo.
The smaller physical size of the reader is due partly to a streamlining of button placement and the omission of a QWERTY keyboard. The front of the device only has five slender horizontal buttons, left and right for turning pages, the home key, a magnifier for easy access to text resizing and the Options menu. This allows for a smaller size in spite of the standard 6-inch screen.
The bottom edge of the Touch hosts a volume control, 3.5mm audio jack, power jack and reset button, while the power button and two memory card slots (one Memory Stick, one SD card) reside at the top, and a stylus is discreetly tucked away in the top right corner.
As the name states, the big selling feature of the Touch is, well, a touchscreen. It uses infrared sensors around the edge of the display to detect the position of your finger or the stylus when you tap or swipe the screen. It's surprisingly sensitive and responds pretty smartly, but that carries problems of its own. A stray finger on the screen can take you where you don't want to go, but other things can set it off too; say you accidentally trail a sleeve over the screen, or cradle the reader in the crook of an arm as you go from one room to another carrying a cup of tea and a biscuit.
But a touchscreen, of course, has a whole bunch of other advantages too. You can double-tap the top right corner to bookmark a page, and it also means the device can be smaller and lighter, as any keyboard required for searching is displayed on the screen, eliminating the need for additional physical buttons on the actual device.
Using the stylus, you can also make notes in any text, either handwritten scribbles or highlighting by dragging the stylus over the text you wish to note. These notes will then be archived and can be accessed from a menu on the home screen, or erased by selecting the eraser tool and tapping the mark you wish to eradicate.
The Touch also comes bundled with 12 dictionaries in a variety of languages: both British and American English, and translation dictionaries between English and French, German, Spanish, Dutch, and Italian. If you want to look up a word, all you have to do is double-tap and the definition or translation is displayed at the bottom of the screen.
Now, the Touch doesn't have either 3G or Wi-Fi, unlike other e-readers on the market. Some might see this as a disadvantage, but ... and this will probably vary from person to person ... the absence of these features means the battery will last longer, so depending on what you want, this could be viewed as a good thing. The Touch's battery will last around 10,000 page turns at full charge.
The Touch's closest competitor on the market in terms of features is probably the third-generation Kindle. The Sony is more expensive, at $299 Australian compared to the Kindle's $189 American, but for some users, the extra dosh is worth having a device that supports open format and expandable memory in the form of slots for both SD card and Memory Stick. The Touch supports ePub, PDF, TXT, RTF and DOC files, among others, as well as audio files such as MP3 and AAC so you can listen to music from the device while you read, or use it for audio books.
The brand new Touch Edition has one slick and fast processor. Page turns are almost instantaneous, and the device takes only a second to wake from sleep and return to your page. It also had no problems at all remembering the last open page in multiple documents.
The touchscreen, as mentioned above, is quite sensitive, but does take a moment to process your taps and swipes; we found it faster to turn the page using the thankfully quite comfortably placed buttons than swiping the screen; for menu navigation, however, the touchscreen was an intuitive and comfortable method of getting around. We've seen many people try to tap on the screen of an e-reader before realising that this particular technology doesn't work that way, so its integration here is fantastic.
Getting files onto the reader can be as simple as opening the folder in your computer's directory and dragging and dropping, which we found preferable. It also comes with its own desktop app, which appears to be a re-skinned version of Adobe Digital Editions. It's relatively easy to use if you don't like fiddling around with folders.
The Sony Reader Touch Edition is fast, light, intuitive and loaded up with excellent features that make for a superior e-reading experience. Even without Wi-Fi, it is without a doubt the best e-reader we've seen to date. It's available now from Sony Centres, and Borders and Angus & Robertson book stores.