Sony arrived on the Aussie e-reader market last year with a bang, introducing two touchscreen models that proved increasingly difficult to purchase in the ensuing months (a situation not helped by the effect of a tsunami on Sony's E Ink supplier in Japan).
Now the new generation has arrived in the form of the PRS-T1 six-inch touchscreen reader — and it's already making a better impression, simply by virtue of better stock quantities. Whether or not it stacks up against both its direct predecessor and the current competition in other arenas, however, is a different matter.
Unlike the previous generation of Sony Readers that made it to Australia, the PRS-T1 is cased in a hard plastic chassis rather than aluminium. Although it makes the e-reader lighter — it weighs just 168g compared to the PRS-650's 215g, making it the lightest six-inch reader on the market — we were a bit dubious about how this would affect the sturdiness and feel.
Defying our doubts, though, it turned out pretty swanky. The case is metallic gloss on the front and metallic matte on the back, which looks good, although both surfaces are of the ilk that catches fingerprints. An aluminium panel on the front gives the design visual interest without being distracting, and the row of buttons for back, forward, home, return and menu are clear without being unduly obvious.
Although the reader is lighter, it doesn't feel flimsy — Sony has managed to find the fine line between portability (lightness) and solid build, and it has a good weight balance.
An SD card slit tucks away behind a panel on the back-right edge, and everything else — power button, micro-USB charging and connection port, reset button and power button — are arrayed discreetly along the bottom edge.
One confusing design choice is the stylus. Although one is included in the box, there is nowhere on the device itself to store it, unlike the PRS-650, which had a slot in the top right corner. Unless you spend extra on a case, be prepared for the stylus to go adventuring and not even send you postcards.
The first thing we should probably mention is that Sony has massively slashed the price of its six-inch reader; the PRS-650 launched on the Aussie market for AU$299 — US$229 stateside, which is around an AU$70 price difference. The PRS-T1 goes for US$149 in the States, and AU$179 here; so, not only has Sony managed to drop the price by around 40 per cent, but it has also brought down the Australia Tax by around 60 per cent. We probably have Amazon (which is likely selling its Kindles at a loss, just for context) to thank for that, but whatever the impetus, it's a welcome change.
For that price, what you get is a feature set that almost matches item for item the PRS-650, with a few new changes. The Memory Stick Duo slot is gone, as is support for DOC, RTF and BBeB files; in return, we have IEEE 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, longer battery life and a faster processor — 1GHz, compared to the previous model's 532MHz. As you know, though, that doesn't necessarily make it faster — the Sony Reader took nearly twice as long to boot up and open a book as the Kobo (40 seconds versus 23), and does also take slightly longer to open files, although page turns are comparably swift.
One of our favourite features of the PRS-650 and the PRS-350 was PDF reflow, and it's made a return. Coupled with the device's price and performance, this makes it the best e-reader for PDF files on the market. It does struggle with larger PDF files; a 300-page PDF took a long time to open, and another long time to turn a page; but smaller files are a lot faster, and it's a relatively simple matter to break your PDFs down into smaller files before loading them onto the device.
Other features carried over include the multiple dictionaries and audio support, but we're pleased to see that Sony has now also made the step up to include Wi-Fi — although the app for the Google bookstore that does nothing has us scratching our heads (Sony has yet to comment on whether Google Books compatibility is on the way).
We were rather surprised that the software was still pretty much the same as in the previous edition of the e-reader. This means that the touchscreen can still be a little over-sensitive, and sometimes it doesn't register presses. It's not a massive problem, but we would have hoped that Sony could have cleared it up right now.
There was another software bug that caused some grief — occasionally, the pages would just start flipping forwards very quickly for 10 seconds or so; when they stopped, the touchscreen would become unresponsive, requiring a reset with a paperclip. Apparently this is not an uncommon problem, and Sony does appear to be aware of it and is working on a fix, but it's something to keep an eye on.
Aside from these issues, the PRS-T1 is easy to use. Although its interface isn't as intuitive as the Kobo's, most people shouldn't have any problems navigating, and a direct link to a browser on the home screen makes buying books online fairly easy — although you will have to navigate to the bookstore yourself. If you still want to buy your books online, you can bypass the Sony software by installing Adobe Digital Editions; and, as always, non-DRM material can be transferred by opening the device on your computer as external storage. It should also be noted that even using the Wi-Fi from time to time, the battery lasts a few solid weeks.
Its close similarity means that our experience with the PRS-650 still more or less applies. This means, in turn, that the PRS-T1 is also a great device, especially at the price point — it's not a purchase that you'll regret. However, given that the PRS-650's competitors have made significant moves forward, it was a little disappointing that Sony has not.