Thanks to the Sony Reader, 2008 may well be remembered as the year of the ebook reader. This seems a little harsh on its competition: as the iRex iLiad will attest, the PRS-505 isn’t the first reader to hit the UK, but it is the first to really enter the public consciousness.

Like its rivals, Sony’s second-gen device has a special ‘E Ink’ screen designed for reading text, something that LCD screens are not very suitable for. And this just in: John Lewis is doing it in red, too.

Stunning screen

The screen itself is stunning. The way the text appears on screen is surreal – it looks like it has been printed on. Consequently, you can turn the Reader all around without the screen losing legibility, and it can be read in bright sunlight.

On the down side, it is slow to refresh when you ‘turn’ pages, and that lack of backlight means you’ll need artificial light to read under the covers.

No book-killer

Despite the astounding screen, the PRS-505 doesn’t read like a real book. It takes a while to get over the novelty; to resist the urge to press one of the buttons and watch it do something.

And you can’t treat it as casually as a book: it can’t be bent, squashed, or thrown in a bag with a sandy beach towel. Plus, your eye doesn’t fall as naturally to the right place after a moment of musing.

Digital library

But at least the number of digital books is growing at a healthy rate. The Reader is the only ebook to be compatible with Waterstones’ DRM’ed library, where there are currently 5883 ebooks, with over 20,000 expected by the end of the year.

They cost roughly the same as their paper equivalents, which will come as a shock if you were expecting the lack of printing costs to be passed on to you. The site navigation also leaves a little to be desired in comparison to the iTunes experience, and Mac users will be dismayed to learn that the bundled Adobe software won’t work on their machine. Still, you can at least drag and drop files onto the Reader via your desktop.

More than words

Luckily, the PRS-505 isn’t all about books. It can play MP3 and AAC tracks, so you can accompany your reading – albeit with a massively negative effect on the battery life. Plus, in addition to the DRM’ed ebooks from Waterstones, it can view PDFs, Microsoft Word files and simple text documents – useful for professionals and students who need to carry and refer to lots of documents.

So, if the Reader isn’t as good as a book, why would you want one? Because you’re a gadget fan and because, in the words of Bowie, it’s a ‘little wonder’. But also because you can carry roughly 160 books in a device the size of a thin paperback; with memory card expansion, thousands. And because the battery will last for 7000 page turns before needing a recharge.

It’s also, by a nose, the best all-round ebook reader currently out there. The new £500 iRex iLiad Book Edition is compatible with MobiPocket but is bigger and more expensive, while the BeBook’s interface is less slick despite its wider format support. So until the Amazon Kindle comes to the UK, the PRS-505 is the best way to get your digital reading fix.


Stuff says... 

Sony PRS-505 Reader review

Outclassed by paper books, but the best of the ebook reader bunch. If only the ebooks themselves were cheaper