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Here in the states, at least, the e-reader market is ruled by two bookstore giants: Amazon and Barnes & Noble. And while it's not likely to come barreling into the top two any time soon, Sony has made a fairly strong case for number three, particularly with last year's Reader WiFi. That model defied Sony's reputation for overpriced gear, while offering various features unavailable in the Nooks and Kindles of the market (think: pinch-to-zoom and handwriting capabilities). The new Reader PRS-T2 maintains many of the features that made the Reader WiFi a solid choice, though it adds Evernote integration, smoother page turns and a generally more streamlined design. So is the refreshed Reader worth recommending over competitors like the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight and Amazon Kindle Touch? Find out after the break.

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Sony Reader PRS-T2 review

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Sony

Sony Reader PRS-T2

Pros

  • Note-taking capabilities
  • Dual-touch zooming
  • Expandable memory

Cons

  • Some awkward design elements
  • Image ghosting
  • No more audio playback, Google Book access
Summary

The PRS-T2 is a slightly refined version of last year's Reader. There aren't many changes to report, but the new Reader remains a solid choice nonetheless.

Hardware

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The PRS-T2 looks a lot like its predecessor -- and most e-readers these days -- with the majority of its face taken up by that industry-standard 6-inch Pearl E Ink display. At 6.9 x 4.4x 0.4 inches, the Reader has roughly the same dimensions as Amazon's Kindle Touch (6.8 x 4.7 x 0.40), though it's a fair bit lighter, at 5.9 ounces (versus 7.5 for the Kindle Touch). Sony's stuck with some sharp corners with this reader, which can get a little uncomfortable if you have a tendency to cradle the device in your palm. In particular, after spending so much time with the new glowing Nook, it's a bit hard to go back to this slightly awkward shape. There's no concave backing and the device generally doesn't do a great job conforming to the hand. Oh, and if you're a fan of physical page-turn buttons, you'll likely discover there's really no comfortable way to read it one-handed without a good deal of jostling -- sorry, public transit readers.

Sony's joined Barnes & Noble and Kobo on Team Matte Finish for the PRS-T2, a small tweak that actually makes a world of aesthetic difference. The updated Reader really does look a heck of a lot nicer without the shiny piano finish used on its predecessor. There's no physical keyboard, of course (what is this, 2010?), which saves some real estate on the front of the device. There are, however, still several physical buttons on the device's face -- the company did a good deal of back-patting about the hardware keys when it gave us a sneak preview of the Reader ahead of the public launch. The buttons are located below the screen as before, and the layout is the same, too: Left, Right, Home, Back and Menu. This time, though, the buttons are much more to look at than those little rectangular dealies that graced the Reader WiFi.

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The big silver icons serve as the buttons themselves. They're nice and responsive, but the company seemingly overlooked one important thing when creating them: they actually kind of hurt to touch, with lots of thin lines and sharp corners that dig into your thumbs a bit as you press. For the most part, that shouldn't be a huge problem -- you're not likely to get a repetitive stress indentation from Home, after all -- but those who prefer turning their pages the old-fashioned way may walk away with a bad case of reader's thumb after working their way through "The Power Broker." And while we're definitely in favor of offering up physical button alternatives to finicky E Ink touchscreens, we wish the company had taken a hint from the Nook's soft-touch keys, which also happen to be more intuitively located, off to the sides of the display.

The last -- and possibly most important -- physical button is located on a small lip on the bottom of the device. That would be the power button, and all told, the PRS-T2 takes about 20 seconds to fire up from a cold boot. The button is also used to toggle in and out of sleep, which brings up a screen saver featuring the cover of the book you're currently reading -- to be honest, we still prefer Barnes & Noble author sketches, but that's just us. To shut the device down, hold down power while the device is awake. To the left of the power button are a micro-USB slot for syncing / charging and a reset button that should come in handy when your screen freezes -- an inevitability with this technology.

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The rear of the device doesn't offer much of interest -- there's a Reader logo on the top in gray text and all of the requisite fine print (FCC, Made in China, blah, blah, blah) on the bottom. On the right side, you've got a covered microSD slot, which will help you complement the Reader's built-in 2GB of storage by as much as 32GB. The battery, meanwhile, should give you a fairly standard estimated two months of reading time, provided WiFi is turned off.

Reading

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Page turning is extremely zippy on the PRS-T2 (Sony wouldn't say what processor is inside). We're also impressed at how the company has worked to decrease full-page refreshes -- those black flickers only interrupted us once every 15 pages or so on the John Dos Passos book we downloaded. That rate isn't entirely consistent, however: with another title, we found ourselves getting back-to-back flicker several times. Flipping through pages backward, on the other hand, tends to significantly increase the flicker rate.

As you'd expect, you can turn the page with your finger by swiping across the page -- interestingly, while the device defaults to the standard right-to-left to page ahead in the book, that setting can be inverted in the applications menu. You can also turn the pages forward and back by swiping down or up, respectively. Tapping to change pages, however, isn't an option. If you need to jump to a given page, click Menu, which brings up a scroll bar, access to the table of contents and a field for entering the page number manually.

The text itself isn't particularly crisp (though it's still not quite as dull as on the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight). And while it's possible to darken things in settings, doing so will actually cause the whole page to become dimmer. We also noticed a fair amount of text ghosting, both when flipping pages and, in particular, when flipping away a page containing images. Thanks to the dual-touch display introduced on the last-gen Reader, you can make the text larger by pinching to zoom with two fingers. Snapping the page into place is a bit clumsy here, but that's to be expected, given the limitations of the E Ink display.

Menu also offers up access to the notes you've taken and a number of settings. From here you can crop pages and adjust brightness and saturation. You can also choose from eight font sizes and seven styles (Verdana, anyone?). Clicking through to More brings up options for searching, syncing your last page, posting a page to Facebook and still more options. Using the search function brings you to the first instance in the book that features the word you're looking for (which is highlighted in black on the page). You can click forward and back to find it elsewhere in the book.

Software

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You're looking at a pretty straightforward homepage here (in fact, Sony is touting its new, simplified layout), with a black tool bar offering up your WiFi status and battery level. Most of the top third of the screen is occupied by the book you're currently reading, including the cover, title and author, plus your reading progress and the precise time you last read it, down to the minute -- a boon for obsessive-compulsive readers. Below that are the covers and titles of your four most recently added books (they'll have a "New" in their upper right hand corner if that's the case). At the bottom of the screen are large touch buttons for your bookshelves, a link to the store and the gateway to the Reader's applications.

Bookshelves offer a quicker way to peruse your collection, with the books organized into rows, offering up to nine per page in cover mode -- you can also toggle into text mode to fit even more. A refining button, meanwhile, lets you change the way you sort your books: by the title, author, file name, the date you downloaded it or the last time you read it. There's also a search button in case you're having trouble locating the Dostoyevsky amongst all those volumes of "Twilight." Clicking the Menu button also brings up a handful of options, letting you add books to different customized collections or predetermined bookshelves (including Books, Collections, Purchased Content and Evernote), delete titles, protect titles (from accidental deletion) and return books checked out from the library.

Reader Store

The biggest update on the Reader Store front actually has little to do with the device itself. The shop now has a browser-based interface, so you can buy e-books from the comfort of your desktop, saving you from having to rely solely on your Reader's keyboard to purchase books. As you can imagine, this is a really convenient touch. If you purchase content this way you can also read it on your computer or Android device using Sony's Reader app. The PRS-T2's built-in store is easy to use as well -- the navigation and layout are all pretty basic, which is precisely what you need on a device like this. For the uninitiated, it has a search field up top, a carousel of featured titles and some quick selections including Browse, New Arrivals, Authors, Bestsellers, Newsstand and Bundles. As for selection, Sony's seems pretty thorough -- yes, it had the new Yo La Tengo book we were looking for.

And when it comes to supporting local libraries (not to mention, saving some cash on book downloads), Sony's once again offering quick access to OverDrive-powered library browsing. Click on the app and it'll prompt you to locate your local branch via a search field. Once on their page, you can enter your relevant card info to start the borrowing. Interestingly, Sony has pushed this option into the background a bit, as well as removing easy access to Google Books (though as a spokesperson points out, "there are still thousands of free classic e-books available from Reader Store"). It seems as though the company might be looking to make up a bit more cash on content, considering the steadily dropping sale price of its Reader hardware.

Applications

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As before, bells and whistles are where Sony sets itself apart, and on the PRS-T2, the Applications page is where most of that magic happens. As with the homepage, the layout isn't much to look at -- it's laid out in a basic 3-by-4 grid. Default applications include Public Library, Browser, Periodicals (which we sort of wish was grouped in with the books), Notes, Dictionary, Handwriting, Text Memo, Pictures, Settings, Evernote Setup and Facebook Setup. Audio playback has, meanwhile, been unceremoniously dropped from the Reader.

There are few things in this world quite as frustrating as a web browser on an E Ink device, and the PRS-T2 does little to change that. Everything's small and in low-res grayscale, and scrolling is a mess of stuttering, flickering and image ghosting. It's hardly an ideal experience, and we recommend you drag and drop needed content from your PC whenever possible. Still, it's there when you need it.

Good news for fans of the New Oxford American: that's precisely the dictionary you get if you join Team Sony (though you can also go in for the good, old Oxford English Dictionary, or four other foreign language options, even). You can find it amongst the applications, and it instantly starts showing relevant entries as soon as you start typing your word into the search field. As fun as that option is, we suspect that the New Oxy will be getting a lot more play within the texts themselves, a feature accessible by holding down on a word. Do that and the definition pops up at the bottom of the page.

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We were admittedly impressed by the inclusion of handwriting on the Reader WiFi, so we're not too surprised that Sony brought this popular feature back for the sequel. It's a bit difficult to master, but we find it's more efficient if you put a little bit of your fingernail into it -- not too much, of course, you don't want to scratch your precious reader. The question, then, is what precisely you'd need such a feature for. Sony offers up a couple of possible examples, including a crudely scribbled map, a basic math equation and a drawing of a cup of coffee, all of which ship with the device like those pictures of happy families that come with department store picture frames. They also go a ways toward proving what we've long suspected: that handwriting is a neat, but often unnecessary, feature for most users. Certainly, it's nowhere near efficient enough to take detailed notes.

Handwriting does, however, come in a bit handier when you're actually reading. You can access that option by clicking the Menu button while reading, which makes it possible to take notes (albeit, sloppily written ones) directly on the text. An eraser icon pops as well, letting you wipe away any mistakes. Again, the feature doesn't have much going for it in the proficiency department, but we can see it being useful when you've absolutely got to jot down a note -- or, you know, draw a coffee cup -- and breaking out the smartphone just won't do.

Notes written on books will also show up in the All Notes app, along with bookmarks and highlights. Book notes are identified by the text at the top of the page you've scrawled on. Clicking that entry will bring you directly to that page. And when handwriting just won't do, there's the Text Notes option, which lets you type your thoughts on the virtual keyboard -- which suffers all the sorts of stuttering lags we've come to expect from touchscreen E Ink keyboards. It does, however, offer up smartphone-style predictive text at the bottom of the screen, which may help address some of the headache of this physical keyboard-free world we're all living in.

The images option, meanwhile, is a great way to view some of your favorite pictures in 16 glorious levels of grayscale. Fittingly, the Reader ships with images of books and a library (remember those?). You can also add your own by dragging and dropping them through a maze of folders when the e-reader is hooked up to your PC. So, what can you do with the images? Not a heck of a lot, honestly -- you can set them as a slideshow, adjust their orientation or upload them to Evernote.

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On the social side, the big news here is the addition of yet another platform for syncing your Evernote clips. You can download notes from your account and when you find a passage in a book that you like, highlight it, click "Send to" and you'll be able to send it to Evernote or Facebook, with that passage remaining highlighted in the text and accessible through the All Notes module.

Wrap-Up

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Similar to its predecessor, the PRS-T2 offers plenty to like, from dual-touch pinch-to-zoom to note-taking capabilities to easy public library access. There's nothing here that really blows us away, however, leaving the Reader feeling like little more than a gently tweaked version of the (admittedly good) last-gen model. It's certainly a better-looking device, though the new, sharp-edged metal buttons feel like a misfire. And while we definitely appreciate the speed here, the text ghosting can be a bit distracting. Sony's also seen fit to drop the price to a competitive $129 (that's $10 cheaper than the glowing Nook). Oh, and the company's throwing in a copy of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" to help sweeten the pot. In all, the new Reader should maintain Sony's current position in the market: a solid -- but imperfect -- alternative to the big two.

Engadget HD Podcast 313 - 08.28.2012