Bookeen CyBook vs Sony Reader

I've been a fan of EBook readers for a long time now. Before EPaper based readers, I had an LCD-based one, and before that I had a Palm that I used almost exclusively to read EBooks.

EPaper, though, is a big step forward in terms of EBook readability, and when the Bookeen CyBook first came out, I immediately got one.

Unfortunately, a couple of months ago, I pulled it out ofm y bag to use it, only to discover that I evidently hadn't treated it as carefully as it warranted, because the delicate EPaper screen had become damaged, to the point where it was no longer really usable.

For a while, that was it, no EBook reader, but when we travelled through the US recently, a store at one of the airports was selling the Sony Reader, and even had a discount on the PRS-505. The 505 has since been superseded by the touchscreen PRS-700, but I don't have much use for a touchscreen on an EBook reader, and aparrently the 700 has screen glare issues due to the touchscreen coating. I got the 505.
I didn't expect to be particularly impressed by it - I merely expected functional - but I was, very. My impressions:

Form Factor and construction
Both readers are roughly the same dimensions. The screen surfaces are exactly the same dimensions, down to the millimeter. The Reader is a little taller and deeper, but not quite as wide. While the CyBook is entirely made from plastic, the Reader is almost entirely metal (aluminium, I think), which makes it significantly heftier than the nearly weightless CyBook. This isn't necessarially a bad thing, though, as it's still no heavier than a moderate sized paperback.

Applying a little torque to the plastic CyBook would cause it to omit ominous creaking noises; in contrast, the Reader feels solid enough that even being able to bend it seems a bit unlikely.

The CyBook is fairly minimalist when it comes to buttons - only a d-pad with center button on the front, and a row of buttons along the right hand side. The Reader goes almost to the other extreme (though not as much so as the Kindle) - it has a d-pad with center button, two page-turning controls (one in the bottom left, one along the right side), font size and bookmark buttons, a menu button, and 10 buttons along the right hand side for selecting items (more about those later).

The downfall of my CyBook was partly due to lack of a case, so this mattered to me. The Reader, though comes with a leather case, held closed by magnets. On my one, it's an ugly '80s brown, but I'm not particularly concerned about that. It does its job of protecting the device and its delicate screen admirably, though.

Battery life and charging
Both devices charge over USB; both have extremely long battery life, to the extent that you can expect to read several books before running out of batteries.

Book support
The original PRS-500 Reader only supported Sony's proprietary Windows software, which is why I never even considered the Reader until recently. The 505 and 700, however, like the CyBook, act as USB Mass Storage devices, allowing you to load books on from any computer. You can still use Sony's software if you want, but the only feature I've come across so far that doesn't seem to be supported via plain USB is setting up collections of books.
Both devices support a wide range of formats, both DRMed and regular. I'm not much interested in the DRMed formats, so what most interests me is the fact that both support the Open EBook format, which strikes me as the way to go from here on in. Fortunately, neither device try and make it harder to use the format of your choice over the publisher's preferred (DRMed) format.

User Interface
Here is where the Sony Reader really blew me away. There's a lot to address here, so, in no particular order:

The CyBook has substantial boot time - about 30 seconds - as it starts up its embedded copy of linux. In contrast, the Sony Reader, somehow, is instant-on and instant-off, without any obvious effects on battery life. I have no idea how they managed to do this, but the effect is profound - being able to read instantly makes the experience much closer to that of a 'real' book.
When browsing books, the CyBook has a fairly straightforward paging system, showing an (optional) title image and short description of each item. Since it didn't support categorizing by author or title, finding a book in a large collection was a matter of going page-by-page, then painstakingly using cursor-down repeatedly (EPaper has a low refresh rate) until the title you want is highlighted.

This is where the Reader really shines: The main menu lets you browse books by author, title, or date; from there, it lets you skip to a particular letter in the title or author name, or a particular date range. Once you're at the sorted listing, the 10 buttons along the side make picking any item currently displayed a one-click operation. Finding the book I want is now an order of magnitude faster than it was.

Once you've selected a book in the Reader, you get another menu - you can go straight to the first or last page, pick up where you left off last time, view the table of contents (particularly useful for magazines), or look at the 'history' - the last few pages you viewed. Again, the buttons along the side make this really easy. When it comes to jumping to a specific page, the buttons again make this easy, since you can enter numbers directly, instead of using a game-console style numeric entry system.

The page-turner on the CyBook is positioned in the lower right. One problem I consistently ran into was that a button press would illuminate the 'activity' LED briefly, but fail to actually turn the page. Bizarrely, pressing 'down' on the d-pad worked more often than pressing 'right', even though both should have the same function. This has been somewhat alleviated in recent releases, but the last time I used it, it still happened occasionally.

The Reader has page-turners in the lower left, and the middle-right. Both work as expected, and the page-turning latency is better than the CyBook, too. On the CyBook, I had to get used to pressing the page-turn button a line or two before I reached the bottom of the page; no such requirement here.

While the CyBook takes the obvious approach of making one EBook page equal to what fits on the screen, this means that page numbering changes if you change the font size. The Reader solves this by having its own concept of what constitutes a page; this remains the same regardless of font size, with an unobtrustive number in the right margin denoting the line where a page changes.
The one thing the CyBook had that I can't find on the reader is the ability to load your own TrueType fonts in. While this was useful, I wouldn't call it essential, and I'm prepared to live without it, especially given that the Reader's built in font is quite readable.

To my surprise, the Sony Reader totally blows away the CyBook. The Reader's user interface, in particular, strikes me as a shining example of how to design a good user interface for a technology with unusual limitations. I'm startled, but pleased!


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