Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sony Daily Edition eReader Goes High Calibre

[Updated August 15, 2012: See Comments below]

I "received" a Sony PRS-950 Daily Edition eReader for the holidays (it was on sale at the time at Best Buy). After much research, I found that the Daily Edition handles PDF files better than any other eReader, with the capability to split columns, and even display a two-page mode when in landscape. The eReader has Adobe Reader Mobile installed. Since I receive a lot of electronic submissions from authors, either as Word docs or as PDFs -- and I can convert any Word doc to a PDF1 -- the Daily Edition seemed the best fit. If viewing a PDF is important to you, and you're in the market for an eReader, then this video, which lasts a bit over 8 minutes, showcases the PDF capabilities of the Sony PRS-950. One caveat, however, regarding the contents of the video: the person demonstrating the device states that when you increase the font size of the PDF, the eReader will reflow the text. This is technically correct. However, the reflow will essentially split the line where necessary, regardless of word spacing; so the majority of lines will have a word cut, with the remainder of the word on the next line. This has been one of the most frustrating aspects of reading PDFs on the eReader. If I don't increase the font size, then the print is too small to read. If I increase the font size, then words are split at the end of nearly every line. My alternative is to read the PDF in landscape, which for some reason automatically increases the size of the font without splitting words. The caveat with this, though, is that it takes three landscape screens to view an actual page of text. Flicking your finger across the screen after only a few lines in order to move the text becomes tiresome when reading a very long file.

This eReader also has an improved e-ink display and better touchscreen capabilities than the slightly older PRS-900 model. And more: I can, if needed, highlight text within a story, look up a word in the internal dictionary, and even scrawl a basic note on a page with the included stylus.

I absolutely despise reading any content of length online/onscreen, so an eReader of one brand or another was at the top of my list of "wants." Whenever I want to read anything of length (say more than 3 pages or so), be it a short story, online magazine article, blog, whatever, I'm inclined to print out a hardcopy to read. Now, I have the eReader, which will hopefully allow me to be more mobile with my reading, and reduce a lot of the hardcopy.

My other reason for selecting the PRS-950 Daily Edition was its wireless access to a web browser, as well as apps like Gmail, Twitter, Wikipedia, etc. During my reading, I often come upon something in the content that I want to look up or share with others, and the wireless capability of the PRS-950 would allow me to do that, especially if I'm mobile.

But, alas, this is where the PRS-950 fails. Sorry, Sony, but that's the truth! I tried the wireless option in one environment (my home) with AT&T wireless and in another environment (my daughter's home) with Comcast wireless. In both instances the PRS-950 continually dropped the connection, couldn't retain the connection, and would inevitably lead to a "DNS server" error every time. Once the eReader displays that nasty DNS error, there is no other option but to return to the "Home" screen and then access the app again and try to reconnect. Over and over and over....

I contacted Sony's online chat eSupport. The support person had me "reset" the eReader (which I had previously done on my own), rekey the wifi encryption code (which I had previously done on my own, which didn't make sense even then because I had a connection, the eReader just wouldn't hold it), and other such stuff, all of which I knew would make no difference whatsoever, but I played along anyhow. After a 20+ minute chat, the support person provided me with a case number, an 800 telephone number, and recommended that I call that number and request "level 5" support. I did. I was on hold for more than 35 minutes before my call was taken. The entire telephone call lasted just over 73 minutes. During that call, the support person literally took over control of my PC (after requesting my permission, of course) to check my wireless modem settings, etc. But I told him that the eReader demonstrated the same problem under two separate wireless environments so it couldn't be my AT&T modem settings, it had to be a problem with the eReader. Bottom line: Sony replaced the eReader. I provided a credit card number for security and received a new eReader within the week; I was required to return my defective eReader within 14 days (a return FedEx label was provided so there was no cost to me), otherwise my credit card would be charged for the eReader. No problem. The replacement and return went smoothly.

However, the wireless problem -- in both environments -- persists to some degree with the replacement PRS-950 as well. I don't get the "DNS" error as often, but the connection will simply hang: nothing happens at all. I use the Refresh option a lot; sometimes that works, often it doesn't and I have to rekey the URL. So this tells me that the "defect" is a hardware/firmware design problem and I gained little through Sony's eSupport, phone support, and replacing the eReader. I'm hoping that a firmware update at some point in the future may correct the problem. In the meantime, the Daily Edition still serves its purpose -- its real purpose -- as an eReader, and does so quite nicely, considering.

Next, the software: As far as I knew at the time I purchased the Daily Edition, I had to install the Sony Reader Library Software on my PC. I can purchase eBooks from the Sony store directly from the eReader itself using the built-in 3G capability, but if I want to load other eBooks onto the device, like my own PDFs, I have to do it through the Sony Reader software. [Note: the Daily Edition will automatically connect to a 3G network, if available; but the 3G capability is only for accessing the Sony store, not for general web use.]

Unfortunately, I encountered a lot of difficulties with the Sony Reader software: it is sluggish and unresponsive at times. The software locked up on two different occasions and I had to Ctrl-Alt-Delete to kill the app. When the software is open and the eReader is hooked up to the PC via the USB cable, the eReader shows a "Do Not Disconnect" warning. Even after I close the Sony Reader software, this warning message never goes away. I have to reboot my PC in order to remove this warning and thus be able to safely disconnect the eReader from my PC. This gets very tiresome very quickly, as you can imagine. I became so frustrated with the software, knowing that I had to use the software to move books to the device, I was ready to return it to Best Buy (and this was even before I really became aware of the wireless issue).

That is, until author J. Daniel Sawyer, via Twitter (@dsawyer), pointed me to Calibre -- a freeware (though donations are welcome) eBook library management program. Calibre advertises itself as "the one-stop solution to all your eBook needs," and indeed it is. After an eBook is added to Calibre, the program has the ability to search the web for the book's metadata -- author, publisher, publication date, ISBN, tags, and even the cover graphic. Calibre can also convert most eBook formats into other formats, so if I have a DRM-free Kindle book, I can convert it to the epub format for use on my Sony eReader. Calibre can maintain multiple formats of the same book, too. I don't want to go into too much detail here other than to say that Calibre ranks as one of the best (free) apps I have ever used.

One more point about Calibre: As an added bonus, the app contains macros for downloading hundreds of online magazines, newspapers, and blogs around the world. I can select a newspaper, for example, and schedule an automatic daily/weekly download of that issue (as long as Calibre is open on my desktop at that time) -- then manually transfer that issue to my eReader at my convenience. Cool.

The basics of Calibre are fairly intuitive, though a couple of the more advanced features took a bit of clicking and investigating through various menus -- and even some hit and miss -- before I figured it out. I didn't find the help text very helpful as it appears to be oriented more toward the Calibre developer rather than the everyday user.2 Still, it was a lifesaver, for both me and my eReader!

One final note: If I want to surf the Sony eBook store using my PC and download eBooks from the store, I still have to use the Sony Reader Library Software. But since I don't plan on buying eBooks often (I have enough titles to read already!), I can live with having to use the software on these rare instances.

In conclusion, even though the eReader works for eReading; and Calibre software is awesome; I still prefer paper, I still prefer books.

Footnotes and Note:

1 In MS Word, I can also save a doc file as an htm/html file, then add this file to Calibre and convert it to an epub file, which is intrinsically readable by my Sony Daily Edition. So, I don't have to work only with PDFs.

2 I did encounter one problem with PDF files: my eReader was unable to read certain ones for some unknown reason! I posted the problem on Calibre's Facebook page and the very next day received a suggestion from the developer himself, Kovid Goyal, which turned out to resolve the issue: he suggested that I remove a default setting (a simple checkbox) under Advanced settings having to do with PDFs.

Final Note: As I mentioned at the beginning, my motivation for purchasing the Sony Daily Edition eReader was its ability to handle PDF files; see footnote 1 above about MS Word files, too. Well, I have just learned via Michelle Davidson Argyle's blog the secret to downloading MS Word files directly to your Kindle, or even someone else's Kindle; and if you use the correct process, the download will be free of any fees. So if you own a Kindle or plan to purchase a Kindle be sure to read Michelle's blog post.

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  1. Very nice article. I wished I had found it last year, when I was still considering which reader to get.

  2. Thanks for your kind comment. However, considering the current eReader/tablet environment, I should post here an update.

    As I said in my original post, the WiFi never worked properly, and so my plan to use the Sony Daily Edition to also check Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, etc. never proved out.

    After about a year and a half -- just this past June -- the Daily Edition simply died on me; and in the overall scheme of things, I never really used it that much, so I was rather shocked one day when the screen just froze, permanently, and that was it.

    I contacted Sony: since the eReader was out of warranty they would replace it for me, but at a cost of approximately $200. For that price I could now buy a full Android tablet, which is what I did.

    For the same cost as the Sony Daily Edition, I am now a very proud owner of a Google Nexus 7. I can read any book I want, either using the Google-installed book app, or I can install a variety of ebook readers. You just have to have some basic tech knowledge to get the reader apps to recognize your books since the N7 is designed to purchase everything from the Google Play Store.

    - marty