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24 Hours with the Sony Reader

Right, I know I promised I would tell a story about deploying software based on Django. It’ll have to wait [1]1{#id1.footnote-reference}. Yesterday I wandered into the local Border’s to kill some time after lunch. Nothing to look for, just like the books. And there it was, a lone Sony end-cap display with (gasp) live, in-the-flesh Readers .

The four word review: hardware hot, software not. I’ve been lusting after the Sony LIBRIe Reader for some time. When I travel, I hate the part of packing where I have to decide what books to take; I start with a pile of at least half-a-dozen, and end up limiting myself to two. OK, three. This isn’t to say that I even end up reading all the way through those two. Or three. Just that I tend to be reading a few things at the same time, and don’t like having to decide what I’ll be in the mood for the next week. So the thought of taking a slim device loaded with several dozen of my favorite books, along with technical references and work-related documentation… the mind boggles.

So of course I picked up a Reader yesterday. The four word review: hardware hot, software not. I guess I should clarify: device hot, desktop software not. The device itself is a great text reader. It’s light weight (about 9 ounces), has a display that looks uncannily like paper [2]4{#id2.footnote-reference}. The text is crisp and the controls decent. Yes, there is a weird flash between page changes, but it hasn’t risen to the level of annoyance for me yet. Overall the engineers managed to craft a device that comes closer to the book experience than anything I’ve previously seen.

It’s the desktop software, Sony Connect, that should be flushed. I’ve admittedly only used the software for less than 24 hours, but I can tell you now that I won’t grow to love it. If anything, I’ll uncover more reasons to hate it. But here’s my brief list for now:

  • The software desperately wants to be iTunes, but just isn’t… I don’t love Apple’s use of custom widgets in iTunes for Windows [3], but Sony’s custom widgets are even worse.
  • Like iTunes, Connect embeds a browser in the application for browsing their online store. But somehow they managed to fuck up scrolling: filling out the registration form in the store and press the down arrow to scroll down the page only to find, hey, what happened? Oh, right, the list box on the left that wasn’t even focused received the command. Try to use the scroll function on your touchpad? Hah! It’s scrollbars only for you, bitch.
  • Plugging in your reader doesn’t let you sync it… it just shows up in the software and you have to drag things manually [4].
  • The Reader is expandable with either Memory Stick or SD (thank you Sony, for realizing that some people want to use their removable storage media in devices other than yours). Unfortunately the Connect software sort of screws that up too — it will only let you drag files to the SD card when its connected by way of the Reader [5], and even then it makes you choose between internal storage and the SD. Can’t I just say “put these on the Reader, please?”
  • Finally, library management is too screwed up to describe: importing allegedly-supported formats fails silently with no notice, you can only create “collections” (the Reader’s way of grouping books) on the PC and then drag them to the Reader, and I couldn’t figure out any way to add a new text to the Collection once its on the Reader without re-creating it on the PC adding something and dragging it back. Which created a duplicate with the same name. Not exactly what I was going for.

There is good news, however. Even though the LIBRIe was a Japan-only, a community of hackers sprung up to both translate the firmware to English and support user-generated content. That effort seems to have graced the Reader with a ready-made hacker community , anxious to liberate the Reader from Sony’s ineptitude. Particularly interesting to me is the development of libprs500, a Python library that reverse engineers the USB protocol and which I successfully used to transfer a text to the Reader under Linux.

We can fix it, we can make it better. We have the technology.