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The Kindle and the Sony Reader are both flawed products. They have version 1 written all over them.

And it doesn’t matter.

Get either one of them into your hands, and chances are you’ll be hooked. The convenience factor is sky high, far outweighing the rough edges and design disappointments.

So, how do the two compare?

Where the Sony Reader beats the Kindle:

  • Price. They’re both overpriced, but the Reader’s $299 price tag is $100 easier on the pocket than the Kindle’s.
  • Initial content. Sony sells the Reader bundled with a couple of hundred dollars worth of credit towards purchasing ‘Classics’ at its Connect eBook store. The ‘classics’ are neatly formatted versions of public domain ebooks – everything from the Aeneid to the works of Mark Twain. These books usually sell for two bucks a piece at the Connect store, and although you can find them in unformatted form for free, the formatting makes a big difference to your reading pleasure.
  • Size. The Sony Reader is slim and ultra compact. It measures 6.9 x 4.8 x 0.3 inches. The Kindle is 0.6 inches longer, half an inch wider and 0.4 inches thicker. Both feel pretty comfortable to hold, but there’s no doubt those fractions of an inch give the Sony the edge.
  • Looks. The Reader is smart and unobtrusive. Its black-and-chrome (all-chrome is available on the PRS-505) looks a whole lot smarter than the Kindle’s clunky white package. One thing, though: the Kindle is extremely unphotogenic; it looks much better in your hand than it does in its publicity pics.
  • The cover. The Reader’s snug-fitting, click-on cover protects it at all times. If you find the black a little boring, you can dress it up with optional red or lime green covers. The Kindle, on the other hand, is ill at ease in its cover. You can’t read it with the cover on – its buttons are obscured (including the On/Off and wireless switches, which are both on the back) and it slips out easily. That means you’ll have it out of its cover – and unprotected – most of the time.
  • Bookmarks. The Reader’s one-click bookmark button is much easier to use than Kindle’s clumsy dog-earing method.

Where Kindle beats Sony Reader:

  • Book selection. The Kindle leaves the Sony Reader in the dust. A broad book selection is especially important if your literary diet goes beyond the bestseller list or the latest romance or mystery from the publishers’ darlings.
  • Wireless downloads. This is more than handy; on the road, it’s essential. The fact that Amazon is picking up the tab for the wireless access – and that the Kindle contains a basic Web browser to boot – is the sugar on top of the cherry on top of the cream. Sony’s Connect Book store and software are horrible to use, with excruciatingly poor search capabilities and very slow response times. Getting content into the Reader is frustrating, and trying to organise it once it’s there is painful. In contrast, purchasing through the Kindle store is fun and fast.
  • Page controls. Sony got this seriously wrong on its original Reader (the PRS-500), by placing its two sets of Page Forward/Page Back controls right above each other, on the left-hand side. This simply doesn’t work. If you take a look at the recently released PRS-505 (I’ll have a review of this new model for you next week), you’ll see that the page controls have been moved. The Kindle has page controls on both the left and right sides. They work perfectly when you read in a sitting position, enabling easy single-handed reading; they’re not so great if you like to read in bed. Shortening the right-hand control would improve bedtime reading considerably.
  • Readability. Kindle’s choice of six font sizes is a lot better than Sony’s small, medium and large choices and the Kindle display is just a little bit crisper.
  • Built-in references. The Kindle comes with the New Oxford American Dictionary built in, plus wireless access to Wikipedia. To use the dictionary, scroll to the line containing the word you wish to look up and click: the Kindle looks up every word on the line and displays the definitions. If the New Oxford is not your preferred dictionary, you can purchase another one and then use the Kindle’s settings to set it as the default dictionary for the device. The Sony Reader has no built-in reference tools.
  • Search, annotations and highlighting. The Kindle lets you search across all your content, highlight passages and save them to a central My Clippings store (backed up on Amazon’s servers), and add annotations. That built-in keyboard may increase the size of the Kindle, but it has its payoffs.

The Kindle: Not cool, but hot

I passed the Sony Reader and the Kindle around the table at Thanksgiving lunch. Everyone loved them both and everyone thought the Sony Reader much cooler. But as soon as I mentioned that the Kindle was wireless enabled and showed them how that worked, the contest was over: everyone wanted a Kindle.

The Sony Reader has a lot going for it, but in-built wireless really is a killer feature. That Amazon picks up the tab, not only for access to the store (as it should) but also for basic Web access, makes it irresistible. The Kindle also beats out the Reader when it comes to book choice and the overall book-buying experience. The Sony Connect store feels like it was designed by book-buying dilettantes; the Kindle store has the Amazon book-lover stamp all over it. It’s a persuasive difference.

A word on formats

The Kindle and the Sony Reader each use a proprietary format for ebook content. Both devices also provide support for other text and graphics (and audio) formats, but the support is halfhearted.

You may have heard that the Reader supports PDFs while the Kindle doesn’t. That’s true, but getting PDFs onto the Reader in readable form is no picnic, and graphics, in any format, are less than satisfactory on both readers.

There are various workarounds available, including using MobiPocket Creator to convert PDF and Word documents to a usable form, but if PDF support is a must-have for you, neither the Reader nor the Kindle will make you happy.