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I’ve now had a chance to play with the Sony Reader PRS-505, Sony’s revamped ebook reader.

When you look at the 505 side by side with its predecessor, the PRS-500, it doesn’t look like a whole lot has changed. Appearances are misleading.

Cosmetically, the changes look minor, but in terms of usablity, they’re crucial. The PRS-505’s screen is brighter, making it appreciably more readable than the PRS-500, which was already quite comfortably readable. The brighter screen means you need less ambient light to read. The change puts the Sony screen on a par with the Kindle’s.

Of far more importance is the repositioning of the page navigation buttons. The original Sony had two sets of Page Forward/Page Backward buttons, both sets incomprehensibly located one above the other on the left-hand side of the screen. That positioning made it hard to read single-handedly. The new Sony also comes with two sets of Forward/Backward buttons, but now there’s one set on the bottom left, the other positioned nearthe middle right. With this change, you can now read single-handedly, using either right or left hand; you can also easily ‘turn’ the page without having to move or shift your hands.

This may sound like a minor thing, but it’s not;  it’s huge. Reading comfort and content choice are the two factors developers of ebook readers must get right to attract users and keep them happy. The Sony PRS-505 delivers a highly comfortable reading experience. The brighter screen and well-positioned navigation buttons, coupled with the new slimmer design, make it a pleasure to use.

The Kindle, too, is really comfortable to use, but only when you are sitting and reading. Take the Kindle to bed, though, and those enormous navigation buttons, which occupy almost the whole of each side, will drive you nuts. Bedtime readers will find those large buttons almost unavoidable. You’ll often find yourself turning pages accidentally. The problem is, there’s no place on the side of the Kindle to rest your fingers without hitting a navigation button. When you’re sitting, your fingers can rest on either side of the keyboard; this just doesn’t work when you’re lying down.

So the Kindle fails the bed test. It’ll be interesting to see whether Amazon does anything about this before it produces Kindle Mark II.

Content before comfort

Although the redesign of the Sony Reader makes it the most comfortable ebook reader around, the Kindle still has the benefits of its much larger book catalogue and wireless downloads. Those two features make it worth the additional asking price.

Still, if Amazon hopes to make the Kindle a long-term hit, it’s going to have to win over many, many more publishers. Ninety-two thousand books sounds like a lot, but it makes for a pretty sparse library. I’ve found that I turn up no more than around 3% of the titles I search for, and maybe 25% of the authors. I’m not too surprised – although certainly disappointed – that the Kindle book store’s popular physics and cosmology shelves are only lightly stocked, but when searches for such diverse authors as Richard Dawkins, Sue Grafton, Donna Leon, Mary Oliver, Anne Fadiman, John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Cass Sunstein turn up almost no titles the differences between the pbook world and the ebook world become painfully apparent.

No-one will care how readable or how cool the Kindle is if there’s no content. And the same goes for the Sony Reader, which has only a fraction of the Kindle’s content.