Sony eBook Reader PRS-T1: First Look

I love a good book. Being spoilt with all the dynamic content that is available via the iPad for digital magazines, it’s sometimes refreshing to just read plain text and let the imagination do the rest. After all, the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Twilight franchises started out as books full of words and lavish description. There is something about using your own mind’s eye to recreate an author’s passage without the benefit of a TV screen or computer monitor, or even tablet these days, to fill it in for you.

Overseas, the eBook market is massive, with a lot of legitimate choice for buyers who genuinely want to purchase content as they would a book off a shelf at a bookstore. Although Australia is still lagging to some extent in terms of electronic content availability, it is good to see that it hasn’t stopped manufacturers releasing new and impressive eBook readers, such as the Sony PRS-T1, which I’m reviewing here today.

Sony Reader PRS-T1 Front page

Intuitive touchscreen elements, great reading screen and lightweight but solid build.

To start with, the Sony is well designed and is extremely lightweight. At only 168grams, you would not notice this reader in a bag, and is a touch less than 9mm thick. Its 6” display sits well in a holding position, large enough to read a fair amount of text on the screen, but not too awkward too hold in one hand.

As far as physical button and connections go, it has five buttons on the bottom face, and a micro USB port for charging and computer connection, along with headphones and a power button. A micro SD card slot is located on the side for loading additional books to the 1,200 book capacity already available.

Sony Reader PRS-T1 Inputs

Bottom of the Reader showing the Micro USB, headphones and power button

The E-ink screen looks amazing. In contrast (pardon the pun) to backlit tablet products that offer the same functionality, e-ink does not have its own display light, but acts like printed text and requires a light source to read by – just like a real book. It’s actually startling how different on the eyes the E-ink text is.

Sony Reader PRS-T1 Text Page

Just like reading the real thing.

It is deceptively easy to read whole chapters of a book without putting it down, partly because of the weight and partly because of the passive screen. The E-ink presents an effortless reading environment.

Page turning is a simple swipe motion on the screen, and no pressure needs to be applied to the screen, very similar to tablet actions. In fact, I found out today that the core software driving the operating system on the Sony Reader is an Android derivative.

Sony Reader PRS-T1 Buttons

Android platform provides a familiar platform and therefore intuitive navigation and functionality.

This actually makes lots of sense as the three buttons representing Home, Back and Menu are direct ports of Android buttons on earlier smartphones. Much of the navigation is icon-based, so in hindsight Android is perfectly suited to provide a seamless experience.

The Reader actually comes with a stylus but I haven’t seen the need to use it so far. The fact that there’s no holder on the actual reader makes me think a lot of others may make-do with their fingers. So far it hasn’t been an issue. You may want to use it for the free-form handwriting function, which you can save.

Sony Reader PRS-T1 Handwriting

Screen is reasonably responsive for stylus entry.

Battery power is quoted at around 4 weeks, with only a couple of hours charge. This is possible because the battery is consumed only when a page is changed – when a new page is displayed no power is required to retain the image. I’m still getting used to this – pressing the power button once puts the Sony Reader into sleep mode, and generates an image of the cover of the latest book you’re reading. This cover image remains until you press the power button again, and I kept doing double-glances before realising that this was its sleep mode.

Because of yet-to-be-finalised licencing agreements, the on-board bookstore and library (where you can actually “borrow books”) available to other countries is not yet functional in Australia. However, there are many places to find books online – the Book Bites blog lists over 30 currently available eBook repositories, both free and paid. The Sony Reader software also provides access to content from Borders & Angus and Robertson.

Transferring books has up to this point been an easy affair – I’ve downloaded an ePub title and then simply dragged and dropped onto the Sony Reader, which comes up as a drive once connected via USB. The Sony Reader software can also be used to transfer content that is DRM protected, specifically Adobe Digital Editions, but if your book does not have restrictions then using the standard Windows interface is simple.

The Sony Reader is also Wi-Fi enabled, and comes with a browser for connection to the internet. Most sites I visited defaulted to the mobile versions of each site, which makes sense for the 6” screen and lack of colours or flash playback. The touch screen also allows basic pinch and zoom actions, handy for web browsing when text is too small to be readable.

Sony Reader PRS-T1 with Ritchies Room in the Browser

Orientation can also be adjusted for website viewing. To avoid large downloads, the Sony Reader will load the mobile site if available.

In other countries the Wi-Fi would also serve as a portal for book purchasing and borrowing which would negate the need for an intermediary step to load purchased content from PC, instead directly through the PRS-T1 itself. This is obviously an advantage for the competiting Kindle, which has content available on tap through its range.

There are a few more features that enhance the reading experience. Touching a particular word in a book will bring up its definition and the option to search for that word on Wikipedia or Google. In fact, the Sony Reader has 12 built-in dictionaries, so you should never be lost for the meaning of a word.

Sony Reader PRS-T1 Dictionary

Built-in dictionary with direct search and wikipedia function, great for non-fiction books where you may want to dig further into a particular subject.

You are able to manage books by placing them in “collections”, and you have control over the naming conventions of these “folders”; you can choose to manage by genre, age or author – entirely up to you.

You can also load songs onto the Reader, so you can listen to music while you’re reading. If you were going to do this, I strongly suggest a large size Micro SD card, 16GB-32GB in size.

As far as e-book readers go, I think Sony is onto a winner here. The E-ink display is gorgeous and as long as you are willing to explore book titles yourself through the Sony Reader PC software and various websites as mentioned above, then the functionality of the PRS-T1 will reward you with many good reads over time.

Do you buy e-books yourself, and if so what websites would you recommend for users of e-book readers in Australia?

 

Asus UX31 Ultrabook: First Look

Intel’s new line up of low voltage Core Processors have given rise to a new generation of notebooks, which will start to see the light of day from this October onwards. I’ve had an opportunity to have some hands-on time with an upcoming model from Asus, who have been displaying a fair bit of innovation in the tablet area and look set to continue that trend with this new range.

New breed... the UX31 Ultrabook.

“Thin and light” is the war cry for Ultrabooks, and the Asus UX31, one of the new breed of mobile PCs about to be unleashed to an unsuspecting public, can add “metallic” to that anthem. This is a very industrial-looking piece of tech, from its brushed metal lid to its ultra-thin wedged front and rather sharp corners.

No fingerprints... The UX31 doesn't attract marks and dust like some glossy finishes.

The Asus UX31 was handed to me in a smart looking leather envelope, which seemed incomprehensible to be carrying a notebook of any sort. The envelope itself has a magnet embedded in both the body and fold-over, keeping the package well protected until the dramatic opening, revealing an extremely thin metal Ultrabook.

The Asus Ultrabook travels in style.

The leather slip case was light with the Ultrabook inside, and the UX31 feels as if it should be a little heavier given the physical materials it is wrapped in. The unit is only 1.1kg, extremely light for a notebook of this size, and you really notice its lack of weight when it’s open and operating in the palm of one hand.

Classy...Low tech leather and high tech metal metal make a great combination

The front edge is so thin – 3mm – that Asus have smartly added a small protruding lip at the centre of the lid for easy opening. The unit then increases in thickness to its rear, reaching only 17mm at its peak – still very thin.

Thin profile... the UX31 in side profile showing USB and SD card slot.

From standby, the UX31 bounces into life in a blink, and the bright 13.3” screen displays a 1600 x 900 resolution, higher than some larger screen counterparts. The expected array of status LED is missing, with only tiny white LEDs embedded in the caps lock, Wi-Fi function key and in the power key, which has been integrated into the keyboard layout.

Sparseness is the theme for this Ultrabook, with a small but useful amount of connections. On the left hand side there is the SD/MMC card slot, headphone jack and USB 2.0 port. On the right hand side are all the new-tech connections: Micro HDMI, Mini Displayport and USB 3.0 plus the small power socket.

Digital and high speed connections are welcome on the UX31.

As more components become compressed into smaller and thinner form factors, issues like heating need innovative solutions. Asus have placed its ventilation at the back of the keyboard, just below the screen. The use of the low voltage Core i7 quad core processor and SSD storage also assists in keeping heat down.

Vents at the back of the keyboard help minimise heat.

Video playback was smooth and non-jittery, and it seemed to be able to handle high bit rate content very well. The sound element was interesting – what it lacked in depth, the UX31 made up in stereo separation. Effects and musical instruments were very discernible and seemed to be coming from more than two directions.

Brushed aluminuim and island keys with a full size touchpad. The speakers are positioned between the keyboard and the screen.

For those that have never heard the term “unibody” before, the UX31 is a good example of unibody design and construction. The Asus Ultrabook uses single sheets of material, in this case aluminium, to form a minimalist, almost hollowed-out appearance to ensure a rigid casework. Rigidity and stiffness are more important than ever, with evermore streamlined and sleek designs produced due to the nature of Intel’s Ultrabook criteria. With the advent of Ultrabooks, unibody designs will become much more prevalent in the coming months.

The undercarriage of the UX31... a great unibody execution.

After spending a few hours with the UX31, it’s funny how quickly you get used to the form factor – my trusty notebook that I’m writing this article on looks and feels positively chunky after handling the Ultrabook.

Consider for a moment the advances that had to occur to get us to a point where a product like the Asus Ultrabook could be produced – high speed transfer via USB, reliable solid state drives, low voltage processors, lightweight casework materials, and overhauled cooling designs. Traditional PC makers can be that little less traditional and a bit more edgy with these new products that are as much about lifestyle and self-image as they are about performance and design.

This is one technology bump I can see catching on.

Acer A500 Iconia Tablet – Unboxing and Overview

Acer were the first to release a Honeycomb tablet to the general retail market, and as I mentioned in a previous blog post, they set the benchmark for the type of inputs and outputs one could previously only wish for on a tablet – mini and full size USB, HDMI, and SD Card slot are all built into the body of the A500.

One comment that I’ve noticed lately from customers is the lack of embedded 3G in the Iconia, as opposed to some of the other tablets now available in the market, particularly those offered by telcos. One thing many people don’t realise is that if they own a late model iPhone or Android phone, and have updated to the latest phone firmware, they can now take advantage of their phone’s 3G internet connection by turning on the personal hotspot function.

This allows the Iconia to find the phone as a Wi-Fi access point, and use the phone’s plan for any browsing or downloads through the tablet. Many people have a home landline account, home internet account and a 3G phone account, and don’t want yet another plan – this is an easy way to share the bandwidth available on your smartphone.

During the filming of the unboxing video that we produced for Bing Lee, we tried streaming video via a phone hotspot, and there was some buffering at the beginning of the clip but it played smoothly after that – we did have full signal strength so I’m sure that helped. Of course, you wouldn’t always be streaming video, other online activities would include downloading email, browsing the net, and using apps that require online updates.

So, who out there has been using an Acer Iconia, and how has your experience been with it so far? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Here’s the unboxing video:

IPTV Made Easy! (videos included below)

Getting online via the television has been a holy grail pursued by major manufacturers for many years, and it appears that we are finally reaching that point of true convergence, where the lounge room melds with the computer room.

If you’ve bought a flat screen TV recently, chances are it has some ability to connect to the internet. But how do you actually make this happen? And what kind of experience do you get by using your TV as your online portal?

First, I’m going to take you through a basic checklist of what you need to make it online through your TV and then show you what Internet TV looks like today. This guide assumes that you have a TV with IPTV capability.

STEP 1: Broadband Internet Connection.

You need a fairly robust and fast internet connection at home. As long as you have cable or ADSL, and you have a decent bandwidth limit on your monthly account, you should be fine.

STEP 2: Wireless Router.

I’ve suggested this because most households, especially apartments, don’t have a wired network connection in the lounge room where the main TV usually is. If you have a notebook or two in your home, then you’ll probably already be connected sans wires. Wireless routers allow multiple devices to connect to the internet from the one broadband source as long as they have a wireless “Wi-Fi” receiver built-in.

(If your TV has built-in Wi-Fi then you can skip the next step.)

STEP 3: Wireless Dongle.

This part is REALLY important. Look at the back of any internet enabled TV, and you’ll see an “Ethernet” jack, where a network cable would usually go. Now remember how we mentioned most homes not having a wired network connection in the lounge rom? This socket on the TV needs to be converted to receive a wireless internet signal from your wireless router.

You have two choices – you can get the manufacturer’s own wireless dongle or a generic Ethernet-to-Wi-Fi converter. Either way, it will provide your TV with the capability to hook into your wireless network. In fact, to add extra value some brands include the dongle with the TV.

IMPORTANT: You should always secure your wireless network with a password, and your TV’s software will allow you to connect using the security password. It’s usually just a one-off process during the connection setup.

STEP 4: Connect.

Each brand of IPTV will have its own way of accessing your internet connection, but the good thing is that most of it is done via the TV’s remote control. You’ll need your network’s name and password handy for this part. Once your TV has confirmed that it’s connected to your wireless network and accessing the internet, only one more step.

STEP 5: ENJOY.

IPTV has started to take off because people don’t need to use a browser (and therefore some kind of keyboard) to have a decent online experience via their TV. With smartphones popularising the “app”, TV manufacturers have introduced their own apps for specific content offerings. Video channels, weather, stock updates, news headlines, YouTube, and online photo sharing to name a few, are all easily accessible using just the remote control.

Finally, let’s have a look at a couple of brands and how their IPTV offers compare:

First Panasonic, with their Viera Cast, which includes an option to use Skype, which does need an additional accessory but is a great way to video conference with family and friends:

And Samsung, with their offering called Internet@TV, which features social networking apps for Twitter, Facebook as well as Youtube and other video content providers:

Having access to the above content from the comfort of your lounge or living room has its benefits. You don’t need to move from one room to another or turn on another device, for one. Secondly, it can be a more “social” (excuse the pun) way of enjoying your friends’ Twitter and Facebook updates.

The key to enjoying IPTV is working out what information is relevant and interesting to you and utilising the apps that provide you that content. The great news is that all the big brands are continually updating and adding apps to their own service, so your online experience on TV will keep improving.