UPDATE: See end of post.

I’ve come to the conclusion that ereaders are not ready for serious books. They’re simply not good enough for students or anyone who wants to interact with what they’re reading: highlighting, taking notes, none of that is truly functional yet.

So, if you’re in the market for an ereader with which to casually read books and newspapers—one that doesn’t have any kind of keyboard—two stand out from the crowd: the Sony PRS-505, and the BeBook from Endless Ideas BV. (The CyBook was close, but it’s $50 more expensive than the BeBook including a cover, it doesn’t support as many formats as the BeBook, and doesn’t display page numbers or have number buttons, which is simply too little functionality, even for a casual ereader.)

I decided to get both a 505 and a BeBook and see for myself which was better. Here’s a side-by-side comparison.

Note: Sony Readers are not currently compatible with Mac or Linux. They still work with Calibre, but you won’t be able to buy or borrow any DRMed books (which means any current books). If you use one of those systems, get a BeBook.

Price: advantage 505

The Sony’s about $25 cheaper. You can find the best price through third-party retailers on Amazon. I got mine from this seller. And it got here about 2 days sooner, though BeBook got here quite quickly (4 days), considering it came from the Netherlands.

Build quality/physicality: advantage 505

The Sony is clearly better in terms of sturdiness and physical quality. Its body and interface are made of metal, and it feels more solid, though it’s definitely heavier. Both devices’ covers close with magnets; the BeBook’s is stiffer. But, the Sony cover actually attaches to the ereader, while the BeBook sits loose in its cover, which feels precarious.

I can’t tell a difference between the screens. Both are very readable, and the flash between pages similar.

Formats supported: advantage BeBook

Sony supports DRMed PDF and LRF (Sony proprietary); and also epub, txt, rtf, mp3, AAC, jpeg, gif, png, and bmp.

BeBook supports DRM Mobipocket; and also pdf, epub, lit, txt, fb2, doc, html, rtf, djvu, wol, ppt, mbp, chm, bmp, jpg, png, gif, tif, rar, zip, mp3.

If you use a lot of one of BeBook’s more arcane formats, feel good about buying one.

Interface: advantage 505

The 505’s buttons and firmware are better designed than the BeBook’s. The 505 has both number buttons to skip to pages, and a four-way arrow button to select options or links. The BeBook requires that you open a menu to go to a certain page, or to follow a link from a table of contents.

I was skeptical about the 505’s matching of buttons on the side to options, but it’s actually significantly more convenient than the alternative. The 505 can also list books by author; the BeBook displays no metadata for authors.

The BeBook does have a few advantages: you can upload any TrueType font and change the text to any font you’ve uploaded. The device-to-computer interface is also cleaner, as the BeBook becomes a drag-and-drop hard drive as soon as you plug it in. However, this is both a blessing and a curse, as you might find yourself struggling through nested folders to find where you put the book you’re looking for.

BeBook remembers which books you were reading recently, which is quite convenient. To do this with the Sony Reader, you have to manage a collection, which is doable, but an extra step.

Bookmarking: advantage 505

Bookmarking works quite well on the 505. There’s a dedicated button for it: self-explanatory.

It’s trickier on the BeBook. You’ve got a maximum of 5 bookmarks, the numbers 1-5, and then you have to reset them. Plus, bookmarks don’t appear to work at all with mobi files, which is the only DRM format the BeBook supports. [UPDATE: You can bookmark in Mobipocket, by going to the bookmark menu (6 button) and then hitting OK, and then add bookmark. Clunky, but doable.] Overall, quite disappointing. But if you’re in the market for a casual ereader, there’s a good chance that you don’t even care about bookmarks.

Book acquisition: draw

You have to struggle to get library books on a BeBook, and it looks like you must reset the fake clock every time you turn off the BeBook—luckily you can just lock the keyboard. You also have to struggle to get anything from Sony’s eBook Store, but using Adobe Digital Editions to get library books is significantly easier than Mobipocket Reader.

I read mostly PDFs on my 505, and mostly Mobis on my BeBook. If you prefer static pagination and don’t mind awkward page breaks, PDFs are for you. If you don’t care much for pagination, Mobis have a wider range of available pay-for titles, and Mobi is a more common, though (I would argue) less useful, ebook format.

Both devices support non-DRMed ePub.

Magazine acquisition: draw

The Sony can be recognized by Calibre, which means you can use Calibre’s slick RSS capabilities to pull down articles from many popular newspapers and magazines (not to mention almost any blog), package them into ebooks in whatever format you like—LRF, ePub, or Mobi—and sync them directly to your 505.

Mobipocket Reader can do about the same thing for Mobi ereaders like the BeBook, but it’s slightly clunkier, and less customizable. (You can use Calibre-created files with BeBook, but it won’t auto-sync, so I generally use Mobipocket Reader.)

I’ve found this ability pretty useful in both devices, but completely satisfying in neither. However, both executions of RSS have one big advantage over the Kindle: they’re free.

Accessories: slight advantage BeBook

Both of these ereaders come with covers, which is nice, as you’ll need one to take the device… well, anywhere. Neither CyBook nor Kindle comes with an included cover (although Kindle does come with a direct-to-outlet power adapter).

The 505 requires a special adapter to charge from a wall. You can get one designed for a PSP, but it’s still $12 and bulky. The BeBook can use its regular cord with any USB-to-outlet adapter, like the one used for iPods. If you don’t have one, you can get a decent one for less than $10, shipped.

Customer service: big advantage BeBook

BeBook customer support is quite good. I posted earlier about BeBook support giving the nod to an unofficial hack that allowed customers to read library books. They also offer regular firmware updates, and listen to users’ requests for new features.

Sony, on the other hand, tried to blame me for my PRS-700’s broken screen, and will try not to make good on their warranty if at all possible. And they’re an absolute nightmare to deal with while they tell you that.

If Sony support was better, the 505 would be a clearly better investment.

Conclusion: the 505 wins, but you can’t quite feel good about it

The BeBook would be an excellent bargain ereader option, if it was a bargain. Since it’s actually more expensive, I can’t say that it’s worth that extra. The interface is significantly less useful than the 505’s, and the device itself is flimsier.

However, I live in fear that I’ll accidentally break the screen of my 505 (or that it would break itself), in which case, I’d simply be out $270. If you’re willing to take a risk that you won’t get a lemon, go with the Sony.

If, however, you break things easily, or you don’t trust Sony (which I completely understand), or you just want to sleep soundly knowing that friendly people will help you out if something goes wrong, you can feel quite good buying a BeBook. It’s not as slick or as pretty as the 505, but it’s quite functional for casual reading.

UPDATE: Endless Ideas will not accept any returns because you don’t like the BeBook, even if (as in my case), you’ve had it less than a week.

That makes it really hard to recommend buying the original BeBook or the coming BeBook 2, since it’s difficult to get a true feel for the device from a video. If you have a Mac, or a Linux machine, BeBook is the best ereader for you by default. If, however, you run Windows, go check out a PRS-505 at the store, and realize that BeBook will be clunkier on pretty much all counts.