UPDATE: I updated this to clarify the features the PRS-300 doesn’t have, added an entry about the Astak 5-inch ereader, and clarified that not all new ebooks are DRMed. Also added info that Sonys still don’t work well with Macs and link. Original intro follows.

This summer has seen a swarm of new dedicated ereaders. If you’re a little overwhelmed by all the new options, here’s a quick guide. I’ll supplement this in a few days with a look at upcoming and rumored devices.


Sony Reader PRS-300, $199

Quick verdict: Best device for the casual novel reader, no question about it. No ship date has been released.

[UPDATE: If you use a Mac, take a hard look at the limitations of the Reader on Macs before you buy one.]

It’s a dumb name (PRS stands for “portable reading system,” which could also describe, you know, a book), but for my money Sony makes the best casual ereaders on the market. I’ve had my 505 since February, and I’ve mostly loved it.

The 300 is basically an updated 505. It’s slightly smaller (with a 5-inch screen instead of 6 inches) and $100 cheaper, and that second part makes it the best deal in ereaders.

There are a few drawbacks, noticeably the lack of peripherals. The 300 doesn’t have an SD card slot, so you’re stuck with 440 MB (conservatively 200-300 books). It also doesn’t have audio out (although personally, after playing around with mp3s in ereaders, I’ve never actually used that feature, it kills battery life and I’ve already got an mp3 player).

The 300 still won’t get wireless, so if you really want that (for newspapers or magazines), you’ll have a tough decision. However, if you read mostly books, the Sony is for you. By the end of the year, Barnes & Noble and Sony should both be selling ePub ebooks for $9.99, ending the Kindle book price discrepancy. In the meantime (and afterward), ePub support means you can borrow library ebooks.

Sony’s software is abysmal, but they make it pretty easy to use Adobe Digital Editions, instead, and soon the Reader will be compatible with Macs. The bottom line is that Sony makes a great reading device, one that’s cheaper and more open than the Kindle. If you’re willing to give up mp3s and extra storage, this reader should provide a great reading experience at a great price.

Links: here’s the PRS-300 page at Sony (no word yet on when the 300 will ship); here’s a video comparing the screens of the 300, 600, and 505; check the PRS-300 entry in our ereader comparison for links to more resources as they become available.

Sony PRS-600, $299

Quick verdict: The cheapest touchscreen option out there, but interested parties might be better off waiting for Plastic Logic.

[UPDATE: If you use a Mac, take a hard look at the limitations of the Reader on Macs before you buy one.]

On the other hand, I’m not so excited about the 600. I had a bad experience with Sony’s last attempt at a touchscreen-equipped ereader; essentially the touchscreen broke from me touching it (and Sony tech support is none too helpful).

Even before it broke, the 700 was a drag. The screen was both low-contrast and highly reflective, and the touchscreen wasn’t awesome enough to make up for those big drawbacks.

Presumably, Sony’s been working on touchscreen implementation since then. Still, I’m not convinced that all the kinks have been ironed out. For one thing, this video shows that the touchscreen still suffers from blurriness and bright reflections.

If you’re really interested in interacting with your ebooks, at least wait a month or so, until actual customers have a chance to test it out. If possible, wait until the Plastic Logic comes out early next year.

Links: a video comparing the screens of the 300, 600, and 505; the PRS-600 page at Sony (no ship date has been announced yet); a video review at Mobiletechreview―they say the screen isn’t as bad as the 700’s and isn’t as good as the 505’s; and check the PRS-600 entry in our ereader comparison for links to reviews and other resources as they becomes available.

Bookeen Cybook Opus, $280

Quick verdict: The Opus is behind the curve. No new features and an oversized price tag make it an unattractive option.

The Opus is Bookeen’s latest ereader. It’s got all the usual suspects, feature-wise: DRMed ePub/PDF support. E-Ink. An interface.

This is another ereader that would be tempting at a much lower price point, but for $280, what are you buying? Bookeen hasn’t done much of anything new since the Cybook Gen3 (which you can still buy, somehow, for $350. There’s no touchscreen, no wireless, and they’re still boasting about battery life.

In fact, the major difference between the Gen3 and the Opus is that the Opus has a 5-inch screen. Which means that it doesn’t even have that over the PRS-300.

Links: the Opus homepage; an Opus unboxing (in French).

Onyx Boox, $???

Quick verdict: Interesting potential, but so far a non-factor in the ereader wars.

The Onyx Boox comes from Chinese company Onyx International. It features a slick little touchscreen (check out this video) and “scribble anywhere,” meaning you can write directly on your ebooks with the stylus.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to support DRM formats, and, even worse, doesn’t even seem to be for sale in the U.S. (and it was announced in March).

Until further notice, this isn’t an option for American readers.

Links: the questionably translated Onyx website. No mention of a way to purchase the Boox.

Cool-er eReader, $249

Quick verdict: At $50 more than the PRS-300, the Cool-er is only worth it if you really want a green ereader or really want a 6″ screen.

The Cool-er’s big selling point is that it’s colorful (on the outside; its screen is still monochrome). Other than that, it’s underlying specs are very similar to the PRS-300’s, and it’s interface seems to be a lot worse.

Like the Sony Readers, Cool-er supports Adobe Digital Editions, and DRMed ePub and PDF through Adobe. It has the regular E-Ink screen, the regular battery, etc., etc. But its build quality and user interface don’t compare. There are also complaints about the font and the mp3 execution.

If this device was $50 cheaper than the Sony Reader, we might have a race; as it is, no contest.

When Cool-er was first announced, they claimed to be the iPod of ereaders. Evidently they didn’t understand that it was the iPod’s user interface, and not its form factor, that made it a game-changer.

Links: the Cool-er homepage; a harsh review at Gizmodo; a kinder but still unconvincing video review by TechCrunch.

Ectaco jetBook, $199

Quick verdict: Often the cheapest ereader available, the jetBook has been upstaged by the PRS-300. Unless you don’t want any DRMed books, definitely go for the Sony.

The jetBook is an interesting device, because it uses a non-backlit LCD screen instead of the usual E-Ink. That’s good because it’s faster, but bad because the contrast is not as good.

Even worse, it doesn’t appear that the jetBook supports DRM at all, which means no library ebooks and severely limits the new ebooks you’ll be able to buy.

It was a good idea six months ago, when the second cheapest ereader was nearly $300, but now that the PRS-300 is the same price, there’s no reason to buy the jetBook.

Links: here’s a detailed user review; a video of the jetBook in action; the rather unhelpful jetBook homepage (do not buy it there, instead buy at Bed, Bath & Beyond, where it ships for $100 less and with the latest firmware).

Astak 5-inch EZ Reader, $199
Quick verdict: If you want mp3s on your ereader, or an SD card slot, this is the cheapest ereader with those features and DRM support. If you don’t need that stuff, a PRS-300 is probably your best bet.

When Astak first announced its EZ Reader in May (when it was called the Mentor), it looked like a line of all-new designs. Now that it’s (almost) here, it appears to be the same build as the 6-inch model (i.e. a Hanlin V3, see below) with a smaller screen and a choice of colors (on the case, the screen is still black and white).

There are a couple of interesting features that Astak is touting in its press release, most noticeably text-to-speech, SD card support up to 16 GB, and support for a wider range of non-DRM formats.

But the Astak website is reluctant to reveal exactly what formats will be supported, and the EZ Reader doesn’t support SDHC cards yet (I don’t even know where you find a 16 GB SD-plain card). [UPDATE: An Astak rep tells me that the DRM-free formats supported include .prc, .lit, and .pdb, as well as the usual suspects. Additionally, SDHC support is standard with both the 5-inch and 6-inch versions, and they’re working on support for DRM .pdb (the Fictionwise eReader format). That means that if you’ve got a collection of old pdb or lit books, this could be a great option for you.]

In our side-by-side comparison of the Sony PRS-505 and the BeBook (also a Hanlin V3 build), the Sony had a better build quality and a better user interface.

If you really want text-to-speech or mp3s (the PRS-300 has no audio output) or 16 GB of books (the PRS-300 has no SD card slot at all, so you’re stuck with 440 MB), the Astak has the cheapest device with those features. If you don’t need those features, the PRS-300 will probably have the better reading experience.

Links: the Astak EZ Reader homepage. The 5-inch Astak is only available for preorder.

Rebranded Hanlins

It’s a popular way to jump into the ereader marketplace: you start with a Hanlin V3, which is an established (and cheap) ereader. Then you design your own firmware for it, and sell it under your own name. The original BeBook is a rebranded Hanlin, as is the 6-inch Astak EZReader. They look like the picture at left (plus or minus a logo).

Rebranded Hanlins are generally overpriced because there’s an extra middleman (whoever’s making a new firmware and pasting on their logo). So unless you find one for cheap, don’t bother. The going rate is about $300, like this one at Wal-Mart.

Keep an eye out for it, and realize what you’re getting before you buy.