Sony has been a leading light in the ebook reader industry for a long time. Since the launch of the Kindle in 2009, it's been the only alternative worth considering - and this new model maintains that record.
The first thing you notice when you pick up the Reader Wi-Fi is how light it is: it weighs only 162g. With no keyboard, it's small enough to slip into an inside jacket pocket, and although it's a touch plasticky, it's well made, and the soft-touch rear provides a nice grippy surface to hold on to.
The screen is 6in across with a resolution of 600 x 800, and you get 1.4GB of usable memory - expandable via a microSD slot. There's also infrared touchscreen, just like the Kobo eReader Touch. This means you can sweep your finger right to left to turn a page, make handwritten annotations with the stylus, and highlight text effortlessly. That's nothing new for Sony. Where this device differs from predecessors is the 802.11n Wi-Fi adapter.
Overseas this lets you access Sony's Reader store, which unfortunately is not available in Australia. The Reader does still let you use Wi-Fi to sync books bought from the web, which is done via Sony's PC software. This supports dragging and dropping of files, be they DRM-free or bundled up using Adobe's Digital Editions DRM.
The onboard WebKit web browser, however, is fully functional, and with the Reader Wi-Fi's sensitive touchscreen this works surprisingly well. It will never rival a tablet for ease of use, but for accessing free ebook sites such as the Gutenberg Project, and even checking the odd email, it's perfectly functional. Even inertial scrolling and pinch-to-zoom operations function, although you may find the constant screen refresh sends you cross-eyed after a while.
Elsewhere, the Sony exhibits similar strengths and weaknesses to previous Sony models. It is a superlative PDF-reading device. The multitouch screen means even complex pages can be manipulated quickly and simply. And there are all manner of other ways of reading such documents. In Navigate Page mode, for example, the reader can be set to zoom to the first column on a page, then follow the flow of text.
Handwritten annotations can be made and text highlighted. A long press of the finger on a word displays not only a dictionary definition, but also quick links to Google and Wikipedia searches.
The device also holds its own in terms of screen refresh speed and readability. EPUB pages flip by in a single second, and as the Reader uses an E Ink Pearl panel, contrast is very good. The Kindle's screen demonstrates a touch more contrast and crispness, but there's very little in it considering that the screen technology is the same.
This is clearly a capable device: it's quick, readable and can handle PDF files in a more intuitive way than any other reader - plus it's incredibly light. We're disappointed the store wasn't ready, but even without it the Sony Reader Wi-Fi is the best alternative to the all-conquering Kindles; we only wish it was a little cheaper.