A lot of the times it seems there are two ways to look at the world, normally or through Apple shaped glasses. No-one launches a tablet anymore, they lay down the gauntlet to the iPad or something similar. Sure, the iPhone and iPad make good touchstones, because like it or not everyone knows what they are.
What it means is that when a product launches and attempts to get a different message across that message often ends up iFlavoured. Take Sony’s big IFA announcements for example. By far the hottest product unveiled was the 3D head mounted display, which unfortunately looks like its a long way from turning up on Aussie shelves. Not only did it bring back a flood of memories of playing Dactyl Nightmare on a Virtuality machine many moons ago, its a truly different product that has been tried before, but now has suitable technology to back it up.
But of course the big interest has been the Tablets. We know that we wont see an antipodean Tablet P for a while, but the Tablet S is coming. Sony has been incredibly smart about it though - both making a bold (and incredibly Sony) design statement with the folded book look. But even more than that it is leveraging aspects that are uniquely Sony, and pushing it more as a media tablet than the second coming of the PC.
But inevitably that means ‘Sony goes after iPad’. Despite the fact that the initial launch is targeted at WiFi in the home, pushing unique features like the spine-mounted IR transceiver and its universal remote App. Sure its a tablet, and sure it has a $579 price tag for the 16GB. But the latter is almost purely Sony recognising it needs to compete but doesn't want to go lower than what Apple charges.
Where the really fascinating product battle lies isn’t with the Tablet, its with the new Reader. This month marks five year since the first generation Sony Reader launched in the US (Australia only got in on the Reader action last year), but this is remarkably different. It is thinner, lighter and comes in a sleek plastic shell rather than the solid metal of yore. Most notably different though is the price. At $179 it is a fraction of the 2010’s Touch model’s price and it shows.
The 2011 Sony Reader
However what $179 does do is make it competitive with the Kindle. Even though Sony Australia claims that the previous generation was a runaway success, you only have to look around a Sydney bus to see just how common the Kindle is, even here in Australia thanks to our love of online shopping.
Set aside the advantage given by the Amazon store’s ease of use and massive range and Sony has a highly competitive product on its hands. Despite stepping back from the metallic design of last generation the Reader is a better device than the Kindle in almost every way. They both use E-Ink Pearl screens, but gently dragging your finger across the slightly textured screen is just a nicer way to read than pushing buttons. The Reader is also much smaller, barely larger than the screen itself.
From our brief hands on at Sony’s launch it was also quite clear that the entire unit is much faster than before. Pages change quickly, and even the pinch-zoom feature is faster than one expects from eBook Readers.
Gone are the dual SD and Memory Stick slots, and in their place is a sole Micro SD card slot that supports up to 32GB gigabytes. Not only is this more storage space than you’ll ever need (unless you try and use it as an mp3 player too) it is more than the Kindle has.
Amazon pips the Reader with its Whispernet 3G feature, but finally Sony has acknowledged that people are generally comfortable using WiFi to sync their device (previously Sony insisted USB was fine for Australia and didn't release its WiFi model here).
If Sony can just sort out the ease of book buying then this could well be a winner, but competing against Amazon isn’t exactly easy. We won’t really know what that experience is like until we can get a unit in for review, but with a few serious eBook fans on the PC & Tech Authority staff that won’t take long.