The e-reader market has lost some of its initial appeal due to the rapid rise in popularity of tablets and other similar mobile devices. However, 'tablets' with E-Ink screens continue to offer the best reading experience in terms of reducing eye strain as well as providing long battery life. E-Ink screens have not scaled well in size, with the 6" screen size being the most popular and economical choice. Products with bigger screen sizes such as the Kindle DX (9.7") have not enjoyed market success.

E-Ink - A Brief Background

We will not go into the technical details of E-Ink here, but it suffices for readers to know that E-Ink avoids the use of backlighting. Instead, it relies on reflection from ambient light for visibility. In the latter aspect, it is very close to real printed paper. The major downside is that the refresh rate of E-Ink screens is very slow and only the monochrome technology is mature enough for mass consumption in the e-reader market.

E-Ink screens have been trying to evolve in two different ways. On one hand, we have attempts being made to get some sort of color display with E-Ink characteristics. On the other hand, E-Ink is trying to bring out flexible displays as well as produce larger sized screens. While screens of up to 32" in size are available for digital signage purposes, the maximum size currently supported for direct-to-consumer sales is 13.3".

The Need for a 13.3" E-Reader

Most of our workload nowadays involves sitting in front of a computer monitor and/or staring at tablet/smartphone screens. It is common for people to experience eye fatigue due to these activities. Having used multiple tablets and phablets for content consumption, I realized that none of them fit the bill when it came to reading technical documents or annotating them for future reference. In addition, all these technical documents are typeset in either A4-sized (8.27" x 11.69") or US Letter-sized (8.5" x 11") pages. This ruled out usage of any of the large number of e-readers based on the 6" E-Ink platform. A4 and US Letter correspond to diagonals of 14.3" and 13.9" respectively. 13.3" with an aspect ratio of 4:3 is ideal for displaying documents typeset in either A4 or US Letter-sized pages.

The Sony DPT-S1 - A 13.3" E-Ink Device

Sony's Digital Paper System (DPT-S1) was launched in April 2014. It takes things to a whole new level by making use of a 13.3" E-Ink Mobius screen. It was launched with a price tag of $1100, and was quite unpalatable for the ordinary consumer. It comes with a stylus / pen for taking notes as well as PDF annotation, and business users are its main target.

Initially, my impression was that lower priced variants with the same screen would soon appear in the market and target the average e-reader. Unfortunately, we are at the end of 2015, and the Sony DPT-S1 remains the only E-Ink Mobius-based product that consumers can purchase in the market. A little bit of silver lining lies in the fact that Sony has steadily been bringing the price down (from $1100 at launch to $800 right now).

The Sony DPT-S1 comes in a nondescript box. The package consists of a quick start guide, the e-reader in a leather sleeve, the pen / stylus, three replacement tips for it along with a tool to aid in pulling out the old tips, and a 7.5W (5V @ 1.5A) USB charger with a USB to micro-USB cable. The gallery below provides high-resolution pictures of the various components.

As can be seen from the gallery above, the main reader is like a sheet of white paper surrounded by a thick bezel. The bottom bezel is slightly thicker to accommodate the navigation and context menu buttons at the center with the power button at the right corner. The power button is on a slanted panel and is not flush with the rest of the frame - this prevents accidental pressing of the power button during use.

The important aspects of any e-reader are the dimensions and the weight. While the unit as a whole comes in at 9.125" x 12.125", the viewable area / screen is 8" x 10.625" (corresponding to a diagonal size of 13.3"). Note that this needs to be compared to an A4 sheet (8.27" x 11.69") and a US Letter sheet (8.5" x 11"). The viewable area is slightly smaller than both of them, but definitely much better than the 9.7" E-Ink screensfor documents typeset with those page dimensions.

The weight of the reader alone is 355g, while the stylus/pen adds an extra 9g. Placed in the supplied sleeve, the complete package weighs in at 496g. All said, the unit is quite ergonomic to use - both in hand, as well as on a table. The screen has a pixel resolution of 1600 x 1200 and can display 16 levels of grayscale. It is likely that most use-cases for the DPT-S1 involve text-heavy documents. The DPI and color limitations are not much of a concern.

In the rest of the review, we will take a look at the hardware platform in detail and follow it up with a look at the software aspects before providing some concluding remarks.

Hardware Platform
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  • AndrewJacksonZA - Friday, December 18, 2015 - link

    That sucks in my opinion. Not even .txt files?!?!
  • Murloc - Friday, December 18, 2015 - link

    older Sony e-ink readers support a variety of ebook formats plus ppt and stuff but this doesn't?
  • name99 - Thursday, December 17, 2015 - link

    I'm guessing the expected use model is people who interact with a large number of PDFs and want to carry them around for more or less easy access --- people like physicists and biologists reading lots of technical papers, also architects, musicians, lawyers.

    BUT for this sort of usage, the device lives or dies by the quality of the software for organizing and searching the PDF set, and adding/syncing documents, we didn't get a good feel for that.

    I'd say the gold standard for this right now is GoodReader on an iPad. You can set up the software to simply mirror a PDF folder hierarchy on some other computer of interest (like a PC or Mac) and press one button to have documents synched between the two. (So you can eg easily arrange the documents on your PC, but then have that arrangement propagate to the device.)
    You can alternatively import PDFs from many other places (including, eg, email). You can search across documents, or star/favorite documents. You can annotate PDFs. You can also have multiple PDFs open at once (including multiple open views of the same PDF).

    What you CAN'T do (which could possibly be useful) is have distinct workspaces comprising multiple open PDFs so, eg, you can toggle between "Work reading" and "Fun reading".

    But looking at the Sony SW, from what I can see in the pictures and the review, they don't offer enough to be competitive with my usage for this sort of device (and what I'd expect most of the target users would require).
    They obvious offer a larger screen than an iPad Air2, and that might be useful for some target audiences (blueprints, music, maybe legal documents); but for most TECHNICAL PDFs it's not as much of a problem as you'd expect because GoodReader offers very good cropping support to strip out margin whitespace. If you need the larger screen or stylus, of course iPad Pro gives you that, at the same sort of price --- but about 1.5x the weight.

    The other eInk advantage (longer battery life, reading in sunlight) strike me as mostly irrelevant. If you want to read at the beach or while on vacation away from electricity, a standard Kindle is the more obvious choice. This is (for most users) a working device, to be used inside with electricity available.

    My point is to to say how wonderful iPad/iPad Pro is. (The wonderfulness is is GoodReader, iBooks is GARBAGE for the usage model I'm describing). My point is that Sony (yet AGAIN) appears to be starting from "what cool hardware can we put together?" rather than "what real-life problem can we solve?" So they have bolt-on software which looks like it was slapped together in the last month of this project, probably with no update plan (good luck if security flaws are discovered in their browser in three years). They (and most companies) still DON'T GET IT. Software is what makes these devices valuable, and if you're not interested in writing quality software (based on serious usage models, and with a serious plan for long-term software updating) don't waste our time and yours.
  • ganeshts - Thursday, December 17, 2015 - link

    The mirroring / synchronization model is exactly the same as you suggest - but, it is two-way : since the PDFs can be modified on the DPT-S1, the changes get reflected in the source folder too.

    Only issue is that only WebDAV folders are supported for this purpose - not any generic folder on a PC. It would be nice to have SMB support or something similar - but, it is similar in the sense that there is PC software available to export folders in the computer as WebDAV folders.

    The DPT-S1 supports multiple workspaces.

    Btw, iPad Pro's 713g should be compared against the DPT-S1's 364g - almost 2x, not 1.5x

    Long battery life is not about access to electricity, but more about reading / writing on an office table or in a court room - where people just don't want to be tethered. The lightness factor also plays a role here.

    Despite similar features - large screen, stylus support for writing etc. - I believe the iPad Pro and the Sony DPT-S1 target different market segments.

    Btw, I do agree Sony makes some consumer-facing products that should never have come to the market and/or are severely locked down with bad user experience. I can tell you that this product is not like those 'typical' Sony consumer products. It comes from the professional division, and the difference in approach really shows. The device is meant for a particular usage scenario and it is able to serve those scenarios pretty well.

    Btw, the browser is just for use in an emergency - definitely not for general browsing (the experience with E-Ink screens is not good for visiting websites anyway). Anyways, Sony's has not left this product in the lurch. In fact, they just released a firmware update a couple of days back with more features - this is for a product launched almost 2 years back.

    I will definitely agree with you that Sony has messed up a lot of products, but this is not one of them (except for the pricing aspect).
  • name99 - Thursday, December 17, 2015 - link

    Good Reader provides 2-way synching too. Anything else is not (IMHO) synching!
    WebDAV means it may have problems with Mac? The very first versions of GoodReader used WebDAV and it sucked (for Mac at least); once they switched to USB life was much better, and I've no idea if El Cap even supports WebDAV out of the box.

    For weight I was keying off your "Placed in the supplied sleeve, the complete package weighs in at 496g. " Obviously the sleeve is not essential, but I expect there will not be many case options. while iPad Pro will have a reasonable selection of lightweight cases, like iPad.

    Likewise I'd expect an iPad Pro for the sorts of usage models I am suggesting to have around 10hrs or more of battery life --- hardly tethering.

    Well it will be interesting to see how this plays out; but as someone somewhat in what I imagine the target market for this device to be, Sony is going to have to work REALLY hard to convince me that this makes more sense than an iPad Pro. (Or, more realistically an iPad Pro 2, since my iPad Air 2 right now meets my needs.)
  • phexac - Friday, December 18, 2015 - link

    I am still not clear what usage scenario could be filled with the Sony device that cannot be done better by iPad Pro.

    1. Battery life isn't really an issue since iPad Pro will easily last the whole day off of one charge.
    2. I guess iPad Pro is heavier, but in what situation would that actually a) be an issue and b) be enough of an issue to offset the greater versatility offered by the iPad.
  • sungamer - Monday, December 21, 2015 - link

    It's far better for my personal usage scenario than an ipad. As a musician looking at scores for over 6 hours a day, eye-strain is nonexistent with this than with any backlit screen. Battery life becomes an issue when you don't feel like carrying extra chargers while on the road, and being on the road for 2 months at a time.
  • VisioGuy - Wednesday, December 23, 2015 - link

    I use the Sony for sheet music and tire of people parroting iPads as the best solution "for everything". iPads are too small, too heavy, too expensive and too breakable. Now, the iPad Pro is big enough, but the expense factor is even worse.

    I use my Sony DPTS1 for carrying four parts x 100 pieces of sheet music to rehearsals. I used to bring my Surface Pro 3, but was paranoid about it getting knocked off the stand, so I always had to strap it on, which was a pain. I'm pretty sure the Sony can survive a fall - it is somewhat flexible, has no glass, and is so light, it won't crush itself on a fall. Page turning is a challenge on this thing, but I find if I turn through the pages when I load a new song, before we start playing, it reacts faster the next time I need to jump. Luckily trombone parts don't have lots of pages.

    As for reading, I like to read on this non-glowing device - it is easy on the eyes. I'm sure the lawyers like this too, since they read for 15 hours a day.

    I like to use the browser and read articles from the net. I find that the slow response makes me focus on reading one article at a time, and the temptation to switch tabs and follow links is greatly reduced. Something modern humans probably desperately need :)

    It seems like there's a majority of folks that want smaller devices, but I would love to have huge 15- or 17-inch e-readers and tablets for music and technical diagrams, so long as they are light and have decent battery life.
  • Coup27 - Saturday, December 19, 2015 - link

    I will definitely agree with you that Sony has messed up a lot of products, but this is not one of them (except for the pricing aspect).

    Unrelated to e-ink but Sony phones are IMO the best Android phones on the market. Real shame they don't get time on AT. I went Sony a year ago and I've converted a few people from Samsung to Sony now and none have regretted it.
  • Tams80 - Sunday, December 20, 2015 - link

    You make some good points, however:

    Weight does matter. If the device is going to be used over long periods of time, then even rather small differences in weight can make a huge difference to the level of comfort.

    Battery runtime is important for a device like this. Some of the people who may find this useful are the ones who might be away from a power supply for several days at a time (or one day, but with a lot of use). Alternatively they might not have easy access to a power supply, because they are all in use. It may also be the case that they need to charge multiple devices, and don't want to have to charge yet another device.

    You can also leave the display on, and not have to worry about power consumption.

    Reading in sunlight is useful; even indoors.

    As this is likely a secondary, or even tertiary device for most people who use it; don't underestimate the advantage of only having to charge it say, once a month, when you already have to charge other devices as well.

    A few things no electronic devices have solved that paper has, are the abilities to: flick through it, quickly reorganise it, and have a double, or even greater spread.

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