I've always preferred dead tree to reading things on screen; I just find it easier. I've tried reading fiction in the past off a laptop and just didn't find it as enjoyable an experience; whether it was the form factor (hard to curl up with a laptop, even a netbook), the quality of the screen or the interface I don't know. Equally with technical documentation if it's something I'm using a lot I prefer a printed copy to flick through. However e-ink based e-readers are becoming much more common and affordable and I figured I should give the whole ebook experience another try.

I spent 3 weeks in October in the Bay Area on work, so I borrowed my Dad's Sony PR505 for the trip. First problem is that it's picky about USB charging - works fine if attached to a computer, but using a Blackberry charger looks like it's fine but then results in what looks like a hanging reader. However once charged it lasts for ages - I charged it before I went and only hooked it up to my laptop once during the trip to transfer some new content onto it. The form factor is also quite good; a bit heavier than a book, but not excessively so. Holdable in one hand, big enough screen that I wasn't squinting at it. Slightly too big physically to easily go in a coat pocket the way a paperback would unfortunately, but perfectly fine for taking to read at breakfast every morning in the hotel.

The screen was also much better than I'd expected. I knew the technology was different and supposed to be easier to read than traditional LCDs, but I was sceptical. Overall I had no problems with it. I was even quite impressed with the Sony's zoom function - one of the PDFs I was reading was too small when view full screen, so I zoomed in so it was readable. The nice feature was that then the "next page" button gave me the next bit of text to read, rather than the actual next page, so it remained very easy to navigate through as I read. A small touch, but very welcome.

This isn't intended to be a review of the Sony reader; that just happened to be the model I was easily able to borrow. I happened to see a Kindle in use on the plane and I was struck by how much bulkier it seemed, though having looked at the relative specs it seems this is entirely due to the keyboard rather than any difference in screen size. The Nook was also announced during my trip and I'd quite like a play with that as it looks quite nice.

Despite my positive experience with the Sony I'm not planning to go out and get one just yet. And that's the lack of sensibly priced content. When I bought my first mp3 player I could take my exising CD collection, rip it and be able to play it on my new device. This meant I got an immediate benefit of having my entire music collection with me all the time, just by buying the player. If I buy an e-reader then in order to get all my existing books on it I have to go and buy them again. What's worse is they'll cost me the same or more than I paid for the paperbacks. I can't go and exchange my Pratchett collection for the electronic versions for a nominal fee. I can't easily scan them in myself and produce some decent ebooks. I can't even go and buy the entire set for £20; I'd have to spend something like ten times that. With mp3s I can continue to buy the real item and also have it on my portable player. Or, while albums still don't seem to be much cheaper electronically than on CD, there is at least the ability to buy a single track if that's all I want. Books don't have a comparison. I'm not going to want to buy a single chapter, am I?

There are some sites out there that can provide cheaper ebooks - Rachel Willmer runs ebookprice.info which lets you compare pricing from different vendors. There's also Project Gutenberg if you're looking for out of copyright books. Finally Peter Corlett pointed me at the Baen Free Library, which I haven't downloaded anything from but will definitely investigate at some point. I still maintain that none of these are enough and that content provision will continue to be a hinderance for e-reader mass adoption until there is some fundemental change in the way its provision is handled.