Manga and the Sony Reader: A Review

Recently, I took a trip from the shores of Manga Island (a new entry will be posted in the next week) to Sony Electronics Headquarters to review the soon to be released Sony Reader. Most important to manga fans is the Sony Reader's ability to display high resolution black and white text and images, perfect for manga. Tokyopop has committed to releasing a collection of their Global Manga lineup for release at the launch of the Sony Reader (in fact, an excerpt of "Peach Fuzz" should come pre-loaded with the Reader), and I was able to take a sneak peak at the results.

I collect a ton of manga and consequently I tend to have stacks of books bursting forth from numerous bookshelves. So I was pretty excited to see what this new technology was like, and if it has the potential to be a replacement for reading and reviewing manga on a daily basis. Preview chapters in various digital formats exist across the internet, but I still am not a fan of reading manga on my monitor. The Sony Reader takes a very different approach to displaying images and text, and is the most "book-like" of all the digital devices I have had a chance to check out.

Although the Reader is not all brand new technology (Sony previously released a version of the device called the Librie in Japan), the E-ink tech has been tweaked to deliver extremely sharp text and an overall decent display of black and white images. The Reader screen displays black and two shades of grey, as well as a white "off" state (a pleasing light grey as the background, actually), which works well for most manga. It can read and display PDF, RTF and JPG and several other formats (in addition to several audio formats), but the Reader's capabilities are best realized when the ebooks are processed by their third party partners and encoded in the proprietary (and DRM'd) format. This is especially true of the manga that I viewed on the Reader.

Which brings me to the part of the day I was especially excited to check out: Tokyopop's efforts to bring Global Manga to this new device. At the time of this writing there were 10 titles on the ebook docket set to launch with the Reader (news on the internet reports that the Reader is set to ship in October). These titles are "Peach Fuzz," "Van Von Hunter," "Princess Ai," "I Luv Halloween," "Dramacon," "East Coast Rising," "The Dreaming," "MBQ," "A Midnight Opera," "Psy-Comm," and "Bizenghast." "Peach Fuzz" is set to ship on the Reader in the form of an excerpt (the whole thing, as well as other manga is to be available through Sony's ebook store), and it is from this excerpt that I was able to base my review. While other manga publishers may have books available at launch, it seems as if Tokyopop has a head start jumping onto this new uncharted digital manga realm.

Optimizing Manga for display on the Reader is no easy task, as the subtle tones and varied line weights have to be processed into the 4 color palette of the Reader. At 160 DPI, the manga displayed on the 6 inch screen was small, but very legible. Sources at Tokyopop confirmed that this level of legibility was arrived at through much trial and error, and more than a few pre-processing scripts before being encoded into the Reader's proprietary format. On the plus side, I was able to read the manga with no eye strain, even at the slightly reduced size (compared to the original print version).

The Reader supports a zoomed in size for manga (and up to 200% zoom regular books), but the reader must be turned on its side, and the page is bisected. This worked better for some pages, but not as well for full page spreads.

Personally, I would prefer if the pages were a little darker, or had a bit more black in them. Because of the screen size, it seems that the Reader would be better suited for hard black images with high-contrast, thicker lines. However, this didn't diminish the manga reading experience for me. Ghosting, one of the few downsides of the E-ink technology was especially present when viewing manga, depending on how fast the pages were turned. The E-ink screen renders text by rearranging particles to form the letters and images needed for each page, and only uses power when changing from page to page. This allows for a very long battery life (since energy is only expended when changing pages), but the longer an image stays on the screen, the longer it takes to fully "forget" the previous page. The ghosting was mostly unobtrusive, except when going from extreme action pages to more contemplative full page spreads. For the more picky manga fanatics out there, this might be a problem, but I found that when proceeding at a good reading pace, I saw very little ghosting. I brought along a book or two to compare print to E-ink (sadly I didn't bring my copy of "Peach Fuzz"), and I was pleasantly surprised at how close the E-ink images stacked up.

It seems that Tokyopop is one of the few publishers to jump on to the Sony Reader at the launch stage, although I did see a test example from another publisher, as well as a brand new Harlequin manga that came in the day I was at Sony. The complex tones of the shojou style book held up very well and increased my anticipation for what this technology could mean for portable manga reading. Pricing of the unit (it appears that pre-orders are set at $349) may be a bit prohibitive for most manga fans, but the thought of carrying dozens of books on one unit (and more if you store it on optional SD cards) for travel is very attractive. Even though ebooks from Sony's iTunes-like online store are encrypted with DRM licenses, up to six machines can be registered to a single device, allowing for family members to share an account and download a wide variety of books of various genres and tastes. It seems as if the machine is meant for early adopters at this time, but the other journalists at the Reader event seemed genuinely interested in picking up a manga title or two, just to check it out, possibly opening the door for manga fans who wouldn't necessarily cruise the graphic novel aisle at their local book store or go in to a comic store. The general speculation is that ebook manga will be priced at $7.99 (actually they are on sale now for $6.36 at launch) for books that are normally $9.99, and that bundles and discounts might be available at some point, but until the ebook store is officially open, this remains to be seen. On the plus side, downloadable books can be read through the eStore software (much like downloadable music can be played on your Mac or PC through iTunes) so that books can be read, even if your Reader is elsewhere (presumably as long as someone else on the same account isn't logged in to the eStore software as well).

The future of the Sony Reader as a format for manga and graphic novels remains to be seen, however the work of Tokyopop and the handful of other publishers to push this new format is exciting. Although the Reader does not have wi-fi or other features that more all encompassing handheld technologies carry, it is very successful at its intended purpose; providing an alternative to carrying stacks of novels and graphic novels in a compact and extremely readable format. As much as I love having a book in my hand, space here on Manga Island is limited, and having a device like this to carry on trips would be very handy. The Sony Reader does have the ability play MP3s and other audio formats (at the cost of battery life, and with no internal speakers however), it is not a bad travel device if you aren't averse to packing yet another device on your person. I will certainly be eyeing the Sony Reader and E-ink technology, especially to see how manga does on the device and at the Sony eStore. Expect to hear more about this device and digital manga in the near future.

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