Sony’s Magnificent Digital Paper – Barron’s
Some technologies appear like magic, as Steve Jobs was fond of saying.
Recently one such device landed in my hands, Sony’s (SNE) Digital Paper.
Sony provided me with a loaner unit, and I’ve been trying it out for a few weeks.
Digital Paper is a 9 x 12 slab, a quarter of an inch thick, that displays things using e-ink, the technology found in Amazon’s (AMZN) Kindle line of e-readers (developed by E Ink Corp., a subsidiary of Taiwan’s YFY Group.).
Its main purpose is to display documents in the “PDF” format, to let you sketch notes with an included stylus, and to display anything you would normally print from your desktop or laptop. It retails for $699.
My preference is for devices that do some things really well, even if they leave out a lot of other things. The Digital Paper, or “RP1,” as it’s technically christened, has been stripped of a bunch of things. It doesn’t have a Web browser. It doesn’t connect to any e-book stores, such as Amazon’s Kindle Store or Apple’s (AAPL) iBooks. It doesn’t have a back-light, so you need to read it under the sun or in a well-lit indoor place. It is not meant to be a tablet computer.
It is just kind-of an endless ream paper.
But in its simplicity, the Digital Paper is magnificent. The entire surface of the device is smooth, there’s no physical lip or “bevel” along the border of the screen, as with Amazon’s Kindle. It has a “bezel,” in the sense that it has a border of darker color around the main display area, but it’s completely flush with the display area. The device feels supremely lightweight in the hands, weighing in at 12.3 ounces, just slightly more than the weight of Apple’s iPad mini (10.72 ounces). The slate is so elegantly balanced, that the first time I held it, afterward, the iPad mini seemed fairly heavy by comparison.
Friends and colleagues to whom I showed it were generally stunned. No one could believe how light it is, how sleek. The “form-factor” as they say in the trade, is a real winner.
There are just two buttons, a power-on, power-off button along the top edge, and a button in the middle of the bezel along the top that serves as a home button, to bring up a menu. That menu shows the battery status and takes you to the Settings screen, or to your documents, or lets you quickly add a new note.
Its 13.3-inch screen has a resolution of 1,650 pixels by 2,200 pixels. That is much lower-resolution than the display of Apple’s 12.9-inch iPad Pro, which offers 2,048 by 2,732. But it doesn’t matter at all for note-taking and reading PDF documents. The resolution is crisp and clear, and fonts show up beautifully, as do the details of hand writing.
As one works with e-ink in various devices, one notices that the base or ground state, if you will, of e-ink, its off-white, neutral tone that is there when power is off or when nothing’s being drawn, can actually vary quite a bit in its hue, from cooler to warmer.
Some implementations I’ve seen are less attractive than others. The Sony version is one of the better ones that I’ve seen, a bit brighter than some versions.
The RP1’s touch-screen is fast and responsive as one scrolls through pages with a swipe of the finger from right to left across the surface. Sony have done a very nice job layering touch controls on top of the basic e-ink display. As well, the stylus is smooth and responsive when writing text or doodling.
You can use the stylus to write on top of PDF documents. You can also highlight text by pressing one of the buttons on the stylus. And any annotations can be erased by pressing the other button. All annotations can be saved to the document so that when you sync again with the desktop, your computer retains the marked-up edit of the document.
The display is large enough that one can split it in half, displaying a document on one side, and a note pad on the other side, and work on the notes while flipping the pages of the document.
Getting things onto the RP1 happens in one of two ways, both made possible by a Sony application running on a Mac or Windows machine. Yes, this is not a cloud computer; it must be tethered to a desktop or laptop.
You can drag and drop documents into the application and they’re swiftly sync’d with the RP1, either by WiFi connection, or by a direct Bluetooth wireless connection established between the PC and the RP1.
Or, you can print anything you see on your screen and the Sony app will send it to the RP1. Digital Paper, essentially, becomes your local printer replacement.
I found I did a lot of my reading on the thing in this fashion, as a way to take with me things one might have printed as a stack of paper. A keyboard pops up on screen when one needs to search through that pile of documents by title, say. It’s a perfectly responsive keyboard, with no noticeable lag.
The sync operation is fairly swift, and printing stuff makes it show up almost immediately on the slate. I had only one gripe: It would be nice if the RP1 would wake itself up — or get woken up — automatically when it’s in “sleep” mode, which is how it saves power.
Instead, if the device is asleep — it goes to sleep after a period of time, to save power — one has to turn on the RP1, and go to the Bluetooth menu in the computer’s menu bar, and instruct the RP1 to connect again. That’s a fairly simple process, so it’s not a big deal in practice. And most connected gadgets stumble over that sort of thing. But it would still be nice if things could be that smooth.
It’s also possible to assign a folder in the Sony desktop app to be a sync folder that connects to Dropbox, or another file store. That way, you can update the Dropbox folder and stuff automatically gets sent to the RP1.
Sony quotes a battery life of up to three weeks, although that assumes very sparing use — on the order of one hour per day reading stuff, and having the wifi and bluetooth turned off. I tended to get several days to a charge because I would leave WiFi and Bluetooth on.
Now, being perfect in what one does, does not mean that what one does not do will not become an issue.
The one shortcoming here is the lack of a “cloud” strategy. Most people to whom I showed the Digital Paper immediately asked what e-book system it used. Everyone these days expects that there’s a tie-in to a content system that’s accessible anywhere, not just when tethered to a machine. And for most people, just PDFs may not be enough. Also, several people wanted to know about connecting to Evernote, the very popular note-taking application that can be a repository in the cloud for all that one creates. Microsoft’s (MSFT) OneNote is another popular possibility.
I presume that sort of thing could come about with future software enhancements to the Digital Paper. In my conversations with Sony, it seems clear to me that they are aware that things such as sync’ing with Evernote are the kinds of things that are important, and they are considering them. We may yet see a cloud strategy added to the device.
In the meantime, it’s a beautiful gadget that returns to certain basics, refreshingly so. Just a nice, simple way to consume or create text. That makes it an odd thing in this age of constant connectedness. Digital Paper makes a lot of sense if one thinks of it as an adjunct to other ways of working, as perhaps a note-taking device for meetings, or a supplementary reading device that is not a replacement for a tablet computer. My ideal would be to have a couple of RP1 units, one sitting by the home computer, one at my office.
The thing clearly has some popularity, as it appears Sony is making all they can sell, and it is taking weeks, currently, to get an order filled, although B&H Photo in New York appears to have supply, as of this writing. So if you want to get it for someone on your gift list, you may want to put in an order soon.