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Review: Sony Digital Paper

Three years ago I excitedly posted about Sony's then-new writeable e-paper tablet, called Sony Digital Paper System (DPS-1).

Now it is finally mine and I love it.

Here's what I wrote about it when Sony announced it:

the iPad (et al) sucks for some things. Three of those are: (1) taking handwritten notes, (2) reading (some) pdfs in full-page view, and (3) reading in full daylight. By the sound of it, Sony’s new tablet will excel at all three

Having had it for about a month, I can confidently say that it does indeed excel at those three things, beyond my wildest dreams. Even with the improved competition of the identically-priced iPad Pro (which can now handle points 1 and 2 with aplomb), I still prefer the Sony. Here's why:

  • Despite a comparatively low resolution (1200 x 1600), e-ink is simply nicer on the eyes. To see why, look at this old post looking at an original iPad display and a Kindle e-ink display under a microscope. (More modern Retina displays are only marginally better, see here.) Here's a zoomed-in shot of a paper on the DPS-1: Like paper I can barely tell that it's not just a slightly low-res print.
  • And of course, for reading outdoors, e-ink is just infinitely better. Try this on an iPad if you're craving a good cry.
  • The Apple Pencil has received glowing reviews, but I've tried it, and it still feels decidedly like sliding on glass. The DPS's stylus and matte screen combine to create friction that feels remarkably like pencil-on-paper.
  • In today's distraction-filled digital world, disconnecting is an advantage. This will matter more or less depending on your work discipline, but for me it has been life-changing. The context switch that happens when I start to work on the DPS keeps me focused at a level I hadn't experienced for years. You can certainly use "Do not disturb" on an iPad, but having distracting apps such as email a double-tap away is a definite downside.

The DPS is one of those rare products that does one thing and one thing only (well, two) really well: read and annotate pdfs, and take handwritten notes. It's simply perfect for academics.

There's one caveat and it's the software. It is, in a word, amateurish. A few examples:

  • Cloud Sync works though WebDAV, a file transfer protocol with limited support from cloud storage providers (of the major players, only Box supports it as of this writing).
  • You can screen share with the DPS through a USB cable, which is great for giving pdf presentations, but it's done through a companion Mac OS app distributed as a java archive, which doesn't support full-screen.
  • You can make and delete files on the DPS, but you can't move them to other folders.
  • And so on.

The funny thing is that it gets regular software updates, but none attains the level of polish you might expect from a company of Sony's stature. I have a feeling that there's this one engineer in charge of this thing at Sony, and they are just hammering away by themselves, unsupported, but trying their darnedest to make it better all the time.

In short, I think Sony's development and marketing teams dropped the ball on this one. In its early days you couldn't buy it at retail stores — you actually had to write to Sony to explain why you wanted one! I imagine they wanted to avoid negative press from consumers who didn't know what they were getting into. And even now, retail availability is extremely limited. Just two stores carry it in the US (B&H Photo and CDW). In many countries you can't buy it at all, except shipped from those US stores.

Sony really needs to put these babies on demo at every university bookshop in the rich world. (At $800 US, I'll admit it's a luxury.) It would sell like hotcakes.

In short, if you read a lot of scientific papers, or do a lot of handwriting (e.g. for math), you will love the Digital Paper. I second what my friend @gamesevolving said: I should have gotten it a long time ago.


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