Review: Sony Digital Paper DPT-S1 at Lambda Jam 2014

I don’t usually review hardware here, but I think this device stands out as being particularly useful to people who take a lot of notes and/or read a lot of research papers.

I read about the Sony Digital Paper DPT-S1 for the first time about a year ago and couldn’t help but be impressed. It promises the ease of reading of e-ink combined with a size that is amicable to academic papers and on top of that allows you to actively annotate the documents with a pen as you read them. It also sports the usual e-ink 3 weeks of battery life. Luckily enough, I managed to get one of my very own right before Lambda Jam 2014 and so had the perfect opportunity to give it a spin in a real use case kind of setting.

Reading Papers

Reading and marking up papers in PDF format is where this device shines.

A Pristine Paper (not yet marked up)

A Pristine Paper (not yet marked up)

You simply swipe to turn pages, and it works every time. There’s even pinch zoom. The screen is large enough that you can easily read an entire page without zooming, as was always the problem I had with my first gen e-ink kindle (also the DPT-S1 weighs substantially less). You even get multiple tabs in a workspace so you can swap between different documents quickly for cross-reference.

In this context it’s a better Kindle DX (now discontinued) that you can take notes on. For me (and for many others I suspect) reading a paper is a very interactive experience. You want to be able to highlight the important parts and even scribble in the margins as you move through it. The DPT-S1 supports this better than any device I have seen yet.

Marking up a research paper.

Marking up a research paper.

As you can see here you can not only write directly on the paper, but you can also highlight. These are both done with the included stylus for which the standard function is writing but changes to highlighting if you hold down the button on its side. You may also notice the little boxes in the margin of the text, these are collapsible notes.

Collapsible Notes on the DPT-S1

Collapsible Notes on the DPT-S1

As you can see, the darker square in the top right margin is here opened and available for writing. Also please note that these notes were taken by me (with horrible handwriting in general) on the way to Lambda Jam, in a squished economy seat of an airplane, while there was some mild turbulence. While the hand writing isn’t paper-perfect it’s much better than other devices I’ve used in the past, including the iPad.

One of the best features of the DPT-S1 is also its most limiting: It’s designed to work only with PDF files. The big benefit of this is that all of these writing annotations actually turn into PDF annotations on the given file. This makes them extremely easy to export and use in other contexts.

Taking Notes

The other big use case I had in mind for the DPT-S1 was taking notes. I always carry a notebook of some form and over the last three years I’ve managed to create quite a lot of non-indexed content.

About half of my notebooks from the last three years.

About half of my notebooks from the last three years.

I usually carry one notebook for notes/exploring ideas, another for planning things (like to-do lists and such), and finally one small one for writing down thoughts on the go. This stack doesn’t include notes from talks I’ve attended or my Coursera class notes. It also doesn’t include the giant stack of hand annotated papers in my office, but that’s more to do with the previous section.

I took pages and pages of notes on the DPT-S1 at Conal Elliott‘s talk at Lambda Jam (great presentation by the way). Here’s a side by side comparison with some paper notes I’ve written in the past.

Some notes from Conal Elliott's talk at Lambda Jam

Some notes from Conal Elliot’s talk at Lambda Jam

Some actual paper notes

Some actual paper notes

As you can see, my handwriting isn’t great as I tend to go kind of fast and sloppy when not looking at the paper, but the DPT-S1 holds up rather well. I think it would do even better for someone with nicer handwriting than I.

There is one somewhat annoying downside, and that’s that when you make a new notebook pdf to take notes it only has 10 pages and you have to give it a name with the software keyboard input (it defaults to a date and time based name). This slowed me down big time in the talk because he was moving very fast toward the end, and that’s precisely when I ran out of pages. Still, given how well polished the rest of the device is it’s something I can overlook.

Browsing the Web

The final use case for the DPT-S1 is web browsing. This isn’t something I really need as my phone usually does a pretty good job at this, but it could be nice to have for reading blogs and such so I’ll touch on it.

Hacker News on the DPT-S1

Hacker News DataTau on the DPT-S1

As you can see here, Hacker News DataTau is actually quite navigable in this format.

This blog, you're reading it right now.

This blog, you’re reading it right now.

My blog actually renders quite well and is very readable, you can scroll by swiping up and down. Pinch-zoom works here too.

I went to several sites and they all worked well enough, but given that this device is WiFi only I don’t expect I’ll be using it much for reading blog posts on the go.

Conclusion

If you’re looking for a cheap consumer device that you can easily buy e-books for you should look elsewhere. It’s expensive (~$1000 usd), hard to acquire (you have to email and talk to sales agents), and has no store, no API (only the filesystem), and only supports PDF.

However, if you’re like me in that you take a lot of notes and you read a lot of papers, and you don’t mind spending a bit of money on something to solve a major problem in your life, this is by far the best device on the market for your needs.

Please note, that while they are available on amazon, it’s the imported Japanese language version. Currently the only way to get an english version DPT-S1 is through contacting the sales team at WorlDox.

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