First Look: Alex eReader
At a Glance
Spring Design Alex eReader
Innovative, intuitive design distinguishes the Wi-Fi-connected Alex e-reader, but it lacks an on-board bookstore, and carries an exorbitant premium over the competition.
The Spring Design Alex eReader Model DS10 provides a fresh take on the e-book reader experience. At $399 (available in either a black or a white case, price as of March 15, 2010), the Alex eReader is more expensive than competing devices, but the $120 to $150 premium is worthwhile: The dual-screen Alex offers the best combination of an electronic paper display (EPD) and a separate LCD screen I've seen yet, and the reader impresses on almost every level.
I've been using a late-preproduction-run Alex eReader for the past week, and the experience has been a pleasureI in most respects. In fact, I might have finished this review faster, if not for the fact that I hadn't routinely lost track of time while devouring content on the Alex.
The Alex's solid construction, its light weight, its easy-to-press and responsive buttons, its careful attention to interface and navigation, and its gorgeous 3.5-inch Android-based LCD display distinguish this e-book reader from the many run-of-the-mill units now crowding the marketplace. Android provides conveniences like e-mail and video playback that increase Alex's multipurpose usefulness.
Unlike certain behemoth e-book readers, Alex doesn't come with integrated 3G wireless. Instead, you can connect the device to your PC via USB or to the Internet via 802.11b/g wireless (3G/EvDO models are due out later this year). And unlike the Amazon Kindle 2 or the Barnes & Noble Nook, the Alex doesn't currently offer an integrated bookstore for on-unit shopping; this capability will be coming soon, however.
Design: Function and Aesthetics
The Alex weighs 11 ounces, 0.8 ounce more than the Amazon Kindle 2; but its weight distribution made it well-balanced and very comfortable to hold--especially for one-handed operation. That may be because the Alex is slightly taller and noticeably narrower than the Kindle 2. The Alex measures 4.7 by 8.9 by 0.4 inches. Its design, though more functional than flashy, is a critical point in its favor, as it manages to avoid feeling too bulky or too heavy for comfortable single-hand operation.
Five buttons surround the LCD: left and right page navigation buttons for paging backward and forward, a return button, a power button, and a button on top of the screen to synchronize most content on the screen to the EPD. The page-forward and return buttons are dual-purpose controls. Hold down the page-forward button to open a context-sensitive menu for the LCD; click the return button once to return to the previous screen, or twice to return to the home screen.
The matte black case on the model I tested enhanced the text on the 6-inch, 600-by-800-pixel, eight-gray-scale E Ink display; it also helped with the LCD, since most navigation operations have a blue or black background. (In fact, my impressions of the Alex might have been dramatically different if I had tested the white-case version.)
The HVGA (320-by-480-pixel) LCD supports 16-bit color and has a capacitive touchscreen that can display 320-by-240-resolution video at between 15 and 30 frames per second. The unit is powered by a 600MHz Marvell CPU, and it has a buffer that stores the current page, the page prior, and the next page in memory. Thanks to this feature, the Alex was faster at page turns than either the Kindle or the Nook.
Some unique twists help the Alex eReader stand out from the competition. First, the unit incorporates a customized build of Google's Android 1.5 operating system, optimized for the needs of an e-book reader. (The Entourage eDGe e-reader runs Android, too, but its larger screen and heavier weight make it an anomaly among e-readers.) With Android driving the navigation, the Alex has a comfortable and familiar feel from the moment you power it up; even the menu design mimics what you see on an Android phone, though without the phone-specific options.
Android also gives the Alex unmatched versatility among e-readers with electronic paper displays. You get the usual Android notifications pull-down menu, a Web browser, a calculator, an -mail app, a gallery for pictures and videos, and a music player; and though there's no Android Market, you can download apps to the device (and this summer, Spring Design will offer some app collections).
The Alex has a convenient microSD Card slot at the back, and next to it a handy reset button. A microphone is embedded at the front, and a 3.5mm headphone jack and a mini-USB port are up top. On my preproduction unit, I had to push the volume close to the maximum setting to get usable audio from the two speakers at the back. Fortunately, the speakers' position in the reader tends to amplify the sound when you put the unit on a desk surface. Still, I hope that Spring Design can improve the volume of the speakers before releasing the final version of the reader. The lack of physical volume controls makes changing volume on the fly a multistep process.
Read Anything on the EPD
Another unique feature of the Alex is its ability to sync content between the EPD and the LCD. The content can be any document in your e-book library or any document in your Web browser. That last capability, in particular, lets you flow all sorts of written Web content into the EPD.
On specific Web pages, you can read even a long story or a multipage article. And a menu option lets you save what's on the EPD for later viewing offline. My preproduction unit, however, let me save only what was on the EPD screen at a given moment--not the entire Web page. Spring Design says that it is revisiting this feature, and its functionality may change in the final shipping unit. I wish it weren't so kludgy (you can't rename pages on the fly for easier identification, for example), but it's a transformative feature nevertheless. And if you're reading a Web page in real time, you can disable the LCD, and page forward through the entire Web page if you like--a useful option for reading long blog posts or articles on the Web.
Another plus: You can use the Web browser to find documents to download to your library, and then read those documents on the EPD. For instance, I used the Web browser to download and view a PDF manual, something I couldn't do on my Apple iPhone 3GS.
The library is easy to navigate, with easy-to-read text and a slider bar containing various options. You can assign content to collections of your choosing, or to the presets for books, newspapers, and magazines. Options let you view content by title, author, latest read, or download date; alternatively, you can use the search bar at the top to conduct searches. You can search through collections, but not (as yet) within individuals books or documents. The Alex gives you five font-size options: tiny, small, normal, large, and huge. Making voice or text annotations is pretty easy, thanks to the touchscreen.
The Alex supports ePub, PDF, TXT, and HTML text formats, as well as JPEG, GIF, and BMP graphics, MP3 audio, and MP4, 3GP, and FLV video. The unit has 2GB of internal memory for storing books, supplemented by a 2GB microSD Card that is upgradable to a 32GB card). On my preproduction test unit, the Bookstore icon provides easy access to the million-plus titles of the Google Books selection. In addition, by late spring or early summer, the company will partner with Borders and other (as yet unannounced) booksellers to provide customized links under the Bookstore icon. And you can buy an ePub book from a bookseller such as eBooks.com or Kobo and read it on the Alex; but you must obtain them through your PC and then load the books to the microSD Card, or shop on the unit itself using non-mobile-optimized Web pages.
Not Perfect: Alex's Weaknesses
Though Android is clearly one of the Alex's core strengths, it may also prove to be a weakness because its techie quirks may flummox average consumers. For example, if you don't "unmount" a memory card before removing it, you may have to perform a hard reset on the unit. And when you connect the Alex to your PC, you must go into the notifications field and mount the e-reader as a USB device .
In my quality time with the Alex, I found it easy to forget to turn off the LCD, since the black backgrounds of the screens weren't distracting. The power off button is situated to the right of the screen, but when I failed to use it (and left Wi-Fi on), the battery drained by 70 percent as I read text over the course of five hours. When I powered the screen off after using it for navigation, the battery life was much better. Spring Design's spec calls for a battery life of up to 6 hours with LCD/browser on and up to two weeks in EPD mode; but most of the time, you'll need to have the LCD to navigate to the content on the EPD). You can remove the lithium polymer battery after taking out two screws. The USB charger is up top, which makes using the e-reader during charging somewhat awkward.
The Android keyboard handles data entry slowly, though the shipping software has improved this operation, making it a minor annoyance rather than a major one. And image quality in the YouTube app I tried was pixelated and subpar, with poky navigation.
In my extensive testing, the darkness and clarity of text varied, depending on the original font and typeface. Sometimes text looked a bit lighter and less distinct, with more gray than black pixels. Though I noticed at once the difference in text contrast in a side-by-side comparison of the Alex and the Kindle, the Alex's more muted contrast didn't detract from its readability, nor did it strain my eyes. What did strain my eyes was the unit's default to "tiny" text; you can change this setting, but the default type size shouldn't be minuscule.
With its thoughtful design and wealth of features, the Alex eReader brims with potential. Some of its functions remain spotty, but overall the extra capabilities expand the ability of the e-reader to reach any and all content online--not just content optimized for a specific e-reader platform. If Spring Design can resolve the issues I ran into with my preproduction test unit, the Alex may emerge as one of the best e-book readers you can buy today. Those who need immediate access now to best-sellers, however, may wish to wait to see how the future bookstore capabilities and wireless broadband become integrated into the unit. And in the meantime, I can't ignore the high price: Just $100 more fetches the multifuntionality--along with40 percent more weight--of an Apple iPad.