Aluratek Libre Touch Color E-Reader Has Usability Flaws
At a Glance
More and more devices are blurring the lines between ebook reader and tablet, but the Aluratek Libre Touch isn't one of them. While it does support basic Web browsing, email, and multimedia playback, the Libre Touch is first and foremost an e-reader with a color touchscreen and integration (via Wi-Fi) with an online bookstore. But although its feature list is respectable, usability flaws make the Libre Touch a tough sell, even at its attractive price ($150 as of August 5, 2011).
Tall, narrow, and slim (8.0 by 4.9 by 0.5 inches), and reasonably lightweight (just under 12 ounces), the Libre Touch looks like many of the 7-inch readers and tablets we've seen lately, with a couple of minor modifications. Its charcoal-gray bezel has three hardware buttons on the right side, including two concealed by the case itself; these are for turning pages forward and back. The third button is a short, vertical silvery bar for returning to the preceding task: If you're reading a book, for example, pressing that button moves you to the library screen where you selected the book.
On the top edge is the large, silvery power button. Along the bottom edge are, from left to right, a Mini-USB port (for charging the Libre Touch and connecting it to a PC), a MicroSD card slot (if you want more than the internal 4GB of memory), a volume rocker control, and a standard 3.5mm headphone port.
Most of the action occurs through the display's touch interface. The first time you turn it on, the Libre Touch runs a calibration routine that immediately betrays its Android underpinnings: The process is directed by the little Android bot. However, the device is based on an older version of Android (1.5), so it doesn't have all the goodies associated with more current versions. For example, the browser lacks support for Adobe Flash, so you can't access all Web content. And you don't get any tools for downloading additional Android apps.
The screen uses resistive technology, which is less fingertip-friendly than capacitive touchscreens are--but the Libre Touch's designers apparently expect you to use your fingertips, since they didn't include a stylus. It isn't the greatest experience--sometimes you have to tap a few times to get a response when you're trying to follow a link or type something on the software keyboard--so it's a good thing that Aluratek built in those hardware buttons for page turns.
The display's colors are adequate, but the 800 by 480 screen resolution isn't very high for an e-reader (in contrast, the resolution of the 7-inch Barnes & Noble Nook Color is 1024 by 600), and letters aren't very smooth, especially when you use the largest of the five available font size settings. Like other backlit LCD screens, the display of the Libre Touch washes out completely in bright sunlight, so it isn't a top choice for the beach.
Page turns feature animations, but aren't particularly snappy when you use the aforementioned buttons. You can set up timed page turns, however, so if you have a general sense of how quickly you read, and you want to use the Libre Touch at the gym, for instance, you do have a hands-free option.
In general, the user interface needs work. The home screen has several scattered elements, including date/time and RSS widgets on top, and three vertical bannerlike panels. The leftmost panel has widgets for accessing the Kobo Web bookstore, your music collection, and the Wi-Fi settings. The middle panel affords access to your ebook library, and the right panel shows your recent reading history. A little tab at the bottom brings up a menu of apps, including access to settings, the Web browser, email, and players for music, videos, and images.
The best thing about the interface is that it offers a home icon on the top left to get you to the home screen, plus a back icon on the top right that functions similarly to the hardware back button; these two controls made general navigation reasonably intuitive for me. But the overall look is chaotic and unattractive.
Aluratek preloads the Libre Touch with 100 free books in text format; they appear as generic icons, though, and if a book's title is more than a word or two long, you can't read it in its entirety until you select the book.
The Libre Touch supports Adobe Digital Editions and the ePub format for copy-protected books, so I was able to transfer books I'd previously bought to the Touch using the ADE software on my computer. You can also buy books online without being connected to your PC by using the Kobo bookstore widget, but it didn't work all that well in my tests. When you browse to a category, the page promises to show you six books at a time, but only three actually displayed for me--and on the next page, I got items 7 through 9 rather than 7 through 12.
Navigating through the store went rather slowly on the Libre Touch's 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, and the site's organization in this interface was not the best--I had to click a 'More' tab to reach categories such as New York Times bestsellers. Interface issues such as these may go away with updates over time, but right now they make the Libre Touch a poor competitor to other readers offering wireless access to Web bookstores.
The browser and email apps are not much fun to use, in part because typing on the resistive touchscreen is difficult and sometimes because taps, as previously mentioned, don't always work right away. On the other hand, I enjoyed listening to music through headphones, and I appreciated the included equalizer, which comes with several presets but also lets you establish your own preferred levels in a 'My Effect' preset.
Battery life varies according to how much you use Wi-Fi-dependent features: Aluratek says the Libre Touch can run for up to 8 hours on a single charge. Wisely, the device shuts down its display after a minute of nonuse, which helps prolong battery life.
Overall, however, I never warmed up to the Aluratek Libre Touch. It didn't come close to meeting my expectations for ease of use, primarily because the touchscreen isn't that great and the online bookstore integration was so flawed. While I like the idea of a color ebook reader, the Libre Touch's execution made me long for my black-and-white Kindle.