The tech industry and media are focused on Apple’s (AAPL) forthcoming iPad tablet computer, a multifunction device that includes an e-book reader. Meanwhile, with much less fanfare, other companies are pressing ahead with conventional, dedicated e-readers aimed at the leader in the category: Amazon’s Kindle.
These more focused, monochrome devices aren’t as flashy or as versatile as the iPad, which handles everything from email to games. But they cost less and are aimed wholly at people who seek to read books and periodicals in digital form.
I’ve been testing one such new e-reader from a company that has been in the business for years, but is mainly known in Europe. It is called the Irex DR800SG and costs $400 at bestbuy.com (BBY)—about $140 more than the Kindle. While the DR800SG uses the same electronic ink screen technology as the Kindle, it has some major differences: in screen size, in user interface, and in the way it wirelessly downloads books and newspapers.
The Irex is shorter but wider than the Kindle, and has an 8.1-inch screen, versus the Kindle’s 6-inch screen. It’s slightly thicker than the Kindle, but about 25% heavier. It has a single, thin page-turning and menu button on the left side, while the Kindle has larger, multiple buttons on both sides. Both devices claim to hold about 1,500 books.
Irex, a Los Angeles-based company whose products are engineered in the Netherlands, produced its first e-reader in 2004, but this new model is its first aimed specifically at the American market and its first to use the cellular 3G network for downloading content.
The Irex DR800SG
The new Irex has some advantages over the Kindle. Its larger screen makes for a better reading experience, allowing many more words to show on the page, at similar font sizes. The screen also seems slightly sharper.
The Irex looks sleeker than the Kindle, because it has a much thinner bezel around the screen, due mainly to the lack of a physical keyboard. It also does a better job of organizing your reading material, grouping items into separate folders for books, newspapers, and personal documents.
And, instead of being linked to a single online store, like Amazon (AMZN), it uses a “mall” concept, designed to allow users to choose from many different online stores, though only two are available now. The principal merchant in the mall so far is the Barnes & Noble e-book store—the same one used on the Barnes & Noble (BKS) Nook e-reader—which claims about a million titles. The other store is called NewspaperDirect, which claims over 1,000 newspapers.
However, in my tests, I found the Irex much clumsier to use than the Kindle and, because of that, I still prefer the Amazon device. For instance, the Irex requires a stylus—an ancient and fading navigation device—for some operations. Yet it lacks a holder for this pointer except in the leather cover, so the stylus is easy to lose. The Irex also lacks a Home button, a note-taking function, any way to highlight text and a built-in dictionary.
More important, I found the mall concept for downloading books to be frustrating. Because the Irex isn’t seamlessly linked to its own online store, I had to establish, or sign into, four different accounts to test the device fully. Even after that, each Barnes & Noble download required multiple steps. On the Kindle, ordering books is a breeze, and they appear almost instantly after you click a single “Buy” button.
This last issue is a trade-off between greater choice and simpler, quicker functionality. Some readers will be willing to make that trade-off, especially if Irex is able to add specialized stores in the future that offer, say, a large selection of non-English-language books. But, for most Americans with typical book needs, I find the current trade-off unacceptable.
For example, books I bought from Barnes & Noble appeared slowly on the Irex. The device seemed to have to turn on its radio and establish a new connection each time. Also, until I opened each book, they appeared on the screen identified only by a geeky file name. And, after I opened each, there was a long delay while the device did something called “counting pages.”
The company says that some of these shortcomings will be fixed in a software update due as soon as next month. It promises there will be a note-taking function, speedier wireless connections and the elimination of the counting-pages delay. It also says it is working on a universal log-in system for its mall of stores. But highlighting and a dictionary are only being “considered” for a future revision.
On the bright side, I was able to easily plug the Irex into a PC and Mac, and manually drag onto it personal PDF files, pictures and even a free book I bought at a Web site.
Irex says it is working on a color model for next year. I hope it works more smoothly than the DR800SG.