Alex: New e-reader and Android Web device

Spring Design's Alex e-reader offers both a clear e-ink display plus an Android-powered LCD for Web browsing.

Another entry in the e-book reader sweepstakes, Spring Design's Alex e-reader will probably be compared most often to Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Like the Nook, the device has two separate screens: a monochrome E-ink display and, below that, a color LCD touch screen. Unlike the Nook's secondary screen, however, the Alex's 3.5-inch LCD isn't simply an adjunct to the 6-inch Electronic Paper Display (EPD) -- it's a full-fledged mobile environment based on the Android operating system.

What does it do? The Alex is 4.7 in. x 8.9 in., making it longer and slimmer than rivals such as the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader. It weighs 11 oz., slightly heavier than the Kindle and Sony Reader, but about the same as the Nook.

The Alex offers four control buttons on either side of the LCD: a Back button and Forward button for the e-reader (the latter also doubles as a Menu button for the LCD), a Page Back button for the LCD, and the power button, which can also be used simply to blank the lower screen.

The upper EPD is always on (since, according to Spring Design, it doesn't use any power when not in use). The lower LCD is where you can (using a Wi-Fi connection) download books and access various controls for your EPD (such as bookmarks and font size).

Since the Alex comes loaded with 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi and Android OS 1.5, you can treat the LCD as a straightforward mobile Android device. The Alex interface includes icons for a built-in browser, calculator, e-mail, photo gallery, music player and YouTube player.

A fifth button, located between the EPD and LCD, lets you sync or unsync the two screens -- so, for example, if you browse to the New York Times site via your Android browser, you can sync the screens and read the articles using the larger EPD.

The system also comes with a 2GB MicroSD memory card in a slot on the back, a pair of speakers (also on the back), a microphone, headphone jack and mini USB jack.

What's cool about it? This is an excellent device if you're an open-source enthusiast looking for an e-reader. Although it doesn't come with the Android Marketplace app, anyone familiar with the OS will be able to download additional apps relatively easily.

And the places it lets you find books is appropriate to open source as well. Currently, the device comes with direct links (via a Library icon) to sources such as Google Books, Epub Books, Gutenberg, Web Books, Feed Books and Smash Words; you can easily download public domain and other free literature. As a long-time Gutenberg fan, this suits me fine.

Since the Alex can read ePub, TXT, HTML or PDF files, you can also purchase more recent books using Web services such as Kobo. And you can move e-books manually from your computer to the Alex using the included USB cable.

Once you've got your books, the Alex works well as an e-reader -- like the others I've looked at, the E-ink display is easy on the eyes. Interestingly, I found its bottom LCD more useful and less distracting than the Nook's (and you can turn it off if you want to).

While you're reading, you can use the LCD to set bookmarks, change the font size (you can't change the type of font, however, which is unfortunate), go to a table of contents, etc. You can also add text notes, make audio notes (the Alex has a microphone), get word definitions, add Web links and more.

It works this way: You press on the appropriate icon to, say, add a text note; the LCD then shows the same text that you're reading above it in the EPD. Highlight the text you want to comment on in the LCD, use the virtual keyboard that then pops up to type in your notes, and save. The text will thereafter appear highlighted on the document in the EPD to indicate there's a note there; you access it via the LCD.

At a Glance

Alex

Spring Design, Inc.

Price: $499

Pros: Lightweight, Wi-Fi, full-useable Android OS, no DRM

Cons: High price, learning curve for less-experienced users, non-standard headphone jack

The Alex is rated by the company to last about two weeks on a battery charge if you don't use the Wi-Fi and about six hours using the Wi-Fi and with 7,500 page turns. I found that, under normal usage, it was about two days before I had to think about powering it up again. (You can recharge it either through an AC connection or via the USB port.)

What needs to be fixed? First -- Android 1.5? Although about a third of Android-based devices still use version 1.5, the current version of Android is 2.1, and there are already rumors of the impending release of Android 2.2. In addition, Amazon has just announced that it will be coming out with a Kindle for Android app this summer -- which will require Android 1.6 or later.

And while I had no trouble navigating the OS, I suspect that people who are unfamiliar with Android might have a bit of a learning curve to deal with, especially because I found the manual a bit simplistic, even when explaining how to use the hardware. (I'd recommend checking out the Getting Acquainted video that's currently hidden in the Gallery app.)

In addition, the headphone jack is a nonstandard 2.5mm jack rather than the more common 3.5mm. While the Alex comes with a set of earbuds, this could be a problem for those who want to listen to music while reading with a better set of earphones. (According to a company rep, future versions of the e-reader might come with a standard jack.)

Final verdict: While it has one or two kinks that need to be worked out, the Alex is lightweight and well designed -- the kind of e-reader that I wouldn't mind carrying around with me.

At $399, it is a bit more expensive than most of its competitors -- for example, the Kindle currently costs $259, the Sony Reader Daily Edition costs $350, and the Barnes and Noble Nook costs $259. However, the Alex is both an e-reader and a mobile Web device, which could justify the extra expense.

If you're looking for an e-reader to give to an otherwise technophobic relative, I'd suggest simpler devices such as the Kindle or the Sony Reader. If, on the other hand, you want a more active e-reader that lets you read your books, listen to music, surf the Web, check your e-mail and download the occasional Android app, then the Alex is worth considering.

Barbara Krasnoff is reviews editor at Computerworld. When she isn't either editing or reviewing, she blogs at The Interesting Bits ... and Bytes; you can also follow her on Twitter (@BarbaraKrasnoff).

This story, "Alex: New e-reader and Android Web device" was originally published by Computerworld.

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