Last December, I was lucky enough to get my hands on an Irex Iliad. E-readers are an emerging technology which haven’t yet caught on with the general public. In fact, many people don’t realize such things even exist – I’ve encountered many of these while reading on the bus. I thought that now that I’ve used and owned one for 6 months it would be a good time to share my experiences. This won’t be a review per se but more an description of what it is like to use an Iliad.
The Iliad supports a wide range of formats, either natively or with third-party add-ons. In full, these are:
PDF, HTML, TXT, JPG, BMP, PNG, PRC/MOBI, DJVU
These formats break down into two groups: text-like and pdf. The reading experience of each group is different, as I will explain below.
Like all E-readers worth their proverbial salt, the Iliad uses an electronic paper display. The best way I can think of to describe what this looks like is this: You know those fake computer screens that they use in Ikea displays? It looks like one of those, but black and white. Epaper has many exciting properties. It reflects light in the same way paper does – meaning it has no backlight or flickering to slowly give you a headache, and can easily be read in all lighting conditions, including outside in broad daylight.
“But Nick, if there is no backlight then you can’t read in the dark!”
Well, besides the fact that I’m yet to see a book you can read in the dark, the Iliad comes with a USB port – so all you need is a cheap USB LED reading light (I got mine for $5) and you’re set for all manner of XTREME Low-Light Reading ™.
The Iliad is pretty much perfect in this regard – it fits comfortably in the hand, and is light enough that you can hold in with one hand easily. The page-through bar (a stroke of genius if you ask me, which you clearly do if you are reading this) is perfectly situated so that turning a page requires only a simple flick of the thumb. Of course, this is a right-hander talking – it might be a bit more difficult for a left-handed person. But they complain too much anyway.
Quite simply, I’ve come to much prefer reading books on the Iliad than from an actual book. I don’t know how many times I’ve cursed under my breath at a big bulky paperback which is too large and heavy to hold properly. I work out enough at the gym, I don’t want to have to do a bicep curl every time I want to turn a page. A book like that is hard enough to read in a chair, and almost impossible when lying down in bed. In contrast, I’ve put the Iliad through a veritable Kama Sutra of reading positions, and found each one a delight. (Well, except for position 73, but that requires more flexibility than I possess, and you can hardly blame the Iliad for that.)
The advent of the e-reader has caused much purple prose to be written about the value of physical books as an art form, a sentiment to which I am not deaf. I quite like the idea of one day owning a vast library of books – row upon row of tomes, each weathered spine promising of the deep journey of learning and discovery contained within the covers – the smell of leather blossoming like the bouquet of a well-aged Cabernet-Sauvignon, and the glistening of… et cetera… But that doesn’t change the fact that I find the experience of reading a big heavy book infuriating at times! Perhaps paper books are better for collecting and displaying, but certainly not for reading! I often find the physical media as much of a hindrance as a boon.
The book selection interface is quite simple and intuitive, no problems there. Navigating around the menus is perhaps a fraction slower than on might want, so if you’re one of those people with high blood pressure who starts leaking spittle and cursing out loud when the car in front of you takes an extra second to accelerate after a green light, you might want to let someone else do it. But for most other people it won’t be a problem.
As observed above, reading books in any of the the text formats is a dream. The page-turning bar is perfect and text can be easily re-sized if your eyes start getting tired on a long flight. Like many navigation, page turning takes perhaps a fraction of a second too long. This is very mildly disconcerting at first, but you soon learn to hit the button slightly before getting to the end of the page, and the problem disappears.
One slightly annoying bug I’ve notices is that when using mobipocket files, a page will occasionally be incorrectly formatted so as to be unreadable. This is simple to fix though – just flip back a page and forward again – and happens rarely enough that it does not interrupt your reading rhythm.
The one problem with reading is that it is difficult to navigate to a different page in the book. The device only displays a bar along the bottom, and since screen refreshes take a second or two it is hard to navigate to the right page. This usually isn’t a problem since you will be reading linearly, and the book will open to the last page you are at, but it makes it very frustrating if you are reading something which might require much flipping back and forth – like a textbook. This is something which will have to be addressed in future iterations.
Despite these few issues, however, the bottom line for reading textfiles is that the UI disappears, leaving you to focus on the words. This is surely the golden test of a UI, and it is what makes the iLiad so special – nothing stands between you and the text.
Reading PDFs is also a little less comfortable. Your standard A5 formatted PDF from a scientific journal
will be slightly too small when viewed at it’s normal size, so you have to zoom in. This means that to read you must pan around with the stylus. I must admit the I found this quite hard to swallow at first, but now that I have the hang of it, I don’t mind for most things. I use the Iliad for most articles I read – it sure beats carrying around a bag full of paper. My hope is that with time as this technology gains more popularity, journals will begin publishing articles in more ereader-friendly formats. Of course, you can always reformat PDFs yourself.
The Iliad has long been the “gold standard” of ereaders – and comes with a price tag to match, being more pricey than the competition. It has several benefits over the other devices to make up for this. The fact remains, however, that the price is likely too high for the general consumer to be interested in this technology. Prices will have to drop across the board before we see widespread use of ereaders.
I have found that ebook novels tend to be slightly cheaper compared to their physical counterparts by a few dollars. Textbooks, on the other hand, tend to be more expensive.
Availability of Books
Next to pricing, this is probably the single largest issue which remains as a barrier to ereader use: many titles remain unavailable in digital formats. There is something of a catch-22 here – the public will not begin to use ebooks until there is a wide selection available, while publishers will be reluctant publish electronic books until there is a larger market. It is encouraging to see a major retailer like Amazon getting the ball rolling with the Kindle, but of course this is marred by the fact that their books are sold in their proprietary format – Bad Amazon!
Of course, any public-domain classics will be available through the Gutenberg Project, but these book form only a small portion of my reading habits. Most modern best-sellers are also available as ebooks, though formatting is sometimes a problem – in my copy of “Quicksilver” from Mobipocket, the pictures were inexplicably so small as to be useless.
For any book more than a few years old there is very little availability. The reason for this is mind-boggling – although publishers have been editing many scripts in digital formats for nigh-on 30 years, until very recently, no record of these many scripts were kept on disk. I have heard that books which were being republished have to be retyped or OCRd! So I have been entirely unable to find certain books, especially in scientific literature like Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene” or Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained”. If anyone knows where I can get these as ebooks let me know!
What is needed is a simple way for someone to OCR an entire book. This is something I am currently working on – but that is a post for another day!
Annotation and Drawing
One of the major advantages of paper media over electronic media is the ease with which you can annotate and add marginalia. The iLiad deals with this by equipping a stylus and allowing for direct annotation on PDFs, much like you would do with a tablet PC. You can also take notes or draw pictures like you would on a tablet PC. Unfortunately, I find the writing resolution slightly too small to rate this a complete solution. The stylus is ever so slightly inaccurate, even when calibrated, which makes it difficult to write in cramped spaces between lines or in margins. This can be fixed by zooming in, but that is not really convenient. Also, annotations are limited to PDFs, and can only be merged into the PDF file with special software. So in this regard, the annotations are fairly limited, but it definitely a step in the right direction, and favourable to keyboard entry, in my opinion. At the very least it is handy for taking notes, or reminding yourself of things.
One of the greatest benefits of the Iliad over it’s competitors is that it runs on linux, and so can easily be modified with addons. This can add a lot of functionality which does not exist out of the box. Simple web-browsers can be added, which are functional for browsing simple formatted sites like Wikipedia. There is even a functioning mp3 player (the iLiad comes with an audio port). The functionality is limited by the slow screen refresh of the screen (and the greyscale) meaning that video is not possible.
Battery life is around 14 hours, which should be enough for two or three days unless you are a reader of truly Hermionean proportions. The one thing you have to be careful of is that the Iliad will not turn itself off if left untouched, so you have to remember to turn it off properly when putting it away, or you might find it out of juice when you return to discover the resolution to that cliff hanger. The base box comes with four different international power adaptors, which makes traveling easy.
The Irex is amazingly portable. It is a really solid piece of engineering, which does not seem fragile at all. The case which comes packaged with the Iliad provides ample protection – if not the most stylish of fashion accessories – and you can happily chuck it in a backpack along with your other books.
In terms of design, the iLiad is a beautiful futuristic piece of technology, which will prompt many conversations from curious individuals. So if you’re someone who doesn’t like meeting new people you might not want to take it with you on the bus.
Bottom line – I LOVE the Irex iLiad. No it isn’t perfect. Yes, there are improvements which need to be made before this technology will see widespread use. But this device is a clear proof-of-concept; Reading on an ereader can be, and is, a hugely enjoyable experience, on par – and in some ways superior – to a physical book. I look forward to what the future brings.