Cool-er e-book reader has value, barebones appeal [review]

Cool-er e-book reader has value, barebones appeal [review]

Summary: The Interead Cool-er e-book reader is just $250, cheaper than Sony's PRS e-reader and Amazon's Kindle. But is it worth the price? I go hands-on to find out.

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Would you buy an e-book reader for $359?

If the price tag of the Amazon Kindle doesn't hold much appeal, you're not alone. Interead is hoping to take advantage of that issue by positioning its Interead Cool-er e-book reader below its popular competition, pricing the device at just $250.

That's cheaper than both Sony's PRS-700BC e-reader and Amazon's Kindle 2. But is it actually worth $250?

I first introduced the Cool-er e-reader back in May, when news first broke about the device. The key reasons you should care about this gadget are the following:

  • It's $250, which is $50 to $100 less than Sony's competing devices and $110 less than Amazon's regular-sized Kindle.
  • It's "open," accepting a wide range of file formats. This is similar to Sony's e-readers and opposite of Amazon's locked-down Kindle.
  • It's available in several countries and regions, starting with North America and Western Europe. (The Kindle is only available in the U.S.)
  • It comes in eight colors. Get one for each of the kids.

When I first found out about the device, I wanted to know more. So I had Interead CEO Neil Jones, the force behind the creation and distribution of the Cool-er, come to ZDNet headquarters and make his case for his product.

Since then, I've spent several weeks with a prototype model of the Cool-er. The Cool-er comes in eight satin-finish colors, but my version is a glossy pre-production piano black that won't make it to market. Let's take a look at this device and see if it's worth your attention.

First, here's a quick visual tour around the device:

[ZDNet Image Gallery: Cool-er e-book reader]

Fewer features for less

On paper, the Cool-er manages to achieve its lower price by leaving built-in wireless functionality, a keyboard and name-brand premium off the table and putting a lighter profile, an SD card slot and audiobook support back on it.

First, let's look at the hardware.

On the outside

There's appeal in having all those colors, but the initial feel of the device when you pick it up is that it doesn't feel like it's worth $250. This is a subjective thing, of course, but the shell of the device has a creaky, plasticky hollowness that's hard to explain but is a very real element of tactile feedback. The buttons are hard plastic -- as many of you pointed out in my introductory post, the Cool-er uncannily resembles a second-generation iPod nano, buttons included -- and click with a clumsy bit of resistance.

While the lightness of the device contributes to it feeling "cheap," it also ensures there's no burden on your shoulder or your wrist when using or traveling with the device. That's a good thing, but the "cheap" sensation persists.

But what about the screen?

If you've used a Kindle, you won't be disappointed: the screen is stellar, because it's the same one that the Kindle shares. While it does take a moment's delay between screens, like all e-readers that use e-Ink, it's crisp and legible and the Samsung S3C2440 ARM 400MHz processor doesn't seem to have too much trouble. My eyes, tired from hours blogging on this very site using a computer screen, were relieved. The fonts are rendered well, are available in several sizes and eight languages, and it's a pretty solid visual experience overall.

The SD card slot is an important feature -- something the Kindle lacks. It offers memory expansion (beyond 1GB, to 4GB) and an easy way to move data around. And do-it-yourselfers will appreciate the removable, replaceable ($5) battery.

However, the device carries a 2.5mm audio jack instead of a 3.5mm jack. That's an inconvenience (you need an adapter), but I'm told Interead's working on a solution for the next model.

At the top right, there's a tiny lime green status light. I told Jones that including such a feature was a smart bit of oft-forgotten feedback to a user, and it's helpful when you're waiting for the e-Ink screens to load.

Finally, battery life is said to be 8,000 pages, and quite frankly, I had no problems with it at all. This is no smartphone, friends.

On the inside

What you will notice, however, is a lack of polish with regard to UI and software. The menus and screens have the rudimentary aspects of an e-reader down -- library, settings, and so forth -- but this is a far cry from the Apple-like user experience the external shell promises. Little elements, such as icons that aren't easily identifiable, or a cursor/selector that's not always apparent, or unnecessarily small text for book titles, could use a designer's touch.

In short, it feels like the product of a research proposal, rather than a finished consumer device.

The Cool-er is compatible with Macs and Windows PCs, and is a drag-and-drop affair not unlike using an external hard drive.

The primary advantage of the Cool-er is that it is "open," supporting PDF, EPUB books and text files. That means you can take a PDF report from work and read it on a flight just as easily as you can take an e-book (though there's no zoom). The Cool-er does not accept Kindle books downloaded from Amazon; on the other hand, books you buy in the Interead store can be shared on up to four devices.

The Bottom Line

The good thing about the Cool-er reader is that it's inexpensive. The bad thing is that it feels cheap.

The two aren't mutually exclusive, but it's a bit too unpolished for the price (playing devil's advocate with apples to oranges, you can buy an Apple iPod touch for the same price).

But the e-book reader market segment is still in its infancy, and no one buying a device like this should expect perfection -- including Kindle users. The technology isn't the best yet, each UI is built from the ground up, business models are being created without precedent, and above all, it's an expensive endeavor.

If you own an e-book reader right now, you are an early adopter. It's not unlike paying $8,000 for your eggshell IBM PC decades ago.

Compared to the competition, the Cool-er can't compete on features. But does it with such a low price?

Not quite. If this device was $150 -- make it $99 and everyone will buy one -- it would be tempting. But a low price only satiates a consumer so much, and you get what you pay for.

If you're dead-set on not paying Amazon's premiums and you want e-Ink technology with not much else, this is your device. It's usable enough for someone who doesn't mind getting acclimated to a fairly unintuitive UI, but bad news for anyone who needs everything spelled out for them. (Perhaps give it to the kids after you set it up.)

But if you're waiting for a true e-reader contender for less, well, you'll have to keep waiting -- at least until the next Cool-er comes out.

Topics: Amazon, Hardware, Mobility

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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6 comments
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  • Cool-er e-book

    I read with interest all of the facts about an electronic book but why make it so complicated?A paperback novel sized unit slim enough to fit into your pocket and a means of connecting to your PC to download books is all thats required. KISS
    cpomd1
  • Portable Books ... by Another Name

    I look forward to trying, then (fingers crossed) buying one of these e-book devices, even though I like the feel of the real book in my hands.
    Travel is common place with me and a simple five state visit to near by states one day ... four state visit next week. Some by air, most by bus. I have a few hours between states on my hands. I either bring one thick book or several smaller books. If I can put what I want on one device, it would be more than a great idea. It would easily mean more than 5 of them would show up with friends who travel with me on our visits.
    I would try out he quality of the fonts. How easy it can be read.
    I would see how clear or crisp the pictures or images can be.
    I would check out the memory. The internal amount, then the possible expandable size.
    I could use one of these right now, but I could wait 6 to 9 months and see what other models would show up ... causing the price to drop. Though I know several of the newer models, from known, and several unknown companies, will be of lesser quality. (Yes, I mean cheaply made.) But that's how a new technology works in our electronics, computerize world these days.
    cpuguy1
  • RE: Cool-er e-book reader has value, barebones appeal [review]

    although it doesn't have these "convenient" features of wireless download, keyboard, last time i checked, neither did my copy of John Grisham's latest...

    ...besides, ever ride the train to nyc reading a book, getting to the bar, and now stuck? cheap and small may just be what a friday night calls for!
    divot999
  • I read free e-books on my smartphone

    If you Google "free e-books" or "Project Gutenberg" you'll find thousands of classics available for download in a variety of formats. I download them straight to my Palm and read them in E-Reader. Aside from my providers internet charges, it's totally free.
    Geedavey
  • RE: Cool-er e-book reader has value, barebones appeal [review]

    There was a photo spread that led me to read the article I noticed that the word Random was misspelled on one of the photos (not shown in this article). I'd guess they let the Chinese set things up for them and no one proofread the operating screens. I agree that it looks like a research project not a finished product. I'll wait another year or so but I am interested.
    dullkit
  • Cooler E-Reader - Disappointing Quality and Support

    We purchased 2 Coolers in July 09 when they first came on the market and unfortunately would not recommend them to anyone. While one has generally worked ok, less than 2 weeks into a 4 month trip to South America my wife?s unit started having problems ? freezing up, getting caught in continuous loops while starting up, having the screen suddenly become garbled. A number of different fixes worked at different times but nothing actually solved the problems. Mine has also had some of the same problems but never as bad.

    Eventually we were told to send hers back in mid-October (from Bolivia, paid by us, eventually reimbursed in Jan/10). Despite the fact we tracked it and knew they had received it before the end of October we never heard back until I hounded them in mid-November and finally got a response. I was told it was fixed but they were just waiting on a new software upgrade and would send it out next week. That turned out to be a blatant lie. Three weeks later I hadn?t heard anything and tried contacting them again ? no response, no response. Finally, in mid-December, I got fed up and sent an angry email to everyone in the organization I could find contact info for. That apparently got their attention as I received several replies and even a phone call. Their PR rep was very helpful and got a new unit sent out immediately (which was good because apparently they could no longer locate our original one). Of course, although she also promised to send us free credit in the Cooler Bookstore we never did receive this.

    Now, while the new unit doesn?t seem to suffer from the original problems, the battery appears to be defective (it lasts about 10% as long as our other one ? not even a full day). I once again contacted Cooler Support, even offering to purchase a new battery, and after a third try was told:

    The COOL-ERs battery is easily removable. If you do find a replacment
    battery at a local battery retailer please feel free to try one out. I
    currently do not have a replacement battery to offer.

    Best regards,
    Julie

    I thought it was very generous of them to ?allow? us to try to find a new battery at our own cost since they apparently don?t bother keeping replacement parts around. Unbelievable.

    All in all, we?ve had nothing but headaches with Cooler and I now understand why they were cheaper than the rest. Even when they are technically working they still occasional get stuck cycling and overall they just seem poorly made. So, while I don?t have any personal experience with other models, I would recommend trying anything else since I can?t see how the quality or service could really be any worse.
    dinojay2