/>
X
Innovation

Alex eReader; business on the top and party on the bottom

The Alex eReader has both a 6 inch eInk display and lower 3.5 inch color display for running Google Android without a smartphone. The device is a solid performer with support for lots of content too.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer on

As you all know I am a huge fan of ebooks and am a very happy Barnes & Noble Nook owner. One of the electronic book readers I saw at CES 2010 in January that piqued my interest was the Spring Design Alex eReader since it had a full 6 inch eInk display on the top and a full 3.5 inch capacitive touch color display on the bottom with Google Android powering the device. The Barnes & Noble Nook is also powered by Android with both an eInk and color display, but a much more limited color display. I spent last weekend with the Alex eReader and found several things to like about it, but there are a couple other aspects that will prevent me from buying one for myself. Take a look at my walk through video below, along with my 40+ photo and screenshot image gallery showing most aspects of the Alex eReader. I have about 10 days left with the device so please send me any questions you might have that I can answer in a follow up post.


Image Gallery: A walk through the Alex eReader dual screen reader.
Image Gallery: Alex eReader in hand
Image Gallery: Lower Android display

Box contents and first impressions

The Alex eReader comes in a box with a full, glossy Alex device photo on the front and list of features and specs on the back. Inside the box you will find the Alex eReader, protective slip cover, USB power adapter and USB cable, headphones, 2GB microSD memory card, and Quick Start Guide. Inside the outer box you will find a black heavy cardboard box and when you flip open the top you will find the Alex eReader embedded inside a bed of protective rubber/foam material.

The first thing that struck me after pulling out the Alex eReader was the length and narrow width of the device. it is quite long at 8.9 inches, but the 4.7 inches width makes it quite easy to hold. It feels solid in your hand and appears to be quite well constructed. The color display reminds me of my T-Mobile G1 in landscape mode and the upper electronic ink display also appears to be quite readable.

Specifications

The specifications for the Alex eReader include the following:

  • Monahan PXA303 624 MHz processor
  • 6 inch 600x800 8 level grayscale enabled with 16 grayscale capable eInk display (EPD = Electronic Paper Display)
  • 3.5 inch 320x480 capacitive touchscreen display
  • miniUSB port
  • 256mb internal memory, 4GB internal Flash memory, and microSD card slot with included 2GB card
  • Standard SD card slot for expandable memory options, up to 4GB
  • 802.11 b/g WiFi radio
  • 2.5mm headset jack
  • Stereo speakers and microphone
  • 1530 mAh Lithium Polymer battery
  • Dimensions of 8.9 x 4.7 x 0.4 inches and 11 ounces

The display is a bit different than the 6 inch Vizplex eInk display I have on my Nook and I can tell the difference in the clarity of the fonts. You can see that some of the fonts seem to be a bit light, especially along the bottom status bar area.

I have no idea why a 2.5mm headset jack is used rather than the standard 3.5mm headset jack. I thought we had seen the last of these headset jacks, but at least Spring Design included a pair of headsets in the box. You will also find stereo speakers on the back so you can listen to background music while you use the device.

Walk around the hardware

The front of the Alex eReader is dominated by the 6 inch EPD on the top and 3.5 inch color display on the bottom. There is a microphone on the upper right of the Alex and integrated into the ebook software is a voice recorder for recording voice notes as you read. Unlike some other ebook readers with multiple means to turn pages forward and back the Alex eReader has a single previous page button on the left of the lower color display and a next page button on the right of the color display. The next page button also acts as the Menu options button. Below the previous page button on the left is a back/home button. Pressing and holding this button takes you to the Home screen on the lower color display. Below the next page button is the power/LCD On/Off button.

One other unique button on the front is the Sync/Unsync EPD and LCD screens button that you can use to make the two displays show the same information. This allows you to browse the web with the larger EPD display showing you content or read in no light conditions on the bottom color display.

There is nothing on the bottom, left, or right of the Alex. A miniUSB port, charging indicator light, and 2.5mm headset jack are all found on the top.

The microSD card slot is externally accessible and found on the left side of the back. It is inset into the back and seems secure, but I would personally be a bit worried that it could get bumped and popped out and am not a big fan of this design. You will also find stereo speakers on the back at the bottom outside edges of the Alex eReader.

Walk around the software

The Alex eReader is powered by Google Android 1.5 and everything is run on the lower color display. If you have used a Google Android smartphone then you will quickly recognize and be able to pick up and use the Alex eReader. When you first start it up and get to the Home screen you will find the following icons on the display by default:

  • Browser
  • Calculator
  • Music
  • YouTube (beta)
  • Gallery
  • Email
  • Settings
  • User Manual
  • WiFi
  • BookStore
  • Library
  • Reader

The web browser is your typical Google Android browser and one key button to note is the Next Page/Menu Options button. It took me a bit of time to figure out how to use the web browser, especially trying to figure out how to enter in a URL and perform other browsing functions. You simply press and hold this Next Page/Menu Options button to access functions such as Go To (enter URL), bookmarks, new browser window, refresh, and more. If you tap the Sync/Unsync button you can have the Internet appear on the upper eInk display, in addition to the browser working on the bottom display. The bottom display shows a portion of the web page that the eInk display shows and the experience is decent.

The Calculator, Music player (supports MP3, M4A, AMR, WMA, MIDI, WAV, and OGG Vorbis), and YouTube application are all standard Android apps and work well. The Gallery application lets you view photos and movies so you can use your Alex to watch movie content on the lower color display. The Email application supports setting up to five IMAP/POP accounts and is NOT the Gmail application found on Android devices. It is fairly basic, but also supports the slide down notifications you have come to love on Google Android devices.

Inside Settings you will find several options for wireless controls, sounds and display setup, security, managing apps, date & time, text input settings, and more. The WiFi utility is a quick toggle to turn WiFi on or off.

The software you probably really want to hear about is the ebook software and you will find three apps/utilities for this capability. The BookStore, Library, and Reader software should all be located next to each other and after a couple of days I did just that on the Alex. Tapping on the BookStore launches a page of web shortcuts to Google Books, Epub Books, Gutenber, Web Books, Feed Books, and Smash Words. These are all good sites to find free ebook content, but I would love to see the Kobo bookstore added when the Alex launches at Borders later this summer so you can buy books to read on the Alex.

Tapping on the Library will bring up the library utility with your books categorized by recently downloaded, My Collections, Titles, Authors, and Latest Reads. There is also a search box in the top title bar and a quick global font size toggle. Tapping on a category opens up and shows you the book titles and author and where the book is stored (internal or microSD card). Tapping the Reader also opens up this same Library view of your books.

After selecting a book to read you will find the book cover (if loaded on the Alex) with author and publishing date. There is a row of icons along the bottom of the Reader that give you access to the Library, Table of Contents, Bookmarks, Add bookmark, Annotations list, Highlights list, Hyperlinks list, Edit, Dictionary, Text size, Go to location, Select Collections, and Encoding. As you can see you can create annotations, highlights, and hyperlinks within ebooks you are reading. You can select from five different text sizes. I couldn't find any font settings to change the fonts and need to keep looking on the device.

There is no Android Market on the Alex and I understand you cannot load up apps with position or phone requirements. Spring Design is reportedly working with developers to bring more apps to the device. You are also supposed to be able to load up APKs through other means, but I was unsuccessful in my initial attempts to install through the web browser.

What about the content?

The key to an ebook reader is content and that is one reason I am no longer a fan of the Kindle with its limited content support. Like my Nook and the Kobo eReader, the Alex eReader is fairly open with support for PDF, EPUB, HTML, and TXT formats, including Adobe Digital Editions content purchased from ebook stores like Kobo and Barnes & Noble. With support for Adobe Digital Editions you can also get free ebooks at your local library.

One of the first things I did was connect the Alex eReader to my MacBook Pro and launch Adobe Digital Editions. Unfortunately, the Alex did not appear in the left sidebar of ADE so I thought I was out of luck. I then read the Alex FAQ page to find you had to first activate your Adobe ID on the Alex itself, as follows:

Before content that has been protected using Adobe DRM can be read on Alex the user must activate his/her Adobe ID on Alex. To do this

1. Make sure that Alex is connected to the Internet through WiF. 2. On the Alex home page click Settings --> About your Reader --> Adobe ID. 3. You will then be asked to either enter your Adobe ID and password. Click Activate, or, if you do not already have an ID you can create a new one by clicking Create new. 4. If you click Create new you will be taken to the Adobe web page. You can create an ID either from Alex or from a PC. You must then go back to step one to enter the newly created ID.

I then connected the Alex and it still did not work. After searching around on the MobileRead forums I discovered the Alex doesn't show up for some reason, but all you need to do is drag the ebook you purchased or checked out to the microSD card on the Alex and you should be good to go. I was pretty excited to see my Kobo, Sony, and Barnes & Noble EPUB books appear perfectly on the Alex.

PDFs are also supported, but there is limited support for their use at this time (no highlighting, no reflow of text, etc.).

By the way, here is why Spring Design named the device Alex:

Alex was inspired from the Ancient Egyptian Library of Alexandria that was the largest and most famous of all libraries of the ancient world. It functioned and remained a major center of scholarship for centuries after the Roman conquest of Egypt.

Wrap up of my initial impressions

In addition to my initial hands-on video, I highly recommend you check out all the detailed tutorial videos available on the Spring Design website. The model I have to evaluate is the Alex DS-10, which is the WiFi only model. I understand that the DS-11 (WiFi & EVDO/CDMA) and DS-12 (WiFi & HSPA/GSM) models are coming in the next few months, but I do not know how much more they will cost.

Ebook page turning is typical for an eInk device and just as speedy as my Nook and the Amazon Kindle. The only thing I found lagging a bit was the keyboard text entry seemed to lag a bit behind my typing. I imagine this can be fixed with a future firmware update.

The $399 price point seems a bit high to me with the 16GB iPad available starting at $499 and dedicated ebook readers like the Kobo coming in at $149. The Alex is a bit unique compared to the Nook and Kindle due to the large color display that runs Google Android and supports web browsing and media. The Kindle and Nook now support web browsing too and the Nook lower display gives you limited viewing of the web. One great thing about the Alex is that you can use the upper display to read for long periods of time and then when you go to bed you can use the lower color display for reading in the dark, all on a single device.

I would be tempted to pick up the Alex eReader and dump my Nook if it was priced at $300, but since I have an iPad to cover browsing, media, and no light reading so it isn't a device for me. The Alex is a solid device that is scheduled to see updates and improvements thank to the Android operating system. I would love to see the Kobo ebook store added to the device when the Alex launches at Borders bookstores later this summer.

I haven't had the device long enough to test out the battery life, but the Spring Design page states that you should be able to turn 7500 pages or get 6 hours of web browsing from a single full charge.

Editorial standards