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

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.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

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.

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