- Ergonomic hardware design
- Excellent E-ink screen, visible in a wide range of lighting conditions
- USB mass-storage mode for easy data management
- Supports music playback via headphones
- 2.5mm headset connector
- Limited range of audio formats supported
It has been said that e-book readers are one of the great missed opportunities of the portable computing world. The ability to carry many tens of 'books' — be they training manuals, novels, comics, short papers, reports or other kinds of texts — on a single device is alluring, but the devices themselves have generally failed to prosper.
There are several ways to carry and read e-books. Notebooks support them, as do handhelds and even small-screened mobile phones. A number of software solutions exist for reading e-books on each of these platforms. However, there are also dedicated e-book readers — not many admittedly, but enough to exist as a distinct product category. Bookeen has been active in this field for some years: we reviewed its first effort in 2005 and were impressed. We're even more impressed with the latest model, the Cybook Gen3.
The problem with dedicated e-book readers is that they are an additional device that needs to be carried alongside other computing kit. This means they must be compact, ergonomic and highly functional — that is, they need to earn their place. The Cybook Gen3 meets these challenges very well indeed. It's the smallest, neatest, tidiest and most usable e-book reader we've seen to date.
It is a slate-style device and, on the front, almost all screen. It measures 188mm tall by 118mm wide by 8.5mm thick, weighing 174g. It's easy to drop into the side pocket of a notebook bag and, when held in the hand, is light and comfortable. Roughly the same size as a paperback novel in height and width, it hits an ergonomic sweet spot.
Our review sample, the more expensive 'Deluxe Pack', came with a leather case. This adds considerably to the overall size of what needs to be carried, but offers some protection for the device — particularly its 6in. screen.
There are few hardware controls on the device. The main on/off switch sits on the top edge, with a bank of four small buttons on the left edge and two more on the right edge. The front houses a large navigation button and central select key. Between them, these controls provide everything you need for navigation.
There are two packages of the Cybook Gen3 available. The standard version, which costs £245, is just the device itself. The £315 Deluxe Pack includes the leather case, a 2GB SD card for data storage, a USB charging cable and a set of earphones.
E-ink is a highly power-efficient display technology as it only draws power when the screen is refreshed. This means you can leave a screen showing information for several minutes with no power being used to maintain the image. This works very well for text-based information, such as e-books.
The 6in. screen offers just four greyscales, so it's not great at displaying pictures. The resolution of 600 by 800 pixels is adequate for text, though. When viewing some file types, you can flip the screen between landscape and portrait modes to suit the material and your reading preferences.
We like the Cybook Gen3's built-in audio playback capability. There are no loudspeakers on the device, so playback is through stereo headphones only. Unfortunately, the audio jack is a 2.5mm unit, which restricts your choice of headphones. The 'phones supplied with the Deluxe Pack are quite good, but you may need to use an ungainly 2.5mm-to-3.5mm converter if you want to use an alternative.
Listening to music while reading helps to shut out your surroundings; we found this especially effective when travelling by train, for example. It also, of course, allows you to listen to audio books.
The only audio format supported is MP3. This covers podcasts, many audio books and a great deal of music, but there are other popular formats — notably WMA and AAC — that are not supported. Depending on your current preferences, you may need to do some data conversion to listen to your audio files on the Cybook Gen3.
When it comes to displaying images, the Cybook Gen3 supports JPEG, GIF and PNG files. E-book file-format support runs to PDF, TXT, HTML, PalmDoc and Mobipocket PRC. Those interested in getting up-to-date information through, for example, RSS feeds can achieve this via the Mobipocket desktop software, to which the Cybook Gen3 can be synchronised.
As well as synchronising with Mobipocket, you can get content onto the Cybook Gen3 by connecting it to your PC and treating its 64MB of memory as USB mass-storage device. Alternatively, there's an SD card slot on the upper edge of the device, which will appear as a second mass-storage device when a card is inserted (or you can use a PC-based card reader to copy content to an SD card and then manually insert this into the slot). The Cybook Gen3 does not support SDHC, so the upper limit for memory cards is 2GB.
You navigate via the controls on the front and sides. The front houses a four-way navigation pad with a central select key: the former moves you through pages, while the latter calls up a context-sensitive menu. Typically, the menu allows you to perform actions such as viewing bookmarks, changing the font and font size, switching between landscape and portrait orientation, and returning to the main 'library' view, which displays all the content on the device.
Two buttons on the right-hand side control the music playback volume. The left side has four buttons, for deleting items, going back a step, calling up the list of music on the device and duplicating the select button on the front.
The Cybook Gen3's 1,000mAh Li-polymer battery is good for 8,000 page refreshes. Depending on the font and font size selected, the number of pages in any one book will vary, making it difficult to estimate how many books can be read within this number of page refreshes. However, we used the Cybook Gen3 for several weekend reading sessions with no need to recharge. If you're not happy with the range of fonts supplied, you can add more TrueType fonts.
The ergonomics are excellent. We found the Cybook Gen3 very comfortable to hold for extended periods, as it's light and compact. The screen is unusual as it has no backlight and is not reflective. However, we found it legible in a wide range of lighting conditions, both indoors and out. It's very easy on the eye and suited to extended periods of concentrated use. In short, we found it no more demanding than reading text on paper.
The Cybook Gen3 is simply the best e-book reader we've seen to date. It could use one or two tweaks: most obviously, support for more audio formats, a 3.5mm headset jack and support for SDHC (although you can get a lot of content onto a 2GB SD card). We'd also like to see a thinner, more bag-friendly carry case. Even as it stands, if you want to try an e-book reader, then the Cybook Gen3 is definitely recommended.