- 10.1in. touch-screen
- reasonable price
- supports multiple ebook formats
- comes with useful Windows CE 3.0 software bundle
- Slow CPU, meagre RAM
- USB port is slave mode only
- lacks handwriting recognition software
- flimsy stylus
There are a number of dedicated ebook readers on the market, and although they are not as widely used as some enthusiasts would like, this has not halted the development of related technologies or delayed the release of new products such as Sony’s LIBRIé and Franklin’s eBookMan. Now French company Bookeen is pushing the Cybook, a Windows CE-powered device that, although it's being marketed primarily as an ebook reader, has other features on offer too.
The Cybook looks very like a slate-style Tablet PC, and is dominated by its 10.1in. screen. A leather-look cover protects the display, folding to the back of the device when it's not needed. Measuring 20.4cm wide by 25.8cm deep by 2.7cm high, the Cybook has a slightly smaller footprint than a sheet of A4 paper -- the screen itself measures 15cm by 20cm, which is just about A5. Only a very few ultraportable notebooks, such as Sony's VAIO X505, are lighter than the Cybook's 1kg (including the Li-ion battery). The Cybook’s large matt silver bezel around the screen gives the hardware a somewhat clunky appearance – we'd prefer a more streamlined look. Two edges of the device are peppered with buttons and connectors. One of the short edges houses the power cable, on/off switch, modem port, USB connector, 3.5mm headphone jack and infrared. There's also a serial jack, but it's not intended for end users: instead, according to the manual, it's ‘mainly for development purposes’. The long edge opposite the cover hinges contains four navigation buttons (next page/previous page/menu/special function) and a PC Card slot. The stylus for working with the touch-sensitive screen is also housed here.
Bookeen's Web site proudly proclaims the Cybook to be ‘the world’s first true open multi-format ebook reader’, and it duly comes with a number of ebook reading applications installed: MobiPocket Reader (PRC, PDB, TXT and HTML compatible); iBook Reader (HTML, TXT, RTF, PRC and PDB compatible); Boo Reader (OEB, or Open E-Book); XOEB (eXtended Open E-Book, currently proprietary to Bookeen); and Boo Reader Vision, which is designed to display OEB ebooks in large text sizes. Notably absent are readers for Adobe’s PDF and Microsoft’s LIT formats, both of which are popular among ebook users. We understand that Bookeen is talking to Microsoft about its Reader for LIT files and working on solutions for PDFs. The company also tells us that a version of eReader, which can read DRMd PDB format files, is being developed for the Cybook. Powered by a Motorola MPC823e processor running at 66MHz the Cybook is not intended to fly through its allotted tasks. The main job of rendering text to the page as you move through an ebook is accomplished quickly enough. And although there are some processes -- such as opening of ebooks and completing some other tasks on the device -- that result in a ‘wait’ icon appearing, this never remained on-screen for long enough to become irritating. The Cybook’s operating system is Windows CE version 3.0, which comes with a range of additional software including Microsoft’s Pocket Word, Pocket Internet Explorer, Pocket Inbox and Pocket Audio Player. The latter sends its output to a mono speaker or to headphones. Bookeen throws in a spreadsheet application, PTab Spreadsheet. The 100dpi screen has a native resolution of 800 by 600 pixels and can display 256 colours. It's a passive touch-screen, with a stylus housed within the case. The short and flimsy stylus is a disappointment and it's likely that the screen will be prodded at with a finger more often than not. For data entry there's a soft keyboard but no handwriting recognition software (although we understand that an application is uder development). The virtual keys are large enough to prod at two-fingered, or you can tap with the stylus. The keyboard is more appropriate for entering small snippets of information: extended data entry into Pocket Word or the spreadsheet isn't really feaible. With just 32MB of internal memory there isn’t a great deal of scope to add extra software. The PC Card slot provides expansion potential, though, and Bookeen sells a PC Card/CompactFlash adapter ($18.45) and a range of CF expansion cards. The latter include memory ($24.60 for 64MB or $36.90 for 128MB), Ethernet ($123) and Wi-Fi ($92.25). A 128MB CF card is currently included in the £399 (inc. VAT) price. The hardware comes with a mains power adapter and a USB cable. There was no copy of ActiveSync supplied with our review unit, but we downloaded this from Microsoft’s Web site and were able to share files between the Cybook and our PC in the usual way.
Performance & battery life
The Cybook is a little heavy to hold in the crook of an arm for extended periods; it is certainly heavier than any traditional book we've read in recent times, and after about an hour’s use you most definitely feel the weight. Some rather obvious tricks have been missed. Wi Fi drivers are available for use with PC Card adapters, but without integrated Wi-Fi your only direct route onto the Internet is via the dated and cable-bound 56Kbps modem. The USB connection is slave mode only, so you can’t use it to attach peripherals like an external keyboard. If you were able to do this, the Cybook could easily double as a handy portable word processor. Although the Cybook's prime function is as an ebook reader, it strikes us that a little more development effort would allow users to get a great deal more productivity from the Windows CE 3.0 software bundle. It's also a little annoying that you need to go into the Control Panel's Properties dialogue box to flip the screen into landscape mode. We’d have liked a simple icon in the System Tray for this job. Bookeen suggests that the built in 6,900mAh Li-ion battery should provide between 3 and 5 hours' life. That's a wide margin, but your choice of screen brightness will affect battery drain. As it happens, we rarely wanted to use the Cybook for reading for more than about an hour, and a charged battery will handle that requirement with no problem at all. The Cybook has the of potential to bridge the gap between much more expensive Tablet PCs and much smaller handhelds, and it's a good example of lateral thinking in hardware development. With a little more work, we could see it being marketed as a low cost, low functionality portable computer with word processing capability, for example. With that in mind, we are positive about it, although it needs a little more design work – plus a faster processor and more RAM -- before we can give it an unequivocal thumbs-up.