- Excellent E-ink screen
- Reads from CompactFlash and MMC cards, and USB sticks
- Wi-Fi and Ethernet networking
- Relatively lightweight
- Not enough document formats supported
- Annotation system is a little convoluted to use fully
- Touch-screen input requires the provided stylus
At first glance, the iLiad from iRex Technologies seems to be a stunning innovation. With an innovative E-ink greyscale touch-screen and Wi-Fi connectivity for firmware updating and document download , it seems like a device with a wide range of applications. How well does it live up to this billing in the real world?
The iLiad is a slim, slate-style tablet measuring 21.7cm tall by 15.5cm wide by 1.6cm thick whose front is dominated by an 8.1in. greyscale screen. There's a long, thin ‘spine’ to the left of the display, topped and tailed by various buttons; further buttons nestle beneath the screen.
This is a device designed to be held in the hand for significant amounts of time, so it's fairly light at 389g. It's heavier than a handheld computer, but much lighter than any notebook or Tablet PC we've seen.
The outer casing is black, while the buttons and other highlights are silver. The materials for the casing and buttons could have been a little slicker and sleeker, but the iLiad's rubberised finish makes it relatively easy to grip.
Designed primarily for use as a document reader, the iLiad needs to combine several features for success: good document format compatibility, a superb screen, excellent battery life and ease of use.
The news is reasonably good on the format compatibility front. The formats supported are PDF, HTML, TXT, JPG, BMP, PNG and PRC (the latter is the format used by the Mobipocket ebook reader). The world’s most popular office suite is not supported, however.
The screen is, not surprisingly, the highlight of the device. If reading texts using a standard notebook is uncomfortable for long periods, then the iLiad's matte-finish, low-light display will be a welcome change. It displays 16 greyscale levels, which makes graphics come to life rather nicely.
The display is from E-ink, whose technology is entirely different to anything currently used in notebook or desktop computers. Electric fields are passed over very small liquid-filled 'microcapsules' containing positively charged white pigment particles and negatively charged black pigment particles. With a positive electric field applied, the black particles float to the top of the microcapsule and the white ones sink to the bottom, making the pixel appear black. The reverse happens when a positive field is applied.
Microcapsules are ‘printed’ onto a plastic film that becomes the screen. The technology is suitable for flexible displays and is considerably lower in power requirements than traditional displays, as it requires electricity only when the display changes rather than needing a constant flow of power to maintain its image.
The iLiad runs on a 400MHz XScale processor with 64MB of RAM and 256MB of flash ROM, of which128MB is accessible to the user. Storage capacity can be augmented via a CompactFlash card slot, an MMC card slot and a single USB connector. The iLiad will read direct from any of these, which means file-copying to a flash memory card or USB stick is an easy way to get content onto the device.
The iLiad also supports Wi-Fi (802.11b/g) wireless networking, while a separate hub section contains a 10/100Mbps RJ-45 Ethernet connector.
The iLiad can be configured to download documents from a PC if you are prepared to install the free PC desktop companion software. You need this if you wish to use the provided download service for documents such as ebooks, newspapers and cartoons, as well as to back up your device onto a PC. You can also use a Wi-Fi connection to update the device’s firmware, which we did during the review process.
Periodic free firmware updates should mean the device you purchase today is always up to date. One of the advantages is that new document formats should be supported as time progresses.
The idea of docking the iLiad and downloading today’s newspaper for reading on the commute to work might be very alluring, but there is one big problem. There are very few partner agreements in place at the time of writing, and no UK newspapers are currently supporting the iLiad.
As well as reading documents of various kinds you can annotate some document types and create documents from scratch.You can draw on the touch-screen, which uses Wacom technology, or write using a tappable keyboard or handwriting recognition. The iLiad’s casing houses a stylus, which you must use for direct input. It would be preferable if the touch-screen was passive rather than active, as you could then use a fingertip to drive the screen. As it is, if you lose the stylus, you lose the touch-screen functionality.
You can only make annotations to exiting documents in PDF, JPG, BMP and PNG formats. Edited image files can be viewed 'as is' on a PC, but if PDFs are annotated the resulting file is saved in a proprietary format. You need the desktop companion software to create a new PDF containing both the annotations and the original data. You can also create handwritten notes from scratch: a second application, MyScript Notes (€59.95) will convert handwriting into editable text.
Performance and battery life
The E-ink display technology at the heart of the iLiad is superb. We were able to read for long stretches without any eye discomfort at all, which is the acid test for the iLiad in terms of everyday usability. Add the ability to choose text sizes from an impressive range (from too small to read to too large to be practical), and we have absolutely no complaints about the display.
Moving through documents is relatively straightforward. The long ‘spine’ mentioned above can be pushed with a thumb to move back and forth a screen at a time, and this feels comfortable and intuitive to use. Other buttons take you out to the main menu and provide item selection options, while four buttons beneath the screen allow you to move easily through different documents categories (news, books, docs and notes).
If you're happy to use the provided stylus, further on-screen icons allow touch-screen access to the device's functionality.
Battery life is claimed at 14 hours. Although we didn't test this formally, we were able to do as much as we wanted to with the iLiad in long sittings without worrying about the need to recharge.
The iLiad is not the only device of its kind on the market. Sony’s Reader is the obvious rival, but this is not available in the UK and its range of capabilities is more limited.
However there are some rough edges we would like to see ironed out. The document annotation process is a little convoluted if you want to get the most out of it, there are very few newspaper formats supported, and we feel the hardware could probably be made even lighter in its next iteration.
We can see situations in which the iLiad could prove a viable device, though we do feel it is a little pricey.