Currently, you can buy from booksonboard.com, ebooks.com, and kobobooks.com. In addition to requiring the aforementioned Adobe ID activation, those stores aren't in the eReader's BookStore app; instead, you'll need to purchase and download the book files on a Windows PC or Mac, and then transfer them to the Alex via a USB cable or SD card swap. The BookStore app does allow direct access and downloads of free books from epubbooks.com, Google Books, Project Gutenberg, Feedbooks, and Smashwords.
Those who don't want to get locked into a single proprietary e-bookstore (such as Amazon, Apple, or Barnes & Noble) may actually view the Alex's "openness" as one of its strengths. But for the average consumer, the relative obscurity of the e-book providers--and the fact that they're not all integrated into the hardware--is a serious problem. Borders support is said to be coming in the future--but there's currently no ETA for its appearance on the device.
We had a couple of other, smaller nitpicks. The e-ink screen itself--at least on our unit--didn't have quite as dark lettering as the lettering on the Nook's screen. The letters also looked a little sharper on the Nook. Spring claims the Alex's e-ink display offers the fastest refresh rates on the market, but it didn't seem terribly faster to us than the Kindle or Nook. Also, the lack of a "home" button made navigation a bit maddening--you need to keep clicking "back" instead.
The Alex does have a lot of the features that more scholarly readers look for in an e-book reader. You can highlight, annotate, bookmark, and even take voice notes (there's a built-in microphone). You can also group your content into collections and Twitter and e-mail links allow you to share snippets from books with friends. (Amazon has incorporated a similar feature in its 2.5 firmware update for the Kindle).
Depending on how much you use the color screen and Wi-Fi, the battery life seems comparable to the Nook's, if not slightly better. Spring says, "You can read offline anywhere for up to two weeks without recharging the battery with browsing and wireless off. Battery life will vary based on device usage." That means that with moderate use of the color LCD and Wi-Fi connection, you should be OK for 4 or 5 days. In our testing, we charged the device once fully, and then recharged 5 days later when the battery indicator got down to about 15 percent.
While the lack of built-in 3G isn't a huge issue in our book, Spring Design does have 3G models on the drawing board: the Alex DS-11 (Wi-Fi 802.11b/g + EVDO/CDMA) and DS-12 (Wi-Fi 802.11b/g + HSPA/GSM) are due in the summer of 2010, but no pricing has been announced.
All in all, the Alex is something of a challenge to review. While it feels like a work in progress, it does have some impressive features and is wonky enough to appeal to techie types. For the average consumer, however, it's easy to write off because of its $399 price point and odd-bird design.
Yes, it's way too expensive: we'd bet most consumers would easily spring for the extra $100 and get the iPad, which offers much better design, smoother operation, a ton more features--and several well-integrated e-book options. At the other end of the spectrum is the newly announced Pandigital Novel. That product is also Android-based, but it's got a full color touch-screen and access to the Barnes & Noble e-bookstore--all for half the price of the Alex eReader.
That said, there's a good foundation here and if Spring Design can continue to improve the device, add a "real" bookstore (the company says--hopefully--that one is coming) and more Android apps, it would become more compelling and people might just take notice. We saw one firmware update arrive while we were reviewing the Alex, and the company is promising several feature enhancements, including compatibility with password-protected PDFs, text-to-speech features, and VPN compatibility.
Of course, it would also help to get the price down below $300. Until then, you're probably going to be better off spending less on the Kindle or Nook or more on the iPad.