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The Alex eReader (by Spring Design) is one of those products that probably would have gotten a lot more attention had it managed to come out before the iPad. However, as it stands, the $399 Android-powered device--which features both a 6-inch e-ink display and a 3.5-inch, 16-bit color touch-screen LCD--has been overshadowed by the arrival of Apple's slate.
Though the Alex eReader shares some similar traits to Barnes & Noble's dual-screen Nook, it has no tie-in with Barnes & Noble. In fact, Spring actually sued Barnes & Noble for similarities it saw in the Nook.
Beyond the dual-screen design, the Alex's key selling points are its built-in Wi-Fi, the ability to stream video and surf the Web (on its smaller color screen), and the fact that it runs the increasingly popular Android operating system.
Long and narrow, the 11-ounce Alex has a bit of an odd shape, measuring 4.7 inches wide, 8.9 inches high, and less than a half inch thick. That makes it a little more difficult to hold in one hand comfortably, though--at about 0.66 pound--it is fairly light.
The eReader comes with a 2GB of internal memory, and the microSD expansion slot supports cards up to 32GB. Earphones, an AC/USB power connector, and a padded cover ship with the unit. While it's missing the sort of built-in 3G cellular data connection found on the Nook and Kindle, the Alex does--on paper, at least--present quite a decent feature set.
In assessing the Alex, it's worth taking some time to try to determine what it does better than some of its competitors. For starters, the color touch-screen is not only larger but sharper and seemingly more responsive than the Nook's color LCD nav bar. We also like the icon-based home screen, which is more intuitive and slightly easier to navigate than the Nook's interface. There are icons for the BookStore, Browser, Calculator, Email, Gallery, Library, and Music, Reader, Settings, Wi-Fi, YouTube (Beta), and a User Manual.
The Alex uses the aging version 1.6 of the Android operating system. But the bigger problem is that there's no built-in app store. Spring Design says that this version of the Alex supports "Android applications that do not require GPS, camera or 3G connectivity." But the company provides no guidance as to how you can install such apps. (Company reps say that a video tutorial will be added to their Web site soon.)
The Alex's 3.5-inch screen is lot more akin to a smartphone's screen than the Nook's narrow navigation LCD, so you feel like you're using a smartphone when your focus is concentrated on that lower screen. The Web browser does have its limitation, but it is more usable than the Nook's or Kindle's browsers--though it's still a bit frustrating to be limited to the smaller bottom screen.
While this is no iPad in terms of rich multimedia capabilities, it is a notch up from the Nook (and an even bigger step up from the Kindle). The color LCD displays pictures pretty well and also plays back video (MPEG2, MPEG4, and 3GPP formats), though there's some banding and jagged edges due to the limited resolution of both the screen and some of the files we played back.
Like the iPad, the Alex doesn't support Flash at this time, though Spring Design's FAQ says Flash will be available in the next generation of Alex products--in other words, don't look for it to be added to this unit via a firmware update. You can, however, access many YouTube videos via the beta YouTube app.
On the audio front, the Alex's Android-based media player can handle most standard non-DRM audio formats (MP3, M4A, AMR, MIDI, WAV, and OGG Vorbis), and you can play music in the background while reading other apps. However, it can't handle closed audiobook formats (such as Audible). There are built-in speakers, but we were distressed to see that Spring Design went with a 2.5mm headphone jack (such as those found on older cell phones), not the industry-standard 3.5mm jack. In other words, you'll need an adapter dongle to use your headphones (assuming you don't want to use the ones supplied by Spring).
The eReader has a decent array of compatible e-book and document formats: it can handle ePub, PDF, HTML, and TXT files, but not Microsoft's DOC and DOCX files. It also supports Adobe DRM, so you can buy e-books from some compatible stores and "borrow" ePub-formatted e-books from your local library--just make sure to activate your Adobe ID on Alex.
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.