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Astak EZ Reader Pocket Pro (5-inch) review: Astak EZ Reader Pocket Pro (5-inch)

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You may not have heard of Astak, but it's one of several non-name-brand companies that are jumping into the e-book reader space with a range of new models, including the 5-inch EZ Reader Pocket Pro reviewed here.

OVR
5.7

Astak EZ Reader Pocket Pro (5-inch)

The Good

With its 5-inch screen, the Astak EZ Reader Pocket Pro is more compact than the Kindle and fits comfortably in one hand when reading; font size is adjustable; decent battery life; displays Word and PDF files (and zooms them); ePub file compatibility lets you access thousands of free classic Google Books and library loaners; decent protective cover included; memory expansion slot; user replaceable battery; displays images; plays back MP3 files and offers text-to-speech reading (via built-in headphone jack).

The Bad

No built-in Wi-Fi or cellular wireless; no major e-book store tie-ins; quirky interface; somewhat generic feel to the whole device; text-to-speech voice is far too robotic; needs to be priced lower.

The Bottom Line

The compact Astak EZ Reader Pocket Pro has a solid feature set and an affordable price tag, but it faces stiff competition from competing models by Amazon, Sony, and Barnes & Noble that offer better designs, improved navigation, and more features.

While this model is smaller than the Amazon Kindle, which has a 6-inch screen, we actually like the size of the Pocket Pro and other 5-inch nontouch-screen e-readers, such as the Sony Reader Pocket Edition (PRS-300). This model, like the Sony, has a list price of $199, so it makes sense to compare the two units, especially since both models have Adobe Digital Editions compatibility, which allows you to read downloadable e-books in the secure ePub format that's increasingly becoming the standard--outside of Amazon's Kindle--for online e-booksellers.

Measuring 6 inches high by 4.1 inches wide by .4 inch deep and weighing 6 ounces, the Pocket Pro is about the same size as the Sony PRS-300. It's hard to call it a true pocket device, such as the iPhone, but it will slip into the inside pocket of most sports coats (we tried it with a blazer), as well as cargo pant pockets.

From a design standpoint, the Pocket Pro features a rubberized finish that Astak reps claim is less susceptible to scuffing than the finish on Sony's Readers. There may be some truth to that--and we did like the feel of the finish--but overall the Sony is sleeker looking.

We appreciated that the Pocket Pro comes with a nice faux-leather cover with a magnetic clasp that keeps the cover closed when you're finished reading. You also get such features as an SD expansion slot for more memory (there's 512MB of internal memory and you can add cards up to 16GB). The battery is user replaceable, and provides up to two weeks of reading on a single battery charge. All of those are nice pluses.

This model comes in a number of colors, including white, black, red, blue, pink, and purple. Like most other electronic paper products, this Astak and its larger sibling, the 6-inch EZ Reader, use "E Ink" technology, which serves to make the letters and words on the screen look more printlike in their appearance. One of the characteristics of E-ink is that when you turn a page or scroll from one onscreen menu item to another, there's a slight delay as the screen refreshes. That's true of this model, too, and we sometimes noticed some ghosting of the menu screen on the page (you press a button to pop it up) until we refreshed the page. Otherwise, the screen (800x600 resolution, with eight levels of gray scale) is pretty easy on the eyes. Like all of these readers, though, you'll need to read in a well-lit environment, because there's no laptop-like backlight.

One of the Pocket Reader Pro's biggest strengths is the number of formats it supports. The full list includes: Adobe PDF (with reflow capability), RTF, TXT, Microsoft Word (DOC), EPUB, PDB, FB2, TXT, HTML, LIT, PRC, WOL, CHM, TIF, RAR, ZIP, DJVU, JPEG, PNG, GIF, BMP, and MP3. You can also view JPEG files and other image files (though, without any color, they come off like something you'd see on an Etch-a-Sketch) and listen to MP3s as you read.

While there's no tie-in to a major e-book store like Sony, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon, at this moment, you can download titles from such lesser known e-book stores as Shortcovers and Books on Board, as well as other sites that offer thousands of free titles.

To download e-books from Shortcovers, you have to install Adobe Digital Editions on your computer, then download the e-book (a secure ePub file), and transfer it to the device via USB using the Adobe software. Documents, PDFs, and e-books can be read vertically on the screen or manually rotated so they appear in landscape (horizontal) mode.

The Adobe software also allows "loaners" from local libraries that support such technology. Using the software, you transfer the ePub file downloaded from your local library to the Pocket Pro; the file automatically expires after a set period (usually 14 to 21 days).

In addition to library lending, the Pocket Pro's ePub support means that you can download one of the thousands of free Google Books available in that open format. The catch is that most of them are public domain titles that predate World War I. Still, it includes a long list of classics, including Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Austen, and the like--all completely free.

The Pocket Pro has a built-in text-to-speech function that will "read" most any document to you (you'll need to plug in a pair of headphones). Whereas the Amazon Kindle's text-to-speech support is limited to specific titles (based on whether the publisher or author allows it), the Pocket Pro seems to universally support any text on the device. Unfortunately, the synthesized voice is far more robotic and monotone than Amazon's implementation, so we don't think Astak users will be activating it too often.

The Pocket Pro isn't a bad little e-reader, but we weren't in love with the interface and we found navigating the device to be cumbersome. To zoom in on a PDF file, for example, requires three button pushes. You have to hit the menu button, select "zoom" from the menu choices, then select one of the sizes (extra-small, small, medium, larger, extra-large).

Another thing that was bothersome was that the rocker switch on the side of the unit doesn't allow you to scroll down through the items in your library. Instead, you have to press the number that corresponds to the item you want to select (there's a set of number buttons underneath the screen). The rocker button on the side is only for turning pages when you're reading a book (or, if you have more than eight items in a folder, you can use the rocker switch to advance the list to the next set of titles).

We had similar misgivings about the Cool-er e-book reader, which also suffers from confusing button labels and a mediocre interface that is not as intuitive as it should be. Part of the problem is that companies like Astak appear to be buying off-the-shelf e-book reader designs from Chinese manufacturers. While the devices themselves work well enough (the lettering on the screen is dark and the display looks just like the Sony's), they just seem a bit generic and lack polish. Some of the early photo frames were just like this: their displays showed images just fine, but the interface was kludgy.

If this e-reader cost $149 or less, we'd have an easier time living with its shortcomings. But since it's selling for $199 (and we've actually seen it for more than that), it's much less compelling, particularly considering that Amazon and Barnes & Noble are selling models with far better feature packages--built-in wireless, solid bookstore support--for just $259. As we said, the Pocket Pro's strengths are its compact size and capability to read a lot of formats. If those are features you're looking for in an e-book reader--and you don't need compatibility with Barnes & Noble or Amazon titles--this Astak is worth some consideration. But if you want something a bit slicker, the Sony Pocket Reader, even though it lacks an SD-card expansion slot, is probably the better bet. At the rapid rate the e-book reader market is evolving, you might want to wait a few months; we suspect prices will continue to drop and new choices will be popping up in due course.

OVR
5.7

Astak EZ Reader Pocket Pro (5-inch)

Score Breakdown

Design 5Features 5Performance 6