As an English major, I'm a big believer in the idea that great books require a reader's participation. A book isn't finished until the corners are dog-eared, the margins are crammed with notes, and all the juicy quotes get underlined. When it comes to textbooks in particular, the ability to annotate text is downright necessary.
If e-books are the future of literature, e-book readers need to become just as capable of annotation and markup as their paper-printed ancestors. At least, that's the driving philosophy behind the Entourage Edge, a combination e-book reader and tablet computer that is leading the charge toward making e-book text as easy to mark, quote, and dog-ear as the real thing.
As a first-generation product from a new company, the Edge is a surprisingly sturdy and feature-packed device. It's also an awkward, sprawling mess.
Blame it on the times we live in, but so far, no one has been able to invent a unified touch-screen technology that combines the readability and low power consumption of electronic ink displays (used on products such as the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader) with the vibrant colored, illuminated LCD screens necessary for even modest Web browsing or media playback. Unwilling to compromise between a quality reading experience and a quality Web and media experience, the Entourage Edge literally links together a 9.7-inch e-ink display (a Wacom touch screen), and a 10.1-inch color LCD (resistive touch screen), and assigns each screen the tasks to which they are best suited.
Taken on their own, each side of the Edge offers something remarkable compared with its competitors. On the left you have a touch-screen e-ink display that allows you to scribble notes, highlight text, and copy and paste selections. On the right, you have a Google Android-based tablet computer with Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g) e-mail, Web browser, Microsoft docs support (read/write), Webcam, dual USB ports, multimedia playback, and support for third-party apps. Theoretically, both devices together should feel about as magical as a Sasquatch riding a unicorn.
The dream of the Edge buts up against reality when you pick it up for the first time. It weighs a ton. More accurately, it weighs just over 3 pounds. Granted, 3 pounds is a fraction of the weight of a textbook, but in the world of e-book readers, it is a goliath. For the same weight, you could be carrying two iPads or 5.5 Kindles.
The second reality check occurs when you pry open the two magnetically-latched screens and stare dumbfounded at the dizzying array of buttons and icons. Beyond the buttons for power, Wi-Fi, and volume located on the side of the device, each of the two screens are outfitted with four buttons that control features specific to each panel.
For the e-book side, you get buttons for magnify, page forward, page back, and journal. For the deeper functions, a total of 17 pencil-wide icons dot the top of the display, which give way to a second row of icons specific to markup tools (draw, highlighter, paintbrush, tip width, etc.). A stylus tucked away on the back of the Edge is a necessary tool for operating the touch-screen features of the e-ink screen.
The stylus also comes in handy when using the color screen, which uses a resistive touch-screen technology that's not nearly responsive as the Apple iPad's capacitive IPS display (though not as prone to glare). The four buttons on this side offer access to the home screen, menus, screen rotation, and backing out of menus. A BlackBerry-style trackball is wedged between the buttons, which works well for scrolling around Web pages, but is otherwise rather useless and distracting.
After some initial confusion over the difference between the home and menu buttons, we eventually realized that the home button pulls you back to a desktop screen, whereas the menu buttons offers a contextual menu that varies from application to application. The screen rotation button comes in handy for viewing Web pages or documents in either landscape or portrait view. Considering how infrequently we used the Edge in landscape orientation, we felt the dedicated screen rotation button may have been better handled in software for the sake of simplifying the user interface. On that same note, the dedicated back button, though useful, also seemed like a crutch feature that could have been handled better using breadcrumb buttons throughout the touch-screen interface (as demonstrated on the iPhone).
Taking a step back, let's just say any device with two relatively large touch screens that requires an additional eight navigation buttons and a trackball is probably suffering from larger systematic design problems. Entourage may have technically designed the world's most advanced e-book reader, but the end result is a schizophrenic, relatively heavy device that is in many ways more complicated to use than a Netbook with the same price and dimensions.
The Edge offers features that go far beyond the average e-book reader, including word processing, e-mail, Web browsing, multimedia playback, Bluetooth support, voice recording, and extendibility through third-party Android apps. But with one half of the device dedicated entirely to an e-ink display, the e-book features of the Edge are unquestionably the foundation of this product, and the driving factor for purchasing one.
If you put the color panel to sleep and fold it behind the e-ink display, you can begin to appreciate some of the more unique features of the Edge without distraction. The e-book panel has an antireflective matte finish and paper-like contrast that is virtually identical to the Kindle 2. Unlike the majority of e-ink displays, the Edge uses a Wacom touch-screen technology that responds to stylus input. The screen is also relatively large at 9.1 inches, compared with the 6-inch display of the Kindle or the Nook, or the largest member of the Sony Reader family. The Kindle DX, however, is still the king of the e-ink hill with its 9.7-inch screen.
The touch-screen features of the Edge's e-book panel allow you to scrawl notes directly on the page, highlight passages, copy text selections, perform searches, navigate between pages and chapters, zoom in and out, attach virtual sticky notes, dog-ear pages, and more. The end result feels closer to taking notes in a book than it does with any product we've tested so far.
The way the Edge preserves your alterations to the text (all the notes, doodles, highlights, stickies, etc.) is commendable. For any given book, a record of all your annotations in all their various forms, are not only preserved, but are attached within a table of contents (viewed on the color screen) where they can be reviewed. For example, after highlighting five passages in a chapter, the book's table of contents will show five separate links under the chapter heading quoting the first few words of each highlighted selection. For the purposes of quick review, a table of contents can be filtered to show only links to highlighted text, making it a cinch to jump though only the material that matters most.
On that same token, any e-book can be exported to PDF with your scrawls and highlighting intact. Currently, any virtual sticky notes or attached media (word docs, images, other PDFs) will not be embedded within a book PDF export, but these extended notes can be exported separately. Want to e-mail someone a PDF version of Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" with all your margin notes and highlights? If you don't mind dividing your attention between two screens, the Edge makes it pretty simple.
The Edge's second screen also comes in handy for performing searches while reading. When you select the magnifying glass icon from the top of the e-book display (not to be confused with the two zoom magnifying glasses in the same location, or the physical magnifying glass zoom button to the left of the screen) any selected word or phrase will generate a search query on the color display. A pull-down menu defines the type of search you want to perform: within the book, Google search, Wikipedia, or internal dictionary. Search capabilities are nothing new for e-book readers, but the unique two-screen design of the Edge allows better interplay between the text and the search, without breaking your train of thought.
Any DRM-free EPUB or PDF file will work on the Edge's e-ink display. Alternately, you can open PDFs on the color screen using the included Docs To Go software. Books and documents can be transferred to the Edge over either of the two USB ports, the SD card slot, or downloaded directly from the Entourage online book store or free from Google Books.
Android tablet features
The right-hand screen of the Entourage Edge offers more than just a window into Wikipedia. Based around Google's Android operating system, the color touch-screen counterpart to the e-book reader offers a powerful combination of Web browsing, e-mail, document creation (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, PDF), and multimedia playback.
You'd need to be a little desperate to rely on the Edge as a full-time e-mail client and word processor. The onscreen keyboard is sluggish and lacks multitouch support or autocorrection. If you really want to make a go of it, though, you can plug a USB keyboard into the side and type like the wind. Just don't be surprised if you hear a few chuckles when you pull out your 3-pound e-book reader and external keyboard at your local cafe.
So though the Android tablet portion of the Edge may not satisfy as a Netbook computer, it's a workable surrogate when a real computer isn't around. Plus, with the Android operating system at its core, the Edge has the potential to benefit from third-party applications.
As far as media playback is concerned, you can fill the 1,024x600-pixel display with photos (JPG), videos (3GP, MP4, Adobe Flash Lite, H.264), or touch-screen-compatible Flash games. The Android music player isn't too shabby; it supports MP3, WAV, 3GPP, MP4, AAC, OGG, M4A, on the Edge hardware.
In the model we tested, wireless connectivity is limited to 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, although a SIM card slot offers the possibility of carrier support. Support for LAN is possible using an available USB adapter.
The Entourage Edge uses a removable battery capable of 16 hours of e-book reading (with the color screen shut off) or 6 hours with both screens activated. We suspect this battery life rating doesn't account for Wi-Fi usage. By comparison, the Amazon Kindle is rated at seven days of continuous use (with its wireless active) and the Apple iPad is expected to last for 10 hours of active use, even with Wi-Fi switched on.
Storage capacity is another weak spot for the Entourage Edge. The device uses 4GB of internal memory, of which 1GB is allocated to the system. Fortunately, the Edge offers an SD memory card slot for a little extra leeway.
The touch screen's responsiveness on either panel is less than stellar. As we mentioned earlier, the onscreen keyboard is slow to react, and accurate typing really requires a stylus. The Wacom e-ink display performs ably when it comes to scrawling notes, but suffered for all the small icons required to perform the most-interesting annotation features. The color panel, used mainly for Web browsing and e-mail, benefits greatly from the fact that its high resolution is capable of displaying most e-mails and Web pages without the need to scroll much. When scrolling is necessary, the reaction time is a far cry from the immediacy of the Apple iPad or iPod Touch.
We've spent a lot of time nit-picking over the Entourage Edge, trying to shake out exactly what the product gets right and where it disappoints. In the end, we think it's fair to say that the Entourage Edge is not a mass-market product, and was perhaps never designed for mass appeal.
If the goal is to create an e-book experience that can satisfy the demands of textbooks and the way students and academics need to interact with them, the Edge gets about as close to ideal as you can reasonably expect at this price. In spite of what we have to say, the success of a product like this can only be measured in the classroom.
In the weeks and months that follow this review, there are sure to be a number of firmware updates, interesting Android apps, and book deals that change the landscape for this device. Some things, however, will not change.
In spite of all the positive aspects of the Entourage Edge, it is simply too heavy and too awkwardly designed to take on the Kindles, Nooks, and iPads of the world. Most people we presented the Edge to simply found the device too bulky for its purpose.
As a proof of concept for dual-screen tablets, the Edge also proves an unfortunate lesson that two screens are not always better than one. With both screens facing you, the experience often feels fractured. With one screen tucked behind the other, one can't help but notice that the device feels unusually bulky for a simple task such as sending e-mail or reading a book.