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Hands-on with Sharper Image's Literati eReader

Due arrive in October, the Literati is an inexpensive color e-reader aimed at the mass market that will have a large retail presence this holiday season. CNET Executive Editor David Carnoy gets an early look at it.

The $159 Literati doesn't have a touch-screen.
David Carnoy/CNET

The Literati, a Sharper-Image-branded color e-reader, was officially announced a few weeks ago, but I spotted one out in the wild last night at a tech event in New York.

Due to hit stores in October, the Wi-Fi-enabled Literati has a 7-inch LCD screen, an affordable $159 price tag that's expected to drop with special promotions during the holiday season, and it's being targeted squarely at the mass market with distribution in such stores as Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy, JC Penney, Kohl's, and Macy's. MerchSource, the company that's behind the product, says it will have the "broadest retail footprint of any eReader currently available."

The first thing you'll notice about it is that it's got an elongated shape that resembles the Alex eReader, with a keyboard at the bottom. Though at first glance you might think it has a touch screen, it doesn't; you navigate it very much like you would a Kindle, with a navigational button that's integrated into the keyboard.

As noted, there's built-in Wi-Fi, and Kobo powers the built-in bookstore (Kobo also powers Borders' e-bookstore and has apps that allow you to access your Kobo library on portable devices such as the iPhone, iPad, and Android-based smartphones). The Literati comes in two colors, white or black, and is preloaded with 25 free classic titles and more importantly, ships with a decent looking protective cover. In the box, you also get a coupon code for automatically loading another 125 preselected free titles to your Literati user account.

MerchSource is marketing the device strictly as an e-reader, and it's designed to compete with the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook. Such affordable color LCD e-readers as the Pandigital Novel, which fared poorly in our review, and the Velocity Micro Cruz Reader, are Android-based and offer more functionality, including Web browsing and media playback capabilities. Since the Literati is geared to mainstream users, MerchSource says it wanted to keep things as simple possible.

On the plus side, the Literati is reasonably attractive, though its elongated shape may be a bit jarring to those used to seeing the well-proportioned Kindle, Nook, or Sony e-readers. The device seems zippy enough, and we didn't see a problem with books loading too slowly or page turn delays. That said, the biggest hint that this is a budget device is the LCD, which isn't supersharp (it's 800 x 480 resolution). It's OK for reading and, as you can see from the photo below, it displays images from children's books just fine. But hold it up to a smartphone or an iPad screen, and it looks dull in comparison.

It will be interesting to see how consumers respond to these types of devices. MerchSource reps said their company's strength is creating gift worthy products and they think the Literati is well-timed--and well designed--to ride the e-reader tsunami that's supposed to come ashore this holiday season.

The big question is how much of a selling point is color, even if it isn't really good color? Though e-readers like the Literati may be well priced and have a legitimate bookstore like Kobo on board, a year from now they may look and feel archaic as better touch-screen mini tablets with high-resolution color displays hit the market. This may very include a smaller iPad with a 7-inch screen, which rumor has it may appear before year's end, and perhaps as soon as next month. Yes, that device will cost more (around $400, I'm guessing), but from a design and functionality standpoint, it will truly make these budget e-readers seem cheap--but not in a good way.

In contrast, black-and-white e-ink readers like the Kindle and Nook haven't made huge jumps moving from generation to generation. They tend to get more compact, offer slightly improved readability (better contrast), a speed bump, and deliver longer battery life. In other words, though the third-generation Kindle is superior to its predecessor, the gen-two Kindle doesn't look like a clunker sitting next to it.

All that said, many consumers simply assume color is better than monochrome. At places like Best Buy, several e-readers will be on display this fall, most of them in the $100-$200 price range, duking it out in Darwinian fashion. Where the Literati will come out in all this is yet to be determined, but as soon as we get out hands on a final shipping unit, I'll post a full review.

As always, feel free to comment.

The Literati will have distribution in a number of retail outlets, including Best Buy and Macy's. David Carnoy/CNET