To most of us, the idea of reading a book on a computer screen is about as appealing as root canal treatment, however that attitude may change when you clap eyes on the iRex iLiad's display. It uses a technology called E Ink, which doesn't flicker and doesn't use a backlight, so you're presented with a rock-steady image that's very easy on the eye.
This ebook reader is also more advanced than rivals like the Sony Reader (only available in the US and Japan), as it has built-in Wi-Fi, comes with a stylus you can use for making notes onscreen and uses software that lets you download RSS newsfeeds.
Those tempted to join the ebook revolution can pick up the iLiad for £433 from Libresco.
The single most impressive thing on this product is the screen. We'd go so far as to say that it's as easy on your eyes as an actual printed page. The first time we saw it, we thought it was covered with a printed protective sticker until we made the text change.
Rather than relying on the LCD technology used on most laptops and PDAs, it employs a display technology called E Ink. This creates a high contrast monochrome image that is completely free from flicker and doesn't require a backlight. It's even readable in direct sunlight, and because it has a high resolution of 768x1,024 pixels, text looks very smooth and clean.
The iLiad certainly doesn't look much like a normal book. Although the front of the reader is around the same size as the average hardback, the device is actually very slim, and at 390g feels fairly light to hold. The design is functional rather than flashy, but the rear of the unit has odd rectangles cut out of it for no apparent reason -- these give it the look and feel of a prototype rather than a polished product targeted at the mass market.
The front of the device is mostly taken up by the large screen, but there are also a number of buttons to help you navigate the user interface. The most prominent of these is what iRex calls the Flipbar. This is really a very long rocker switch mounted on the left-hand side that you flick back and forth to move through the pages of a book or document. It's very intuitive to use and makes the device feel just that little bit more like a normal book.
At the bottom of the screen, iRex has also added four buttons marked News, Books, Docs and Notes, which act as shortcut keys to the relevant folders held in the ebook reader's memory. They provide a fairly effective way of keeping your documents in some kind of sensible order.
The iLiad has 256MB of internal flash memory. This is shared with the operating system so you're left with around 128MB of space for storing ebooks and documents. That may not sound like much, but when you take into account that the average ebook weighs in at less than a megabyte, it's not actually too stingy. Anyway, if you need more space you can slap a memory card into the Compact flash or MMC/SD slot at the top, or use the host USB socket to attach a memory key.
When you want to transfer new files to the iLiad you have to connect the travel adaptor to the expansion port at the base of the device. This includes not just a USB port that can actually be used for connecting the device to a PC (the one built-in to the reader is only for connecting up external storage), but also has an Ethernet port to connect the device to a home network. Transfers over USB were quite slow, but then the file sizes of ebooks are so small it wasn't exactly a deal breaker.
The device can read PDF, HTML and TXT plain text documents, as well as showing images in the JPG, BMP, PNG formats. Thanks to a recent software update you can now also use it to read books in the PRC format, which are available via the Mobipocket online store. These books can be bought using the free Mobipocket software, which is very much like iTunes for ebooks. The books are priced at about the same level as a standard book. For example Stephen King's Salem's Lot will set you back $17.95 (£8.80).
There are, however, plenty of sources of free books online, including many from big name authors that are out of copyright. For example, on the Project Gutenberg site you'll find the entire works of Shakespeare, as well as seminal novels like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce and Emma by Jane Austen.
Battery life is astonishingly long. It takes about three hours to charge, but once the iLiad is topped up with juice it will keep running for around 12 hours -- enough for a week's usage when we tested it.
The screen includes Wacom Penabled technology, so you can use the stylus that's stored in a slot at the top of the ebook reader to amend documents with handwritten notes or to draw freehand diagrams.
Unfortunately, these notes and drawings are stored in a separate file alongside the original documents rather than being added straight into the document. You have to manually merge the two together once they're transferred to your computer using the iLiad Companion software. It's a clunky solution to something that should be transparent to the end users, but then there are plenty of such anomalies with the iLiad.
For example, even though the device has Wi-Fi, it can't update RSS feeds by itself. Instead you have to connect it to a computer via USB and re-sync it with the Mobipocket software to update it with the latest news. And when you want to sync all the documents on your device with your PC, you have to switch back to the iLiad Companion software again. Although the device can be synced with the Companion software over Wi-Fi, it's overly tricky to set up and isn't even covered well in the software's documentation that comes with the device.
The overall performance is also a tad sluggish. It takes about 40 seconds to start up, it's slow to load documents and when moving between pages there's a pause as it wipes the screen and redraws the new page.
These problem all contribute to an experience that isn't as polished as it should be, especially when you take into account that you can buy a laptop for the asking price.
The iLiad has some great features, such as the amazing screen and extremely long battery life -- it really is a delight to use for reading books or documents. The Wi-Fi functionality needs to be improved, though, and iRex needs to develop better PC software for managing the device. The price tag is also somewhat on the hefty side when you consider you can pop down to your local Tesco and pick up a full blown laptop for the same kind of money.
Although there were a lot of things we liked about the iLiad, unfortunately it still has some way to go before it'll have us chucking our books on the bonfire and cancelling our newspaper subscriptions.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Kate Macefield