Why the IREX DR800SG is the best e-reader yet

After IREX unveiled its unimaginatively named DR800SG e-reader this morning, I spent an hour or so futzing around with it. Based on this preliminary playing, I'm ready to say it: The IREX is the new master of the admittedly miniscule e-reader universe.

How did such a blasé-looking device with an unwieldy name win me over so quickly? My hands-on assessment after the Continue jump.





First off, with its 8.1-inch diagonal screen, the IREX is literally twice as good as the Amazon Kindle 2 and Sony Reader Touch. Even though the screens on those two competitors use the same E Ink technology and are just two inches smaller diagonally, the IREX has a total screen area of 48 square inches vs. 24 square inches. You can easily see the difference in the photos. With more screen area you get more words; with more words, you get fewer page turns.

What you may not be able to tell from the pictures is IREX's starker and more readable screen contrast (12:1 to be exact). That's thanks to its proprietary e-paper electronics. The "white" background is lighter than the Kindle's or Reader Touch's, which makes the text jump out more crisply, in turn making reading easier in less-than-ideal ambient light. At 16 shades, the IREX also has twice the gray scale as the Reader Touch and the same as the Kindle.

And, as you can see from the picture of the three readers, the DR800SG's screen (the one in the middle) isn't as reflective, which means you won't be constantly angling it to avoid the shine from overhead lighting.


Getting Around

While you get lots of screen, you get little of anything else — like, say, buttons. IREX is a touchscreen… sort of — you need the special IREX stylus if you want to touch-navigate. But we were able to get along quite nicely without touching e-pen to e-paper, merely using the controls on the side.

Why not a full-on touch screen that works with your fingers? Because it's a compromise: Sony's Reader Touch adds an additional layer on top of its screen to enable capacitive touch capabilities. But that same layer lowers the E Ink contrast while adding to its reflectivity, making readability difficult in anything but solid room light. IREX is working on adding capacitive touch ability to a 2010 version by laying the touch layer under the E Ink layer, eliminating the loss in contrast.

But I'm not sure adding finger-touch is necessary. To get around sans stylus, there are just two buttons. A long vertical "flip" bar toggles right to page forward/scroll down (in menus), toggle left to move back/scroll up, and presses in to select. A small Menu button below the flip bar produces a small pop-up menu. This is a far simpler arrangement than on either the Kindle, whose screen is surrounds by buttons, or the Sony Reader Touch, which has a row of physical buttons below its screen.

The IREX's flip bar is on the left, and can easily be operated with your thumb while you hold something more important in your right hand (like a cup of coffee or subway handlebar — get your mind out of the gutter). If you're left-handed, though, you're SOL. In any case, you can view content — say, a wide PDF file or newspaper — in landscape mode. No accelerometer, though; you need to manually switch modes.

On the bottom of the IREX is a USB jack and a power button, and that's it. The microSD slot is packed with the rechargeable battery on the rear of the unit. It looks like you have to screw off the battery cover, which is unfortunate.


Content

Like the Kindle, the IREX offers 3G connectivity (via Verizon) to download content. Unlike Kindle, and like every other current and future e-reader, the IREX is an open device using a standard e-book format called EPUB, embraced by all publishers.

Like the Kindle and Reader Touch, you can change the font size on the IREX. Unfortunately, unlike those e-readers, the IREX doesn't save your font-size preference. You'll have to adjust it from the tiny default text size each time you open up a new book.
By the time the IREX becomes available, this glitch may be fixed if I accurately read the "wow, that's interesting" response I got from company executives to my complaint about this.

IREX also doesn't include the ability to add notes, at least right now. The company promises a free upgrade to add this necessary function, especially for students, at some future date. But it's based on a Linux platform, and the company indicated there'd soon be a plethora of apps of unknown capabilities available.

Instead of Amazon's bookstore, IREX (along with future readers from Sony and Plastic Logic) will wirelessly access Barnes & Noble's e-book store. William Lynch, president of bn.com, says there are 800,000 titles available with thousands added every week; there are "just" 350,000 e-books available for Kindle according to the Amazon website.

The Barnes & Noble people said its content would sync with both the IREX and the Barnes & Noble iPhone app. But it was unclear if both would keep track of where you left off when you move from reading a title on the IREX to the iPhone or vice-versa, something the Kindle handles seamlessly.

You also can side-load your own content such as Adobe PDF files, something the Kindle doesn't enable.


Should I Wait or Buy a Kindle Now?

The IREX is $400 and won't be in stores until the end of October. That's $100 more than the Kindle 2 and $50 more than the Reader Touch. If IREX could have lowered the price by removing the touch capabilities, this would be a no-brainer. But given the DR800SG's broader compatibility with open-platform technology, you may be better off spending the extra $100.

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