Elonex ebook reader £180
13th Jul 2009 | 12:30
Can Elonex and Borders sew up the UK ebook market before Amazon arrives?
Elonex ebook reader: overview
Ebooks have been 'the next big thing' for over a decade now.
By teaming up with Borders to put its eBook reader in bookshops at £180, Elonex is hoping to finally crack the mainstream market in the UK – but is the eBook the right device to do it?
It's certainly very portable; even with a 6" screen and an SD slot, the eBook is much smaller (8mm thick) and lighter (180g) than the Sony and iRex iLiad ereaders (or the Kindle).
The e-ink screen is clear and easy to read, inside or out and at almost any angle. And e-ink gives you phenomenal battery life compared to an LCD screen; Elonex says 8,000 page turns (it's only turning the page that uses power) for a full charge and we read for several hours without seeing any change in the battery status.
But e-ink has drawbacks too. As with all e-ink readers, 'turning' the page means refreshing the screen, which means resetting all the e-ink cells to black and then redrawing the, causing the screen to flash a reverse white on black image of the page momentarily. You may find this disconcerting and distracting.
With image-heavy PDFs, like presentations, we often saw artefacts from previous pages on screen (so the graphics from one page would appear ghosted on the blank background of the next slide) and page turn can be slow - over 5 seconds to load the next page in a PDF presentation and 4 seconds for a PDF ebook.
Text and HTML pages take about 3 seconds but books in ePub format load and turn the page much more quickly. Again we occasionally saw the remains of the menu on the page after we'd opened and closed it.
Elonex ebook reader: controls
You have the choice of three fonts; the default san serif NTX New, serif Georgia and Courier, in six font sizes (the largest of which fits only a single paragraph on screen at a time).
Plus and minus buttons on the side give you a quick way to change this for individual books, although ePub graphic novels don't zoom in at all. You can also rotate the screen into landscape.
The other controls are for navigation; buttons on the left open the menu, take you back to the library and launch Sudoku. To navigate through the library, the menu and the pages of your books, there's a five-way controller with arrows and a tick button that also opens the menu. The SD card slot is at the top; power and USB connections are under a rubber cover at the bottom.
Tapping the power button at the top of the case gently does nothing, presumably to stop it getting knocked in a bag; you have to press firmly and hold it in for a couple of seconds - and then wait a good 30 seconds while the device powers up, shows a screen test and loads the NTX Reader software.
Like the slow page turns, we'd put this down to the speed of the device rather than the refresh rate of the screen. Even more irritating, when you turn the eBook off and on again, you don't go back to the book you were reading but to the library screen instead.
Elonex ebook reader: features
The eBook is a much simpler device than the Amazon Kindle; no keyboard, no wireless connection and no automatically connected ebook account.
Instead, once you get tired with the 100 free classics (ranging from Austin, Kafka and Shakespeare to obscure tales of the Wild West, all of them out of copyright and on Project Gutenberg), you have to connect it to your PC via the USB cable and copy ebooks across.
You can drag and drop unprotected files (in HTML, text, PDF and ePub formats) onto the internal storage or the SD card but don't put the SD card into your PC to copy files on directly as they won't show up in the library, and neither will ebooks you've put on the SD card via USB previously
The eBook has 512Mb of storage; enough for about 1,000 books. If you want to fit more ebooks on, you can buy a 4GB SD card which comes with a leather case. The cover will protect the screen and make the eBook feel a little sturdier.
The downside of being so light (180g) and thin is that the unit feels flimsy and flexes a little if you apply pressure at the corner; the matte, slightly rubbery finish also shows grease and dust. The case bulks the eBook up – and covers the labels for the buttons, which means you have to learn the order, pry up the edge of the case or turn it sideways and decode the icons.
Elonex ebook reader: Buying and loading ebooks
Plug it in to your computer and the eBook shows up as a FAT drive, but it complains if you copy too many books into the root of the drive and we couldn't create a new folder there either.
There's no problem adding more books via Adobe's Digital Editions though. This is the software you need to load up protected ebooks; you have to install Digital Editions, sign up for an Adobe ID (giving details like your address) and authorise both your PC and the eBook.
This lets you put ebooks on up to six devices and gives you a backup of purchased books if you delete them accidentally.
The Elonex eBook shows up as a 'bookshelf' in Digital Editions and you can add unprotected PDF and ePub files to the library to copy across.
When you download ebooks you buy from Borders, the link you get from the checkout is supposed to open the ebook directly in Digital Editions; we found this didn't work until we saved the licence file and associated the file type with Digital Editions by hand (a problem with Adobe's installation software rather than the Borders store).
Borders has some 45,000 ebooks, ranging from £300 encyclopaedias to £1.99 romance novels; you can get travel guides and cookbooks as well as fiction, but most titles are best sellers - if you're looking for your favourite genre authors, you probably won't find them on Borders UK yet.
You can buy ebooks from anywhere that sells them in the ePub format and load them through Digital Editions, but it's not the same integrated experience you get with Amazon and the Kindle.
eBooks can seem rather pricey; a new release will cost the same £14-16 as a hardback and older books are the same £6-8 as paperbacks. Publishers argue that the editing and production costs are still high but when you're paying £189 for your own reader, you might expect cheaper ebooks toren make up for your initial investment.
Elonex ebook reader: verdict
The free books that come with the eBook have obviously been taken straight from sources like Project Gutenberg and some have inexcusable formatting errors; XML tags on the first page, run-on lists of dramatis personae and foreign characters with accents transformed into symbols or Japanese characters.
Commercial ebooks are laid out like paper books, complete with acknowledgements, copyright pages, table of contents and so on.
This looks much more professional, but it does mean you have to page through them one at a time to start reading; it's faster to flip to the first page of a printed book.
You can jump through chapters via the tale of contents in the menu, but driving this via the arrow controls is slow and a little clunky, compared to swiping through pages and clicking links on the screen of an ebook reader like Stanza on an iPhone or a Windows Mobile device. And that's what the eBook has to compete with as much as the Kindle.
Lighter, cheaper and more basic than other ebook readers, at £180 the Elonex eBook is still on the pricey side for something you can get free on an iPhone or netbook.
It's not that there's anything wrong with it beyond the slow page turn, typical e-ink cycle to black and slightly clunky interface.
It's more that the whole ebook market doesn't feel ready for the mainstream market this device is aimed at. But if the books you want to read are available (and affordable) as ebooks, the Elonex eBook is a convenient way to put hundreds of them in your bag without weighing yourself down.
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