As the title might have suggested, I recently required an e-reader. I made my decision to buy the named e-reader, produced by Bookeen, after some consideration and looking into alternatives. I will here make an attempt to review my experience with the e-reader so far, and to summarize some of my thoughts on e-books in general. Read on…
Pre-purchase considerations and alternatives
Before I decided to buy this specific e-reader, I spent a considerable amount of time investigating other similar products.
The most widely known and perhaps at first obvious contestant would appear to be the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite. By just looking at the technical specifications, they appear to be rather similar. They both offer a similar resolution/PPI (roughly 215 pixels per inch in both cases), they both offer frontlight technology (which I’ll get to in a bit), and they seem to be fairly similar in general. Most e-readers that are not produced by Amazon don’t come with 3G (a service which apparently can be used anywhere without charge). I do not view 3G-connectivity as a positive, however, but rather as something that I would personally avoid because of things like triangulation and the simple fact that I feel no need to pay any extra money for a feature that I would not make much use of. Wifi is included in many other e-reader devices (including the one I purchased) and can be used in public places fairly well.
However, there is one strength that cannot be denied when it comes to the Kindle devices, and that is the software and platform. Features like knowing how much time you’ve got left before you finish a chapter, and a platform where you can follow other users are definitely nice. But, Kindle devices also have quite a few weaknesses, which I’ll just shortly summarize here:
- No expandable memory
- You have to convert e-books that are in standard formats to Amazon’s special formats before you use them
- The device is quite restricted to Amazon out of the box… buying books from other online stores directly from the device is not possible as far as I am aware
- Amazon really likes censorship (link, link, link, link)
For me, it’s mostly the last bullet point that stopped me from buying the Kindle Paperwhite, but also the fact that superior products actually exist on the market and that the Paperwhite’s reception was rather lukewarm.
There are two other prominent e-readers with frontlight technology, and they are the Nook Glo (which I did not look further into due to relatively low resolution) and the Kobo Glo. The Kobo Glow seemed fairly interesting and would perhaps have been a good alternative to the Cybook Odyssey HD, but I did not find a retailer that sells it in Sweden.
There are several reasons for why I chose the Cybook Odyssey HD Frontlight, but I’ll let you figure out what they are more specifically as I continue on with the review.
E-ink technology, Bookeen’s High Speed Ink System and battery life
E-ink has lots of advantages. For the uninitiated, what e-ink technology does is create a static picture on a display, rather than one that has to be constantly drawn (refresh rate), commonly 30 times per second on mobile devices. The effect is achieved, in layman terms, by magnetizing black and white pigment particles. This has some really great advantages when working with material that is fairly static such as text – very little electricity is required to power devices with e-ink technology and the display is just as kind on the eyes as regular paper is. E-ink also means that you have to make some compromises – colour, for example, is usually out of the question (although it will probably emerge more frequently on the market in the coming years) as is anything non-static such as movies.
While I’m unsure as to whether e-ink will ever be particularly suited for non-static applications, the Cybook Odyssey HD does come with an intriguing technology called High Speed Ink System (HSIS), which Bookeen apparently developed themselves and thus is unique to their devices. The technology aptly does what the name suggests – makes the ink system faster, one might say with less delays between each “frame change”. This is really useful for basic internet surfing, and it allows you to check your e-mail and buy e-books online. It’s not very fluent by any means, but it does what it has to. It also makes page flips near instantaneous, something that I have heard is not too common on other e-reader devices.
Long battery life is one of the great advantages of e-ink devices. Many manufacturers advertise battery lives of “three weeks”, “a month” or sometimes even more. What you have to take into consideration here, though, is that battery life is not constantly expended but rather expended with every page flip (or whenever the static picture changes). Theoretically, if you left an e-ink device on on the same page the battery life would never drain out (but of course it does, as there are more things in the e-reader than the display that consume power, and batteries often drain over time even without use).
The advertised battery life for the Cybook Odyssey HD was 3000 page flips, which in theory does sound really great – roughly 10 books for me. While the number may be technically correct, I don’t think it can be practically assumed that you will be able to read 10 books before having to recharge. I’ve had my device for about a week and a half now, and I’ve read about 600 pages on it. During this time, I’ve charged it a couple of times, when transferring books to it from my PC. While I may not be able to provide an accurate indication of how much my battery has drained during this time, I am fairly certain that it has drained more than half. The main menu has a battery indicator which displays the total battery power divided into ten (I believe) equal parts. I’ve seen it drain down a couple of notches at least twice, and once it nearly went down to half full before I charged the device. I am going to make a not-so-wild guess here and say that this probably also has to do with the mentioned High Speed Ink System. When browsing, scrolling through dictionaries and practicing similar activities, the experience is pretty smooth and thus I assume that the refresh rate is pretty high at those times (a few times per second, perhaps).
When reading on e-ink devices, I also often find myself backtracking to the last page I read just to verify that what I thought I read was actually correct… so personally, I would probably add another third on top of the page count of a book when making the “battery calculation”.
Physical function and appearance
The first thing I noticed, after receiving my e-reader from the mailman and unpacking it, was how small the device was. From the pictures I had seen, and from what I had heard others say, I expected the device to be about the size of normal-sized pocket-book. Well, it is actually. But comparing it to a “normal-sized” pocket-book that I have right next to it now, I would say that the actual display only covers about 60% of the pocket-book. Add to this that I prefer having the text on my e-reader slightly larger than the text that is usually found in pocket-books, and you end up with about two to four pages as compared to one on a “regular” book.
I’m not going to say that this is a bad thing – it’s just different. It’s undeniably very useful when “on-the-fly” – you just put it in any one of your pockets and you’re set. It does feel a bit unusual when reading in bed or in any of the positions you would normally assume when reading a “regular” book. Something about the way you hold it in relation to yourself feels… well, not wrong, but certainly not perfect either. The difference is marginal, though, and I wouldn’t say that it actually makes any real difference to the reading experience.
Overall the display is quite similar to regular paper, which is a good thing. The display is matte and does not reflect light. Or, well, if a very strong light-source is located directly above it, it does reflect light slightly in the manner that a rough plastic surface reflects light. The display also catches shadows in the same manner as regular paper, and in general reacts to light as you would expect a paper to. When reading on the device, there is no noticeable differentiation in appearance from regular paper.
It doesn’t quite feel the same way to hold it, though. The device itself is plastic, and as mentioned, not very large or thick. The experience could be compared to that of holding a magazine – the surface of the device is not really slippery, but not rough either. It’s plastic. The display itself is slightly rougher to the feel than you would expect, but that might be because I was expecting it to feel like most touchscreens do (really slippery). It feels more like polished wood, or indeed, like the plastic that holds it.
I think it’s time to mention how the device operates now. It uses a combination of hardware buttons and touch. There is a power on/sleep mode button, a menu button just beneath the display and there is a page flip button on each side of the display. It also has a micro-usb port for charging and transferring data. When reading, you can either use the page flip buttons to turn pages or you can touch the screen on either side. You navigate menus with a combination of the menu button and touch. Using touch, you can rotate the page any way you want it, zoom in on pictures (or change the size of text) and execute a plethora of other functions. In my opinion, this holds an advantage over most other devices which usually either only offer touch or button navigation. I really appreciate being able to turn pages accurately by pushing a button rather than having to touch the screen to proceed, and touch provides faster and easier navigation. One definite issue, though, is that the buttons sometimes “bug out” and start flipping pages wildly when you push them, making you lose your place in the text before you can stop it. It is a rare occurrence, though, and has only happened to me twice.
Another great feature is the expandable memory slot. You can insert a micro-SD card into the device and thus expand the storage by up to 32gb. I haven’t actually done this myself yet, but I reckon it might be useful even to just expand it by 2gb or 4gb.
The display, as mentioned, has a fairly high resolution. This is important. I’ve heard people with older devices report that the text is “fuzzy” or unclear; but I can’t tell the difference between “regular” printed text and the text on my e-reader device. It is also very nice for viewing pictures, blueprints and diagrams (although obviously this can only be done in grayscale), which appear very detailed.
The build of the device is fairly good – it doesn’t seem to easily scratch, and I’m sure it can take a drop or two. I am a bit worried about the different seams, though; I’m sure dust will build up in them over time and I might be forced to take the device apart to clean it in a couple of years. While I haven’t had any scratches on the device yet, I do regret not getting a cover for it, as I am sure this would put my mind to much more easy when traveling (and keeping it in a pocket together with potentially sharp things like keys and coins). I suppose I will have to create my own case for it. The screen is easy to keep clean and it doesn’t get visibly smudgy from fingerprints.
Aesthetically, I consider the device to be rather pleasing. It has a clean and stylish look, as opposed to most other e-readers which in my opinion look rather dull and “plasticky” (this device is of course also plastic, but it appears slightly more elegant). It is gray and black which obviously matches the “colours” on the display. I’m not implying that you should ever “judge a book by it’s cover”; for me, function is always much more important than aesthetics when it comes to electronics. A well-design product is always a nice bonus, though. At least you will look slightly less ridiculous when reading in public.
One of the most advertised features of the device is the frontlight. It consists of lots of small light diodes, hidden on the edges of the monitor beneath the plastic housing. They can be activated by either navigating the menu or by holding in the menu button for a couple of seconds (which is useful in the dark when you can’t actually see the display otherwise). The brightness of the diodes can be adjusted between thirty different levels… from “fairly dim” at the lowest setting to “bright enough to be used as a torchlight” at the highest setting. When reading in the dark, I prefer to have it at about 3/20 of the maximum brightness which is about enough for me. But, I have come to the conclusion that I actually prefer reading with regular light from a lamp instead of that from the frontlight. Regular light lights up my surroundings and gives a more natural appearance to the display than the frontlight does. How environmentally friendly this is is questionable, but to my defense I must say that I prefer reading with candles as my light-source even more.
The light appears to be spread equally across the display, except for at the bottom where there is some shadow. This matters little, though, because the shadow is right where the pagecount is and you don’t actually pay too much attention to it. It doesn’t appear to suffer from the unevenness of light-distribution that Paperwhite owners have reported.
The frontlight, as opposed to the standard “backlight” of most mobile phones and tablets, is very kind on the eyes. The experience is very similar to that of reading with a regular lamp, and you won’t get any more eye-strain from reading from an e-reader with frontlight than from reading a regular book and having an electronic light-source nearby.
Obviously, the battery is also drained more when you use the frontlight (though supposedly the light diodes are very power efficient). But I have found it to be extremely useful for car trips as a passenger; it doesn’t disturb the driver or the traffic, so you don’t have to bring any special contraptions except for the device itself to read books in the car.
For the record it’s worth mentioning that you can get small lights for almost every other reader out there – built-in frontlight, while probably superior, is a bit of a gimmick. So when making your choice of a reader, don’t let frontlight be the most important factor.
Now, we get to the part where I have fairly mixed feelings. The device does have some great advantages over other popular e-readers – it has no restrictions on what retailer you use to purchase your e-books, and it even offers a highly functional web-browser specifically for the purpose of making the device more open. The device runs Linux 2.6 and all the files are available when you insert the device into your PC. The documentation, however, is poor and to make changes one has to do some reverse engineering.
The device comes with a couple of dictionaries – French and German if I remember correctly – but surprisingly enough an English dictionary is not included by default. I of course knew about this before I ordered the device, and I also knew that beta dictionaries were available from Booken’s website. While it is very easy to just download the beta dictionary through the devices – and it installs instantly without any interaction required from the user – I find this to be rather counter-intuitive. For someone who doesn’t research the product before buying it, or for someone who receives the device as a gift, the lack of an English dictionary would probably appear as a flaw (or maybe they won’t even know about the feature in the first place, in which case they are missing out greatly) without an apparent remedy. Bookeen has promised to add more dictionaries in future firmware updates, but that’s hardly useful for them or for their customers at this point in time.
When it comes to dictionaries, there are positives with the negatives, however. Because of how open the device is, users have managed to reverse engineer the dictionary functions, thus making it possible to convert and install virtually any dictionary (granted it is available in a suitable format) on the device, including cross-language dictionaries. It is, however, laughable to note that when customers have asked for certain dictionaries Bookeen have provided them with links to these reverse-engineering projects. It can also be noted that Bookeen is not known for it’s great customer service; I sent them a question about the dictionary and they never answered (which appears to not be an uncommon occurrence, when hearing the stories of others), and apparently they remove threads that complain about lacking features and as of yet unfulfilled promises on their forums.
There are also a couple of other features that, are perhaps not lacking, but which would certainly be welcomed and would even out the software differences between this device and most notably the Kindles. For example, the device doesn’t have a chapter page counter and much less the chapter reading time countdown that the Kindle devices have. You can’t search for words in the dictionary manually (although this feature has been promised for future firmware updates). You can’t search for certain words or phrases within documents. The page count only refers to “real” pages, and not the pages that you view on the actual devices; it doesn’t seem like you can change this.
On the bright side, though, the device does have all the standard bells and whistles associated with e-readers. You can change the text size, orientation, marginals, font and formatting easily. User-defined fonts can easily be installed, although the default Times New Roman does the job splendidly for me. The option to change the size of the text is obvious, but very useful. I am planning to bring the device to an elderly acquaintance of mine, who requires a magnifying glass to read books because of her poor sight, to see if it might do as a replacement for at least some books. You can also make annotations and highlights, although I haven’t really used these features much – flipping through an e-book to find a specific location isn’t, unfortunately, the most pleasant of experiences.
A pleasant feature, though, is that you can tap footnote indicators to instantly jump to the footnote at the back of the book, then jump back to where you were reading again. Doing this manually often annoys me in some physical books.
What distinguishes the software on the Cybook Odyssey HD Frontlight from the other e-readers in its class, I would say, is how easy it is to obtain books from other sources than the manufacturer. The browser along with it’s HSIS and wifi-connection makes it really easy to grab books wherever you are. Which brings us to…
There are lots of sources for e-books online – for example, Project Gutenberg provides royalty-free e-books in various different formats and you can download hundreds of very worthwhile classics in just a couple of minutes. If you want to buy new books, most are available from various different online stores and can be directly downloaded to the device through the browser and read immediately.
Amazon is unfortunately the largest digital distributor of books. Most Amazon books come with DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) handcuffs, which means that you will have to remove those and convert the books to a suitable format if you want to read them on non-Amazon e-ink readers. The legality of this is questionable in some places, but I find it quite absurd that companies should be able to stop you from using content you brought from them as you see fit. Unfortunately, converting books bought on Amazon requires some effort and jumps through hoops on the part of the user. It’s not hard, but it’s not a one-step process either and you can’t buy the books directly from your device. For more information, refer to Apprentice Alf’s website.
I am altogether very pleased with my device, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good e-reader. The price is not low, but it’s fair and you probably save it in in the long run by not having to buy classics (if you enjoy reading classics like every person should, that is).
I have found that I actually enjoy reading some books better on the e-reader than in physical form, though this probably depends on things like font size and book shape. A physical book is usually more pleasant to hold though, and there is something very pleasing about turning pages physically. I think that’s probably the weakest point when it comes to e-readers; you also lose the “navigation” that comes to you naturally when reading physical books. Just skipping back a few pages and checking what the name of a character was, for example, is trivial in a physical book but a fairly daunting task on an e-reader.
So, I would definitely not say that the e-reader should replace physical books fully. However, it is extremely useful when traveling, where instead of perhaps five books (which is not an uncommon amount of books for me to bring along) you just bring something smaller than a pocket and as thin as a magazine. It also makes acquiring books a whole lot easier. Not all book can be acquired digitally, of course, but many can be and if you like me live on the countryside that means not having to wait for several days before your book arrives. Many books are also cheaper or free.
For me, one of the vastest improvements over reading physically has been the built-in dictionary which comes in handy constantly. In the past, I would often skip looking up words if I understood the sentence without doing so. Now, it takes half a second to look the word up so I do it. This might not be important to someone who already knows the language he/she is reading in very well, but for me it’s invaluable.
Of course, there is the question of if a gadget is always necessary (for you and for the environment) – a question which I think should be raised before every purchase – but in the case of an e-reader you must also consider that you save paper by not buying regular books. How much buying a few books affects the environment is a topic of debate, where I think you should probably be your own judge.
At the moment I believe that this is probably one of the best e-readers that you can find on the market (I base this on having read reviews on many other e-readers), and I would recommend anyone interested in acquiring an e-reader to at least consider it as an alternative.