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iLiad mini-Review

Electronic books, or “e-books”, are coming.  Some would say they are already here, with several major releases such as the Sony Reader and iRex iLiad over the last year or so. 

What is the big deal?  Haven’t we been able to read books on computers or electronic devices for years?  Yes, but try reading pages upon pages of text on a glowing computer display for hours and hours: your eyes will suffer.  LCD displays without backlighting have viewability and resolution limitations.  Most of the attempts at electronic books until the last year or so have lacked a great deal of the convenience and eye-friendly readability of the paper alternative.  That is, until the development of e-Ink.

E-Ink or “electronic paper” is a totally different kind of display technology that is far more like the paper it is attempting to replace than anything that has come before.  I’ve been watching the various e-Ink based devices for some time now, and made the leap a couple of weeks ago: I ordered an iRex iLiad.  I’ve had it for just over a week now.

So what is it like?  Is it worth the price I paid?  Read on…

The Pros

The iLiad has the largest currently available e-Ink display: 124 x 154 mm, or about 8 inches in its maximum dimension.  It is also the highest resolution, at 160 dots per inch, and has the largest number of gray scales (16 levels).    Unlike the other e-Ink based devices currently shipping, the iLiad also has pen input: you can draw or “write” (no handwriting recognition) anywhere on the screen, or use the stylus for choosing options from menus.  The input is via the well-regarded Wacom pen/sensor technology.

The iLiad further has both wireless and wired networking, and a nearly complete selection of memory interface options.  It supports USB memory, secure digital, and compact flash (CF) memory.  The underlying operating system is a form of Linux, which means that device support is drawn from a large base of open source options.  It also means that the iLiad can conceivable be “hacked” (in the good way) by the Linux community to add features or correct problems in the future.

Weight and dimension wise, the iLiad is almost perfect: light (389 grams) and barely 16 mm thick.  The display could be a bit larger (I like space!), but as the largest currently available it will have to do.  The pen input works great, and I’ve used it as a notepad several times without complaint. 

Content support is very good.  HTML and text files (of course) are supported, as are standard (un-protected) PDF files.  iRex recently reached an agreement with MobiPocket, one of the larger distributors of “copyprotected” books, so literally tens of thousands of commercial/purchasable books are now available.

The display is drop dead gorgeous: perfect for my eyes, readable in any light that a book could be read in, viewable from nearly as many angles as a sheet of paper- fantastic!  Responsiveness of the device in generally is pretty good (see cons for some issues).  It is very important to note, however, that e-Ink is *not* a general purpose display technology.  The refresh rate for e-Ink based displays is glacially slow- a third or half of a second to redraw is typical.  This is perfectly acceptable for books, but means that e-Ink will not support things like video or highly interactive graphical user interfaces.

The Cons

Power management in the iLiad is non-existent.  Left on, the iLiad will draw its rechargeable battery from full to empty in less than 10 hours.  The e-Ink technology has the potential to permit extraordinary battery life: it only draws current when it changes, meaning some e-Books with proper power management are claiming operational time measured in page turns (E.G.: 10,000 page turns), not hours or minutes.  iRex, however, has seen fit to chuck this advantage out the window: the iLiad runs its electronics full tilt at all times, even if the device is doing absolutely nothing.  Upcoming operating system upgrades are expected to improve battery life substantially, but this is a poor showing out of the gate.

This power hunger is complicated by the fact that the iLiad is far from “Instant on”.  When you power it down, it truly shuts down: turning it on invokes a boot process that takes about 20-30 seconds.  As with battery life, this has been improved through several OS updates- however, it will never be “instant”.

There isn’t currently much to use the network connectivity for, at least not that I’ve been able to identify.  It’s main purpose seems to be to permit easy updates/upgrades.  The iLiad has no web browser, email, or similar “productivity” apps that would benefit from network connectivity.  I guess the other purpose is to allow you to connect to your home PC via WIFI, but…I’m not really sure what the value there is. 

There is currently one shortcoming in terms of content.  Protected (DRM/licensed) PDF files are not usable with the iLiad.  It is using an open-source PDF reader and, unless they work out a licensing agreement with Adobe, commercial books in PDF format will not be usable on the iLiad.  I wouldn’t say this is a problem: MobiPocket is a good alternative and seems to have a strong share of the commercial e-Book marketplace.

I’ve had some problems with memory devices in the iLiad.  I bought an 8 GB Compact Flash card (PYN brand) for my reader, and it works…about 50% of the time.  The remainder of the time, the iLiad pretends it doesn’t exist.  When this happens, the only way to correct it seems to be to reboot the iLiad…sometimes two or three times before it figures out the CF card is there. 

And of course, there is the price.  The iLiad is about $750, about twice the price of the Sony Reader.  But it has a larger display, pen based input, wireless and wired networking…generally, you get what you pay for.

My Conclusion

I am very happy with my iLiad purchase.  I’ve read several books on it already (including Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment), used it during a two day conference to capture notes, and generally have been enjoying it.  The shortcomings I’ve noted are frustrating at times, particularly the power management issues, and may be too much for some folks.   But for myself, they aren’t showstoppers, they aren’t even particularly disappointing.  They are typical for new technology in its “infancy”, and I was honestly prepared for worse.

I’m totally sold on the e-Ink display technology: it is truly fantastic.  The large format display is not something I’d trade: in fact, if I could I’d make it bigger, maybe 10 inches.  And the ability to “write” on the device is surprisingly useful, even in the total absence of handwriting recognition within the device itself.  There are third party programs that run on a PC, will read the written scribbles and convert them into normal ASCII text, but thus far I haven’t felt the need to try them out.  Instead, I flip back to my scribbly notes to reference while I prepare typed documents on my PC: exactly what I do with my paper note pad, but without the mess and bother of paper. 

4 comments to iLiad mini-Review

  • Dana Hartsock

    Kelly,

    I’ve wondered about the refresh rate for e-Ink. The specs I have seen for e-Ink refresh rates is pretty good… if they are accurate. That implies the problems with refresh rates lie in the software or the result of an underpowered processor. I have not purchased an e-Ink reader yet and will probably wait for the next generation of devices. I would greatly miss the backlighting of my original Rocket e-Book which is still going strong. (the day my Rocket dies I lose a lot of DRM protected books. I’ve searched for years for a way to salvage this content without success}

    Glad to hear you are enjoying your iLiad. I intrigued when it was announced. iRex has done a lot right with this reader. The variety of content it can read is a good thing and open to expansion. It still misses the sweet spot for me.

    Dana

  • Greetings, Dana!

    The refresh rates (or what they call “optical response” on e-Ink displays) I’ve read range between 300 and 1000 ms. This is intrinsic in the e-Ink technology, and processor speed has no bearing from what I’ve been able to determine. So, one or two times a second. If you are seeing numbers significantly different than that, I’d love a reference!

    For comparison, pixel refresh rate on LCD panels is typically under 10 ms, and full screen refresh rate is usually 60-80 times a second. That’s thirt or forty times as fast as e-Ink is currently. They are working on speeding up the refresh rate on e-Ink, but I’m skeptical that it will ever be suitable for anything like animated video.

    Other, completely different technologies might come along that have the same benefit (I.E.: persistance without electrical current, ease of reading/visual similarity to paper). And there are several other display technologies like OLED that have a ton of potential for things like flexible displays and the like.

    Regarding waiting for the next generation: that is probably a wise choice. Especially if you are happy with an ebook reader (not e-Ink based) that you have already. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? 🙂

    I’m a “if it ain’t broke, that doesn’t mean you can’t spend money trying to get something better” kind of guy 🙂 And I’ve never really had a satisfactory electronic book reader in the past. The iLiad is a great “first generation” e-Ink based reader, but I am absolutely certain better choices will come in the future.

  • Dana Hartsock

    Hey Kelly,

    I thought I had read e-Ink specs that were better than that… but now I can’t find them. What I remember was a rather technical paper… and I may have faulty memory of what I read given the fact I can’t even remember the numbers. Maybe I’ll dig it up with some further searching. Certainly the real world of e-Readers is in line with the numbers you mention. I did read of a “dry” e-Ink technology from Bridgestone that quoted a 0.2ms optical response as you reference it.

    I’ve had high hopes for OLED technology but I still see a 3 year lifetime quoted for such displays. Some say that is adequate given the normal turnover of devices. But I tend to hang on to mine rather that getting the latest, greatest. As an early adopter of the original Rocket and still using it you can see how I operate. I really thought the Rocket e-Book was a great first attempt at such a reader. There are only two additional things I wanted from it. Memory card expansion slot and some migration path for the DRM protected books. The latter remains an open wound for me… though it was not unanticipated. The backlit LCD works well for me, no fatigue from long hours reading, and I get 16 to 20 hours still on the original battery. It was $500 well spent. I tend to read in low light environments so the backlight it important to me. An aside is some years before the Rocket appeared I had “designed” an e-Book reader. The original Rocket was almost a dead ringer for my design, minus the memory card slot. It was eerie sensation when I held it in my hands. I wondered what if I had been able to translate my ideas into hardware back when I first conceived it.

    One other thought… the iLiad seems to have missed the boat in regards to power management. Seems it should get better battery life than what I have seen reported. Still I think iRex did a lot right in their first iteration. Looking forward to the next generation.

    Good talking with you Kelly.

    Dana

  • […] Dana Hartsock (June 4, 2007 9:49 pm): Hey Kelly, I thought I had read e-Ink specs that were better than that…… […]

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