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In an ebook reader market that’s rapidly approaching the saturation point, a device needs to have a certain set of features to stand out from the crowd. The Alex eReader, a new ebook reader from Spring Design, has enough of them to make it an intriguing new product, and a fun one to try out, but not enough of them to warrant a buy recommendation.
First, the design of the Alex eReader is second to none. While it shares a general architecture with the Nook (an e-ink screen up top and a smaller, Android-powered, full-color touch screen below), the Alex is both better looking and more functional. At approximately 4.5x9 inches, it’s longer than the Nook, but feels surprisingly sturdy, and is easy to balance while you read. The longer design leaves room for a larger color display down below, although the e-ink display is somewhat smaller than the Kindle’s. Beauty is subjective, of course, but it’s hard to argue that the Alex eReader isn’t a fine-looking piece of hardware.
The color screen on the Alex isn’t just for show, and it packs a couple of cool features that help the device serve for more than basic book-reading. For one, there’s a full-fledged browser, which lets you surf the web, download ebooks, and even send content up to the top screen for easy reading. You can also use it to check your email, manage your library of books, and listen to music with a built-in MP3 player. When reading a book, the screen can be used to navigate, manage bookmarks, and highlight and annotate the text. The folks at Spring Design also have (ahem) designs for an “Alex Marketplace,” where developers will be able to sell apps built for the device.
The e-ink screen looks just as good as any of its competitors’, but not any better, and the pages turn at about the same speed, taking just over a second to refresh. The secondary screen also looks nice, but gets pretty choppy when browsing the web or (frustratingly) trying to enter text using the onscreen keyboard. Battery life is excellent as long as you’re just using the e-ink screen, but drains much faster when using the bottom touch screen.
So, generally speaking, the Alex is a nice piece of hardware. Unfortunately, there are two huge problems that make this one a nonstarter.
First, there’s the matter of buying books. The Kindle has Amazon’s monster bookstore, and you can make purchases right on the Kindle and start reading them almost instantly, downloading over 3G. The Nook also has a built-in shop, as does the iPad. With the Alex, you have to find your own ebooks from a third-party store such as Ebooks.com. You can download them using the Alex’s browser, but the experience just isn’t as streamlined.
The second—bigger—issue is that of price. As of press time, the Kindle has had its price reduced to $190, and the Nook has a Wi-Fi-only model available for $150. The Alex, on the other hand, is listed at $400. We’ll leave it up to you to decide if a nicer-looking ebook reader without the support of a major electronic bookstore is worth an extra $210 over the price of the current king of the category, but we have a hard time believing anyone will want to make the tradeoff.
Beautifully designed; very solid feeling; useful secondary touch screen.
Less-elegant ebook-buying experience; browser lags; costs much more than its competitors.