When I was younger, I was taught that a roll of papyrus in ancient Egypt cost the same as the monthly wage for the average citizen. Nowadays the cost of paper is negligible. That's how it goes with new technology - it's frightfully expensive to begin with, but after a while it's as ubiquitous and disposable as paper.
Ebook readers are the latest in a long line of "written-word" technology. From clay tablet to papyrus to the printing press, humans have always found better ways of displaying words. The latest innovation is e-Ink. A remarkable material which simulates the look and feel of paper - but where the display is controlled by microelectronics.
As a book lover, I've been eager to get my hands on a Kindle, or nook, or Sony eReader - but they're all prohibitively expensive. Until now. Waterstones - a leading book retailer in the UK - has started selling the Elonex 511EB. An eReader with the retail price of £129.99. Now, that's not quite as cheap as paper - but it's around half the cost of the Kindle.
The Elonex 511EB.
You also get a quickstart quide, a USB cable and iPhone-esque white earphones. The device comes with a 4GB micro SD card (Sandisk branded) - enough for around 8000 books. There are 100 free eBooks included - you can also download them directly from Elonex.
I won a £20 Waterstones voucher in the Times' Cheltnam Microfiction Competition - so the cost for me was £110. You can also sign up to Waterstones' loyalty card - which will net you 389 points. That's £3.89 off any subsequent purchase. At a shade over £100 it's certainly the cheapest eReader I've found. It lacks some of the features of its high-priced cousins - no wireless, no touch screen, smaller screen. But, to my mind, that's not a problem.
Here's a run-down of some of the more interesting features of the device.
- Text-to-speech. A synthetic voice will read in English, Mandarin or Cantonese. The voice can be set to male or female. It's not the best TTS I've encountered, but it's adequate.
- Memo recorder. As well as a QWERTY keyboard for you to write your own novel on, there's a built in microphone so you can record any thoughts you might have.
- Format support. The device will render TXT, HTXT(?), HTML, PDF, ePub and DOC. It admits that complex DOC and PDF may not render correctly. It has Adobe Digital Editions support should you wish to read a DRM'd eBook.
- SDHC. The device comes with a 4GB microSD card and will take up to 32GB. That's probably more books than you could read in a lifetime - but leaves plenty of room for...
- Music playback. MP3, WAV and WMA. It doesn't say what bitrates etc it supports. No support for OGG, which is a disappointment. The two speakers on the back are loud enough - but aren't going to be replacing your HiFi. The headphone socket is a standard 3.5mm jack.
- Picture support for JPG, TIFF, PNG, GIF and BMP. Obviously it's only a black and white screen with 8 levels of grey. You can set one of your images to be the start-up screen.
- Security. You can set a password if you're worried about it being lost or stolen.
- The screen is 800*600 at 170dpi. The refresh rate seems a mite quicker than the more expensive screens - but only a mite.
- The device shows as a mass-storage device when plugged in to a computer - so there's no software to install on your Mac or PC. I did have some troubles with Linux - see the bugs section.
- There's a lock button at the top. It also has the usual array of eReader functions - bookmarks, text search, remembering your last position, font size changing. It comes with two built in fonts - Arial and Times.
- Lots of settings to play around with.
For a device this cheap, there are bound to be one or two gremlins. There's support in the device for firmware upgrade - so hopefully Elonex will fix them. Incidentally, eReaders like this usually run Linux. There's no mention of it on the box and Elonex doesn't link to any GPL'd sources - so maybe it's running a totally custom OS. Update! Pdurrant at the MobileRead forums notes that this is a rebadged version of the WISEreader N520 - a device made by Hanvon and running WinCE 5.0.
Firstly, it doesn't seem to handle non-standard characters very well. The "é" in "Les Misérables" is rendered as Chinese character.
(The text is a lot more crisp than my scanner can show)
Text doesn't flow very well in text files. It takes all the line breaks a literal breaks in the text - as you can see here.
This is particularly bad in HTML as you can see here.
When we take a look at the HTML, we can see the issue.
The line breaks here are ignored which leads words to run in to each other. This is the fault of the HTML file - but this shouldn't have got through quality control.
Linux support. I'm one of those crazy people who runs Ubuntu Linux. The 511EB should just show as a USB drive when plugged in. It doesn't. I'm not sure what the problem is, but I can't get it to show up. The SD card is removable so you can get access to the files that way.
It's a little inconvenient - but it did lead me to this discovery...
Beneath a rubber flap is the microSD card and a rather strange looking port. It may well be a micro USB connector - the new standard for charging mobile phones - or it could be something proprietary.
There's no manual. Most of the features are self explanatory - but for those who don't like exploring a device, it wouldn't have been any effort to include a manual on the device.
This is a great device. It is missing a few of the features of the Kindle - but at this price point, who cares? Sure, no one wants to throw away £100 - but if you left this on a train, you wouldn't be half as upset as if you'd lost an eReader costing £250.
The e-Ink screen is made by Prime View International - they're the same company who make Sony's eReader screens. So the quality of the screen is really good. It has a crisp display - once you've set the fonts to your preference - and a quick refresh rate. Like all e-Ink screens, it can be read in direct sunlight. There's no backlight, so you'll need a torch if you want to read under the covers.
There are a few bugs - but they're not show stoppers. Hopefully there will be some updates to the firmware.
If all it did was display text - it would be a bargain. Considering it plays music, has text-to-speech, has a full keyboard for note taking AND a microphone, it's a lot of kit for very little cash.
I haven't exhaustively used the device - so I may be missing something that's important to you. Please leave a comment if you'd like to know anything specific about it.
I'm a little disappointed to have to write this review. But the information on Watersons' website is woefully inadequate. Would it have been too much effort to link to a manual, explain what file formats it supported, or had several pictures of the device? I bought this from a physical store where they didn't even have a working device on display - only a cardboard model. If retailers are serious about selling high-tech kit, they need to ensure that all the information a customer needs is available to them.
Who would spend over £100 on a device without first seeing a detail spec-sheet? I hope this review has given you enough information to make your mind up about this device.