Spring Design’s Alex is the latest entrant into the ranks of dual-screen, Android-driven eReaders. It seems like a niche category, but in the past six months we’ve seen two others come to market (the Barnes & Noble Nook and Entourage Edge), and we may yet see more. Unlike the Nook, the full-color screen beneath the Alex’s electronic paper display can be used for more than navigation; you can surf the web, view pictures and videos, and (eventually) run apps. This is also the first eReader that will tap into Borders’ book store when it becomes available. However, is this device $150 better than the Nook or the Kindle? Or should you just pay 100 bucks more and get an iPad?
The Alex combines simplicity and attractiveness with its minimal buttons and rounded corners. At 8.9 x 4.7 x 0.4 inches, the Alex is longer than the Nook and the Sony Daily Edition by 1.2 and 0.8 inches, respectively. Yet this device is lighter and thinner than both at 10.6 ounces and 0.4 inches. (The Nook is 12.1 ounces and 0.5 inches; the Daily Edition measures 14 ounces and 0.6 inches.) That’s pretty impressive when you consider that the Nook doesn’t do nearly as much with its secondary color LCD.
The back of the Alex is tapered along the edges, lending to its sleek look, except at the top of the device where the mini USB port (for PC connections and charging) and 2.5mm headphone jack sit. We would have preferred a standard 3.5mm jack; sadly, an adapter is not included. The microSD port is easily accessible in a recessed area on the back of the device, which we appreciate. Two speakers sit on the bottom right and left edges, unobtrusive and deceptively small.
A half-inch bezel surrounds the 6-inch, 800 x 600-pixel electronic paper display (EPD). The 3.5-inch LCD touchscreen below is about a quarter of an inch narrower than the EPD, leaving plenty of room for the buttons that flank it.
Like the Sony Daily Edition, the Alex has few physical buttons, all located around the LCD screen. A Last Page and Back button sit on the left, and the Next Page and Power buttons sit on the right. One slim button sits between the EPD and LCD; fitting, as it syncs these two screens in apps that allow it (more on this later).
Since the Alex is a combo eReader/Android device, some of the buttons pull double duty. The Back button works the same as its equivalent on most other Android devices: press and hold it to jump to the Home menu. Press and hold the Next Page button to activate the Menu function. The Power button will turn the LCD on or off; when held, it shuts down the device completely. It didn’t take long for us to wrap our brains around these changes from the normal Android setup.
We were able to type on the on-screen keyboard with our thumbs just as we would on a smart phone, and felt no cramping. However, the page turn buttons are so far toward the bottom of the Alex that it was hard to hold the device in a way that felt natural while reading; our pinkies wrapped around the bottom of the eReader, rather than remaining behind it. Balance was less of a problem than we first thought, as the Alex is so light.
Interface and Apps
Alex’s Android interface doesn’t deviate too much from the default menus we’re used to seeing on phones and tablets. The 3.5-inch, 480 x 320 capacitive touchscreen is smaller than that on the Motorola Droid (3.7 inches, 854 x 480 pixels), but slightly larger than the HTC Hero (3.2 inches, 480 x 320 pixels).
As with the Nook, all of the navigation happens on the Alex’s LCD screen. However, the implementation is less confusing on the Alex. With the Nook, our eyes were instinctively drawn to the LCD when navigating and making selections, even though part of the process occurred on the EPD. With the Alex, these tasks all happen on the LCD as we’d expect, and the EPD is used only for reading/viewing. It’s closer to how the Entourage Edge works.
There are few apps preloaded on the device. Standard Android apps include the Calculator, Email, Gallery, Music, Settings, and WebKit browser. Spring Design also included a Bookstore app portal, Library, and a shortcut to the user manual. Also included: a handy icon to switch the wireless on and off from the Home screen.
The Alex isn’t a phone, so you won’t find Google Services apps such as Gmail (though the Email app will connect to Gmail accounts), Google Maps, or the Google Market. Spring Design says that it is working with more than 40 developers to create or modify apps for the device, and a store should be ready by June. Initial offerings will be small, which we’ve come to expect from non-phone Android devices. For now, users will have to find and install their favorites themselves. Here are some tips on how to accomplish this.
One of the Alex’s most appealing features is the ability to sync its two displays in selected apps. For example, when reading books users can press the slim button between the displays to see the text and images from a book in color on the LCD screen. Syncing is also necessary to access embedded links in eBooks.
Clicking the Sync button while in the browser shows web pages, complete with images, on the larger E-Ink display after a 1- to 3-second delay. This not only minimizes scrolling but increases battery life. Text on websites doesn’t always render crisply on the EPD due to its 800 x 600 resolution. Plus, we had to wait a second or two for the larger screen to catch up with where we were on the page. Still, we read feeds via Google Reader comfortably, and appreciated the extra real estate the EPD provided.
Syncing doesn’t yet work with the third-party apps we loaded on the Alex; for example, when surfing the web using the downloaded Dolphin browser on the LCD, the EPD would not refresh automatically. Spring Design is working with developers to create or tweak more apps that will work with screen sync, but for now users will have to settle for the ones that come preloaded.
Spring Design has announced content partnerships with Google Books and Borders. When the Alex ships in mid-April, users will have access to the more than 1 million public domain books available through Google, but they’ll have to wait until the end of May or beginning of June for the full Borders store. Catalog numbers weren’t available as of press time, but Spring Design claims that Borders will offer hundreds of thousands of eBooks. In addition, the company is working on securing partnerships with other content providers for newspapers and magazines.
Since the Alex supports EPUB (with and without Adobe DRM), HTML, PDF, and TXT eBook formats out of the box, users can load eBooks from other stores as long as the registered Adobe ID on the device matches the one used to purchase the books.
The 6-inch E-Ink EPD is just as crisp as the Kindle and Nook, and the 8 shades of gray allow for the right amount of contrast. We never experienced eyestrain either when reading indoors or out in the sun. Text sizes range from Tiny to Small, Normal, Large, and Huge. On the Small setting we achieved a good balance between the number of lines and font size. Page turns were relatively quick at 1.5 seconds, and we’re glad that the display didn’t flicker multiple times before settling on the next page, as we’re used to with the Nook and Kindle. The end result is that you stay more engaged with the text.
When reading a book, readers have several options available from the LCD display. A bar shows your progress and lets you move quickly to a new page. Under the bar is a row of options: Go to Library, Table of Contents, Bookmarks, Text Size, Dictionary, GoTo Location, and Collections are always there. Depending on an eBook or PDF’s permissions, other options appear: icons for adding/viewing notes, highlights, and links weren’t available when we opened a PDF of Chicks Dig Time Lords, but were there when we opened any of the EPUB books in the library.
The notes/highlight/link functions show off another instance of the dual screens working in tandem. Tap the Edit icon to bring the text of the current page to the LCD screen (white on a black background). From here users can highlight words or phrases and append hyperlinks or typed/audio notes. These highlights will appear on the EPD, and users can interact with them on the LCD. Working with notes and highlights isn’t as intuitive or easy as our experience with the Entourage Edge, but the implementation on the Alex is one of the best we’ve experienced. The ability to record audio notes with the internal mic is another nice feature; our notes sounded loud and clear.
Performance and Connectivity
Equipped with a 600-MHz Marvell processor, the Alex was responsive when using apps and navigating menus. However, we were surprised that the operating system’s keyboard lagged behind us when typing. In every instance in each app we tried, taps would take almost a second to register, forcing us to be more deliberate when entering text.
Our review unit came equipped with 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi connectivity, though no mobile broadband (Spring Design plans to release a 3G, EVDO/CDMA- and GSM-compatible models later this summer). We experienced fast load times when surfing the web more than 50 feet from our router. We downloaded Pride and Prejudice (618KB), Dante’s Divine Comedy (910KB), and Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1.1MB) from Google Books in 5, 9, and 14 seconds, respectively, for an average of 914.6 Kbps. This beats the Entourage Edge’s Wi-Fi average of 405.6 Kbps.
We were surprised that the small speakers on the back of the Alex produced loud audio, even at 75 percent volume. While we were disappointed with the 2.5mm headphone/mic jack, the included headphones fit our ears snugly and produced tolerable audio. As mentioned previously, a mic is included on the cord for audio notes. Supported formats include MP3, M4A/ACC (DRM-free), AMR, WMA, MIDI, WAV, and OGG.
Users can also load BMP, GIF, and JPEG images on the Alex. Though the screen is small, picture quality is quite good.
At launch, the Alex will include the YouTube app (it was not yet activated on our review unit) for accessing streaming video clips. The device itself supports Flash, though the WebKit browser does not. The Alex also supports 3GP, FLV, and MP4 files. We watched a few of the videos included with our review unit and noted that they played smoothly but with noticeable pixilation.
The Alex is rated to last for up to 6 hours with the LCD and Wi-Fi on and up to two weeks with the Wi-Fi off. We used the reader periodically for 2 days with Wi-Fi turned on (though it was not always connected) and still had 26 percent remaining.
Similar to smart phones and the Entourage Edge, the Alex doesn’t enter a true sleep mode when the LCD turns off, but in our usage the Alex appeared to manage its power better than the Edge and more like a phone. The LCD dims then turns off after a period of inactivity, or users can turn the LCD off when reading on the EPD. If left inactive for longer, both the screen and buttons lock.
The Alex’s $399 price tag is hefty for an eReader in a market where the $259 Kindle and Nook dominate. But that $150 premium gives users a true multitasking device that does both the basics and the extras well. Then there’s the iPad. It can do a lot more for $499, including access Apple’s vast App Store, but it’s not as portable, doesn’t last as long on a charge, and lacks a electronic paper display that’s conducive to longer reading sessions (especially outdoors). If you want an E-Ink experience, the Alex is speedier and more versatile than the similarly priced Sony Daily Edition, and less awkward than the netbook-esque Entourage Edge. Still, the lack of an app store and the Borders eBook store at launch dims some of the Alex’s appeal. Assuming Spring Design adds 3G—without jacking up the price—and rolls out other promised features, this will be a much better device.