As the eReader market grows and infiltrates more store shelves, we're bound to see more low-cost, entry-level eReaders for the less geeky book lovers among us. However, lower cost does not always equal a better eReader. Sharper Image's $159 Literati--powered by the Kobo eBookstore--may tempt shoppers in the local Bed, Bath, & Beyond with its color display and wireless book downloads, but they're better off heading over to the nearest Barnes & Noble, Border's, or even a Target to check out the eReaders on offer there.
At first glance, the eReader the Literati most resembles is the Spring Design Alex due to the long, rectangular shape, but also recalls the Kindle due to the full QWERTY keyboard on the bottom. The 7-inch color LCD that dominates the front is the same size as the Nook Color, but that's where the resemblence ends. At 9.5 x 5.0 x 0.5 inches the Literati is not only longer, but much thicker as well. A chrome strip outlines the edges of the device and the few included ports: power and miniUSB on the bottom, an SD card slot on the top. The back half is partially painted with metallic-feeling, sable-colored paint, giving the reader an attractive finish.
We like the placement of the Next and previous Page buttons--straddling the main screen, one of each on either side. The Next Page buttons fell under our thumbs when we held the unit in the cradle of our palms, but they aren't long enough to account for different-sized hands. Still, holding the Literati is somewhat more comfortable and balanced than holding the Spring Design Alex eReader. On the white version of the eReader, the keyboard and navigation keys are square and sable-colored, lined up in neat rows below the display. Keys were a little stiff, but we quickly got used to them. The directional pad on the lower right is stiffer, and the arrows are somewhat narrow and harder to use than they should be.
Part of the Powered by Kobo group of eReaders, the Literati utilizes that company's software, though the hardware is made by a separate company. Unlike other color LCD-bearing eReaders we've seen recently, such as the Pandigital Novel and the Nook Color, the Literati doesn't have any other apps or functionality beyond reading eBooks. There are no enhanced eBooks available yet, no video, e-mail, web browsing, etc. Just reading. The interface will be familiar to anyone who has used Kobo's homegrown reader or any of that company's apps for smart phones and tablets. The UI most closely resembles Kobo's iPhone app.
Since the LCD is not a touchscreen, users must navigate using the D-pad and the Home, Menu and Back buttons. Moving around the screen isn't always intuitive and often feels overly tedious given how many buttons the device has. The interface feels like it should be easier to navigate, especially given our experience with the original Kobo Reader, which has a similar UI.
Overall, we found the interface sluggish except for page turns. Transitioning from different functions--book to Home screen or vice versa--required more thinking on the Literati's part than we thought necessary. A spinning icon in the corner alerts users that the device has responded to a command even if the main screen does not, but that only served to highlight how long it took the eReader to do things.
We encountered a lot of little annoyances with the interface as we tested the Literati. For instance, we were only able to enter our Kobo account information once we went to the Store tab and attempted to buy or download a book. Until we did this, there was no way to access or sync our existing library on the device itself. We found this odd since there was a place in settings to add our Adobe ID. Every time the Literati enters sleep mode, it cuts off its Wi-Fi and doesn't reconnect again automatically once the unit turns back on. If you click the Store tab it will try to automatically reconnect, but during our hands-on time it forgot previously entered connections several times. We ended up choosing an access point manually instead of the eReader doing so automatically with remembered networks.
The manufacturer has promised continual software and firmware updates and we appreciate companies that are committed to pushing updates to existing users. However, users prefer not to have to wait for such issues to be ironed out.
eBook lovers who are used to ePaper displays won't find a good reason to switch to LCD in the Literati. But users already predisposed to using LCD won't be turned off by the quality of the screen. The color, 7-inch, 480 x 800 resolution display is the same size as the Sony Daily Edition's and, like that device, gives an impression of being very tall. Though matte, the screen doesn't have very wide viewing angles, though this is not likely to be a problem for most users. From the Display menu it's easy to adjust the brightness, which can help mitigate eye strain.
The biggest issue with the display is that eBooks don't always take the best advantage of it. While reading Gordon Ramsey's Cooking With Friends, we noticed that the left and right margins were far wider than they needed to be, which resulted in less text on the page. Though the margins aren't so wide in most books we tried, we did note far more white space than we normally see in eBooks. We wished that the software allowed some kind of control over the space between lines or words as the Kindle does, or at least some control over margins, as on the Nook Color.
Font options are surprisingly limited. There are only five text sizes from which to choose and two font types: serif and sans-serif. This matches what's available on Kobo's e-Ink-based eReader, but given that the iPad app has four different font faces and eight size options, the narrow range here is disappointing.
The page turn buttons are capacitive, not physical, as on most eReaders. Though well-placed, the buttons didn't always respond to taps. Around a third of the time we found ourselves tapping more than once, usually after a pause of a few minutes between page turns. The buttons require precision--users must tap the arrows directly--an issue that users simply don't encounter with large, physical buttons such as those found on the Kindle or Nook.
We were pleased to find that page turns were near-instantaneous in text-based, one of the benefits of LCD technology over e-Ink. However, in books with many images or with odd formatting--such as recipe titles--page turns took noticeably longer, pausing for a second before turning. Also, each time we came to the end of a chapter, the software took several seconds to load the next one. During this time, the Literati displays a literature-themed quote and a progress bar, which we found extremely annoying. This is an issue with Kobo software and apps across the board, though it's not clear why it has to happen or why it takes so long to load the next chapter. The issue was most prominent when reading books with very short chapters, such as the copy of How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu that we downloaded from the Kobo bookstore.
Beyond the basics, the Literati doesn't have much to offer readers. There's currently no way to make notes or highlights even though that feature is available on Kobo's iPad app. Users also don't have a way to create bookmarks, though this is another feature the manufacturer will include in near-future updates. However, the device will return you to the last page read once you open a book again. There's no cursor to move around the screen as on the Kindle, so users can't navigate to words they'd like to look up. Instead, they must type them into the dictionary search window (which blocks the middle of the screen). There's also no orientation switch, but due to its design, using the Literati sideways wouldn't be very comfortable, anyway.
Content and Ecosystem
The Literati is part of the Kobo Books ecosystem, which means that users can sync/download books previously purchased though KoboBooks.com or via one of Kobo's existing apps (iPhone, iPad, Android, BlackBerry, currently; BlackBerry PlayBook forthcoming) to the Literati. A future update will allow for Kindle-like syncing of the last page read across different apps and platforms, but currently that's not yet available for this device.
Kobo has over 2 million books available in its store, though 1.8 million of them are free, public domain titles. The list of new and popular titles is growing, and the store sells 93 of the 105 books on the New York Times best seller list.
Users should be able to load ePub titles from other stores onto the Literati as well. Border's Books is within the Kobo ecosystem (the titles won't sync automatically), and Adobe Digital Editions recognized the Literati once we connected the device to our PC. We were able to load PDF/TXT documents and DRM-free ePub books from an SD card, though reading PDFs was painful even with the pan and zoom functionality. Kobo's new desktop software recognized the device--sort of. It seemed to think that the Literati was the Kobo Reader and wouldn't allow us to sync titles stored on our hard drive.
Aside from books, the Literati will also be able to read magazines and newspapers from the Kobo store (coming soon). But since there's currently no way to look at content in landscape mode, we're not sure how satisfying the experience will be. The device doesn't have a separate browser, so users won't have access to blogs or other news content.
Options and Accessories
The Literati comes with a leatheresque case that provides some protection. When the Literati is in the case, the buttons and arrow key on the lower row of the keyboard are harder to press. Though the bottom of the case has a cutout for ports, the straps that hold the eReader in place on top partially cover the power button and memory card slot, making them hard to access.
Aside from the white model we reviewed, the Literati is also available in black. This version of the eReader has a slightly different design. The size and weight are the same, but the keyboard area is all silver, the keys are round instead of square, and they're a little larger with more space between them. The Back, Display, Home, and Menu buttons sit above the keyboard instead of sprinkled in with the keys. And the D-pad is round, with arrow keys that are a little less stiff.
The integrated battery is rated to last up to 6 hours when reading. Since the Wi-Fi turns off each time the reader goes to sleep, we found that even after leaving the unit alone for over 24 hours, the battery hadn't drained very much. We were annoyed that the device can't charge via the miniUSB port. The AC adapter is small, but it's yet another cord users will have to worry about if they intend to take the Literati on even a short trip.
The $159 Literati is a good deal on paper, but it falls short in terms of execution. Promised software updates may fix many of this eReader's issues, but right now the LCD screen simply doesn't add enough benefit to the eReading experience. For $10-$20 less, users can pick up a Nook or Kindle with Wi-Fi, which offer a wider selection of books. If you're really sold on the idea of owning a color eReader, you might want to save up for the $249 Barnes & Noble Nook Color, which includes social networking apps, a web browser and media player, and access to interactive childrens' books, magazines, and newspapers.