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Real-Life Readers Unimpressed with iRiver Story HD eReader

Last weekend the iRiver Story HD, the first eReader integrated with the Google eBookstore, made its debut on retail shelves. iRiver and Google are wading into a pretty tough market with this device, and I wondered how people really into literature and reading would react to it. So I dropped in on the ReaderCon literary convention in Burlington, Massachusetts last weekend to get the attendees' reactions to the Story HD.

About half of the people I spoke to did not own an eReader and about a third of them had never played with one before, so the Story HD was their first taste. Author and editor Matthew Cheney liked the interface and deemed it "relatively intuitive" but didn't like the small buttons. Author Maurice Broaddus, who had also never held an eReader, liked the look of the Story HD. "It's pretty sharp and has a good weight to it. This looks different than I expected an eReader to look like."

Not all the newbies had a positive first reaction. "This is the first eReader I’ve ever had in my hands," said Genevieve Valentine, author of Mechanique. "It’s the right size, but I find the interface counter-intuitive and not something I’d look forward to using myself on a daily basis."

There were varying reactions to the interface from eReader newbies and veterans alike. Some noted that it's clean and well-designed, others felt confused and lost until I gave them a quick primer on how to use it. "Once you’ve learned a few simple things, it’s not that complicated," said author Delia Sherman. "But I can foresee a lot of frustration if someone is trying to use it for the first time. There’s nothing intuitive about this."

"Intuitive is such a misleading word," warned lit-lover Stefan Krzywicki. As a software designer, he's learned that there is no right interface. "The best you can do is to see what that audience likes and design to them. Otherwise, the best you can do is have a lot of labels."

Several people's first impulse was to touch the display (after they figured out how to turn the it on), and most were disappointed that the eReader didn't come with that functionality. "All I want to do is press the screen," author Sarah Smith said after struggling with the flipbar. "But that’s because I have an iPad." I let folks compare the Story HD to the touch-enabled Nook and almost everyone preferred that interface and experience. "This is kind of how I expected them to work," said Broaddus.

"Frankly, once you’ve gone with a touchscreen interface, a keyboard seems rather outdated," Sean Wallace of Prime Books said as he showed off his own new Nook.

Not everyone agreed with Wallace on the keyboard question. Around half of the people I spoke to actually liked having a physical one available. John Edward Lawson of Raw Dog Screaming Press doesn't like virtual keyboards, so having a physical one is a draw for him. But Sherman pointed out a pretty significant flaw: "I can’t see the text above the buttons; it’s too tiny."

On the overall design, Wallace gave the most colorful description when he likened the Story HD to "Texas Instruments devices from 20 years ago." "It is a bit retro," Lawson concurred. Krzywicki took a different angle: "It looks like a kid’s toy because of the buttons." And Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld Magazine objected to the color scheme. "I tend not to like white devices because they get dirty very easily. Especially if you have kids."

Most people didn't like the flipbar for turning pages, either because it wasn't intuitive or because they found it awkward to use. "Using it makes me have to put my thumb across the keys to turn the pages," noted author and SFWA vice president Mary Robinette Kowal. "The thing I’m going to use the most frequently is the hardest to reach." Clarke agreed. "I like that the Kindle has the buttons on the side and I can turn the pages without moving my hand. I actually have to move my thumb on this. That’s a disadvantage."

The HD display was the one aspect of the eReader almost universally praised by everyone. Especially when it came to comic book content.

The reigning consensus among the ReaderCon attendees I spoke to is that, while the Story HD has some nice qualities, they didn't find it compelling in the face of the alternatives already on the market.

Geoff Ryman, author of Air, noted that the Story HD is "late to the market" and doesn't have a key feature of his preferred reader, the Kindle. "It’s the 3G that really sells me on Kindle because I’m downloading books on the train. The lack of 3G and lack of [magazine] subscriptions would be a problem for me. I don’t see why I would buy this over the Kindle unless I hated Amazon."

"This looks almost the same [as the Kindle] – what makes this different?" said Wallace. "If it was some [other] price point that would be more tempting, then I could see buying it. But otherwise, no. It’s got to be something so overwhelmingly awesome it makes me go: I need that. I had that with the Nook Touch."

When I told Clarke the price point, he thought that $139 was too much for what iRiver offered. "It has to be less expensive. It would have to be below $100 for me to buy it."

Though the ReaderCon reaction to the Story HD itself was somewhat tepid, most people were glad to see another eReader on the market, especially one they'd be able to play with in stores before making the decision to buy. The booksellers, publishers and editors in attendance agreed that the more devices on the market and more competition among eBookstores the better.

Check out our full review of the iRiver Story HD and let me know what you think of the first Google eBooks eReader.