Just one year ago, there wasn't much to get excited about in the realm of eReaders. They were all around the same size, utilized the same display technology, and came with high price tags. Now the category is heating up, and the latest devices are differentiating themselves with larger display sizes, experimental designs, and new features. The iRex DR800SG distinguishes itself with an 8-inch screen, which offers more room for periodicals than 6-inch eReaders, but is more portable than the 10- to 12-inch models. But while this $399 device may hit the Goldilocks zone in terms of size, its interface needs some work before it can capture the attention of mainstream consumers.
The 7.6 x 5.9 x 0.4-inch iRex balances its larger screen with a sleek chassis; it's marginally thinner than the Barnes & Noble Nook (0.5 inches) and, at 12.8 ounces, is 1.2 ounces lighter than the Sony Daily Edition. The 8.1-inch electronic paper display (EPD) dominates the device. Due to the lack of keyboard or secondary display, the DR800SG's shape brings to mind a shrunken pad of paper.
Just as with the touch-enabled Sony Daily Edition, the iRex has few buttons. But iRex takes austerity in design to an extreme, with just one long flip bar (used mostly for turning pages) and a menu button on the left edge of the display. A light above the bar indicates when the DR800SG is working, or connected to a computer or wireless 3G.
Click to enlargeThough we prefer eReaders to include a button for turning pages on both sides of the screen to avoid repetitive stress, we like that the iRex's's bar is long enough to allow users of all hand sizes to hold the reader comfortably. To turn pages, we only had to nudge the bar left or right, which felt natural and didn't strain our hand.
Unlike most eReaders, you're meant to use the stylus as a primary means of navigating the iRex. In fact, some functions won't work without it, such as entering text with the on-screen keyboard. Unfortunately, there's no port for the stylus within the chassis as there is on Sony's Readers or the Entourage Edge (an included leather cover provides a place to store it). However, the cover doesn't fold backwards easily, making it difficult to access the flip bar.
A mini USB port sits on the bottom edge next to the power switch. A microSD Card slot is hidden behind the door of the battery compartment; iRex includes a 2GB card with each unit.
The iRex's interface is straightforward, but it ultimately felt half-baked. The home screen features large icons for each function: Books, eBook Mall, Help, Images, News, Personal Documents, Recently Added, Search, Settings, and the most recently read book or document.
Though the stylus is the easiest way to navigate, you can also select an icon by moving the highlight box over it using the flip bar, then pressing down on the bar. However, this becomes tedious when flipping through long lists, because you can't move up or down through the icons (which are arranged in a grid); you can only move forward, with the selector wrapping to the row below once it comes to the end of the one it's on.
Working with the stylus proved much faster and, when it worked, the iRex responded swiftly. Still, we were frustrated to find that the device wouldn't register taps about a third of the time, particularly when we were navigating the eBook Mall and reading newspapers downloaded from PressDisplay.
Other little issues plagued our user experience and left us feeling as though the interface wasn't as intuitive as it could have been. For instance, scroll bars sometimes appeared on the right or bottom edges of the screen in the eBook Mall's listing of books or when reading PressDisplay papers. Our inclination was to drag them down as we would on a computer screen, but pages didn't scroll smoothly and had to refresh to show new content, making it hard to predict how far down a page would scroll.
Click to enlargeLike the Entourage Edge, the 8.1-inch EPD on the iRex DR800SG avoids the glare and low contrast we observed on the Sony touch-enabled readers, keeping the screen crisp and clear. The 1024 x 768-pixel resolution and 16 levels of gray allow for decent cover image rendering and clear text.
As mentioned above, we enjoyed having more space on the screen for text, which meant we didn't have to turn pages as often. While reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin we found that the small font size offered plenty of lines without cramping the text too much. However, as there are only four sizes (small to extra large), the steps between them jump several points; we would have liked to see more gradation. Page turns took just 1 second with minimal screen flickering, so we were able to stay engaged with our book.
As mentioned above, we enjoyed having more space on the screen for text, which meant we didn't have to turn pages as often. While reading by N. K. Jemisin we found that the small font size offered plenty of lines without cramping the text too much. However, as there are only four sizes (small to extra large), the steps between them jump several points; we would have liked to see more gradation. Page turns took just 1 second with minimal screen flickering, so we were able to stay engaged with our book.
Navigating newspapers downloaded from PressDisplay wasn't as intuitive as we hoped. Readers can view an image of each full page (which looks just like the print version) to scan headlines and choose articles. Clicking the plus sign opens an article in plain text; unfortunately, if a piece starts on the cover page but continues on an inside page, readers have to hunt for the second part of the article by going back to the print page view.
Aside from downloaded content, we were able to load a PDF of Interfictions 2 from our PC via drag-and-drop with no problems. PDFs reflowed nicely on the large screen, and we were able to see whole pages with the font size set to small.
We were surprised to find that there was no feature for adding notes--either typed or hand-written--to books or in memos as on the Sony Readers and the Entourage Edge. Also, there's no dictionary lookup feature similar to what the Kindle and Sony Readers offer. These omissions seem odd for a device so clearly designed with stylus input in mind.
It's also surprising that the iRex supports so few text formats: just EPUB, PDB, and PDF (both DRM and non-DRM), and no plain text files or Word docs. When browsing books from Barnes & Noble, we discovered that the device can only buy PDB files via the eBook Mall, not EPUB.
Performance and Connectivity
Though the iRex was generally speedy--particularly when compared to Sony's Readers or the Nook--the device slowed when using the bundled eBook Mall (iRex's portal to Barnes & Noble's eBook store and NewspaperDircect). After tapping the screen, it took several seconds for the reader to move on to the next page. We also noticed sluggishness when using the on-screen keyboard, which makes one of its rare appearances when searching for titles in Barnes & Noble's store. Here letters could take up to a second to appear, forcing us to type slowly to ensure each tap registered properly. We wish that when entering passwords the software would show us the characters (if only for a second, as on Android devices), so that we could be sure we didn't skip one by accident.
The 3G connection--indicated by the light above the flip bar glowing steady blue--is only active when browsing. Clicking eBook Mall from the home screen launches the connection, which often took anywhere from 40 to 55 seconds, depending on signal strength.
Despite the sluggishness we encountered when navigating the above content stores, downloads were very fast. A 1.8MB issue of USA Today from NewspaperDirect took 15 seconds. From Barnes & Noble, we downloaded The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (373KB) in 5 seconds, Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner (1.1MB) in 12 seconds, and The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan (447KB) in 6 seconds, for an average of about 629.6 Kbps. This beats both the Nook and Daily Edition's averages (429.6 and 176 Kbps, respectively).
Click to enlargeThe iRex lacks the ability to play MP3s, a feature we've come to expect from eReaders. Yet there is an image viewing application that supports a large number of formats: BMP, GIF, JPG, PNG, and TIFF. Pictures weren't of print quality, even at hi-res, but they rendered acceptably. Despite this ability, you can't use images for a screensaver as you can on the Nook.
iRex says that the iRex should last anywhere from a few days to up to a week, depending on use. After two days the battery was yet to dip past the halfway mark.
As the $399 iRex DR800SG shows, it's not the size that matters, but what you do with it. While the 8-inch display provides plenty of room for text, the experience is soured by the need for stylus input and poor responsiveness. Those looking for a large screen eReader would be better off with the identically priced Sony Reader Daily Edition, and those who want a better all-around experience should get the smaller and cheaper $259 Nook or Kindle.