When Google first launched its commercial eBookstore back in December, the company emphasized that the books could be read on a variety of devices, from smartphones and tablets to other companys' eReaders. There was no need for a flagship device when the ecosystem was open to (almost) everyone. Still, it can't be denied that eReaders integrated with a specific eBook store make it easier to buy, load, and read books. Thus, Google partnered with iRiver to create the Story HD, the first eReader fully tied into Google's store. But can this $139 device compete with market juggernauts Nook and Kindle?
At first glance, it's hard not to compare the Story HD to the Kindle 3G given that they're about the same size--7.5 x 5.0 x 0.37 inches vs. 7.5 x 4.8 x 0.34 inches, respectively--and come with physical keyboards. The iRiver is a bit lighter, though, weighing 7.3 ounces to the Kindle's 8.7.
iRiver made some distinctive design choices, but we're not convinced that they make the device better. Unlike most eReaders, the Story HD's turn buttons do not flank the 6-inch E Ink display or even the device. Instead, a 2-inch flip bar sits between the display and the keyboard. This button has multiple functions: It turns pages and acts as a D-pad for moving through the interface, but makes it hard to use the eReader one-handed. The arrow keys offer some relief for right-handed use because they can turn pages as well, but they aren't in an eminently comfortable place, either.
The sliding power button is inexplicably placed on the back of the device.
The mini USB port on the bottom of the Story HD juts out from the otherwise sleek, tapered edge. A microUSB would have preserved the line better. On the right side sits an SD card slot that takes cards up to 32GB. Internally, the Story HD has 2GB of storage.
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The color scheme--basic white with tan/amber accents--gives the Story HD a retro feel that doesn't make it all the way to retro chic. It's not unattractive, but it looks less current than a new product should.
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The plastic amber buttons and keys below the E Ink display are small and oblong, rather than square or round as we've seen on other eReaders with keyboards. The tactile feedback is a hair stiff, but acceptable. What makes the keys difficult to use is that they're too close together. We had to type more deliberately than we wanted to ensure we didn't make mistakes. Another issue: The text above the keys is very small, not great for readers with weak eyes.
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We like that the bottom-right corner of the iRiver Story HD has direction arrows and Back and Enter buttons for those who don't find the flip bar intuitive. The bottom row also has one-touch buttons for switching screen orientation and changing text sizes. The SYM button provides access to alternate characters, including numbers.
HD Display and Reading Experience
The standout feature of the Story HD is its high-definition E Ink display. Though the 6-inch size and 16-level grayscale are pretty standard, the Story HD's screen has a resolution of 768 x 1024, where most eReaders (including the Kindle, Kobo, and Nook) have a resolution of 600 x 800. The benefit of those extra pixels? Fonts are very crisp. At the smallest text size we didn't see any messy pixels or fuzzy text, an issue we've noted on other devices. Book colors and illustrations are sharper as well, though they are also smaller.
Contrast on the Story HD is on a par with the Nook but not quite as deep as the Kindle. Still, it offers a good ePaper experience and won't wash out in sunlight.
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We like that there are eight text sizes available. The lack of font choices is a huge downer, though. Even the Kobo Reader offers one serif and one sans-serif font; the Story HD offers only a serif font. This eReader also lacks the ability for users to choose margin sizes and line spacing.
Notes, Highlights and Bookmarks
Even though the Story HD comes with a keyboard, there isn't much need for it because the interface doesn't allow owners to make notes within books. This oversight is a deal-breaker for us, as notes functionality is one of the basics we expect to see in any eReader. There is no highlight function, either.
Users can make bookmarks, then surf those bookmarks later by going to Options > Go to Page > Move to Bookmark Page. The last page read will also sync to the Google eBooks server so that you can pick up where you left off on another device. This assumes that the Story HD has a connection to the Internet before you switch.
Though the Notes functionality is non-existent, there is a dictionary for looking up words you don't know.
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Overall, the Story HD's interface is clean and simple. While it should be easy to navigate, the hardware buttons aren't as intuitive as they could be. The flip bar works as a D-pad, but you can't press it straight down to select an item; instead, you must press the Enter button. This isn't the way we expect a D-Pad-like button to work. Once we got over this disconnect, we found the interface fairly easy to get around. It doesn't have the ease of a touch interface, but for something that requires flipping up and down to get to your selection, it's well designed.
Home, Back, Enter, and Option flank the flip bar and are easy to press, even though they're oblong.
We wish that users had more choices for how to display their library instead of a simple list of titles. Book covers would be nice, as would a shelf theme. We like that users can sort books right at the top of the Home screen instead of having to go into a menu to do so.
The Story HD is the first eReader integrated with Google's eBookstore, and thus owners will be able to buy books from Google right on the device and sync existing purchases made on smartphones, tablets, and computers. We easily accessed the store from the graphic at the top of the Home screen.
The Google eBooks shopping experience is very low-key and simple compared to the Nook or even the Kindle. The initial screen shows a search box, Categories button, a list of top-selling books, and further links at the bottom. We had no trouble searching for and purchasing books, but the whole experience left us feeling like the Google eBook shopping experience is for readers who already know what they want.
For example, there aren't any suggestions for what to read other than top sellers; there's no "If you like this, you might also like" on the book pages, no promotions of new books, free samples, etc. Users can't even read a book's reviews from the interface, though the listing shows the average star rating and number of reviews. By contrast, the opening screen for the store on the Kindle offers recommendations based on past purchases plus promoted titles. The shopping experience on the Nook is even more geared toward book discovery and recommendations.
Google boasts more than 3 million available titles, though most of those are free. There are "hundreds of thousands" of books available to buy, and the catalog includes most of the books on The New York Times bestseller list. There were a few small-press titles we couldn't find, but otherwise the selection appears on a par with other major eBook stores.
One of the better aspects of the Story HD's eBook ecosystem is that Google has partnered with local and independent booksellers to make eBooks available via their storefronts. This means if customers want to buy an eBook from Powell's in Portland or McNally Jackson in New York City--or any of the hundreds of other affiliated stores--part of the profit goes to the store itself. When we bought an eBook of Embassytown by China Mieville via Powells.com, the website asked us to link our existing Google account to our Powell's account (after the purchase went through), then added the book we bought to our library. The next time we connected the Story HD to the web and synced the library, Embassytown loaded automatically.
Since the Story HD can read Adobe DRM-protected EPUB files, owners aren't confined to just Google's catalog. Books from Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Sony should work, as should library EPUB files.The device will also read non-DRM EPUB files.
We were happy to find out that the Story HD supports multiple document formats: DOC/DOCX, XLS/XLSX, PPT/PPTX, HWP. It will also read PDFs with or without DRM. Unfortunately, the actual experience of reading documents isn't very pleasant.
After connecting the eReader to our computer via USB, we side-loaded documents into the root folder. However, docs don't show up in the normal list of Books. In order to access them, we had to switch to Folder View, found by going to Settings > System Settings > Library View Options. This is the same process we had to go through to see eBooks we'd side-loaded onto the device. To see the list of Google eBooks again, we had to go back to Collection View.
Each document we opened first showed very small text and a lot of margin, even when the original document's font was set at 18 points. For larger text, users can zoom in on the document, but in order to get it comfortably large, the document ended up scrolling offscreen; the text did not reflow. Just as with books, we weren't able to add notes to documents.
This experience isn't as good as what Kindle offers, but the Story HD does support far more formats than the Nook and Kobo Reader Touch Edition.
iRiver outfitted the Story HD with an 800-MHz Freescale i.MX508 processor specifically designed for eReaders. (You'll also find this processor in the Kobo Reader Touch Edition.) Overall, performance was mixed. There was little lag when moving between menus, and page turns were usually fast (similar to the Kindle). However, opening a book took several more seconds than we're used to, and about a third of the time there was a pause between pressing the flip bar and the moment when a page actually turned.
Wireless connectivity is via Wi-Fi only on the Story HD. We found the wireless signal good enough for downloading books in just a few seconds and loading pages in the eBookstore quickly.
iRiver says the battery will last for 14,000 page turns or about 6 to 10 weeks depending on use.
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At first glance, the $139 iRiver Story HD seems like a solid eReader contender. The HD display differentiates this device from the Kindle and Nook, as does the wide document support. However, these features don't balance out the uncomfortable design or the inability to make notes and highlights. The Google eBook integration works both in the Story HD's favor and against it. After all, if you can load these books on any number of eReaders, why choose one that's not quite there--especially when the Nook Touch is the same price and the Kindle Wi-Fi is $10 less? However, if you're dedicated to building a library under Google's aegis, then the Story HD will at least make it easier to keep all your eBooks in one place.