Considering the race to the bottom on eReader pricing going on right now, it may not be long before we start seeing Kindles and Nooks and even Sony Readers getting as close as possible to $100. But at least one device connected to a major bookstore is already under that magical number: Aluratek's Libre. Down from $119 (until October 4th), the cost is likely to tempt bargain hunters and curious bookstore browsers. However, can a $99 eReader really be any good? I went hands-on with the Libre to find out.
The first thing that will strike anyone who gives this device a try is that the display isn't e-Ink but also isn't the kind of LCD they're used to seeing. People who remember old-school Palm Pilot screens will be able to ride the nostalgia, because that's what we've got here. The 5-inch screen employs monochrome reflective light LCD technology, which means no color, but also no bright white light beaming in your eyes.
In some ways, it's an elegant balance. These screens give some of the benefits of e-Ink but don't cost nearly as much, thus the whole device costs less to produce. It also makes thematic sense, as eBook lovers from way back were more likely to rock a Palm Pilot or similar PDA than one of the early, prohibitively expensive eReaders.
However, just because the display isn't as bright as color LCDs doesn't mean it offers the perfect eReading experience. The contrast between the greenish-gray tinge of the background and the dark gray text isn't contrasty enough for people who really want a paper replacement in digital form. Granted, neither e-Ink nor color LCD are perfect on this front, so it's really down to a matter of taste.
One benefit of the monochrome LCD is speed. Refresh rates are not an issue here, so turning pages is near instant. The Libre sometimes pauses when opening menus, but once you're in things pick up once more. The company is mum on the type of processor inside, but whatever it is, it's powerful enough for the device's needs.
The software is pretty basic, similar to the PocketBook 360, but gets users to the important part fairly quickly: reading books. There's also a picture viewer and MP3 player (headphones only, no speakers). Features and settings are also bare bones, which is to be expected. No dictionary lookup or notes/highlights, but you'll at least get bookmarks. And the Libre will even turn pages for you in 5 - 60 second intervals.
On the design/reading experience front, I am not happy that all of the page turn buttons are on the left side. I like that users have a choice -- either press page turn buttons or use the slider on the left -- but wish the 10 buttons on the right were programmable so I could switch between right or left-handed operation. Users can switch orientations, but only in two directions. Otherwise, I found the buttons and slider easy to work with.
As far as eBooks go, the device comes with the Borders desktop app on it, so you can hook it up to your Mac or PC via USB and install. The program will manage the DRM associated with books from Borders and allow you to transfer them to the device seamlessly. Though Aluratek advertises on the box and start up screen that the Libre is Adobe DRM compatible, I couldn't get my copy of Digital Editions to recognize it, so I couldn't transfer books from other bookstores.
On board memory is kind of small for an eReader -- 256MB -- but the SD card slot up top will take cards up to 32GB, if you have that many books. (And if you've been reading them since the Palm Pilot days, you might.)
Overall, I came away feeling that the Aluratek Libre is actually a decent alternative for budget-minded eBook lovers. You're not going to get rich features or bells and whistles (certainly no Wi-Fi or 3G connectivity), but you're also not going to get a device that frustrates you out of reading eBooks altogether. If $99 is the price point you've been waiting for, this is not a bad choice.
That said, for $39 - $49 more you can get Wi-Fi and a much richer feature set plus an e-Ink screen if you go with the Kindle or Nook. It all depends on what you want and how far you can stretch your budget.