November 7, 2008

iRex Illiad Review

Original Post on May 22nd 2007

The defects in this product got me excited. How can that be? Well, because they seem so easy to fix that you get pulled into it, and want to fix them yourself. It has all the hallmarks of a product rushed to market.
Among them are: brain-dead power switch, some screen layout improvements, make it rectangular, redesign the docking station, remove CF Card, redesign docking connector, etc etc.
With that in mind, I would keep an eye on any second version that makes it to market in the future, as surely, they must fix those defects no?

The larger size than the Sony eBook make this the device to read pre-formatted PDFs. The Sony eBook is just two small to read comfortably a PDF formatted for an A/A4 page. The iRex can be read while you struggle with the Sony. The lack of content for BOTH devices increases the problem here.

They share limitations on contrast and resolution, but if the font size is big enough then entire books can (and were) read and enjoyed.

Battery life is poor, at least compared to the excellent Sony PRS 500 performance, but iRex are improving this constantly with firmware updates (available direct to the device via their iDS internet Delivery System).

I do not think twice about taking the Sony PRS for a week long trip without a power supply (expecting, say, to have more than 10 hours reading time during that week).

Despite all my disparaging comments on this product here, I actually like it. Partly because it works reasonably well as a whole, but also because I sense it's the start of viable products in this category. If they fix those silly design mistakes and combine it with a faster, whiter, better contrast eInk display (about to be released) then it will be better still.

8" eInk display. I appreciate the larger size (Sony is 6"). Contrast is still lacking when compared to paper (and TFT LCD). But the fact it's reflective makes it readable in many places (sunlight, or bright lights) where a laptop LCD is not.
Using this product made me reflect on the use of margins in printed documents. If you re-use a printed document as-is, then the huge margins on paper (which never bothered you, right?) eat up valuable screen real estate and cause page shrinking to the point where text can become unreadable.

So, I took my PDF and cropped off all the margins.

But this has two problems.
  1. The aspect ratio is still wrong, so you still have half of the problem. Lost screen space on the sides.
  2. Very tight margins (especially in an electronic device?) make you think text has been cropped off (even when it hasn't) and is uncomfortable to read. It's psychological. I cropped it, I know nothing was cropped off, but I couldn't stop thinking about this while reading the document!
So? Get the source document and reformat it for the screen, printing to PDF, with some "suitable" margins for electronic reading (there must be studies on margins someone?).

I'd like to meet who designed this, so I could shake him/her!
After I have put much thought into the origins of this unfortunate design I have come up with three possible conclusions:-
  • The designer has a bad day, or wasn't given the time or resources to do a good job.
  • It was designed as part of some great "reading system" design, that iRex canceled, but they never changed the dock.
  • It was designed for a different product entirely and reused
In short, it's horrible. It connects badly, is required always (no direct power connection!), takes up all your desk, leaves the iRex in an un-readable position, causes cable-mess, etc. I can't say enough bad things about this design.

I used to carry around in my backpack with my laptop and other work stuff without any protection. Nothing happened to it, and no scratches etc, but I always had a nagging concern that I would break it or scratch it.
How to design a product that says to the owner "don't worry about me, I'll be OK"?
So, I bought on-line at the iRex web the leather "book cover" for it.
This hold the iRex using Velcro strips to allow it to be removed easily. It's fine, but I think they've overdone the thickness/protection. It more than doubles the thickness, nearly trebles it. But it has served its purpose and now I throw it around more and don't worry about it.
Contrast this with the thin, hard, cover (with no clip to keep shut, just a subtle magnetic latch) that the Sony eBook comes with.
I don't think a glass-display-based device without a cover can go too far.
I think that there are also other good psychological reasons why a book should be closed and so I advocate a cover with clip, or even better a double/folding display that closes like a book.

iDS is the iRex internet distribution system. Press the button at top right and the iRex will "call home" using (previously configured) Wi-Fi or Ethernet connections and download content, new firmware, manuals etc. I could never get it to work through a proxy via the built-in Ethernet connection. I'm not sure if it's the proxy or the hardware and will have to re-test elsewhere to determine that.
Although content is lacking, the system does work very well. When no proxy is in the way, and using wi-fi, I press the iDS button and it goes off to the web and updates its own firmware and manuals while I do something else.
It can be programmed to this itself at pre-programmed times (useful when some newspaper content becomes available), although watch that battery life! I never tried this feature, but think it has a lot of potential and iRex have made it work very well.

Note Taking/Scribbling
I like to mark-up documents as I read them (not all documents, so you can loan me that book after all!).
Studies show that reading often involves writing (Ref: Myth of the Paperless Office, by Abi Sellen and Richard Harper).
This is definitely a feature I want in my ideal eBook, along with a touch screen to flip pages with my finger.

Overall this feature works reasonably well, and I miss it on the Sony.
There are two major problems:
  1. Registration between pen and screen is poor. This could be fixed with a factory/user calibration I assume.
  2. Current eInk screen response is really too slow. Scribbles take time to appear, but newer ones with improved response should help.
You can buy online on iRex web the Vision Objects software to recognize your handwriting. I still haven't tested this ICR software though.
Pen/Stylus is passive, so no re-charing or battery like first TabletPCs.
Main device battery is only used to scan for pen/stylus when pen is removed from it's hole, presumably in use.
Uses (Wacom) technology behind the screen, hence doesn't impair visibility.

In general works well (I have one PDF that can crash it on a certain page).
To become a casual reading device it needs to boot quicker.
When it boots I would take the user to document/page when they stopped reading, not the recent documents menu.
Navigation "works", but is hampered slightly by the slow screen update.
Set-up operations "just work", but interactive operations such as this are further impaired by slow screen. They need to avoid some "Windows like" dialogs and things, like flashing text, that just highlight the deficiencies of the display and are less usable.

I'm annoyed they devoted so much screen real estate to those icons across the bottom. Especially as they can only be used when the pen/stylus is in use. With documents that have a fixed aspect ratio (such as my PDFs) this effectively leads to a much larger screen real-estate loss as the entire document get's scaled down. Many of these icons are of infrequent use (did I hear you say "questionable usefulness"?).
At least, I would make them only appear when the pen/stylus is in use. Either have them pop-up on top of the page, or scale down the page and make them pop-up below it.

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