What's hot: Supports a wealth of languages and many file formats.
What's not: No branded ebook store for purchasing commercial books.
Reviewed September 4, 2009 by Lisa Gade, Editor
Though the ebook Reader market is still very young, in the US it's already dominated by two large companies: Sony and Amazon. Sony started selling ebook readers in the US in 2006 and Amazon has been selling various Kindle readers for the past 2 years. Sony has their own ebook store with over 100,000 commercial titles and Amazon has well over a quarter million titles for sale. In addition, the Sony Readers natively read public domain Google books and their desktop software makes it easy to download these and get them on the Reader. Amazon wants you to buy books from their website, but you can use their conversion and wireless service to send other book formats to the Kindle. Astak takes a different approach with their EZ Reader: forget the bookstore and associated DRM and instead support a wide range of book formats and let users find and load their own content.
The EZ Reader is the same hardware as the Hanlin V3 and other brands overseas but with US support and a US warranty. The reader can display text and operate in 20 languages-- wow! These include Chinese (both traditional and simplified), Polish, Dutch, German, Bulgarian, Greek, Magyar, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Russian, Turkish and of course, English. You can also specify your own font (any TrueType font is acceptable), though your custom installed font is only used for text and RTF files. File format breadth is most impressive and more extensive than even the Sony Reader. The EZ Reader supports Word, PDF, ePUB, LIT, CHM (Windows help file format), FB2, text and PRC files. DRM (copy protection on commercial ebooks) is only supported for the PDF and ePUB formats. The good news is that means the EZ Reader will work with digital lending libraries that use the Adobe Digital Editions ePUB format. And though the EZ Reader doesn't include desktop software that makes it easy to peruse, download and transfer Google public domain books to the reader, you can do it yourself using your desktop web browser and a card reader or the included USB cable.
The Astak EZ Reader and the Sony Reader PRS-505
The EZ Reader has a 6" eInk Vizplex display, and looks quite similar to the Amazon Kindle 2 and Sony Reader PRS-505 which use the same display technology. It supports 4 shades of gray and has a non-glare surface. This is not a touch screen reader like the Sony Reader PRS-600. The background doesn't look quite as white as the PRS-505 (which has the whitest-looking gray background of ebook readers available in the US) and it's about the same as the Kindle 2, which is to say very, very good. The differences are subtle and you likely wouldn't notice unless you use and review ebook readers as we do. Text on the other hand, doesn't look quite as dark, but this has more to do with the included font's design and weight than the reader's hardware. As noted, you can change fonts (we wish more readers offered this feature) but those fonts won't appear in document formats that embed and specify their own fonts (only text and RTF files will use your custom fonts).
The reader has 5 zoom levels for most file formats, which work well in many PDFs (especially those with sans serif fonts), text, RTF and Word. We found zoom in ePUB to go from a very tiny font (readable but not comfortable) to one that's too large at the next zoom level. The largest zoom setting's fonts are so large that just 10 to 20 words show per screen. Even those with visual impairment would likely be able to read at this setting. But for those of us with normal eyes, we wish that the first zoom level up from the default were smaller or that the default were larger. There's no happy medium like that on the Kindle and Sony Readers.
Since this is eInk, you'll notice a screen refresh as you turn the page. PDF page turn speeds are slower than the Kindle DX which supports native PDF unlike the the smaller Kindle 2 and slower than the Sony Reader PRS-600. PDFs require more processing power and these are generally the slowest format on ebook readers. Page turns in ePUB books are slightly slower than on the Sony Readers while text files turn quickly. LIT format files were less well behaved than other formats with very slow page turns. When we used the zoom button to enlarge fonts, the reader instead switched to landscape mode (granted with larger fonts). Some LIT files rebooted the device during page turns or zoom. Word files look good and embedded images are intact and enlarge when the font size increased.
The display supports rotation and can operate in both portrait and landscape modes and there's a zoom function for PDFs (5 levels) that does reflow of text PDFs but not those with images. Unusual for an eInk reader, the EZ Reader has brightness and contrast adjustment that's available only when viewing images (with 4 shades of gray and no color, viewing images isn't compelling).
The control scheme is similar to the Sony Reader PRS-500 and PRS-505 with numbered buttons along the bottom that correspond to on-screen functions and listings. In the book listing page, you'll see 8 titles per screen and you can sort by title, date or type (The reader refers to sort as as "sequence"). We like that each book listing has an icon that shows you the respective book's file format, but we don't like that it can't look at both books in internal memory and an SD card in one listing. You must use the menu button to switch between the 2 storage areas. When a book is open, some number buttons handle other duties and are masked with icons so you know what each does. Actually, only some buttons are masked to indicate their secondary function: for example, the 1 button opens a recently opened book list, but the button is merely labeled "1". For buttons that are masked, 6 is the bookmark function and 8 is zoom. The 9 and 0 keys become secondary page turn controls in addition to the two located to the left of the display. We appreciate the secondary buttons since those near the spine are just a bit too high for easy thumb reach. The manual states that pressing and holding the page turn button advances or moves back 10 pages, though our unit didn't want to do this.
The EZ reader supports folders so you can organize books, which is very handy if you have a large number of books on board. We can't wait until Amazon offers some kind of folder support or collections like the Sony Reader. You can use a card reader to load books onto an SD card or plug the reader into your PC or Mac using the supplied USB cable. Both the 512 meg internal memory area and the SD card will appear on the desktop as mass storage devices.
You can jump to any page you wish in a book via the "Go to page command" and the number buttons, similar to the Sony Reader 505.
Build quality and Design
The EZ Reader 6" is solidly built and has a grippy matte black finish that helps keep the reader in hand. The styling isn't anything to write home about-- it's not shockingly ugly like the original Kindle but it's not as Mac-wannabe sleek as the Kindle 2 or as metallic-classy as the Sony Reader line. The reader is rectangular with curved corners but no side bevels to make it look slimmer or more stylish. The buttons are large and easy to operate though we wouldn't mind larger page turn buttons. The USB sync/charge port and 3.5mm stereo headphone jack live under a rubber door on the bottom edge and the power button is up top.
Though the EZ Reader costs as much as the Sony Reader PRS-505 and lists at the same price as the 6" Kindle 2 and the Sony Reader Touch Edition PRS-600, Astak includes more goodies in the box. These are a charger, USB cable, leather book-style cover and earbud headphones. Nice. The black leather book case has some padding for protection (and it feels nice in the hand) but it reeked of dye for the first 2 weeks.
Odds and Ends
Settings are at minimum on the EZ Reader. You can turn off the key sound (by default it beeps for every key press and page turn which is annoying in an ebook reader), select from the 20 available languages, add your own font and view system information. There is no built-in dictionary and there's no automatic power management as there is on the Kindle and Sony Reader. EInk displays don't use power when on, only when turning a page, so it doesn't matter in terms of battery life if you turn off the reader or not. But eInk does ghost and can last through many screen refreshes if you've left the reader displaying the same page for a day or more. Think of it as non-permanent screen burn-in. Since the reader doesn't blank the screen and power down after a period of time, you'll want to press and hold the power button for 3 seconds to put it to sleep and blank the screen.
The EZ Reader has a user replaceable Lithium Ion battery, a relative rarity among ebook readers. In fact, it comes with a screwdriver to open the rear battery compartment and you must install the battery before first use.
If you're looking for an ebook reader that handles multiple languages and a very wide range of file formats without conversion, the Astak EZ Reader is a winner. Likewise, if you want to check out ePUB digital library books, the EZ Reader is a go. Like the Kindle and Sony Reader it has an eInk display that's good for hours of tireless reading. It's solidly built and the controls are mostly intuitive. But if you're hunting for an eBook reader that allows you to easily purchase commercial books and bestsellers, you're better off with the Sony Reader or Kindle, each of which works with turnkey online bookstores made for the readers. The EZ Reader is more of a "roll your own" kind of device for those who wish to read PC documents on the reader or those who have a collection of public domain, non-DRM books. We found the EZ Reader occasionally sluggish when opening books and turning pages, especially on PDF and ePUB books when compared to the Sony Reader PRS-600 and PRS-300, and some PDF and LIT books seemed to require more memory than available and the reader rebooted itself during page turns. Though ebooks take up little space music files are large and we wish the reader were compatible with SDHC cards over 4 gigs just in case you really want to take advantage of the music player.
Pro: Supports 20 languages! Polyglots and language learners rejoice! Works with a wide selection of document formats, though DRM formats are only Adobe Digital Editions. Solid build. Offers the usual eInk clarity and super-long battery life.
Con: Unless you need the language or multi-format support, there's nothing to tear you away from the more mainstream Amazon and Sony offerings with their large online bookstores.
Display: 6" eInk display, 600 x 800 resolution, 4 levels of gray. Supports display rotation.
Dimensions: 7.2 x 4.7 x 0.4 inches. Weight: 7.8 ounces.
CPU, RAM and Storage: 200MHz Samsung ARM9 CPU. 32 megs RAM and 2 meg NOR flash ROM. 512 megs flash memory, SD card slot supporting cards up to 4 gigs in capacity. Linux OS.
Interface for syncing: USB 1.1.
Format support: Natively supports PDF, ePUB, DOC, RTF, HTML, TXT, WOL, CHM, LIT, PRC, PDB, FB2, PPT ,Djvu, RAR, ZIP, MP3, GIF, TIF, PNG and JPG. DRM support for ePUB and PDF via Adobe Digital Editions.
Power: 950 mAh Lithium Ion battery that's user replaceable. Supports USB charging. Approx. 8,000 page turns per full charge. Charger included.
MP3 player: Yes, with 3.5mm stereo headphone jack.
Expansion: SD card slot that supports cards up to 4 gigs.