What's hot: Sharp 8.1" e-ink display with pen input, fast refresh, ePUB and B&N support.
What's not: Some features not fully developed, pen input is tedious, 3G is slow to connect.
Editor's note, early summer 2010: IREX has declared bankruptcy, so sales of the reader are halted until the company reorganizes (if it does reorganize).
Reviewed February 23, 2010 by Lisa Gade, Editor
I wouldn't exactly say it's raining eBook readers, at least not shipping models. But after a slow start where we had the Sony Reader or the Sony Reader to choose from here in the US, then the Kindle or the Sony Reader in late 2007, things are looking up. Now we have several Sony models, both the Kindle 2 and super-sized Kindle DX, the Barnes & Noble nook, the Astak readers and now the IREX DR800SG. The IREX was originally scheduled to ship late last fall but delays shifted the release to mid-February 2010. The DR800SG is available from BestBuy.com for $399 (the same price as the Sony Reader Daily Edition), and will arrive at Best Buy stores in the coming months.
Among US eBook readers, the IREX is unique because it has a larger 8.1" eInk display that works with the included stylus and Wacom active digitizer (the same technology used on tablet PCs and their pens are interchangeable). The Wacom pen is more accurate than a resistive stylus and the digitizer does not interfere with screen clarity in the least. That's right: no murky, grainy reduced-contrast eInk. It looks just as good as the Kindle 2, Sony PRS-300 and nook which lack an input layer. It has higher contrast and lacks the glare of the Sony Reader Touch Edition and Sony Reader Daily Edition. Lovely! The drawbacks? You must use the special EMR pen since your fingernail, finger tip or any other poke-capable item won't work. There's no silo in the reader for the pen (see Editor in Chief banging her head in despair). What's up with that when every PDA, smartphone and touch screen Sony Reader gives you a safe home for the pen? There is a small slit in the included neoprene slip case for the stylus but we'd much rather have a silo or a book-style flip case with a stylus holder at the ready.
That Wacom stylus would be perfect for precise input in the form of note-taking and highlighting. While some of IREX's more expensive Euro models have inking and annotation, it's lacking in the DR800SG. We're sure the folks at Sony are thrilled since their two touch readers offer notes and highlighting. Hint to the folks at IREX: this is a software feature you could and should add to be competitive with Sony's products.
The DR800SG has good format support, making this a go-to reader for the most important formats other than Amazon's AZW Kindle format (Amazon likes to keep things to themselves). It works with non-DRM and DRM ePUB books and PDF files (using the standard Adobe ADEPT DRM) as well as PDB (eReader and Barnes & Noble) books. That means you can load Sony bookstore books, Barnes & Noble eBooks, Google's 1 million public domain books, Kobo Books and public library eBooks among others. Very nice!
The Linux-based DR800 has a very intuitive user interface that's up there with Sony's touch screen readers for ease of use. We particularly like the book cover view that's similar to the Sony touch readers. We put it to the mother test and mom was immediately at home with the IREX while she found the nook a bit baffling at first and the Kindle less intuitive.
The Digital Reader has 3G wireless via Verizon EV-DO and a Qualcomm Gobi modem, and this works with the IREX eBook Mall that's basically a home for book and periodical vendor stores. The IREX uses a webkit browser for access to these stores, but there's no access to sites outside the storefronts. The Mall currently has two stores: the Barnes & Noble store and NewspaperDirect (PressDisplay). IREX's North American CEO stated at the end of 2009 that there will be more stores in the Mall. This shouldn't require any sort of firmware upgrade and could be done on the IREX portal page.
Other features include a removable Lithium Ion battery and an SDHC microSD card slot. A 2 gig card is included and there's no user-accessible internal storage.
What sets the DR800SG apart is the large 8.1", 768 x 1024 display. That gives you significantly more words per page than the popular 5" and 6" ereaders on the market. Yet the IREX isn't a large device and looks tiny next to the 9.7" Kindle DX. How did they manage that? The bezel is extremely small and since this has stylus input and navigation, there's no need for a keyboard (Kindle) or separate touch screen (nook). The IREX fits in with the Sony Reader school of design where the display is maximized. While the Sony touch screen readers have a sometimes more polished set of features, the IREX wins for display clarity.
That said, if you lose the stylus or don't want to use it, you can do everything using the menu button and flipbar on the eBook reader's left bezel. That's no more tedious than using the Kindle's joystick for navigation. The large flipbar is used for page turns (you can set the direction you prefer) and it advances through menu items and steps through icons and list items one at a time. The menu button below the flipbar brings up the menu (much like a menu on a PC application), or you can tap the word "Menu" at the lower left corner to activate the context-aware menu.
Who is IREX?
IREX isn't a household name in the US, but they're fairly well known as a high end digital reader maker in Europe, their home market. We hope they do a marketing push in the US; having their product in Best Buy certainly helps, but consumer awareness is very low here. This is one of the few eBook readers that's not made in Asia-- it's made in the Netherlands. IREX is a small Dutch company and they're a 2005 spin off of Royal Philips Electronics, a pioneer in e-ink. IREX has been selling high end readers costing from $550 to $900 in Europe for some time, and this is their first US consumer digital reader. Other IREX models feature the same Wacom-enabled display and either 8 or 10 inch displays. The DR800 is the first reader to ship with ePUB support. While the name DR800SG isn't a brilliant stroke of marketing (as was their Iliad product name), it's logical: DR stands for digital reader and the 800 indicates it has an 8" display (there's a DR1000 with a 10" display in Europe). Overseas, there's a more expensive DR800S that is nearly identical to the DR800SG in terms of hardware but it lacks 3G.
Though the company is based in Europe, they now have a US office and US support for the launch of the DR800SG.
The 12.6 ounce DR800SG weighs about the same as the nook and and Sony PRS-900 and is 2.5 ounces heavier than the Kindle 2. Despite the relatively large display it's a very portable device that's comfortable to hold and easy to stow in a bag or purse. 8" is the sweet spot for increasing screen real estate whie maintaining portability. 10" readers and slates are heavier and too large to carry around in the same way you'd carry a trade paperback book.
The IREX runs on a 400MHz Freescale i.MX31L processor and it has 128 megs of RAM. There's no user-accessible internal storage; instead everything goes on the included 2 gig microSD card (you can use larger cards if you wish). The microSD card slot is located under the battery door on the back, and there's a SIM card slot but this isn't used for Verizon connectivity. Verizon doesn't use SIM cards, but the GOBI is a multi-mode modem that can do either CDMA or GSM but not both at the same time. That means it's Verizon in the US but IREX will likely use it as a GSM wireless module in Europe.
Like most digital readers, the IREX runs Linux. IREX makes the source available and one can write applications or port Linux applications to the device. Examples are FBReader (an eBook reader that supports additional formats like HTML, FB2, MOBI and Plucker) and Midori (a Mozilla web browser that's handy for reading HTML docs but won't get you surfing on the Net-- at least not until someone figures out how to turn on the 3G modem for straight web browsing). To install an application, simply drag it to the Programs directory on your SD card. To access the program directly, you'll want to modify an .ini file on the reader so that the SD Card application shows folders. It's quite easy to do this:
Using your computer and the included USB cable, mount the reader and go to the System folder on the SD card. You'll see a file called dr.ini and you'll want to edit that with a text editor to add the line "/apps/er/sys/ctb/showdir=sdcard" (minus the quotes). Reboot the reader by sliding the power button for 5 seconds and you're done. Don't use Microsoft Word to do this because it messes with line breaks-- stick to a vanilla text editor. After that when you use the SD Card app you'll see folders (joy to those who love to organize their reading material). Go to the Programs folder and you'll see icons for programs you've copied to the SD card.
The Lithium Ion battery is affixed to the removable back door and it attaches via a 2-wire connector to the motherboard. IREX has so far stated that they want users to send the reader to their US service center to swap the battery but I see absolutely no reason why since it's very easy to plug and unplug the wired connector.
The IREX is made of plastic and it has a matte finish. They did an uncanny job of matching the front bezel color to the light gray e-ink display background. That makes for a continuous, printed page look and has fooled most folks into thinking it's the best e-ink display yet. I say "fooled" because it's on par with the Kindle 2, nook and Sony Reader Pocket Edition, but not better in terms of contrast and sharpness. It's an excellent display though, and we're very impressed that the digitizer has absolutely no negative impact on screen quality. The screen is most definitely better than the Sony touch readers' displays.
We have two videos of the IREX DR800SG, the first covers the basics and we compare it with the Sony Reader Daily Edition, nook and Kindle DX.
We dig deep in the second video and show you book display, navigating the OS, newspapers via NewspaperDirect, shopping and PDF viewing.
Formats and Function
The IREX digital reader supports Adobe ePUB and PDF with and without Adobe DRM. As we mentioned, that means you can buy eBooks from a good selection of sites and read them on the DR800SG. It also supports Barnes & Noble eBooks, both in the old PDB eReader format and ePUB. That means if you have old eReader/Peanut Press books, Sony books and Barnes & Noble eBooks, you can read them on the IREX. You can't read B&N periodicals because B&N only supports reading those on a nook (at least for now).
ePUB books look great on the IREX, and you can change the font size (4 sizes) but not the font itself. It respects margins and embedded fonts, and you can override the margin settings and even set them to zero using a settings applet. The device supports portrait and landscape modes (but not full 360 rotation), so the flipbar is either at the left or at the bottom. It reflows text just fine in ePUB and PDB files but doesn't stretch PDFs to fill the display width in landscape mode when viewing in original size/format (weird and we're not impressed). That said, the large 768 x 1024 display works very well for viewing most PDFs in portrait mode: text is small but very readable and illustrations are intact-- very nice. I though the lack of PDF zoom would be a problem but it found it wasn't at all. You can change the font size and you'll see the usual digital reader issue: the layout is lost and images are removed when the text size is increased. This isn't a problem for library books or text-heavy tomes but it won't work if you're reading tech docs that rely on illustrations. Watch our second video to see PDFs in action.
PDB books work reasonably well but there there are a few missing features. This is surprising given the integration with the Barnes & Noble eBookstore. You can't change the font size and the find word function that's available for ePUB and PDF is missing. This is particularly annoying since, like the nook, there's no go to page function (doh!). You can access the book's table of contents (if it has one) to jump around in the book. One last thing: PDB books display in a sans serif font and there's no way you can change to the usual serif font. This might have something to do with the PDB format since even Barnes & Noble's own nook can't change fonts for PDB books. Though you can't change the font size, the default font size is perfect for comfortable reading (it's on par with the device's medium font size), so it doesn't get in the way of pleasurable reading.
The DR800SG has an image viewer, but with a grayscale display, we don't expect you to be excited. There is no music player and thus no audio book support.
You can view books by book cover or as a listing and you can sort by title, author, recently added or recently accessed. There are separate icons and folders for personal documents, books and periodicals, though you can sideload to whichever folder you like.
There is no built-in dictionary. Sigh.
Shopping via the IREX
The DR800SG has an eBook Mall application, and that has links to available stores. At launch these are Barnes & Noble and Newspaper Direct. The B&N store works much as it does on the nook, and you can browse books, download samples and buy books. You can also download any book (but not periodical) that's in your B&N account purchased list. It's fast, simple and works well.
The reader also supports .NP NewspaperDirect, otherwise known as PressDisplay. This is a very rich format, and it looks like the actual printed newspaper. This is what we'd all hoped for when periodicals first came to ereaders, but be careful what you wish for. Newspapers downloaded over the wireless connection may incur an additional $1 fee since these are 7 to 10 meg files, and they don't look all that readable. A much better alternative is to sideload using a Windows PC (currently the web browser-based version and Mac version lack the IREX formatting features). Then you get an amazing looking newspaper that you can zoom in on and drag around using the stylus. But these sideloaded files are 60 to 90 megs. That means scrolling isn't instantaneous as it is when using the web browser on the iPhone or Android smartphone. Good as it looked, I began to appreciate the more boring, text-based periodicals offered by Sony, Amazon and Barnes and Noble since they're fast to navigate and easy to read. PressDisplay charges by the issue or you can buy a $10 credit that's good for approximately 31 issues. They offer newspapers from around the world-- an astounding selection. IREX had indicated that they intend to add other periodical vendors to the on-device Mall, and I can't wait to see what that might bring.
For veteran ebook users, yes, you can use Calibre to download well-formatted periodicals from the US and around the world. For those of you who are new to eBook readers, Calibre is simply the most awesome free program available for converting eBooks to a variety of formats, editing documents to suit the ereader screen and downloading periodicals. Give it a try!
We hear that older IREX models weren't the best at power management. The DR800SG has very good battery life and it should last for a week of serious reading and 10 eBook downloads. The 3G wireless radio only turns on when you're in the eBook Mall or when you tap the download icon at the bottom of the home screen to check for new downloads. That makes for excellent battery life though it prevents you from using a 3rd party web browser like Midori to surf the web.
If you buy a DR800SG from Best Buy and it's dead as a doornail, don't panic. We found that they ship the readers with absolutely no charge, and it takes at least 30 minutes of charging before it will power up for the first time. The first charge takes a long time-- 7 hours, and the charge light should turn from amber to green when it's fully charged (it doesn't always do this).
The DR800 vs. the Kindle DX
These are both larger than average readers, but the Kindle is significantly larger than the IREX and other mass market eBook readers. If portability and leisure reading are your thing, the DR800 makes much more sense. The Kindle DX isn't something you'd toss in your purse or compact gear bag. It also costs significantly more at $489. The Kindle DX is geared toward those who use technical and educational PDFs with significant illustrative matter. The screen is large enough to read a PDF with layout intact, thereby preserving images. The IREX is also good for this, but you'll get even larger text and a superior landscape mode view with the Kindle DX.
In a general comparison with the Kindle family, including the Kindle 2, we pick the IREX because it has more open format support. Yes, Amazon has a wonderful selection of Kindle eBooks, but the IREX gives you Barnes & Noble which is nothing to sneeze at, and it adds ePUB. That brings you public library books and access to many other online bookstores, not to mention Google's million classics and public domain books. But if annotations and keyboards are your thing, the Kindle fights back.
The DR800 vs. the Sony Reader Daily Edition PRS-900
These two are direct competitors, and both will eventually live side-by-side in Best Buy stores. Both are $399 and offer larger than average screens, wireless and digitizer input. The 7.1" Sony Daily Edition uses a resistive touch screen, which has its good and bad points. The touch screen means you don't have to use the included stylus and you can use your finger. That's the most natural solution and from a user interface standpoint, the Sony touch models are the best on the market, hands down. But the touch screen adds another layer above the eInk display and that introduces glare and reduces contrast, somewhat diminishing eInk's strongest selling point: unreal clarity and a look that's more book than computer screen.
Like the DR800SG, the Sony works with ePUB books, and it adds more sophisticated PDF handling. PDFs resize nicely in landscape mode and there's a zoom function that doesn't ruin the layout (it's not perfect, you must re-zoom every time you turn a page and you'll only see a portion of the page on screen). The Sony is tall and narrow, and that means portrait mode PDFs are rarely readable without zoom, unlike the IREX.
Since IREX left out inking and annotation on the DR800 (a bad move), the Sony's otherwise inferior resistive screen becomes more useful than the more precise Wacom DR800 screen. Sony has done a very good job of building inking and highlighting support and you can even ink drawings in its notepad.
Notice how much clearer the DR800SG's text is compared to the Sony PRS-900.
The DR800 and the Barnes & Noble nook
These two compete because they both support B&N's PDB book formats and have direct wireless access to the Barnes & Noble bookstore and your account. In most other respects, the nook is more of a Kindle 2 competitor in terms of price and screen size. The IREX is more intuitive to use since you interact directly with the eInk display rather than controlling things via a secondary small touch screen. The IREX is also faster at all tasks including page turns. But we appreciate the nook's selection of 3 fonts-- why don't more mass market readers offer this? The nook also offers a full feature set when it comes to PDB books, including word search, font size changing and an overall good layout. It should be noted that the nook doesn't support changing fonts in PDB books either though. The DR800's biggest selling point against the nook is the larger screen size that allows you to read longer between page turns (less distraction and longer battery life are the result since eInk displays only use power when the page is turned).
IREX has provided us with their plans for their April firmware update for the DR800SG and it addresses most all of our complaints. It adds significant new features-- very nice!
• Note taking application - No support to view these notes on a PC
• B&N EPUB support
• Automatic indexing of title, author and thumbnail when a file is added to the device
• Ability to import Settings and Accounts (MYIREX, Adobe) from MYIREX sign-up webpage on PC
• Improved 3G connection setup time by using QC network driver
• "Go to page" function in the document viewer
• Book Information View that shows more metadata for PDF and EPUB
• They will be continually adding content providers to our eBook Mall. We will be offering our own “IREX Newsstand” that will contain 20+ newspapers/magazines from Libre Digital. Should be ready by April if not before.
Choice is a good thing. The IREX DR800SG is neither the worst nor the best reader on the market. Folks want different things, and so far each reader has addressed certain needs. The IREX is a great eBook reader for those who do serious long form reading since it has very fast page turns by eInk standards and you get a lot more words on the screen-- as many as a printed book offers. That makes for comfortable reading. It represents the future: a super-sharp eInk display married with direct input. That future hopefully holds the most natural: a touch screen with the clarity of the IREX's Wacom digitizer. Sony's touch eBook readers fall short in terms of contrast and clarity, so the IREX is the best choice when display quality is paramount and you crave direct interaction.
Other features we really like include the friendly UI and flexibility. You can put documents in the categories you prefer and with a little tweak you can have folders galore. You can even add applications to the DR800SG, and we hope to see more apps in the future from the community. The eBook Mall is a wonderful idea since it allows for several different stores or free book sites. We do hope IREX adds more choices to the 2 we have right now.
In the end, the little company from the Netherlands has done a very good job with their first US market reader. This is the most affordable eBook reader they've made, yet it doesn't skimp on quality. We do question their decision to withhold certain software features found on their more expensive European readers including PDF zoom (or at least better landscape handling of PDFs) and the annotation feature (the Wacom system simply begs for it). The US market is more competitive than the European market, and IREX needs these features to better compete with the Sony PRS-900.
The IREX DR800SG is a serious reader's best friend: it has open format support, yet it also brings the comfort of on-device shopping with America's largest book seller: Barnes & Noble. The large, high resolution screen is wonderful for serious reading and it allows for readable PDFs too. It needs tweaking, but we like it nonetheless.