It's been two months since I switched from my nook to the IREX DR800SG. I admit the hardware and better specs captivated me: I read fast and so the larger, higher resolution 8" IREX display vs. the 6" nook was great--I didn't have to turn pages as often since there were many more words per screen on the DR800. The indirect manipulation via the nook's secondary touch screen works but it's not as intuitive as interacting directly with the main display using the DR800's Wacom pen. And the IREX's large screen is just the right size for viewing PDFs without getting into the not so portable Kindle DX. Lastly, the IREX with the 2.0 firmware is much more feature-rich than the nook with annotations, go to page number, drawing and PDF zooming.
In terms of formats they're both quite open, supporting the ePUB standard (both the usual Adobe Adept DRM used by libraries, the Sony bookstore, the Kobo bookstore and others) as well as B&N's new form of Adobe DRM and the older PDB eReader/B&N format. The nook alas doesn't support PDF well, but on a 6" screen, it's no joy reading PDFs anyhow. They both have plenty of internal memory, wireless 3G delivery of eBooks and periodicals and expansion slots.
So what went wrong? As Apple has taught us along with Amazon and even B&N with their nook, it's all about user experience. Sometimes the best hardware specs don't win (how else does Apple get folks to pay 2x more for a Mac vs. a Windows PC?). Though I appreciate the reason behind the DR800SG's EMR pen: 1) active pen-based digitizers don't interfere with screen clarity and contrast as do touch screens used on the Sony Reader Touch Edition and Sony Reader Daily Edition, 2) they offer more precise input for writing and drawing, it's still a pain to use the pen. And I've been using pen-based tablets and PDAs for years, so I'm accustomed to the experience. But when reading, you don't want to whip out the pen just to switch books and change settings, it's distracting... more so when there isn't a silo for the pen for convenient access. No you can't use just any stylus or your finger, it has to be the Wacom pen-enabled EMR pen. Yes, you can use the page flip bar and menu button to navigate instead, but that's even more tedious than the Kindle's joystick and the secondary screen on the nook. IREX has been using active digitizers for years, and back when the Iliad came out it was ahead of its time, now it seems like a dinosaur. If only Sony could find a way to make an affordable reader with a touch screen I'd be in eInk heaven! Yes, I still prefer eInk readers to the iPad, but that's the subject of another article.
Wireless access to bookstores is so seamless and pleasant on the Kindle, Sony Reader Daily PRS-900 and nook that it's hard not to spend money! It's very easy to browse and buy content and to re-download old content. The connection is made quickly and you don't have to log in every time (the readers can save your login info and log you in automatically). The IREX DR800SG has a Verizon Wireless EV-DO 3G radio and that's a good thing: Verizon has excellent coverage and speeds. No need to snark and whine about AT&T's 3G footprint and iPhone-hobbled data speeds. But the IREX, even with the beta 2.0 firmware that promises speed fixes for slow 3G connection times, takes a loonng time to connect via Verizon even in a solid coverage area. Then you have to log into your B&N account using the web browser interface and on-screen keyboard with pen. It feels like using a dial-up modem and a PC browser to log into a shopping site- bleh. What takes 20 seconds on the competition takes more than 4 minutes on the DR800SG. It gets old.
The IREX eBook Mall on the reader is something I still heartily applaud, though they desperately need to get more stores onto the device. You can access B&N, NewspaperDirect and more recently the IREX Newstand here in the US. The IREX Newstand is a step in the right direction and the selection mirrors that of the other popular US wireless eBook readers. NewspaperDirect, once ahead of its time too, now seems like another dino. Though newspapers look like the print version after a fashion, they're slow and tedious to navigate. And they're feature incomplete when downloaded directly to the reader over 3G to keep file sizes smaller. To get a richer experience you really need to use the desktop PressDisplay application to download and convert a much larger file (at least 40 megs) then transfer it to the IREX over USB. But those are slow to navigate on the device. The iPad will some day have the fast, colorful multi-touch version of this experience that will be the end of NewspaperDirect on eReaders.
I applaud IREX for getting out the beta 2.0 firmware as promised on time this month. And it adds a lot of features, making it very ambitious. The world of e-ink readers has changed in the years IREX has been a player, especially in the US where IREX is a stranger and the big three Kindle, nook and Sony Reader have taken the market. These devices are feature rich, especially the higher end Sony models, and IREX had to get things like page number-based navigation, pen annotations PDF zoom fast just to stay competitive with Sony. The features in the 2.0 public beta are very strong but have taken a toll on speed and battery life. Even in flight mode, my DR800SG's battery is half what it was on 1.0 and page turns in ePUB books get increasingly slower the further you get into a book and the longer you use the reader. A simple reboot doesn't fix the speed issue, only a complete wipe resets the clock. Hopefully these will be fixed when the final firmware is released.
Lesson learned? Great hardware by an early innovator in the eBook reader space doesn't guarantee long term satisfaction. The eReader market is all about speed of content access over wireless, ease of use, convenience and screen clarity. And of course having a strong bookstore behind it, which the IREX has courtesy of B&N, though I don't think the average buyer understands this unless the reader has that bookstore's branding on it and is sold by that store. Mess with those and even the best engineers and specs fall by the wayside.