Because it has no SIM slot for 3G access as many competing e-readers do, you’ll need to enter pertinent Wi-Fi details before the Alex can begin dragging down content. After that, it’s off to the BookStore app, which is really more of a collection of links than a store in its own right. Spring Design has preloaded the Alex with links to Google Books, Epub Books, Project Gutenberg, and a handful of other free virtual pulp repositories. While Google Books uses familiar Android menus, the rest merely load the browser and leave you to navigate and download on your own.
Fortunately, you’ll never have to get your hands dirty sorting through actual e-book files. The accompanying Reader app handles the rest, sorting your books by title, author, and “latest reads.” Strictly speaking, it works, but it lacks the enticing simulated bookshelf view of a reader like the iPad, or the scrollable covers available on the Nook. It’s the Winamp of e-readers, not the iTunes. Once you open a book, the top screen shows the text while the bottom screen offers a scrollbar for quickly leafing through your reading, as well as additional options for bookmarking, annotating and highlighting. Again, these options work, but the interface doesn’t exactly invite you to use them. To highlight, for instance, you’ll need to open the text in an editing mode, scroll through a view that fits no more than one or two sentences on the screen at a time on the LCD, then tap once at the beginning of your highlight, once at the end, click the highlight button, and click OK when it alerts you that the section will be added to your highlights. Not quite the careless marker dragging you did in high school.
While the included book options offer plenty of heady – and free – reading from The Art of War to Dracula, the lack of a built-in commercial book store on the Alex should raise a major red flag for folks who imagined using it to devour the latest New York Times bestsellers. At the moment, you’ll need to use the browser to visit online e-book sites for paid titles, a slow, cumbersome process. Spring Design claims it will add support for Borders’ e-book store eventually, but our review unit with the latest firmware couldn’t access it at the time of publication.
The much deeper well of content for the Spring Design Alex, and the one no other e-ink reader can really access, lies out on the open Web. After opening the Alex’s browser, simply tapping the sync button transfers the content from the tiny LCD screen up to the e-ink screen, where NYTimes.com, CNN.com and DigitalTrends.com all take on a print-like luster.
But don’t throw away the old LaserJet just yet. A number of small but important irritations add up to an experience that’s well shy of idyllic. First, the speed. Oh, the speed. Even on a solid Wi-Fi connection, the Alex took ages to load pages that snapped up nearly instantly on a desktop computer. A short article from SomethingAwful.com took 23 seconds on the Alex, and under one second on a business workstation. The sleepy Alex parses through Web content so slowly, it becomes nearly habitual to set the reader down as you wait for things to load.
Second, page formatting can become a nightmare on the Alex. Unless a site offers articles formatted especially for mobile Web browsers, the Alex will cram a fraction of a full-size page into its tiny 3.5-inch display, forcing you to drag and unzoom every page until it has been perfectly centered for the e-ink display. You can make pretty much any age look readable, but after the long load time, you’ll spend even longer setting it up the way you want.
As bad as this is, it’s still better than the experimental browser on the Nook, which must use a tiny strip of a screen to accomplish the same thing.
Although the Alex allows you take any page from the Web and save it for later viewing, our reader consistently botched this process, displaying only the tail end of any saved content.
Besides the awkwardness of its size, a non-standard 2.5mm headphone jack and the kink-happy cables on the headphones that come with it, the Alex makes a dismal music player for one more reason: hiss. This e-reader has more pronounced background noise than any other digital music player we’ve ever tested, and you’ll hear it from the second you plug the headphones in.
It doesn’t do much better with video. Spring Design left Android’s built-in YouTube player on the Alex, but we’re not really sure why. Every single video loads in lowest quality, looks terrible stretched across the 3.5-inch screen, and plays with so much stutter that it’s barely enjoyable to watch. Not surprisingly, you can’t load your own videos onto the device.
About the only thing to the Alex’s credit as a multimedia player are the dual speakers, which sound surprisingly loud for their size, even if quality is the predictably tinny stuff you’ve come to expect.
Spring Design advertises 14 days of battery life for the Alex when coasting without the color LCD or wireless, and six hours with the screen turned on. The first figure isn’t awful by e-reader standards, but it’s like citing an MPG number for a car under the condition that you only drive downhill. The screen is so essential to operation, it’s unlikely most readers would be able to coax that much life out of it while actually reading – unless you’re crawling page by page through a 2,000-page book and have no need for the table of contents, bookmarks, or switching to other books. Reading content from the Web almost always requires the screen on, especially considering how frequently you need to click through to different pages of the same article or tweak the formatting for the e-ink screen. That means you really can’t expect too much more life than the 10-hour run on Apple’s iPad.
Despite a number of glaring shortcomings beside readers like the Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Spring Design’s Alex can hold its head high for doing things its main competitors simply won’t. Most notably, the Alex offers the most powerful browser of any e-reader on the market, allowing you to take your favorite content from any Web site and plaster it up in print-like quality on an E-Ink screen. Despite a rather lengthy list of drawbacks, we have to give Spring Design credit for pushing digital paper further than anyone else has in that regard. But it’s a niche market. If you just want to read books, the built-in wireless access on the Kindle and Nook make them infinitely better choices, and for another $100, the browsing experience on the iPad blows the Alex out of the water (as long as you don’t plan on taking it off the couch and into the sun or reading for hours at a time). Keep in mind that upcoming Spring Design devices should remedy the missing bookstore and lack of 3G, leaving plenty of room for improvement.
- Sharp e-ink screen, vibrant color LCD
- Displays Web pages on the e-ink display
- Lightweight and portable
- Plentiful selection of free books
- Familiar Android operating system
- Surprisingly loud speakers
- Currently no paid bookstore
- No 3G available yet
- Feels cheaper than the Nook
- Hiss in audio, choppy YouTube playback
- Unimpressive battery life with screen in use
- 2.5mm headphone jack