Just when it looked like e-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle would usher a whole new generation of bookworms toward the works of Poe, Twain and Hemingway with digital, on-demand libraries, along came Apple’s iPad and… well, made reading Perez Hilton from the couch pretty comfy, too. Well aware that people want to putter around on the Web as much or more as they want to curl up with The Scarlet Letter, Spring Design infused its Alex e-reader a dose of 21st Century content: Unlike most other dedicated e-readers, it offers a rich browsing experience so you can read Web content till heart’s content.
How do you drop a competent Web browser into an e-reader without starting completely from scratch? Let somebody else do the bushwhacking. Spring Design reached for the same type of color touch screen and Google Android operating system you might normally find on a smartphone, and basically smacked it onto the bottom of an e-reader. That makes it similar in some ways to the Barnes & Noble Nook, which also uses a color screen and Android, but with some clear-cut differences. Spring Design has preserved the standard Android interface, rather than creating its own limiting app on top. That means that the Web browser, e-mail client, photo viewer and even calculator from Android all remain intact and ready to use. It’s Android exactly as you already know it – but sorry, no apps.
In terms of size, the Alex feels like many similar e-readers, after being run over with a steamroller. Beside the Nook, it’s definitely longer (8.9 inches compared to only 7.7), but also thinner (0.4 inches to 0.5) and not quite as wide (4.7 inches to 4.9 inches). More importantly for a device that owners will cradle for hours on end and travel with, it’s also lighter, weighing just 11 ounces to the Nook’s 12.1 ounces (for the 3G model). Amazon bests both models in this regard with the 10.2-ounce Kindle, though its lack of a color screen hardly makes it a fair fight.
The long design makes it easiest to grip the Alex at the bottom, where four buttons and the touch screen easily fall within thumb range. You’ll find left and right page-turning buttons, a back button, and a power button, all with relatively intuitive functions. A long click on the right page button acts like a menu button, and a long hold on back will return you to the Android home screen. Both will warrant a visit to the instruction manual for most new users, but they’re easy to remember and do help cut down on button clutter.
An unfamiliar button between the LCD and e-ink displays serves a more unique function: turning sync mode on and off. When in sync mode, the e-ink display will mirror everything exactly as it appears on the LCD. When turned off, the LCD acts more like a control panel, displaying menus and information.
Up top, the Alex has a USB port for charging and data transfer, as well as an awkward 2.5mm headphone jack for listening to audio. Two rear-firing speakers toward the bottom of the reader also pull the same duty, if you care to share your books on tape with everybody on the bus. A microSD slot on the back can handle cards up to 32GB, with a 2GB model preinstalled. Unlike the slot hidden behind a cover on the Nook, it’s a cinch to slide cards in and out, though we doubt most users will do much swapping to begin with.
Build Quality and Materials
Put the Nook and Alex on a table, and ask someone who knows nothing about them which device costs twice as much as the other. We would put our money on the Nook being picked as the premium model nine times out of 10. The Alex doesn’t feel cheap, but it doesn’t flaunt its price tag, either. Our model had a yawn-worthy plastic shell with a pearlescent finish that wouldn’t feel out of place on a netbook. A back peppered with screwholes, an exposed microSD slot and a giant Sprint Design label makes it feel almost like a prototype beside the Nook’s smooth matte back. It’s reasonably chic by nerdy standards, but you won’t find nearly as many hipsters ogling it at the coffeehouse, either. For some folks, that’s a good thing.
The Alex comes with an AC-to-USB power adapter, a generous-length USB cable, and a pair of surprisingly comfortable in-ear headphones – a fortunate addition given the uncommon 2.5mm headphone jack. A padded neoprene sleeve also makes it easy to tote the Alex along without worrying about bumps and scrapes.
Android on a Diet
Anyone who has ever used an Android handset will feel right at home on the Alex. From the second the home screen lights up on the 3.5-inch color LCD, you have what seems like a smartphone with the world’s best screen for reading tacked on top.
Unfortunately, performance hearkens more to the first-generation Android phones of 2008 than current superphones like the HTC EVO 4G or Motorola Droid X. Startup takes what seems like an eternity, scrolling menus stutter lazily behind the finger, and typing on the virtual keyboard tests your patience as you wait for every key to register second after you actually press it. Don’t even think about installing that NES emulator you have on your Nexus One: the Alex has no access to the Android Marketplace, so you get what it comes with.
Both the Nook and Alex use 6-inch screens from E-Ink Corporation – the same folks supplying the stuff for nearly every reader in the biz – so we weren’t terribly surprised to see that they’re nearly identical. The only difference: The Nook can display 16 shades of grey, while the Alex can only do 8. It sounds like a much bigger difference than it is, and most users won’t be able to tell the difference with just text. The matte finish keeps glare away even in bright sunlight, and even tiny print (which you’ll get plenty of after resizing Web sites) is easily legible.
The LCD on the Alex makes a perfect match for the e-ink screen above. We thought it was vibrant upon first turning it on – and that was at a quarter of full brightness. Crank it to full and it really pops. Unfortunately, the gloss coat has a habit of catching glare in the sun, and in the dark, it acts like a mirror, which is only an advantage if you like to inspect your own chin as you read. That said, it truly rivals the best smartphones with the same resolution in terms of quality, and Alex even used capacitive technology for touch, which means it registers consistently, accurately, and with only a light tap.