Spring Design Alex Review

spring design alex review

Spring Design Alex

“Spring Design's innovative Alex offers an unrivaled e-ink Web browsing experience, if you can overlook the high price tag, lack of 3G, and deficiency of modern titles.”
  • 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
  • Overpriced
  • 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

Introduction

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.

Features

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.

Design

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.

Accessories

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.

Screens

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.

Reading

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.

Web Surfing

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.

Multimedia

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.

Battery Life

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.

Conclusion

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.

Highs:

  • 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

Lows:

  • Currently no paid bookstore
  • Overpriced
  • 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

Editors' Recommendations