The Illumina HD E653 from Icarus is one of a handful of new ereaders which combine an E-ink screen with an open version of Android. Starting with the (hacked) Nook Touch and (hacked) Sony Reader PRS-T1, this type of ereader offers the opportunity to expand the ereader to support more features and functions that the manufacturer supplied.
This device is best known as the Illumina HD, but it was actually developed for Icarus by a Chinese OEM called Boyue. I ordered my unit from a Chinese retailer which sold the Boyue T61 without a retail box but with a hefty discount ($99 vs 119 euros). I was able to turn my unit into an Illumina HD by installing the official software update, thus saving a nice sum of money.
A disappointing frontlight keeps the Illumina HD from having the best ereader hardware at the $99 price, but the open Android OS, graphics chip, and many other positive points make up for that in many ways.
Review Date: 12 September 2014, After owning it for 3 weeks
Pro & Con
- Page turn buttons work with many 3rd-party reading apps
- Runs Android 4.2
- Solid construction quality
- Fast page turns (equal to the Kindle Paperwhite)
- Battery Life
- No Audio
- No Google Play
The Illumina HD is an unremarkable looking ebook reader with a 6″Pearl HD E-ink screen. It has a simple design with a black rubberized shell which makes it easy to hold. Cover the logo and its most noticeable feature are the page turn buttons on other side of the screen, and the addition back button on the right and the screen refresh button on the left (a long press on the refresh button turns the frontlight off or on).
This ereader runs Android 4.2 on a dual-core 1GHz Rockchip CPU with a Mali-400 MP GPU, 512MB RAM, and around 4GB accessible storage. It has Wifi but no audio support. All of the ports and card slots are found on the bottom edge, including the microSD card slot, power button, reset port,and microUSB port.
The Illumina HD is nice to old in one hand, cover or no. The page turn buttons are position just right to rest under my thumb (with either hand).
Icarus claims that the Illumina HD has a month of battery life, but that’s not really true. In my experience, and this has been confirmed by a couple Illumina owners over at MobileRead Forums, the battery drains itself within 2 to 3 days.
That is a serious issue but luckily this is a common Android problem with an established solution. All i had to do to fix this issue was to install a power management app like Deep Sleep. This app forces all of the processes to go to sleep when you suspend your Android device, this saving battery life.
The Illumina HD is equipped with a 6″ E-ink display with a screen resolution of 1024 x 758. It has both a frontlight and two-point capacitive touchscreen.
I found the screen to be somewhat picky in responding to my input. I had to be careful when pressing any of the icons near the edge of the screen, otherwise it would ignore the contact. I also noticed that the Illumina HD was slower in responding after I installed the official firmware update; that could be a reason to avoid the update.
The frontlight offers a white color with a broad and highly granular range of settings from dim to almost bright enough to use as a flashlight. Alas, it is also rather splotchy.
As you can see in the following gallery, the bottom half of the screen visibly blotchy compared to most ebook readers which launched in 2013 or 2014. It almost as if Boyue is using screens leftover from 2012; the first Paperwhite showed a similar defect.
My unit came with a cover (if you buy an Illumina HD from Icarus it will cost extra) which consists of a hard black plastic back with a stiff brown faux leather front. The Illumina HD is designed to snap into the rear of the cover and never leave it again (it took some effort, trust me). I think the cover may have been intended to work as a smartcover (there is a magnet to keep it closed) but my unit doesn’t work that way.
The Illumina HD ships with a minimum number of apps, including a very adequate reading app (I’m happy with it, anyway), a file manager, notepad, web browser, dictionary, and email. The basics are well-covered, and since this ebook reader runs an open version of Android it’s also possible to install additional apps.
My competitor notes in his review that Icarus ships the Illumina HD with several apps that I don’t have because I got the OEM model. His unit came with Greader, Kindle, and a bol.com bookstore app (my unit was tied to some bookstore in China).
The stock reading app, web browser, and email client all feel like they were tuned to work well with an E-ink screen. I don’t much care to do email on E-ink but it is possible.
There’s more detail on the stock reading app later in the post.
The Illumina HD does not have Google Play, but there is a workaround. You can use this site to download free apps from Google Play. Also, I successfully installed the Amazon Appstore (I had to install the Kindle app first).
I’ve tested an excess of apps, and found that quite a few will install and run on this device:
- Web Browsers: Chrome, Opera, Maxthon, Dolphin, Firefox
- PDF: Repligo, Adobe Reader
- eBook Apps: Logos, Kindle, Nook, Kobo, CoolReader, Moon+ Reader, Aldiko, Scribd, Oyster, FBReader, Overdrive
- Office Suites: Docs2Go, QuickOffice Pro HD for Tablets, OfficeSuite Pro 7, Jota+
- RSS Feed Readers: Feedly, InoReader
- Other Apps: Pocket, Instapaper, Dropbox, Evernote
Google Play Books and Opera Mini did install but would not run. On a related note, the Nook, AlReader, Moon+, and Coolreader apps were all able to interface with the page turn buttons.
The Illumina HD has been my main ebook reading device this past week (I started and finished a couple books), and I liked the stock reading app which shipped on the Illumina HD.
As I pointed out above, you can install any number of ebook apps, but I was happy to mainly use the original app. It doesn’t have as many features as some third-party apps, but the close integration with the main menu and the Books (library) menu made up for a lot.
It’s not fancy, but between the several dozen font choices, dozen margin options, and dozen line spacing options, it is workable app. It even has a separate menu for annotations, but it also lacks a functional dictionary (I can’t get it to work), so you might want to go with another app if that is important to you.
And since you are probably wondering, the stock reading app doesn’t quite have a full screen mode; the closest it comes is the option to have a mini status bar along the bottom of the screen. That is more screen than the Kindle and other reading apps get to use; the Kindle and Aldiko apps specifically can black out the taskbar at the bottom of the screen, but cannot remove or overwrite it.
I would rate the Illumina HD as having a more attractive reading experience than the T68. Yes, I know the screen is both smaller and lower resolution, and the frontlight is blotchy, but as I sit here typing I find that I have a greater desire to go back to the Illumina than I do to use the T68 Lynx.
To be honest one of the features that kept me coming back were the page turn buttons. I’d forgotten just how much I had liked having them; I wish they were more common on ereaders (and tablets, for that matter).
A subset of ereader owners have been interested in an Android ebook reader ever since the first Nook Touch was released in 2011, and while the Illumina HD isn’t the perfect solution it is best option in its price range.
With a 2012-era frontlight and iffy battery life, the Illumina HD is at first glance far from being the best device on the market. But if you look past those issues then it quickly becomes clear that this ereader is, for a certain type of user, one of the best devices on the market and offers a great value.
The Illumina HD might not have the best screen, but it does has the fastest CPU of any of the ereaders currently – including other Android ereaders like the Onyx Boox T68 Lynx. That gives it a responsiveness which none of its competitors can match.
It doesn’t have Google Play, but that hasn’t turned out to be as serious of an issue as I had expected. (See the workaround mentioned above.)
With page turn buttons, a recent version of Android, and a microSD card slot, this is IMO the device that Barnes & Noble should have released last year. This is what the Nook Glowlight should have been.
Where to Buy
Now, this is a complicated question. You can buy the Icarus Illumina HD from Icarus, or you can pay less and buy it from a Chinese retailer like BangGood (and then install the Illumina’s firmware update).
Icarus sells this device for 119 euros plus shipping. I got it from BangGood for $99, but they were charging $129 when I wrote this post. The BangGood price includes a case and free shipping but no retail box or – and this could be important – a warranty.
- Screen: 6″ Pearl HD E-ink screen, w\ frontlight and a
- Capacitive touchscreen
- Screen resolution: 1024 x 758
- OS: Android 4.2 Jelly Bean
- CPU: 1GHz dual-core Rockchip
- GPU: Mali 400-MP
- RAM: 512MB
- Storage: 4GB internal, microSD card slot
- Connectivity: Wifi
- Weight: approximately 200 grams
- Dimensions: 159 x 112 x 8.5 mm