Review: Pocketbook 650 Ultra
It combines an innovative design (rear page turn buttons and a 5MP camera) with poor and buggy software and a disappointing screen, resulting in an ereader which is easily the worst model released in 2014.
I bought my unit in early September, and between the shipping cost and retail I paid $240. It was not worth it.
Pro & Con
- If you have too much money on your hands, the Pocketbook Ultra is one way to fix the issue.
- The parts of the Pocketbook software and bonus apps that weren’t completely buggy were nice, yes.
Con (Pretty much everything)
- Nonfunctional OCR software
- Page turn buttons
- Buggy reading software
At 7.9mm thin, the Ultra is one of the thinner ereaders on the market, rivaling even the Kindle Voyage. It has a 6″ Carta E-ink screen with frontlight and touchscreen, and it runs Pocketbook’s proprietary OS on a 1GHz CPU with 512MB RAM and 4GB internal storage.
The Ultra is available in 3 colors (white, green, brown), and in the absence of a black model you will want to get the brown one. (I’ll explain this later.) My unit was white.
It had a smooth white back with a black front inset in a white frame. There are two page turn buttons in the center of the left and right edge on the back, and on the front you’ll find four mystery buttons below the screen. The power button, headphone jack, microSD card slot , and microUSB port can be found on the lower edge (the last two are hidden under a flap.)
All in all, this is a solidly built ereader, but it has many problems. The mystery buttons below the screen add confusion, and the stiff page turn buttons add frustration. Between those buttons and the general poor screen quality this is one design that should never have been released to the public.
The Ultra supposedly has a Carta E-ink screen, but you would not be able to tell that from looking. This ereader has a fuzzy and gray screen which is noticeably inferior to the E-ink screen on pretty much any other ereader.
In part this is due to the white shell making the screen look gray, but it is also the fact that the frontlight and capacitive touchscreen layer degrade the screen quality. (This is why you should get the brown unit, and not white).
Speaking of the frontlight, I think it is the worst one I have seen this year – and that includes the splotchy frontlight on the Boyue T61. I’m not sure how Pocketbook did it, but the frontlight on my Ultra actually makes the screen look more gray and fuzzier when it as turned up to full power.
I don’t know how they did it, but part of the reason I noted this issue is that the frontlights on the Aura H2O and on the Boox T68 Lynx tended to make the screen look whiter and clearer as the brightness increased.
With those other ereaders, I liked to have the frontlight (even when I don’t need it) set to the lowest setting so that the screen would look whiter. But when I used the Ultra I kept the frontlight off most of the time; it was that unpleasant to use.
As I sit here writing this review on Saturday, my Ultra is sitting on my desk charging. I’ve been using it for a couple weeks as my main ebook reader, and today is the second time that I needed to charge it.
Based on my experience I would estimate the battery life to be about 6 or 7 days, with the frontlight off. That’s not amazing but it is in line with many other ereaders.
The Pocketbook Ultra ships with a 5MP camera, with flash. Even though it was difficult to see what you were photographing on the E-ink screen, the camera still worked well at capturing utility quality photos. The flash didn’t prove useful when I was taking pictures of text, or when I took a picture of my dog, Archie (aka Destructor).
The camera worked okay, yes, but now that I’ve had it for a week I’m not sure that it was a good idea to put one on an ebook reader.
The Ultra was slow to take photos, and slow to show them on the screen. That made it hard to make sure that that I was taking a usable photo. And let’s be honest: the image quality was marginal at best, so you’re not going to be using the Ultra as your main camera. (And then there’s the OCR software.)
Pocketbook is well-known for offering very adequate software and the option to expand existing features by installing apps. The Ultra also has a camera and a text conversion feature which I will cover at the end of this section.
In terms of reading features, the Ultra offers a several formatting options, notes, highlights, bookmarks, a bevy of dictionary options (including translation dictionaries), and text to speech.
As far as apps go, the Ultra ships with a web browser, file manager, calculator, several games (klondike, chess, sudoku), notpad, sketchpad, Dropbox, RSS feed reader, mp3 player, Pocketbook sync (integration with Bookland, Pocketbook’s ebookstore), and Send to Pocketbook. That last feature is similar in function to Amazon’s Kindle email conversion service, albeit without the conversion.
Few of the apps interested me, but even so this is one area where Pocketbook excels. While I don’t recommend buying this ereader, I do think that the option to add features by installing apps is one reason to consider Pocketbook hardware.
Camera + OCR
One of the hotter selling points for the Pocketbook Ultra is the 5MP camera and option to take a photo of text and convert it to a note which can be edited. Alas, this does not work – not at all.
As I reported last weekend in my first impressions post, this feature simply doesn’t work. The camera is very good and can take legible photos of single pages of notes. Unfortunately, the OCR software is simply unable to process those images and convert them to text.
I’ve tried on multiple occasions, and the best result was incomplete and terribly inaccurate. And that is a shame because this was the one feature which I was most looking forward to.
But on the plus side the camera app does include the option to take photos and assemble the images into a PDF. That could prove useful.
In the past three months I have reviewed four ereaders, including the T68 Lynx, the Aura H2O, the Boyue T61, and the Ultra. Of the 4 devices, the Ultra is the only one that I actually hate to read on.
The Pocketbook Ultra offers an unpleasant reading experience which is marred by a bad screen and frontlight, stiff and inconveniently placed page turn buttons, a slow page turn speed, and buggy software. I’ve covered the screen in an earlier section of this review, so let me discuss the other issues.
The rear facing page turn buttons on the Ultra are one of those ideas that look great in concept but don’t work out in practice. They’re small and placed near the edge of the rear of the Ultra. That makes them hard for me to press; I basically have to pinch them with the side of my finger, an awkward move.
And thanks to the slow page turn speed, I have plenty of time to focus with my frustration over the buttons. The Ultra is noticeably slower to turn the page than the Kindle Paperwhite, Aura HD, or any other current ereader.
What’s more, the software is unusually buggy. It’s not just that the Ultra crashed or dropped out of an ebook; instead it kept half turning the page, turning several pages at once, freezing, and at times the touchscreen would stop working.
On at least a half dozen occasions the Ultra would refresh only half of the screen. The left half of the screen would show words from the new page, while the right half of the screen would show words from the old page. And sometimes it was the other way around.
Between the refresh issue, the time the touchscreen stopped responding, and the other issues, I had a very frustrating reading experience on the Pocketbook Ultra.
The Pocketbook Ultra reminds me of something Dorothy Parker once said: "This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown aside with great force."
I think that is an excellent recommendation for the Ultra. This ereader is a disappointment in every way, including price, hardware design, software, screen quality, and reading experience.
I had high hopes for the Ultra when I first saw it earlier this year; it has a number of innovative design ideas including a camera, OCR software, and page turn buttons moved to the back. But none of those ideas worked out in practice.
Where to Buy
The Pocketbook Ultra is readily available in Europe but is difficult to buy outside of the region. If you’re in Europe I would suggest checking Amazon’s websites and Pocketbook’s local sites. You should be able to find a retailer who will ship.
I know that the Pocketbook site in France will ship to the US (it’s where I bought a different Pocketbook device).
- CPU: 1GHz
- RAM: 256MB
- Screen: 6″ Carta E-ink (1024 x 758 resolution)
- Capacitive Touchscreen, Frontlight
- Storage: 4GB Internal, microSD card slot
- Camera: 5MP, with flash
- Weight:175 grams
- Dimensions: 162.7 by 106.7 by 7.9 mm