Review: Spring Design Alex
So my Alex arrived last week, and I’ve had a lot of fun playing with it. I have to say that this was an easy review to write. I’ve found very few things wrong with the Alex, and in general, I like it.
You might also want to read my other posts on the Alex. They cover my first and second impressions of the device, and that’s where you’ll find my opinion on the hardware. I also found an unboxing video yesterday.
You can browse with just the LCD screen, and it will feel much like your standard, vanilla, Android browsing experience. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But then there is something that the Alex can do that no one else can. You can display a web page on both the LCD and epaper screen. You can’t interact with the page as shown on the epaper screen, though; it’s just there for display.
I do like browsing with the epaper screen. Learning how to do it was easy, and I rarely made mistakes. If I wasn’t wedded to my laptop, I’d probably use the Alex for some of my browsing (RSS feeds, blogs, forums).
I had high hopes for this. didn’t work for me. All of my email is tied into my Gmail account, and the Alex refused to accept the security certificates from Google. And do you know what’s really odd? I can still log in to Gmail with the browser. This was a waste of time. The email client isn’t very good, and it only works on the LCD screen. I much prefer using the browser to access Gmail. That way I can use the epaper screen as well as the LCD.
BTW, I’d had trouble before because the time and date were wrong on my Alex. I didn’t realize that would cause problem.
Yes, you can install third party apps on the Alex. Some will not work, and you can’t use any of them on the epaper screen. When you use an app, it will feel like you’re using it on an Android phone. It’s too small for me.
But it’s still a nice feature. I’ve installed the eReader Android app, and I like that I can have 2 ebooks open at once. Another good use would be to have Twitter (or some other social networking app) open while reading an ebook. You could tweet while reading. Again, it’s not for me, but I can see the value in it.
The Reading Experience
If you’ve looked at pictures of the Alex, I’m sure you’ve noticed that it’s longer than most other 6′ ereaders. If you’re concerned that it might be awkward to use, don’t be. I think the page turn buttons are just right for holding the Alex in my right hand. I can’t hold it in my left, true, but that’s fine by me. It’s quite good as an ereader. I think that will satisfy almost everyone.
BTW, you can hold it in your left hand if you leave the LCD screen on. There’s a white icon on the screen that’s labeled “ePUB”. It acts as a right page turn button.
The in-book menu takes a little getting used to. There’s the white icon on the left, and on the right is the book title and author and a slider bar that shows your current location in the book. There is a row of 12 icons along the bottom: Library, table of contents,the annotation options, dictionary, font size, go to page, and ad to collection.
The row of icons turned out to be a better idea than I originally thought. I could tell at a glance what each icon did, and even though they’re not all on the screen at once, it was easy to scroll the row to find the one I wanted.
The Alex has quite a lot of annotation options: bookmark, highlight, text note, voice memo, and you can link to external files (audio, video, PDF) as well as linking to web pages. At first I was concerned about the in book menu; the icons are small and I thought I’d have trouble selecting the right one. I was wrong. It was surprisingly easy to use, and very rarely did I mess up.
I’ve read several ebooks on the Alex, and I’ve tried out all the annotation options. In general, I like it both as a basic reader and for its annotation abilities. I did find one problem, though. This is a small niggle, but I quickly learned to turn off the LCD screen when not in use. The brightness of the LCD really bugged me when I was trying to read off the epaper screen.
I discovered last night that the Alex has a second fully functional reading mode. I went to see a movie last night, and of course I brought the Alex with me so I could read during the trailers. When the lights dimmed, I turned on the LCD screen and kept reading during the opening credits. I synced the LCD screen so it showed the same contents as the epaper (scrolling was required). I tapped the screen to turn the page.
This second mode isn’t going to win out over the epaper screen, but it’s nice that Spring Design gave us the option.
A Second Reading Addendum
Someone pointed out that I forgot to discuss specific format support. Epub support is great, PDF not so much. You cannot use all the neat annotation features with PDFs. Also, the Alex does not reflow PDFs.
The Alex doesn’t have the best library interface, but it’s pretty good. There are 5 menu options: recent downloads, my collections, titles, authors, and latest read. You can sort the title list by author, title, or date. The author list is an actual index of authors, not just another list of the titles. I’m glad it’s there because that’s how I like to organize my library ebooks. You can also search the contents of the library by title or author.
On the downside, I did find a quirk with the library: it can’t see folders. It’s not just that you can’t use a folder inside the library; it’s that the software can’t see folders at all. If you copy a folder full of ebooks on to the Alex, they will not be seen and added to by the library. Weird, huh?
But the library works well, so it’s not a big deal.
As you probably know, the Alex has Wifi and you can download ebooks from the web. In order to make this easier, Spring Design put a bookstore on the Alex. Now, I expected to see the bookstore. But I didn’t expect that it lists multiple ebook sources, including several that only carry free ebooks: Feedbooks, Google Books, and Project Gutenberg. Yes, all those sites are available online, but this makes it a lot easier for the average user to find ebooks. This was a pleasant surprise.
BTW, the bookstore isn’t an app. Clicking on one of the stores takes you to the website. The bookstore experience is web browsing, basically.
I do like the Alex. It has a solid hardware design and it’s both easy to use and very capable. If you buy one, I bet you’ll be very happy with it. On the other hand, it costs $400 and I’m not sure it’s worth the money.