The txtr beagle Takes a Great Idea and Turns it into Crappy Hardware
When txtr unveiled the Beagle ereader yesterday I fell n love. It’s a great looking minimalist device with a 5″ screen which is going to be sold cheap, run on a pair of AAA batteries, and not require any cables at all. It’s a smartphone companion which connects via Bluetooth.
The device was based on a great idea, but as yesterday wore on one of my readers noticed that the Beagle had a couple serious shortcomings. These were details which I missed because I was insufficiently pessimistic about how txtr would screw up the new ereader.
It turns out that the Beagle is limited to only storing 5 ebooks at a time and it is not an ereader so much as it is a page viewer. It’s running on a very weak (and cheap) CPU which can do little more than show page images. This explains part of the reason why txtr’s Android app is required to transfer ebooks; that app has to convert the text into page images before they are transferred to the Beagle.
On a related note, this means that this device, which is not actually an ereader, does not support the Epub and PDF claimed in the press release and product page.
While this is the first time I have seen this type of conversion on what was intended to be a mainstream device, it is not exactly new. In the past I have come across projects to turn portable DVD players and digital picture frames into faux ereaders. The first step in loading the ebooks was to convert them to page images which could then be viewed on the device via some type of image viewer. This is an old trick which I think dates back to the late 1990s.
So why is this an issue?
First, the so called Beagle ereader is missing a lot of the basic features we have come to expect like a TOC, resizeable text, and so on. But the greater issue here is that txtr could have released a real ereader for only $15 to $20 more – a negligible increase in price considering what would be gained.
While that might seem like a lot, given that the Beagle sells for under 10 euros, it’s really not. That 10 euro price is going to be subsidized by carriers, and the actual parts cost for the Beagle is somewhere above $50. While I don’t have actual figures, I do know something about the cost of the screen, and if we take theas a guide we have enough info for a back of the envelope calculation.
That Kindle was estimated to cost $85 to make, but for now lets ignore most of the items on the list and focus on just 2 details: the screen and the logic board.
Amazon reportedly paid $30 for each E-ink screen. That figure is off, but I cannot say by how much (it’s confidential). But I can say that txtr will likely be paying a lot more for the 5″ screens. They’re not buying in as high of a volume as Amazon so they won’t get the same discounts as Amazon. And that means txtr could be paying at least $40 a screen, and the cost might be above $50.
That screen is the single largest cost for the Beagle – or for any other E-ink ereader for that matter. Another major cost is the logic board. This contains the CPU, Flash storage, and other chips which make the ereader go.
Amazon’s $79 Kindle was estimated to have $30 in chips inside, all packed on a single board the size of a laying card. Assuming that the Beagle went with cheaper components, it likely used a logic board which cost $10 to $15.
And that means, folks, that the Beagle could have been a real ereader like the cheap Kindle had txtr spent an extra $15.
The decision to not use the more expensive chips might make some sense given how txtr expects the Beagle to be used but it is still a false economy. They pared the costs down to the point where the lost abilities outweigh the savings.
If you still don’t agree with my conclusion, let me give you a counter example. The Pyrus Mini, a new ereader with a 4.3″ screen, is going to cost 50 euros. This is a very basic ereader, but unlike the Beagle it actually supports Epub and PDF. Admittedly, Trekstor has earned the epithet Dreck-Store in Germany, suggesting that they make awful products, but it is still cheap.
If Trekstor can afford to make and sell the Pyrus Mini for 50 euros then txtr could have made the Beagle into a real ereader. And that is why I am pissed with txtr. While they have great ideas, apparently one of the steps in bringing those ideas to market involves screwing up on a simple and basic point.
This is something they seem to do with all their hardware. For example, the original txtr eReader never made it to market because txtr couldn’t figure out how to get the costs down. That thing stayed at a price above 300 euros, and that just wasn’t practical in 2010 (or any time since).
P.S. If you’re thinking that transferring the images over Bluetooth is slow, you might be wrong. These will be grayscale images with a minimum of data. The file sizes should be quite small and thus quick to transfer.