It's no secret that Amazon's Kindle has become the iPod of digital readers. But, at $259 for the base model (the larger-screened DX will run you $489), it's a pricey piece of hardware. Is there room for a cheaper device to swoop in and steal some of the market?
Aluratek certainly hopes so. The U.S. gadget maker's recently released Libre eBook Reader Prosells for $174.99 at Costco. That's not quite as free as the device's name might suggest, but it does cut the cost of entry into the world of e-reading by about a third.
Of course, savvy gadgeteers might be wondering what else Aluratek has cut to arrive at that price.
Style is the most obvious casualty. Available in matte black or white (I was provided black for my review), the Libre's boxy plastic case is functional but decidedly inelegant.
And its controls - a collection of angular, utilitarian buttons, the primary grouping of which is arranged like the function keys of a mobile phone - lack sophistication. A three-inch sliding bar on the left side of the screen that acts as a page flipper seems like a neat idea at first, but it offers too much physical resistance for comfortable use.
However, these aren't deal-breaking issues.
Rather than employ the sliding bar I opted to use a pair of page-turning buttons smartly located below the screen beside my thumb. And since these are the only buttons I touched the vast majority of the time, I found the Libre's interface to be completely acceptable.
A bigger obstacle to my endorsement is the Libre's screen. Aluratek has eschewed E Ink, the electronic paper technology used by Amazon and many other e-reader makers (including Sony and Barnes & Noble) in favour of something they call ePAPER, a fancy name for what appears to simply be a monochromatic LCD.
The difference in viewing is noticeable.
Unlike the white-ish screens of most other e-readers, the Libre's display is distinctly grey, which makes it a little more difficult to distinguish letters and words in certain lighting conditions. The difference was negligible when I held it beside Sony's Reader Pocket Edition in daylight and brightly lit rooms. However, as the sun went down reading on the Libre's LCD became perceptibly more difficult than it was on Sony's E Ink display.
Also evident is a difference in text presentation. Whereas text on the E Ink displays I've seen has been crisp and clear even in tiny fonts, the Libre's text always seems to bleed a bit, regardless of size, making the edges of letters seem bumpy. That said, I didn't think this effect made reading any more strenuous. In fact, it might even better represent the way printed words look on real paper. Whether users find it quaint or bothersome will likely be a matter of taste.
It's also worth noting that LCD screens are typically harder on battery life, though I was more or less satisfied with the Libre's power performance. Aluratek warrants the battery for 24 hours of continuous use. I didn't conduct a formal test, but I've had it going for about 15 hours so far and two of the three battery bars have disappeared. Other e-readers may be able to last longer between charges, but you should be able to squeeze about a week of casual reading out of the Libre without needing to plug in, and, realistically, that should suffice for a society of people used to plugging in their phones and laptops every day.
I also approved of the range of file formats supported by the Libre, which includes PDF, TXT, FB2, ePub, MOBI, PRC, and RTF. Assuming you don't plan on buying rights-restricted AZW files from Amazon (in which case the Kindle is your only choice), this selection of formats ought to suit the needs of most users. You shouldn't have any trouble organizing your library as it grows. Simply drag and drop items into the Libre's book folder or create your own as needed. All folders show up neatly organized in an easy-to-navigate menu system.
Something I didn't expect was the healthy collection of extras in the box, including a sturdy nylon pouch with a reinforced back, wrist strap, power and USB cables, earbuds, and a 2GB SD card pre-loaded with 100 classic open-license books, plays, and collections of poetry. The SD card and slot (which accommodates cards up to 32GB in size) will be appreciated, given that the onboard memory is a paltry 128MB.
It's worth adding that the Libre also functions as a basic MP3 player with a handy background music function for listening while reading. There's a picture viewer, too, though the likelihood of anyone choosing to view images on a black and white LCD seems remote.
As a starter e-reader, the Libre isn't a bad deal. It's not the slickest device around, but it's relatively cheap, easy to use, and will have you up and reading within minutes of taking it out of the box. For many consumers, that might be all they need to take the dive into digital reading.