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iRex iLiad e-Reader: Linux's Answer to the Kindle?

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David Chisnall jumped on the E Ink bandwagon with a Linux-based iRex iLiad. After spending a while using the device, he has some interesting perspectives to share.

A few weeks ago, I bought a new toy. A lot of my work involves reading—mainly research papers—and I justified the purchase to myself by saying it was to make this task easier. The new toy was an iRex iLiad, one of a new category of device that emerged when E Ink hit the commercial market.

To begin with, I'll quickly go over the specs. On (electronic) paper, the iLiad is very impressive. The screen is 1024×768, 166 dpi, and supports 16 shades of gray. This capacity makes it very close to the look of a printed page. The minimum for reading text is generally considered to be 300 dpi, but that standard assumes black-and-white (no gray) printing. Every dot on the iLiad has to replace four dots on a 300 dpi page. When printing black and white dots, there are 16 possible configurations of dots in a 2×2 matrix, and the iLiad supports 16 shades of gray. This means that the iLiad is roughly equivalent for displaying grayscale images and slightly more blurry when approximating black-and-white images and text.

The CPU is an impressive 400 MHz XScale, and it comes with 64MB of RAM and 128MB of internal flash. The internal flash is quite small, but it can be augmented by multimedia card, CompactFlash, and USB flash drives. Mine came with a 1GB multimedia card, which I am nowhere near to filling. A 16GB CompactFlash card, which retails for $50–100, is enough for all of the text on Project Gutenberg and Wikipedia, with several gigabytes free for images.

The iLiad supports both wired (100 Mbit) and wireless (802.11g) Ethernet and USB, although it lacks Bluetooth. One of the more interesting features is that it includes a Wacom tablet, giving a very precise input system via the included stylus.

First Impressions

The first thing you notice about the iLiad is the screen. It really does look like paper. Cheap, recycled paper, printed with an aging inkjet, but paper nonetheless. The quality is definitely not as good as a professionally printed page, or even the output of a typical laser printer, but it's far better than any other device screen I've used. On a scale of 1–10, where 1 is my old blue-and-white laptop LCD, 3 is my MacBook Pro, 5 is my Nokia 770 (the device I was using to read eBooks) and 10 is a printed page, I would give it an 8. There's definitely room for improvement, but it's already comparable in quality with cheap newsprint.

The contrast isn't quite as high as with good paper, so you can't read the iLiad clearly in very low light levels. In direct sunlight it's nice and clear, but if you look carefully you can see some pixilation. I found indirect sunlight on a cloudy day to be about the perfect light level for my iLiad. It's quite easy to read A4 PDFs with one page taking up the whole screen, especially if you zoom slightly to crop the margins.

There are two issues with the screen. The first, as is well known, is the slow update time. For turning a page it's not so bad, since that doesn't take longer than turning the page in a paper book, but updating dynamic UI elements causes noticeable lag. The other problem is ghosting. The display requires a full reset to turn from black to white, which happens whenever you turn a page. If you doodle and then erase, or move a UI element, the iLiad uses a "fast update" mode in which it updates only part of the screen, which often leaves the old black part slightly off-white. This also occurs when you leave the device showing a single page for a few hours—to reset fully will take a half-dozen or so page turns.

The construction is a strange mixture of solid and flimsy. Overall, the device feels very well made, but there is a seam running around the edge that feels as if it isn't lined up quite properly.

For turning pages, the iLiad uses a flip-bar on the left side. If you're holding the device with your right hand, this design makes it almost impossible to turn the page, but with your left hand it's quite nice. One thing that obviously gave the designers trouble was which direction should mean "turn the page forward." Flipping to the right makes sense, since you're moving to the right in the book. Flipping to the left also makes sense, because that's the direction you'd move an actual page. In the end, they left this decision to the user as a configurable option.

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