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A Unique Tweener: Spring Design's Alex eReader

Alex a Compromise Between Basic eReader, Full Tablet

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating

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A Unique Tweener: Spring Design's Alex eReader
Photo by Jason Hidalgo

With a dual screen that sports a 6-inch black-and-white electronic paper display up top and a 3.5-inch, capacitive LCD touchscreen on the bottom, Spring Design’s Alex was quite the neat concept when it was first announced.

But with the release of the dual-screen Nook from Barnes & Noble and Apple’s game-changing iPad, the eReading landscape looks a lot different than it did when the Alex was introduced.

Is there still a place for Spring Design’s feature-filled multi-tasker in today’s environment? Read on for my full review of the Alex eReader.

PROS

LCD touchscreen: The Alex’s LCD functionality trumps its closest dual-screen rival, the Nook. Its Android experience is also more “Android-like,” which means you can check mail and even download apps (although app downloading has to be done in a roundabout way). The Alex’s aspect ratio makes it more conducive to watching video and browsing. Touch capability also means a more intuitive interface compared to say, the Kindle 2, which heavily relies on keyboard-style buttons.

Dual screen synergy: The Alex does a great job as far as options to sync both of its screens. Want to view that Web page from the LCD on the larger upper screen? You can do that. Want to view your eBook on the LCD screen for easier text highlighting and annotating? You can do that, too. This is another area where the Alex’s dual-screen trumps the Nook’s.

Loaded feature set: Folks who master the Alex’s operation will find a bevy of neat little features. Besides all the stuff you can do with Android, the Alex also sports “Web Grab,” which allows you to save Web pages for later viewing. Support of MP4 and Flash means you can upload your MP4 movies to the device and also watch clips from YouTube. MP3 support allows you to listen to your music. The built-in speaker isn't bad for an eReader and can be turned up pretty high. The free set of earphones and bundled case are also nice additions.

Photo by Jason Hidalgo

Format support: The Alex supports several eBook formats such as EPUB, PDF, TXT and HTML. I uploaded a TXT file with both English and Japanese characters and the device displayed them with no problems. Besides MP4, Flash and MP3, the Alex also supports 3GP video, along with M4A, AMR, MIDI, WAV and OGG Vorbis music files. Supported image files include JPEG, GIF, BMP and PNG.

Solid build: The Alex has a nice, solid feel that doesn't feel cheap. And at 11 ounces it's only slightly heavier than the Kindle and lighter than both the 3G and Wi-Fi Nooks.

Extra storage: An SD card slot allows users to beef up the Alex's memory up to 32GB.

CONS

Price: The biggest challenge for the Alex thus far is its $399 price tag. Given that an iPad starts out at $499 and popular eReaders such as as the Kindle and Nook can be had between $149 to $189, pricing for the Alex is a bit steep. Simply put, the iPad’s release and price cuts by competitors have significantly changed the market since the Alex first came out. Otherwise, I'd rate it higher.

No dedicated bookstore: The Alex doesn’t have a dedicated storefront for folks who want to have the convenience of a major bookstore such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble. On the plus side, my review unit did come with direct access to more open eBook sources such as Google Books, Project Gutenberg, Epub Books, Web Books, Smash Words and Feed Books. But if you want to get compatible content bought from the major bookstores, you have to download them to your computer first then move them to the Alex.

Learning curve:While Android is great and allows folks to get more out of the device than with your typical eReader, it also requires a certain amount of tech literacy that might boggle folks like, say, my mom. After getting a message that a new update was available, for example, my Alex crashed and I was presented with a reboot options screen that would have befuddled a non-tech-savvy person. You can certainly do more with the Alex’s LCD screen than the Nook’s. But it’s also a double-edged sword since the Nook interface is less intimidating and easier to learn for the not-so tech-inclined. (On a related note, folks looking for a “Home” button on the Alex need to only press and hold the “Back” button to return to the LCD main screen.)

Wi-Fi, video battery drain: While reading eBooks via the electronic paper display doesn’t take too much juice, Wi-Fi and video playback is a different story. A little over an hour of Web browsing followed by watching two 30-minute videos that I uploaded into the device drained nearly half of the battery. That actually isn’t too bad for a device that isn’t a dedicated portable media player. But if you’re primarily going to be reading during a trip, just make sure you turn off Wi-Fi and also do a quick tap of the power button to turn off the LCD screen. (Officially, Spring Design says battery life is two weeks with average use and 6 hours with the LCD and Wi-Fi on. Charging took me about 4 hours.)

Photo by Jason Hidalgo

Lower contrast: The background itself is grayer than Sony’s PRS-300 (then again most eReaders are) and also a shade grayer than the Nook. The actual text is also grayer and a bit fuzzy on the edges.

Other issues: Scrolling can be a bit jerky, especially if you're used to the smooth scrolling on an iPhone or newer Android phones. There’s also a bit of a delay when typing. Although the ability to watch video is nice, the video quality is admittedly jaggy. A cartoon I uploaded was still watchable, for example, but a YouTube clip of a video game where the character was small in relation to the screen was quite tough to watch. Also, the headphone socket isn’t standard, so you can’t just plug in your preferred set of headphones.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Alex can basically be considered a tweener between the iPad and a Kindle-type reader.

As a tweener, the Alex does a great job for folks who want their readers to do more than just “read” but aren’t quite ready to step up to a full-featured tablet. Android functionality also leads to plenty of features for folks who like playing around with Google’s popular operating system.

But while the Alex is certainly a solid device in itself, its price can be a huge barrier for consumers who suddenly find themselves flooded with all sorts of options for eReading.

Still, for folks who have no issues with the $399 price tag, the Alex is certainly worth a look.

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