Judging a book without its cover.

What is a book? What defines it? What makes a book a “book”? Is a book defined by its construction or is a book defined by the words contained within it? As technology improves the distinctions begin to blur.I recently got a chance to spend some time flipping through the virtual pages of the iRex iLiad. This iLiad is not a thick as its Greek namesake, but it could easily contain all of Homer’s works and anything else that would fit on your memory card.

The iLiad is a roughly book-sized electronic device designed to display various forms of digital documentation and also allow you write functionality via a stylus and/or virtual keyboard. It can accept input from its built in wireless interface. a USB connected device, SD media or Compact Flash media cards. It features a 768×1024 pixel greyscale screen combined with a Wacom sensor board so that you can write on the screen with a Wacom stylus. Inside is a 400MHz Intel processor with 64MB of RAM coupled with 256MB of flash memory for the system. Half of which (128MB) is user accessible.

It is designed to be able to read PDF, TXT, HTML, BMP, JPG and PNG files and has a built in Wi-Fi capable of 802.11B and G.I noticed that it has a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. However, I have no idea why except for a slight scuffing tone that it produces when a new page is produced. I am not sure if the sound is naturally the result of some process going on inside the unit or if they intentionally trying to emulate the sound cue of a turned page. The battery is a lithium-ion and should last a considerable amount of time given that the unique display only used power when refreshed IE: a page is turned.

The first thing I will mention is the display. Perhaps the best feature of the iLiad is the iRex Technologies “Electronic Paper Display”. From what I can see, the eight inch display panel is not backlit as you would see on a typical laptop PC. With the unit turned off, the display appears fairly white. Or at least as white as the page of a book in normal indoor light. When the unit is turned on and text is displayed, there is no significant change in the appearance other than the text which seems to fade into view all at once rather than a line-by-line fashion. I would suspect that one would need an external light source to read from the display in dark conditions just like a book. Once the page is displayed, it no longer requires power for the pixels to maintain their current greyscale state. The quality of the text is impressive. It’s crisp, clear, adjustable and,in my opinion, better than many traditionally printed materials. Since the Electronic Paper Display only changes states when a new page is shown, the text does not need to be constantly refreshed. This means it does not rely upon the human “persistence of vision” effect to make a quickly flashing object look solid. The text is essentially solid – as if the pixels were physical tiles of a given shade of gray that only need to be turned when you want to make a new page. This makes the display incredibly easy on the eyes. The unfortunate side effect is that the display is unsuitable for displaying an animated image or video. Reading from the iLiad is a very comfortable and natural operation. Pages can be selected using the sylus or “turned” one by one using the large flipper control that runs along the left side of the display. The flipper bar can be toggled left or right to turn the pages backward and foreward one at a time or held slightly longer to turn five at a time. I found the flipper to be the most favorable tool. Although slightly counter-intuitive in that flipping to the left, which in my mind emulates turning to the next page in a book, actually turns to the previous page. Your state of mind may vary. Doodlers of the world, Unite!
The Wacom touch sensor screen performs as good as any art pad I have used and I was able to write both left and wrong handed with ease and I could recognize my own handwriting when I was through. Drawing controls were limitted, but I could adjust line width, style and erase. If the pad supports some kind of OCR or someother interpretive function, I could not readily find it.

The wireless functionality incorporated into the unit means that is probably fairly easy to import new material into and out of the iLiad. This is probably a good time to mention what the iLiad is NOT. As far as I could tell, the iLiad has only limitted web functionality, so it is not a viable way to browse the web. It is also not a PDA, not an mp3 player, not able to send and receive instant messages, not a cellular phone. Nor does this $700 electronic book do a fraction of the things that most free cellular phones do. Therein lies the real downside to this otherwise excellent device. It does exactly what it is supposed to do extremely well but that is all it does. In an era when I can get a notebook computer that does so many things for $700, it’s hard to spend $700 on what is essentially just a book that people can read and scribble in. Now, granted, one might make the argument that it is not just one book. It can be any and/or many books.

I was a little surprised to find that the iLiad I was testing came with only two books and neither of them were written by Homer. Not really a fan of Sherlock Holmes or Aesop’s Fables, I went online and found that iRex suggestted that I could download ka-gillions of free books from http://www.gutenberg.org/ and they were correct. Perusing through the stacks I could find almost every one of the old classics I was forced to read in school along with every other author I’d never heard of. I was in fear of total disappointment when I noticed that they had a book by Hemingway… oh wait…Percy Hemingway… yup, total disappointment. Time to pay my dues.

I decided to go to ebooks.com and see if I could pick up my favorite book “Beginning TiVo┬« Programming”. I was elated to find out that they had it and I could download and read it on the iLiad right now. For the low low price of $39.99? What? Let me get this right. I can download the Adobe file which must have cost all of a penny to produce for FORTY BUCKS, or I can zip over to Amazon.com, have the real thing (shipping included) and kill a tree for only $26.39! All of the ebooks I found were selling for exactly full retail price. There is something fundamentally wrong with this equation. Disgusting, truly unconscionable.

The iRex iLiad does a great job at presenting digital documents in an easy to use and easy to read format. It’s main shortcoming is its price. If I were earning a high six figures, I would buy one of these babies and load it up with every Louis L’Amour and Clive Cussler book available and give it to my father, saving him from substantial eye fatigue. If you are someone in an occupation that requires you to carry a lot of written documentation, I believe the iLiad would be a Godsend. It is not uncommon for pilots to carry a twenty or thirty pound chart case full of Sectional Maps, charts and airport directories. But for the rest of us, I can’t see the electronic book coming of age until the price of the appliances and ebooks comes down to a reasonable level. In the meantime, if you happen to be rich, my birthday is right around the corner.

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