The Astak EZ Reader PocketPro is about the same size as the Sony Reader Pocket Edition. Both have 5-inch, 8-grayscale E Ink screens and cost $199, putting at the small (and inexpensive) end of the ebook reader continuum. But some significant differences, pro and con, distinguish the two; and for all its extra features, the Astak's limited and rather strange font size options are a serious drawback.

First, the Astak's pluses: It weighs 6 ounces (versus the Sony's surprisingly hefty 7.75 ounces), a nice match for its 6.0-by 4.1-by-0.4-inch dimensions. Available in six colors (black, navy, white, red, pink, and purple), it comes cradled inside a handsome, sturdy flip-open leatherlike cover with clear plastic tabs that keep the device securely in place during use. Also included are a small screwdriver and spare screws for the removable battery, and a hand strap that attaches through holes in the bottom left corner of the device.

Another selling point: The PocketPro's built-in MP3 player lets you play music while you read (the Sony Pocket Edition lacks an MP3 player). Audio quality through the bundled (unpadded) earbuds plugged into the standard headphone jack was acceptable, though even at full volume it's not very loud.

Astak doesn't provide a built-in dictionary. On the other hand, it touts the PocketPro's support for more than 20 file formats, including several for images (the E Ink screen supports 8 levels of grayscale), along with Word, PowerPoint, HTML, and text documents. But for commercial books, you'll probably use one of the Adobe formats: PDF or ePub (the ebook format that supports digital rights management and can accommodate different fonts and type sizes). Since the PocketPro supports Adobe's DRM technology, Adobe Content Server 4, you have access to a fair amount of commercial content through various online vendors.

I bought a copy of Philippa Gregory's The White Queen, a current bestseller, from EBooks.com, and downloaded the title to the required Adobe Digital Editions PC software for managing ePub content. Then I connected the PocketPro to my PC with the included USB cable (which you can also use to charge the device's battery, either through a PC or through the included AC adapter); a few seconds later, the software had authorised the PocketPro on my account. Transferring The White Queen to the Pocket Pro was then a simple drag and drop operation. Though the device has only 512MB of internal memory, you can augment that with a high capacity (up to 16GB) SD Card. The device doesn't support wireless transfers.

The PocketPro's shortcomings begin with its navigation controls, which aren't particularly intuitive. There's no cursor for scrolling through lists of options, so you have to use the numeric keypad underneath the display to make all menu selections.

To turn pages forward or backward, you may either press the left/right buttons on the front left bezel or slide a jog wheel lever on the right edge up or down. Nothing wrong with that, but a large round two part button on the bottom right, which I thought would turn pages, either brings up a menu for various navigation options and settings, or serves as an 'OK' button, and it's not always clear which function is active. (The small, left side of the button is a 'back' control that works pretty much as I expected it to.)

There's no status bar on the page to indicate progress through the book, and page numbers seem to be drawn from their position in print, meaning that you can turn several digital pages before seeing a page number. The built-in text to speech feature for PDF content is poor: I could barely follow along as the computerised female voice read from the included PDF manual, breaking sentences strangely and completely mangling some words.

Even more annoying, however, were the font size options. You access the five choices (ranging from Extra small to Extra large) via the popup menu's Zoom control. The Extra small font reminded me of the smallest size on my optician's reading-glasses test; and at the opposite extreme, Extra-large permitted only a few letters of the first word on the page to appear. In fact, the three largest fonts (Extra large, Large, and Medium) were all quite big, and even Medium displayed only five or six sentences on screen at a time. I finally settled on Small as the only comfortably readable font, a far cry from the more evenly graduated font sizes on most other readers. When I tried to change the font size on the included PDF manual, I experienced the same results.

OUR VERDICT

Access to diverse and useful font sizes is a major selling point for ebook readers; and for me the lack of good choices is a dealbreaker on the PocketPro, which otherwise has a lot to recommend it.