From its aspirational brand name (the ER in Cool-ER stands for ebook reader) to its hip tinted metallic case, the Cool-ER clearly strives to distinguish itself from the black-and-gray competition, and to a large extent it succeeds. Skinny (0.43 inch thick), lightweight (6.3 ounces), and available in eight cheery colors, this ebook reader resembles an overgrown iPod, not a bad role model for industrial design.

In fact, the only items visible below the 6-inch screen are the Cool-ER logo and a round, iPod-esque four-way navigation/selection wheel for navigating menus and turning pages. Unfortunately, the button's stiffness makes navigation and page turns more of a chore than they should be.

Around the corner, on the right edge, is a volume control button for the built-in MP3 player, so you can play music while you read. The only other controls are the power-on switch on the top (to the right of an SD Card slot) and four small white buttons in aligned along the left edge. The uppermost of these four buttons brings up the MP3 player software and an included Sudoku game (which suffers from its dependence on the stiff navigation wheel and its lack of numeric buttons).

The second button toggles between portrait mode and landscape mode; the third button brings up the main menu; and the fourth button summons a popup menu of main menu preferences, including options for determining how books are sorted, what information appears in a title's listing, which of eight languages the device should use, and how long the Cool-ER should wait after going idle to power itself down.

The device's USB port (for charging and transferring content over an included cable) is on the bottom right edge, next to a headphone jack port that, annoyingly, doesn't accept standard mobile 3.5mm jacks; you'll need to get a 2.5mm adapter to use it with most types of headphones or headsets (the Cool-ER comes without bundled earphones). On the back of the Cool-ER are a reset button and a small battery cover held in place by a single screw.

Cool-ER

The Cool-ER's display is based on the same E Ink technology that the Kindle 2, the Kindle DX, the Sony Reader Touch Edition, the Sony Reader Pocket Edition, and several other e-book readers use. Cool-ER has gone with the 8-greyscale version, operated by a 400MHz Samsung ARM processer. Page turns are on a par with those of most other current readers. Sluggish, but not painfully so. According to Interead, the Cool-ER ships with 1GB of internal storage, of which 825MB is available for user content (my preproduction evaluation unit had a smaller drive, however). You can transfer content only via the USB cable, though Cooler Books CEO Neil Jones says that the company plans to offer a wireless model next year.

The Cool-ER supports about a dozen file formats, including ePub, PDF, HTML, Rich Text, and three popular image formats. The primary format for commercial ebooks, (which you can purchase on CoolerBooks.com or at other sites) is ePub with Adobe Content Server 4 digital rights management software.

CoolerBooks doesn't have a huge library. I couldn't find Philippa Gregory's current bestseller, The White Queen, for instance. And the bestsellers that are there are pricey: Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, widely available at other sites for $10, costs $24 at CoolerBooks. I bought the ePub version of The White Queen at Ebooks.com and had no trouble transferring it to the Cool-ER using the Adobe Digital Editions software on my PC. The book immediately appeared in the Digital Editions folder of the Cool-ER's main menu.

Other folders in the main menu are set up to receive documents, free ebooks (books with no DRM encryption, my evaluation unit came with nine from Project Gutenberg), and music (the media player only supports unencrypted MP3 files). In lieu of a cursor, a thin vertical line appears next to a folder's name as you use the navigation wheel buttons to scroll down the menu. Though this line isn't the clearest indicator I've seen, I soon got used to it. A status bar at the bottom of the screen contains icons that show the device's battery life and the current page number; when you begin reading, the status bar changes to show your progress in the book (using a circle in a bar), the page number, and font information.

Pressing the selection button in the navigation wheel brings up a reading menu that includes many options for changing the font (you have a choice of three fonts types and eight font sizes, but some content may not appear as intended in some font sizes); creating bookmarks; jumping to a specific page; hiding the status bar, and the like.

Aside from the extra pressure required to initiate page turns, I enjoyed rereading Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice on the Cool-ER. Nevertheless, Interead clearly skimped on some items to achieve the price for a reader with a 6-inch E Ink display. Some sort of case for the device would have been nice, if only to protect the screen, and most people will have to spend a few bucks for the 3.5mm-to-2.5mm headphone adapter.

The Cool-ER's MP3 player is about as barebones as possible: I couldn't find an onscreen volume indicator (to reflect adjustments I made using the buttons on the right side), and the volume was rather low, even when turned up all the way. Still, you can set the player to repeat all songs or a specific song, or to play songs randomly.

OUR VERDICT

The Cool-ER could use a little polish (and a better four way navigation wheel) to elevate its usability to the level of its chic appearance. But its user interface is serviceable, if not elegant, and its text display options are solid. At its price, it's not a bad deal.