Google is everywhere right now. The company has made a strong push with its Google Books project, but until now it hasn't had a tie-in to a standalone e-reader. That changes with the iRiver Story HD.
The Story HD makes getting Google ebooks onto an E Ink-based reader reasonably easy. In my trials with the device, however, I found myself frustrated by the Story HD's cheap design, poky performance and ill-designed Google Books interface.
The Story HD does a great job of distinguishing itself in display quality. As its HD moniker implies, the 6-inch display carries a 768-by-1024-pixel resolution, the result of an improved electronics backplane. That higher-res backplane in turn helps the E Ink technology, which already uses dozens of microcapsules per pixel to form letters and images on the screen, look better. iRiver is the first manufacturer to ship this technology outside of China.
The result: Text looks sharp and clear, with smooth rendering and no pixelation or artifacts. The display supports 16 level grayscale, and text appears finer on the Story HD than on the third generation Amazon Kindle, although its black tones lack the contrast and punch of the Kindle (and the Barnes & Noble Nook, for that matter).
The lower contrast may be, in part, an optical illusion caused by the Story HD's beige bezel. The Kindle and Nook each use a dark gray, borderline black bezel. Personally, I prefer the dark bezel to the cream coloured texture of the Story HD.
I routinely found the light text to be an issue while reading. Although the unchangeable sans serif font rendered smoothly and lacked pixelation, the weak contrast meant that my eyes had to work harder to read. Contrast improved dramatically when I bumped up the font size from the default third option to the larger sixth option (you get eight in total).
Changing font size is simple, at least. You press the dedicated font button (two buttons over from the spacebar), and then you use the navigation bar and enter key to preview and select a font size. The maximum font size should be big enough to accommodate anyone whose eyesight requires large print, but Barnes & Noble's Nook offers even larger text.
The font size is fixed, however, on the home screen. The text is adequate for book titles, but associated information at the right is surprisingly small, and could be a challenge for some users to read. The advantage is that you have a lot of information available in one screen: the source of the book, the file type and the author name, and the information is pleasingly presented in a consistent layout.
Getting started with Google Books
Right from the unboxing, the iRiver Story HD shows that some thought was put into its execution. Not only does the cardboard box unfold logically to reveal the ivory-and-tan Story HD inside, but iRiver also has a getting started guide already showing on the E Ink display. This is a wise and slick move, since most users might skip over the included six page leaflet that introduces the basics.
As the on-screen guide promises, the Story HD starts up as soon as you plug it into your computer. The Story HD proceeds to walk you through the process of setting up the e-reader, providing eight screens of gentle hand holding that the technology-averse will find comforting. Unfortunately for the Story HD, this is also the point where the e-reader's physical design may be problematic in use.
For starters, the Story HD has no page turning buttons alongside the display. Instead, those tasks are left to the four-way navigation bar beneath the screen. Although that arrangement isn't so bad for navigation, it is an awkward position for page turns, unless you're grasping the e-reader by the lower third (only then is it clear that the 2-inch long centred button is situated so that it's in reach of either your left or right thumb).
The button does only four directions, and doesn't allow you to push in as you'd expect. To make a selection, you must move over to the dedicated enter button located to the right. Travel between the nav bar and the enter and option buttons feels organic for navigation purposes, but I repeatedly expected the bar to push in to select something and I disliked how stiff the buttons were.
Like the nav bar and its related row of Home, Back, Enter and Option buttons, the rest of the 38-key QWERTY keyboard's buttons are hard, plastic slivers that are stiff and difficult to press.
The keyboard is not conducive to typing at all: The buttons pushed uncomfortably into the pads of my fingers, and made crunching noises as I pressed them. My fingers actually hurt just from the typing involved in the setup process. In fact, when I realised that I had to set up my Google Checkout for the account I used with the Story HD, I elected to do so on my PC rather than suffer typing all of my information in on the Story HD's keyboard.
Physically, the Story HD is sized similarly to the third generation Amazon Kindle. It measures 7.5 by 5.0 by 0.4 inches, versus the Kindle's 7.5 by 4.8 by 0.3 inches. By comparison, the Barnes & Noble Nook and the Kobo eReader Touch Edition each shave an inch off the overall height. The Nook and Kobo both use an infrared touchscreen for navigation, instead of a keyboard and buttons.
The Story HD is lightweight, competitive with the recent Barnes & Noble and Kobo releases. iRiver's e-reader weighs 207 grams, lighter than the Kindle, and falling in between the Nook and Kobo. The weight made it pleasant to hold, until I had to shift my hand down to change the page.
The Story HD uses a Freescale ARM CortexTM i.MX508 processor, and has 2GB of built-in storage (of which only 1.4GB is user accessible). Along the right side is a sturdy flap door covering the full size SD Card slot, which supports SDHC cards up to 32GB.
A few other physical design points: I did like the unusual yet logical location of the power switch. The slider sits toward the bottom of the unit, along the back. Which turned out to be a surprisingly convenient spot, since my hand naturally ended up there when I first picked up the e-reader.
I didn't like the hard, tan, plastic backplate to the Story HD, which felt chintzy (not unlike the hard plastic keyboard buttons) and scratched easily. At the bottom is a Mini-USB port for connecting the reader to a PC for sideloading books and other files. The reader supports PDFs and ePub files (including protected Adobe Digital Editions), as well as text files, FB2 and DJVU formats. It also can read Microsoft Office Excel, Word and PowerPoint documents.