On the eve of the iPad launch, we take a look using an iRiver Story eBook reader with Mac OS OX. Can't wait to read digital books, or just aware of the advantages of electronic ink? Whatever way suits you, the iRiver Story is a great piece of kit.
One fair criticism aimed at most eBook readers is that the build quality and design are often lacking. But not the iRiver Story: with its svelte white frame, slightly tapered casing, and embedded page turn buttons this is a great looking piece of kit.
The iRiver Story sports a fairly typically 6in electronic ink screen that offers the usual high quality reading experience associated with ink screens, and long battery life measured in page turns (up to 9000, apparently). We managed to use it for almost a week before recharging. Mind you, charging it up was a time-consuming process, taking almost 9 hours for us to get it back up to full charge.
Unlike the Sony PRS-600 Touch Edition the iRiver Story's screen isn't reflective, so is great to use for long periods of time.
There's a full qwerty keyboard with a row of navigation buttons and to side of the keyboard are large page turn buttons that form part of the case. Have buttons on both the left and right side of the iRiver Story is a nice touch for making the device ambidextrous.
On the bottom of the iRiver Story's case sits an earphone socket, and a power slider that doubles as a keyboard lock (so you don't tap the page turn buttons when it's in a bag). A white flap reveals an SD socket, although with 2GB of internal memory and with most books weighing in at about 1MB you're unlikely to need it for book reading.
We're somewhat less convinced by the full qwerty keyboard. Not because pressing the keys is difficult (it isn't) but the keyboard feels largely superfluous. You can take memos, and there's a diary function - neither of which are particularly convincing. The only other eBook device that shares a full keyboard is the Amazon Kindle, with its 3G connection and the online shop a keyboard makes sense (you need to type in authors names, book titles, and so on) but here we're not so sure. In some cases it's useful, the arrow keys and dedicated buttons like 'books', 'menu', 'zoom' and 'option' are all useful, but largely we felt 'what is this for'. And given that it adds an extra two inches of length to the device we can't help but feel it would be better without it.
That aside, we really like the hardware - especially the big page turning buttons. The iRiver Story is comfortable to hold, well built, looks stylish and generally feels good in the hand. It even has a built-in speaker so you play music from it. We were surprised by the audio quality of the device, largely because we'd never considered a eBook reader to be of any worth as an MP3 player. But if you like listening to music, or podcasts while you reading you'll be pleasantly surprised. And the function buttons include shuttle and volume controls so controlling audio while you read is straight-forward process.
in terms of file types it's pretty comprehensive, it certainly has the lead on the Amazon Kindle but shares pretty much the same kind of feature set as other eReaders. It's got Epub, PDF, TXT, Doc, PPT, and TXT; on the image side it can read JPEG, BMP, and GIFs and music is MP3.
Getting files to and from the iRiver Story is straightforward, we found it easiest to simply plug in the device and drag the files to the internal volume. The iRiver Story is both PC and Mac compatible, and unlike other systems dragging files from a Mac doesn't leave invisible files on the system. Like the Interead COOL-ER Reader ejecting the disk can be a pain with it instantly remounting. As with the Cooler Reader, using the Unmount button in Disk Utility does the trick.
One particularly nice touch is that it recognises the CBZ format that is commonly used for graphic novels. This format is a zip file containing JPEG images. It's nice but we found the screen unusable for the large A4 format comics, and reading full colour comics in black and white is a depressing experience. However, if you're into Manga comics you might find this a useful function, because these comics typically come in a smaller format and are printed in black and white. All other comic lovers should pin their hopes on the iPad though.
Perhaps the only drawback of the iRiver Story is that it seems fairly slow when reading PDFs and Word documents (although TXT and ePUB is fine). Ever since Apple announced ePub for the Apple iPad this format seems to have become the choice for most people, and software such as Stanza can be used to convert most document types into ePub, which is what we recommend for most electronic book users.
The interface is also well designed with responsive easy-to-navigate menus and nice visual touches that update without the whole screen flashing. We're particularly keen on the way you can scan through pages by holding down the page turn buttons, this adjusts a slider similar to the one you'd use in a media player.
One note of caution though. We've noticed that online support and advice for for the iRiver Story - in terms of the iRiver website and other forum users - is pretty thin on the ground. So if you get stuck with the iRiver Story you might find getting help and advice a challenge.
It goes without saying that the two-tonne elephant in the room is the iPad, out now in eight weeks time. Whether anybody will be in the mood for buying an eBook reader this close to the iPad being released (let alone afterwards) is debatable. But it's fair to say that electronic ink screens offer an easy-on-the-eyes reading experience that Apple is unlikely to match with its high quality LED display. Although the wealth of features the iPad will offer on top of a device like this will quite easily tip the balance in its favour.
We like the iRiver Story. It's smarter looking than the Kindle, or Cooler Reader and the built in audio playback and speaker is nice. We're not quite sure that a full qwerty keyboard was required, and note-taking is a non-starter, but the presence of multiple control buttons on the top row is great, as are the large page-turn buttons on the left and right side of the system. The relatively slow system means that reading anything other pure text (ePub, TXT, RTF, and so on) will test your patience, but the music playback and speaker turned out to be a surprisingly good. In all, this isn't a bad eBook reader at all.