E-readers don't get much smaller than the 170g Aluratek Libre Air, which measures 6.0 by 4.1 by 0.4 inches. But this tiny package holds a lot of useful technology, including Wi-Fi integration with an online bookstore offering both commercial and free content.
Successor to the Aluratek Libre Pro, which did not support Wi-Fi, the Air immediately distinguishes itself from the pack with its unusual display. The Libre Air has a 5 inch 480x640 reflective LCD that does not depend on backlighting and is therefore readable in bright sunlight. And because it’s an LCD, it’s more responsive (no wait or flicker between page turns) than the E Ink screens found in most e-readers.
The Libre Air does not have a touchscreen, though. You navigate through a combination of buttons, including a four-way pad on the center of the front bezel, plus menu, home and return/back buttons at the centre bottom. The pad moves you through menus or lists of items, while the context sensitive menu button brings up options relative to the current display.
For data entry, you get a vertical row of buttons on the right side of the device labelled the same way as the alphanumeric keys on most phones (that is 0 through 9 with letters on the 2 through 9 keys). On the left edge are the page turn controls (forward and back) and a button with a search icon on it. At the bottom edge sits a Mini-USB port for charging the device and for transferring data between the Libre Air and a PC.
Although you get no touch support on the display itself, you can opt to activate touch sensitivity on the navigational pad, which lets you move between items or turn pages by swiping the pad. In my tests, the feature worked well, perhaps too well, since I wound up unintentionally turning pages or moving through menus.
The e-reader’s internal 500MB memory will support a slew of books, but it’s one quarter of the onboard storage of Barnes & Noble’s Nook and Kobo’s eReader Touch Edition. Aluratek takes up some of that space, too, preloading the Libre Air with 100 free books in text format, but you can expand the capacity by inserting a MicroSD card (the slot is located on the top-right edge, next to the power button).
The interface is generally simple, but not always intuitive. Powering on the Libre Air brings up seven numbered boxes: the ebook library, the current item you're reading, a recent items list, music, photos, settings and an Others button to summon additional options (including access to the Kobo Books store). Sometimes, however, you have to use the menu button in ways that aren't immediately obvious.
For example, when you choose the music icon after transferring DRM-free MP3s to the device (or a MicroSD card), you'll typically see a message saying that no playlist was found. It turns out that you can play tunes only in a playlist, but to create one you have to know to press the menu button and then choose the Set Playlist function (which lets you add or remove stored MP3 files from a playlist).
The reading interface is a bit more intuitive. Once you've chosen a book from your library and opened it, pressing the menu button brings up navigation options for moving around the book, plus a Settings icon to access items such as font size (you get six choices ranging from 12 to 32 points) and a page turn applet, which you can use to set an interval between automatic page turns, useful if you like to read while working out at the gym. The latter feature is innovative and unique among the e-readers we’ve tested.
Wi-Fi setup went fairly quickly, although I took a while to figure out that I had to press the 0 or 1 key repeatedly to access punctuation and other symbols. Once you have input a security code for your network, pressing a Wi-Fi button on the lower-right edge starts up the wireless service. You should shut it off when you aren't using it though, because it will rapidly drain the Libre Air's battery. Without Wi-Fi, Aluratek says the device can run for up to 20 hours on a single battery charge.
The Libre Air supports Adobe's implementation of the ePub format for copy protection on commercial books. To get started, you must authorise the device through Adobe Digital Editions on your PC, after which you can either transfer books over the USB cable or buy and download wirelessly from Kobo Books. Kobo's web interface on the Libre Air isn't great, click around enough however, and you'll find what you're looking for.
The MP3 player produced decent audio through a headset (the jack is on the bottom edge along with the Mini-USB port). The photo applet lets you create a slideshow too, although I wasn't particularly tempted to run one on the 16 shades of grey screen.
Overall, the Libre Air's light weight, compact shape, and first rate monochrome display make it a reasonable alternative to the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook for people who prize portability and the ability to read outdoors. It isn't as slick as the Kindle or the Nook, but a few minutes invested in learning the Libre Air’s sometimes quirky interface can pay off handsomely.