51jb3twbrhl_aa280_.jpgThis week I received an IRex Iliad, an e-reader that has gotten increased scrutiny as a result of the Amazon Kindle launch (funny how Amazon’s launch has probably helped increase the sales of its rivals). My choice of the Iliad came after weighing the benefits of some of the the major e-readers now out there (see this Wired review and this MobileRead grid), and my personal desire to have something I can read research papers with while commuting or at home, without wasting paper and ink.

In the end, I found that the IRex Iliad was the ideal choice primarily for its ability to annotate documents. The Iliad is in effect a stripped-down tablet PC that uses e-Ink instead of backlight. Its stylus allows one to sketch out notes directly on the document which will reappear every time you bring the document up again (these notes can supposedly be incorporated with software, which sadly is only currently available for the PC). Of course, it is hard to make detailed notes on an 8″ screen, but I could write additional notes on a separate notepad function, which can be converted to ascii text and ported off on my work computer. Right now this is a bit clunky – one has to leave the document you are reading, open up the note, write, then go back to the document and find where you left off – but my hope is that it will be more streamlined in the future. This capability is extremely useful for grading papers, referee reports, etc., things I want to be able to do offline. Iliad has a number of other great features, most notably its native PDF support, something the Amazon Kindle really got wrong by not including. It is trivial to port my documents on and off the device either though a USB jump drive or connecting it to the computer through a USB cable – it shows up just fine on my MAC as an external drive, a real bonus over the PC-centric e-readers now available.

There are of course some major problems with the Iliad too. First, the battery life is abysmal. It lasts barely a day before its charge is gone (which is why I cannot use it at the moment!). This seems to me in direct conflict with one of the major benefits of e-Ink, namely that it requires no power to maintain the displayed page. It would make far more sense if the reader could stay in a perpetual “sleep mode”, woken only through user input, and thereby have its battery life dictated by page flips, not time. Second, I have yet to find a way to “bookmark” my place, so that I can go right it when I return; this, however, appears to be under consideration and possibly even solved through independent development. Third, the cost, at $700 (which is actually much cheaper than converting the cost in British pounds to US dollars) is astronomical, and while you do get the tablet functionality that other readers don’t have, this cost is actualy higher than existing tablet PCs that can do more than read books! (Fortunately I was able to pay for the Iliad on a research grant) Finally, the wireless component of this device is at the moment rather useless – all it does is download software updates. This feature would be great for downloading reading material directly to the device, say from another computer on the network, something that I think independent developers are working on.

However, the best thing of all about the Iliad is that it is a Web2.0 device. With a linux operating system whose code has been made available to developers, a great deal of software is being developed independently to address some of the software shortcomings. There is a good FAQ from the Mobile read forum on the Iliad. I’m just getting in to this now, and excited to see how I can improve the functionality of this device!

Pros:

  • Tablet PC supporting “scribbling” on PDF documents
  • Wireless
  • Web 2.0 development allowed
  • Native PDF support, as well as HTML, TXT, JPG, etc (but currently not DOC)
  • USB jump drive and compact flash ports
  • large screen (8″ vs. 6″ for others),

Cons:

  • Expensive ($700 on Amazon)
  • Battery drains in less than a day
  • Company software only available for PCs
  • No bookmarking (yet)
  • No straightforward access to e-books (yet)
  • “heavy” (13.7 oz)

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