iRex iLiad: great display, enhanceable design, pre-alpha software and a weird proposed navigation model for news content

I just had the opportunity to test drive an iRex iLiad, the device promoted by its manufacturer iRex Technologies ” as he latest state of technology in mobile electronic reading”. 5 years after the Rocket eBook, the first eBook device i had the chance to test, it surely is a quantum leap ahead. It also is my first encounter with the lon hyped eInk display technology.

It is also a device that i would ask my company to buy me in order to save my shelf from all that reference manuals and that i would like to use for notetaking in meetings.

It could also be a device that a would take to my holiday in order to save weight on all that paperbacks (fiction, crime, science-fiction, …)

But it is nost definitely NOT (YET) a device where i want to read my daily newspaper(s) on. But fortunately one could do better within the given hardware platform

Hardware Software Content

Hardware

Display

Clearly the most stunning feature of the iLiad is its display, which is based on eInk technology.

Basically that means that lots of tiny balls which are white on one side and blck on the other side are rotated in order produce a grayscale (16 grays) display. This resulta in a very high contrast display that needs no lighting and draws no juice from the battery when the display is not changed. It also results in a very high density display that approaches printing quality (1024x768px on a 8.1inch screen, you do the math).

On the downside, changing the display is a fairly slow process (others have measured 900msec). Since there is no other feedback if your click or pageturn was accepted, this leaves you in a constant state of incertainty wrt. interaction state of the device. It would be helpful if the manufacture would give the user some kind of clue if an interaction has been noticed. In some sense the tiny led in the upper left hand corner already serves this purpose. But AFAIK it is flickering proportional to the load on the processor, which is not always directly correlated to user interaction.

Interaction Elements and Design

The iliad has a number of modes to interact with the device.

  • On the left hand side of the device there is a long “Flipbar” and 5 navigation buttons (two above and 3 below the turn bar).
  • Below the display are 4 “archive” buttons which are prelabeled “News”, Books”, “Docs”, and “Notes”
  • Tucked in a slot in the back is a stylus which can be used to select items on the display as well as “write” on the screen while notetaking.
  • In the upper right hand corner is a connection button

Flipbar and navigation buttons

The flipbar allows you to turn the pages back and forth when your reading content or browsing through directories.

Unfortunately, at least for me,it has the wrong direction. In order to turn to the next page, you have to move the flipbar to the left. As the manual suggests, this direction was derived from the movement of your hand if you turn the page on a physical book. But as a long-time computer user I automatically expected it to be the other way around. There should be the possibility to select the way the user likes it in the device settings.

The two navigation buttons above the flipbar are used for backing up one level in the directory structure and to enter into the main menu. The three navigation buttons below the flipbar are used to navigate within the displayed page.

Although i’m a right hander, i would love the turn bar and the other navigation keys to be on the right side of the device when i’m only reading. This is due to the fact that i would like to operate the device with one-hand (my right one) while reading. This is in contrast to the two-handed mode i would like to use when i’m taking notes. Hence ideally one would be able to select left or right handedness in the device settings and to easily switch from one-handed to two-handed mode by pressing a button.

In other design notes,replacing the navigation keys by a 5-way-navigation key known from mobile phones. This would be also instrumental to enable panning within documents that are bigger than screen size.

Archive Buttons

The for archive buttons are hardlinked to the directories newspaper, books, documents and notes of the internal memory of the iLiad. When pressed they open the directory browser for the respective directory. Another click opens the last opened document within that directory.

In order to enhace the general design and useability I think it would be good to remove the labels from the buttons and turn them into programmable softkeys known from mobile phones.

Stylus

The stylus is an active stylus based on Wacom technology. Hence it is not possible to operate the touch screen with anything else but. Especially it is NOT possible to operate the touchpad with your fingers. The manual also says that if you leave the stylus longer than 3 minutes out of its place in the bach the device will go into sleep mode, but i could’nt experience that.

Extension Slots

The iLiad features three extension slots for digital media. An USB port (that only accepts USB sticks), an CompactFlash slot and an SD Card slot. Unfortunately connecting an USB Stick caused a number of problems. Especially removing the stick caused a freeze of the system that only could be fixed by a indertiminate number of resets.

Connectivity

Connectivity is provided either via the enclosed travel hub (that also is used for charging the iLiad) or via an wireless connection. There are three connection options.

  • USB Cable (via Travel Hub)
  • Wired Ethernet (Via travel hub)
  • WLAN

USB Cable

The USB Cable ist used to directly connect to a PC or a printer (for printing). I was able to connect to a Windows based PC as well as a MacOSX system. In both cases the iLiad showed up as a drive, and i was able to copy files etc. Disconnecting only worked on a windows PC, with MacOSX disconnecting the drive did to cause the iLiad to return to the non-disk mode and i had to reset the iLiad. Additionally the files prefixed with ._. also showed up on the iLiad which was a bit cumbersome cause i was not able to delete them on the iLiad. Review to be continued …