Review: Spring Design Alex E-Book Reader

E-mail, photos and a web browser in an e-reader: Wow! That’s almost like an iPad. Except it’s not.

The Alex is a dedicated e-book reader that uses a 6-inch, black-and-white E Ink display but also includes a tiny 3.5-inch LCD touchscreen.

The idea is that you read books on the E Ink screen but leverage the color LCD for doing everything else the device is capable of from checking e-mail to surfing the internet to playing video clips and viewing photos.

Sound familiar? That’s because it is. Alex’s design is very close to the Barnes & Noble Nook that launched last year. (The two companies are embroiled in a legal fight over the design.)

Lawsuits aside, the Alex has a snappy, easy-to-navigate user interface. Flip on the LCD display and the reader shows two rows of neatly arranged icons that take you to the bookstore, browser, images gallery and e-mail.

Under the hood, Alex runs Android OS. Setting up a Gmail account was dead easy, and the machine supports up to five separate e-mail addresses.

The touchscreen browser doesn’t have pinch-to-zoom, but the single finger scroll works well. And the internet surfing experience is decent. What’s annoying, though, is that entering a URL into the browser is an exercise in redundancy.

Just tapping on the URL box in the browser doesn’t work. Instead, you have to hold the right-hand page-turn button down to draw up a tab of options and then enter the web address there. It’s a bit like turning your windshield wipers on and then tuning the radio to 91.1 FM in order to start up your car.

Despite the optimistic video and YouTube feature, the Alex’s processor isn’t powerful enough to actually handle video. We found a strong W-Fi connection and loaded up a YouTube clip of kittens romping around. The resulting video, however, ended up being a choppy, pixilated blur.

There’s also a music player integrated into the Alex but unless you like your tunes tinny, you’d be better off plugging into your iPod or just sit in silence.

But these are all multimedia options on a device that’s designed for reading books. How does the Alex fare with its primary assignment? Fairly well, in fact. It uses the same E Ink screen as the Kindle, Sony and Nook, so text is sharp and clear in bright light. But where the Alex falls short is in the content department. Unlike the Kindle or Nook, there’s no 3G access on the device, so you can download books only by Wi-Fi.

There’s also no integrated bookstore. In order to obtain text you’ve got to wrangle it on sites like Google books first then transfer it to the Alex.

And, oh yeah, since Amazon uses a different standard for Kindle books, don’t bother going to the Amazon bookstore.

In all, the Alex is an interesting e-reader packed with extras, but at twice the price of the Kindle, it’s way too much. For just $100 more you can get an iPad, which is far more versatile and has many fewer usability quirks.

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