iRex iLiad review by Andrew Marr: bibliophile meets book-killer

He liked it.

“Here is the first crucial thing: the screen does work. By “work”, I mean that the words stand out clearly without shimmering, and that you can certainly read it outside, in dappled light and direct sunlight, as you would not be able to read a normal computer screen. The effect is matt, not shiny, and black-and-white, not colour. Well, to be precise, not black-and-white so much as dark grey characters on a light grey background, which is perhaps part of the secret. The font is modern – not elegant, but effective – and you get far fewer words to the “page” than with a traditional book, though the half-inch borders and generous spacing between paragraphs help you to read. I tried it, reading some Tolstoy and then some Conan Doyle, in the garden, slumped in a chair inside, on a sofa in a dimmish room, and in the back of a car. In each place, it was easy to read; I have spent plenty of time reading it and so far, haven’t felt any eyestrain, or no more than I would have found with a book.”

“For me, the most important moment came reading a Sherlock Holmes story when I suddenly realised I’d been following the tale for several minutes having completely forgotten about the Iliad itself.”

True.

But he prefers books. He sees the benefit in replacing news – papery bits of ephemera:

“And yet … I can now see a way in which this, or its future rivals, could become useful to me. In our house, every day we get mounds of newsprint, much of it thrown instantly away. The stuff hangs around like intellectual scurf, and it’s depressing. For my broadcasting work, another great wodge of briefings, clippings and so on arrives, most days of the week. They pile up. Just looking at them saps the spirit. Then there are the pamphlets and instant books, the magazines and so on. The waste of time and space, as well as paper and transport, increasingly offends me. The energy cost of downloading such material and looking at it on screen is a small fraction of the energy used in printing it out on paper. Being able to download newspapers each morning, which is likely to be possible soon, or the RSS newsfeeds already available everywhere, would be a major bonus. The same goes for the work briefing. Yes, it’s another threat to traditional newspapers, since I would certainly screen out what I don’t read (fashion, sport, much of business news) ahead of time. If I can scrawl all over those bits of “paper”, making my own notes, better still.”

Flesh meets an iRex

This is a long and somewhat involved piece about my new iRex. Despite the frustrations described below, I’m very pleased with it. In fact I was so comfortably engrossed in David Hirsh’s Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections that I got on a Loughton train and only realised at Woodford. And it didn’t even matter because I can now read in gloves in high wind.

I took it down the Pole to show off which was dangerous because D, K, A, B and V were tanking tequila on account of it being Christmas. It took a few swipes but we survived. Sysadmin loves it – she now has me down as a pioneer with money to burn. Veg (if you are up to reading this after all you’ve been through in the past days) knowing how you feel about eInk you’d be really excited about this.

But does it go? For £435 it is absolutely imperative to make it do my bidding.

Preliminaries

  1. Created an account at iRex (https://myirex.irexnet.com) for downloading upgrades etc – important to make sure the email address and password on iRex and the device match.
  2. Downloaded the Companion Software (for more advanced stuff like annotating PDFs, merging the annotations etc) to my laptop. It’s only for XP (they need to sort that out). There’s PDFCreator too if you need it – the optimisation instructions relate to PDFCreator so if you need those it would probably be a good idea to install it.
  3. Downloaded the manuals for the iRex and the Companion Software to have open on the laptop while tinkering with the iRex – although this turned out to have been unnecessary because
  4. I should also have immediately upgraded the software – see below.

iLiad Settings

I could only find 6 pages of iLiad Settings when there were supposed to be 10 (according to the screenshot in the manual) and consequently I didn’t have an option to calibrate my stylus or configure Start-up Settings or try to get the device and laptop synchronise instead of (as currently) the device overwriting the contents of the laptop’s iRex folder.

It took me some time to twig that I had to make an iDS (iRex Delivery Service) connection which would then upgrade the software. This should be prominently signalled rather than lurking in Chapter 14 of the manual.

But I eventually did work it out, though not before leaving a ticket at iRex which wasn’t answered (it’s the Friday before Christmas) and couldn’t be cancelled.

First make an iDS connection and upgrade the software

So once I realised I had to do this it involved making an initial iDS connection. I groped my way through setting up a wireless connection in the Device Manager, and then followed the instructions to connect to iDS for the upgrade. They want you to plug into the power supply because if the connection is broken before the software is downloaded and installed then you have an unusable iRex on your hands.

Then long-clicked the Connect button top right and managed to get a wireless iDS connection and the download/upgrade went pretty smoothly after that.

The iRex then initiated another iDS connection to get some more documentation, but the network connection broke before it finished downloading something or other. Had to restart the router and then became enmeshed in trying to delete network profiles which weren’t connecting but not being able to because it said ‘click’ OK, and all I could see to do was hit OK with the stylus and that didn’t do anything… Oh, you know.

Companion Software – merging scribbles

I annotated a PDF with the stylus and Pen tool and merged my scribbles using the free Companion Software.

  • Merging happens as a separate act from backing-up. Scribbles and docs are merged to a new pdf and the entire collection of files goes in an automatically generated folder on the laptop. The jots remain on the iRex version and any new ones are written to the merged pdf with each successive merge.
  • Remember to close down any open documents in the folder you’re working in or the merge won’t work and you might not realise why because the error messages aren’t helpful
  • If you want handwriting recognition on your merged scribbles (i.e. make them searchable) you can pay for more software.

Some of the options on the Companion Software, including Disconnect, are ghosted out. Plus the Companion Software doesn’t launch on connection – when I open it it flashes up and then disappears to the System Tray, I can go and fish it out but can’t immediately find the settings to make it foreground automatically.

Mobipocket

Mobipocket is a free install for downloading ebooks and grabbing news feeds. You can even set up the iRex to wake itself up at a given time and download news each day. The format isn’t so pretty (Harry’s Place comments and posts mingled with each other nightmarishly, but the Guardian Technology feed wasn’t too bad) but there it is.

Also downloaded a sample of Wolves of the Crescent Moon (banned in Saudi) – which consisted of reviews and author information.

All very straightforward – except I couldn’t eject the iRex, kept saying “device busy”.

Expansion cards and drives

It will take a USB drive, MMC, CF cards and, unofficially, SD cards no bigger than 1Gb. Once plugged into the laptop, it behaves like another drive, and will carry – though not read – any type of data.

User experience

Getting html, text and PDFs over is fine – I’ve been using USB. PDF format brings out the best in the iRex (handles layout faithfully, you can zoom in and out on images, and it’s the only format in which you can annotate).

The How to Make Content manual gives tips about making optimised PDFs in terms of margins, paper-size of 124x152mm, a reference for how different fonts and sizes appear on the screen etc. But so far PDFs beyond my control have resized fine and you can shave off the whitespace and reorientate to landscape if there’s a problem.

It’s comfortable to read. It’s clear, matt, black against pale-grey and there’s no backlight.

It came with a shoulder bag but in search of a more book-like experience I got a protective case for it – like for a filofax in firey pink. It and has holes cut out for every button and display – except the stylus. You have to dig around for the stylus, or try to nudge the iRex out of the case, which is hard because it’s a tight fit.

What I like though is that with 14 hours of life I’t’s not necessary to switch off – I just shut the case and open it up again when I’m ready at precisely the right spot. Like a book. You have to fold the case back on itself to use the long vertical Flipbar to turn pages, though. Not really a problem.

It’s very comfortable. And I have several 100+ page docs on there already. I’ve got a read_me tag on Diigo I can work my way through.

Stuff that could be better

I want to connect to a computer with mini-USB, not a weird ‘travel hub’.

Since downloading the upgrade I can’t seem to get a network connection – wired or wireless.

This is a big one – I can’t search for keywords in individual documents. Why?

It’s a teeny bit slower than I’d like.

If I lose the stylus there’s a lot I can’t do.

And that’s all for now.

From Der Spiegel: How a UNICEF photo makes the West’s heart ache

“An 11-year-old child bride sits next to her 40-year-old fiance. For UNICEF, this was the Photo of the Year. Dutch writer Leon de Winter laments the perversity of this wedding picture and the frightening relativism of the West.”

See it and 10 others in the UNICEF Photos of the Year gallery on Der Spiegel Online International. Have hankies to hand.

eReader, hyperventilating with guilt – so much £, oh well…

I think I’m going to spend a significant amount of money on something I first saw on the District Line last month – an iRex iLiad Reader (second edition).

It has an electrophoretic display (eInk, tiny dyed particles which collect or recede according to an electrical charge) which doesn’t refresh or require backlighting and consequently allows a claimed 14-hour battery life. It’s roughly the same dimensions and weight as a book and for me this is a big draw – I don’t like reading from regular laptop screens because of glare, ergonomics, and the matter of having something heavy in my shoulder bag as I roam round London. I find my various other devices uncomfortable for reading as well.

It supports PDF, XHTML, TXT and MP3 – at the moment that means journal articles, out-of-copyright ebooks from e.g. Project Gutenberg, podcasts, subscription services via the iRex site and a growing number of copyright ebooks too. This will suit me fine. Mostly I’m PDFs and HTML.

It has a stylus and handwriting recognition – you can use it to generally take notes and you can annotate the texts and integrate the annotations. I take things in best if I do the ‘dialogue with the text’ thing and scrawl all over it.

OK, you can’t do much else with it except read, write and draw – apart from Libresco’s subscription service (newspapers etc) there’s nothing interesting to do with the Internet connection, no animation, no colour – although there is sound and it functions as a hard drive for moving stuff around. This is more than fine by me – I usually carry at least one book and several papers with me at any one time, I have to carry the books in an old cardboard Amazon pack so they don’t get dog-eared – more weight – I take notes on paper because I draw, and then find myself separated from old pads when I need them. Now I’ll have everything on cards.

I feel extremely guilty of extravagance. But I read a lot which, besides being good in itself, reclaims the time London always tries to steal. Reading makes perfect sense of my commute. And now I can read on platforms with my gloves on. And I’m saving the trees. Besides, I am such a Cinderella of learning technology, always trailing edge – I want to be glamorous around campus and become known as an inspiring technological trailblazer.

So what the hell.

There are reviews – an early overview from Sandra Vogel, a more technical assessment from Ego Food,and a fuller more recent Sandra Vogel review. The bloke who let me play with it on the train really liked it and his enthusiasm was infectious – I’ve been thinking about it ever since. So when I came into a bit of extra £ I thought about it some more, and it didn’t seem any less appealing, nor did my purse-strings constrict. I want it – I will have it, why not?

OK, I went and bought it from Libresco, which says it’s iRex’s official distributor, the bloke was really helpful and I’ll tell you tomorrow whether I have it.

The first thing I’m going to put on it will be David Hirsh’s Anti-Zionism and antisemitism: cosmopolitan reflections. The second will be That’s funny, you don’t look antisemitic by Steve Cohen. Then the most recent issue of Democratiya, and probably all the previous ones too. I’ll probably stick the Euston Manifesto conference MP3s on it too. Then all of the AWL’s recommended reading for their week school on Marxism and Anarchism. And that will be one ream of paper saved – and that’s if I print at 4 sides a sheet.

Oh it’s going to be great.