E-reader roundup: 8 devices compete for the crown

We look at the current state of the market and review 8 of the most popular e-readers

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Spring Design's Alex

Longer than most of its peers, Spring Design's Alex e-reader is slim, trim and elegant to hold and use.

Alex eReader

Alex eReader

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Like the Kobo, Kindle and Nook, the Alex e-reader features a 6-in. E Ink monochrome display, but directly below -- and the reason why it's an extra-tall device -- is a 3.5-in. Android-powered color touch screen. While this over-and-under design supposedly gives users the best of both worlds -- a cool e-reader and state-of-the-art smartphone-like Web browser -- the Alex e-reader's awkward ergonomics and high price erode much of its luster.

The all-black (or all-white) Alex e-reader has a smooth tactile feel and fits well into the palm of your hand, but with single forward and backward page arrows on opposite sides of the device, it's hard reading one-handed.

The E Ink screen is dull-gray, but characters are dark, well formed and legible. The 16-bit color touch screen is roughly the size of a smartphone and is nicely responsive without being overly sensitive.

Besides the page-back/page-forward buttons, there's a power switch on the right, a Back button on the left, and a small sync button between the E Ink and color touch screens. A pair of stereo speakers is on the back, as is a tiny indent for a microSD card, and on top is its Micro USB port and an earphone jack.

What's interesting: The Alex e-reader comes preloaded with a number of public domain classics, plus an Australian version of George Orwell's novel 1984. Its bookstore offers convenient links to popular paid and free e-book sites, including Project Gutenberg, Feedbooks and Smashwords.

What's good: Like the Kindle's, the Alex e-reader's screen is brighter, and the type darker, than some other digital-ink displays'. The full title, author, page number, total pages, progress bar, battery status and local time are displayed in the header and footer.

While you're reading text, the color touch screen displays a progress bar. Slide a finger along it, and the book jumps to the page number wherever you stop. If it's too dark to see the monochrome screen, you can simultaneously display the text on the color touch screen. To conserve the battery, touching the power button will turn off the color touch screen; pressing it again instantly wakes it up. If you wish, you can surf the Web or check e-mail while continuing to read. Like with the iPad, the book covers and contents of the library can be displayed and flipped through with the swipe of a finger.

What's not: The price. It's also a little too tall to stow into a back pocket or a purse. And except for when the tiny font size is selected, the line spacing on the small, normal, large and huge fonts is overly spacious and somewhat distracting.

Bottom line: Spring Design says that two additional Alex e-reader 3G and GSM-equipped models will shortly be available. It's doubtful that any of them will succeed until and unless they are priced competitively.

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