Irex Technologies, Iliad – More than a year together
I decided to write this review for two reasons. First of all, although there are so many reviews out there, no one has tracked the device and its development or evolution for over a year. I did. Also, there is a personal story of using Irex Technologies Iliad that I would like to tell.
I started tracking development of e-Ink or e-Paper based devices sometime in 2002 or 2003, when I heart about this wonderful technology for the first time. The perspective of having screen with paper like DPI thrilled me. I am respectful to paper books, yet in terms of convenience and ease of use, analogue media already lost it to digital media in nearly every possible aspect. Consider MP3, personal media players with movie playing capabilities. Etc. Yet, the only direction in which digital media didn’t make much progress was reading and books. LCD screen based e-book readers lack many features that are a must in devices of this kind: readability, battery power, etc. As far as readability concerned, I assume either you yourself experienced headache or heart about people suffering from this problem when reading from LCD screen. Not to mention endless problem of reading at sunlight. On the other hand constantly emitting light, like LCD screens do, causes high power consumption, thus rises requirements for the power source – the battery. Problem of power consumption is even worse when combined with reading at sun-light issues.
Considering this, no wonder LCD screen based e-book readers didn’t take off. What about other technologies, you may ask? There is no monitor technology that would be suitable for intensive reading. On the contrary, other technologies are even more problematic then LCD. Something had to change and it did. With introduction of e-Ink screens.
A word on technology
I don’t want to dig too deeply into technical details of how things work in e-Ink screens. Yet at least on paper the idea is quiet simple. Screen consists of positively charged dark particles and negatively charged white particles. Charge applied to one side of the screen. Positive charge draws negative particles, pushing positive particles to the other side of the screen. Same thing, with opposite polarity, happens when applying negative charge.
Irex Technologies Iliad
After waiting for several years for the new dream gadget, such gadgets finally began to appear. At first it was Japan only. Irex Technologies, a Philips spin off, was the first firm to release e-Ink based device in Europe. Few month after its initial release it became available in the middle east and I couldn’t wait any longer. It cost me almost 900$ including taxes, delivery and customs to Israeli authorities that didn’t know how to handle the device and detained it until I payed another 60$ and explained them myself what the hell is this. I didn’t think about the price. I had to get one and I did it.
At first, I was astonished by simplicity of packaging. Cool looking box contained only three items – USB cable, charger/USB/Ethernet hub and the device itself. I expected to see a manual, yet it wasn’t there. After thinking about it, I concluded that all documentation should be in the device itself. After all, this is a device for reading texts.
So, I decided to turn it on and see for myself. My first guess was that On/Off button is the big round button in the right top corner, yet after pushing it for a while I concluded that either the device is broken or the On/Off button is somewhere else. This is when I thought that it still might be a good idea to see a manual before turning it on. Luckily I was next to a computer. I browsed to Irex’s web-site and downloaded the manual. It appeared that power button is not the round button in the right top corner but a little needle at the bottom edge of the device. After I pulled it, the screen blinked and I saw the e-Ink technology in action for the first time in my life.
I must say that it is one amazing technology. Well you can see the pixels, but they are small. And by small I mean really small. You can see the text under any angle and it does look like paper. The surface color is bright grayish beige. The darkest black appears as dark gray color.
The device has a resolution of 1024×768 pixels. And since the screen size is only 8 inch (diagonal) you get nice around 160 DPI (Dots Per Inch). This is twice more then you have on a regular LCD panel and you enjoy every dot per every inch out of it
After playing around with the device, I decided to see what kind of settings are available for me. The device’s user interface is very intuitive so it didn’t take me much time to figure out where are the goodies. It appeared that software version installed on my Iliad was 2.5, despite specs on the package clearly stated that it is 2.6. Moreover, the Irex’s web-site stated that all new units sold with 2.6. And what’s the first thing you do with a gadget when you know that newer version of software is available? Of course, you upgrade. So did I.
I configured wireless network, plugged it into power hub and did a long press on the connect button (the button in the right top corner – more on buttons later). Upgrade went almost smoothly. The only problem was that I had to retry the installation twice – first time it got stalled and I had to reset. My prayers were answered because after the reset it booted with good old 2.5. Second attempt went so much better and I ended up with brand new 2.6.
After reading few documents that were already on the device (readme, release-notes, etc ), I decided its time to try some of my own content. I had latest Intel’s x86 PDF specs and I decided to give them a try. I’ll spear you a story of what happened during next couple of hours. I think you can make a guess yourself, knowing that USB cable I received with the device wasn’t good and I had to use my own – luckily, it is a standard USB to square-USB cable. So after few hours long headache I was finally reading my beloved x86 spec.
Well… When you think about it, it really shouldn’t surprise anyone. I mean PDFs made for A4 paper will not render well on a A5 screen. Yet, it was some sort of disappointment. On the other hand it really has nothing to do with Iliad, since most of the e-Ink based devices have relatively small display. Later, Irex partially solved this problem by adding zoom in feature in PDF viewer.
Something that draw my attention immediately after I turned it on was the fact that it takes so much time for it to boot. I mean my PC usually boots faster then Iliad. By much time I mean 40 seconds, more or less. I’ve seen people wondering if this will ever change and prognoses on this are quiet pessimistic. More on this later.
Now let’s say few words about Iliad’s features. After all Irex always claimed Iliad is business oriented device, thus it should be packet with lots of stuff. And actually, it is:
- Support for several different formats, PDF, HTML, Mobipocket, etc.
- Supports MP3 and has audio jack. The only problem with this feature is that they never implemented it. More on this later.
- Touch screen – correct me if I am wrong, but this is the only e-Ink device with touch screen at the moment. More on this later.
- Wi-fi, ethernet and USB connectivity.
- MMC/SD and CF (I/II) slots for more memory.
- Exceptionally (for this kind of devices) powerful CPU (xScale at 400MHz).
- 64Mb of RAM and 128Mb of internal memory.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned, MP3 support actually never appeared. HTML is indeed supported but only few languages supported (actually this is something that changes so keep up with the updates). This is a serious problem for someone who reads other languages, such as myself.
Touch screen is nice, but here’s something that Irex never mention when they advertise Iliad. e-Ink is quiet slow. Meaning that no matter what you draw, it will appear something like 0.5-1 second after you drew it and this is really annoying. In my case, it is so annoying, I stopped using Iliad for sketching and writing almost immediately, despite I hoped it would become a replacement for my paper note book that I often use.
You can easily guess why you need USB connectivity but Wi-Fi and Ethernet? At the moment, the only feature that uses Wi-Fi and Ethernet is downloading firmware updates. Otherwise it is completely useless. Now obviously there is a reason why Iliad has them, but year and half after Iliad was introduced for the first time, we still can only speculate. One possible reason is that Iliad going to let you browse Mobipocket book catalog and buy stuff right from the device. We will see.
Of course you need a memory card slot. Of course you don’t need two slots. You could argue that some people may not have MMC/SD or CF card and having two cards is convenient, but truly, do you know a person that doesn’t own a MMC/SD card?
Finally, I simply cannot explain why there’s so powerful CPU in it? You could argue that Irex probably are going to add more features that will raise the CPU consumption, but nothing like this happened since Iliad was released for the first time. And I doubt it will ever happen. Actually, after reading release notes each time they released a software upgrade, I noticed that Irex spent great deal of time trying to keep the CPU running at 100MHz most of the time (to reduce power consumption). Go figure.
Having too powerful CPU, useless Ethernet and Wi-FI controllers, useless memory card slot and a touch screen skyrockets the price for the device. No wonder this is one of the most expensive e-Ink based devices at the moment.
The backside thing
Take a look at the picture. What is that you see on it? This is a backside of 1st edition of Iliad. The backside seems to be designed for some stand or holding device. Yet, there is no holding device, neither stand for Irex Iliad.
Moreover, in September 2007 Irex announced a new edition of Iliad. Let me quote “The iLiad 2nd edition features a fully redesigned backside that looks more elegant and also provides more stability when the iLiad is laying on a surface”.
Now I must say that this whole backside thing sounds, smells and looks like a complete joke. I suppose there are things that you can do with backside of the device. Things like placing retractable leg that would let to have Iliad standing and not laying. Yet these features bypassed Iliad. Instead it features useless backside design that was redesigned in 2nd edition. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find pictures of the backside of 2nd edition.
One of the things Irex advertise is the flip button used to turn pages. I certainly agree that the button is indeed very convenient. Yet, it may start getting jammed a bit, sometimes causing Iliad to interpret single press and a long press turning five pages instead of one. And it is exceptionally annoying if all you wanted to do is to turn to a next page and instead you jump five pages ahead and try to get back, page by page, but then suddenly it jumps five pages back and eventually you flip two pages back instead of one page forward (other combinations are possible, taking you to any page within ten pages range but not to the next page). Can’t tell if this is a software or a hardware problem. Also I can’t tell you if it will happen to you too. It did happen to me.
Other buttons are handy. I suppose you’ve seen them on pictures. There are four dedicated buttons that take you to different sections of device’s memory – the news, books, docs and notes buttons. You can configure a folder to which you’ll be taken once you press any of these buttons. Pressing any of these buttons twice will take you to the last document you’ve read from that category.
Below the flip button, there’s a next and prev buttons and the enter button. Above the flip button there’s a menu button that takes you to main menu of the device and a up button that takes you to higher level in the menu.
You are probably wondering what’s next and prev buttons needed for. After all, there’s a flip button. Actually, next and prev complement the flip button. In menu, flip button allows you to step over pages of menu items (six items per page), while next and prev buttons allow you to walk through menu item after item.
The power button is a completely different story. It is exceptionally inconvenient. You really must to have your fingernails in good shape to turn Iliad on. Furthermore, not only you have to reach that needle, but you also have to hold it pressed for a second or two. There is absolutely no chance of pressing it accidentally. Yet you still have to hold it pressed to turn the device on. This is perhaps the most annoying imperfections that Irex afforded to have.
Irex Iliad is a Linux based device. It’s interface built using, believe it or not, X windows toolkit. From one point of view it should ease software development. From the other point of view, it gives the interface slightly oldish look and feel – considering the monochromatic nature of the device it might be an advantage.
The Iliad’s interface is relatively well thought. There are eight items in the main menu
- Iliad Settings
- Iliad Profiles
- Reference Materials
- Recent Documents
- CF Card
- MMC Card
- USB Stick
- Main Memory
As I already mentioned there are four dedicated buttons that take you into news, books, docs or notes folders in either CF card, MMC card, USB stick or main memory (default). You can also use the main menu to get to one of these.
Anyway, things seems to be good more or less. The only thing that I didn’t like was the operation of the menu itself. First it is too bulky on the screen. There is absolutely no reason to limit number of items appearing on such a large screen to six – compare with Sony PRS-50X, pressing tens of items onto smaller screen. Other thing that I didn’t like very much is that the menu is so slow. I mean with so much RAM and CPU power, Iliad could draw in memory every possible menu item long before I attempt to access it and only show a picture once the menu is accessed. Instead it takes over a second, and sometimes even more, to open a menu item.
On the other hand, Irex tend to solve this kind of problems and in this particular case I think it will be solved at a time.
One of the problems with all e-Ink based devices that I’ve seen is that they are not comfortable to hold. Despite this device is mostly hand held, Iliad in particular doesn’t have much space for a grip. This is bad for people with big hands, such as myself. Iliad is also not very comfortable for people with small hands because it is quiet heavy. It seems that Irex didn’t put too much effort into thinking about how people going to hold it.
This emphasizes the negative impression I got when was looking for power button. As far as ease of use and ergonomics concerned, Irex could do a much better job.
To complement this, I admit that I didn’t see other companies placing too much effort into solving this problem.
The power thing
Irex are doing excellent job keeping the device working for as long as possible. Also, this is one of the issues that improves over the time. When I received Iliad it was working for 6-8 hours. Now, with version 2.11 it’s supposed to be 12. Yet, just to make things a little bitter I must remind that Irex were selling 20 hours non-stop. They are no longer advertising anything like this today, but this is what I payed for.
Still, having a device like this working for 10 and even more hours straight is almost too much to ask.
The boot time thing
Iliad boots in 40 seconds. This is absolutely awful. Perhaps they’ve planned people having Iliad on for whole day. I don’t know. I was mostly using it for periods from couple of minutes, to couple of hours and while in later case waiting 40 seconds for it to boot is more or less acceptable, waiting 40 seconds just to read for two minutes (or actually what have left from them), is too much.
I encountered several discussions regarding this issue on different forums on the web. The final verdict, told by the Irex themselves, was that it is impossible to shorten boot time. This is mostly due to amount of hardware devices on board that have to be initialized. Also it is impossible to implement suspend/resume features because hardware was never designed for something like this. I am not sure this is completely true, there is nothing we can do about it. 2nd edition of the device didn’t bring so awaited salvation. 40 seconds boot time it is.
Once in couple of months Irex releasing a new version of software for Iliad. Although it usually brings nothing exceptionally new to your Iliad experience, most of the time it does include nice improvements here and there. Over the time, Iliad’s battery life got better. New features, such as zoom in that I already mentioned and landscape mode, had appeared. It now supports Mobipocket, which is a very nice addition to the overall feature set.
One of the things that significantly improved Iliad experience was an improved PDF viewer page rendering time. As I mentioned e-Ink screens are very slow. It takes it almost a second to redraw itself. Irex did software changes to make this process much faster.
SDK for Iliad
One of the things Irex promised and accomplished was a release of SDK for Iliad. Iliad is Linux based device, running Linux kernel 2.4. It took them some time, but eventually the SDK is here and the results can already be seen – take the Sudoku game for Iliad for example.
The release of SDK makes me believe that MP3 support will arrive – and if Irex won’t add mp3 support, someone else will do it for them.
Last time I checked there were some problems installing home brew Iliad software – this process isn’t standardized yet. However things are changing and I believe more home brew software will appear and it will be much easier to install it.
I applied for technical support twice. In both cases it was exceptionally slow and tedious process.
I’ve heart about people who were luckier then me. I think it depends on how you buy it and if there is a local distributor in your country. If you’re wondering how’s tech. support in your country, you better check on local forums and see what people are saying.
In case there is no local distributor in your country and you intend to buy directly from Irex, the technical support process is awful. If something goes wrong with your Iliad and it has to be repaired they send you a special box. You should place your Iliad into the box and send it back to them. Then, few weeks later they will send you a replacement unit. No, they won’t repair your unit. They will send you someone esle’s, repaired unit. And they won’t delete information from your Iliad before sending it to someone else, so make sure you don’t have any sensitive information on Iliad before sending it to repair. In addition you may run into problems with your local tax authorities – most likely they have no idea what’s Irex Iliad and why you and Irex Technologies LTD. want to exchange expensive goods without paying any customs.
I did it twice (see “Iliad vs. me” below) and in both cases the whole process took month and half.
Their technical support personnel isn’t exactly listening to you (reading your emails). Once they understand what’s the problem, they follow a procedure. They have procedures for every occasion and they will follow the procedure ignoring any of your attempts to speed things up. And you do want to speed things up because it is really slow.
Finally, luckily, it won’t cost you money (except for customs) if your Iliad is on warranty. Otherwise you will have to buy a “Repair Voucher” that can be as much as 112$.
I think I covered most of the interesting aspects of Irex Iliad. In my opinion the technology is absolutely amazing. Yet so far Irex Iliad failed to deliver what they sell. Perhaps this can be compensated by the fact that the technology is so new. Hopefully one day they will overcome the problems that Iliad has and it will become a killer device. They are making some progress (although I am not sure that the direction is right). In the meantime it is up to you to device whether to spend your money on the device.
Iliad vs. me.
As a post script to this review, I would like to tell you what have happened to me personally.
I bought Iliad a second after it became available here, in Israel. Payed for it a small fortune. At first I liked it very much, but after two months two horizontal stripes appeared in the middle of the screen. The stripes didn’t disappear when device was turned on and off. I ignored them, but then they became wider and eventually I had to apply to Irex’s technical support.
It took two months to complete box/replacement unit cycle. Most of them I spent without Iliad, reading books from my old pocket PC. I payed 30$ to Israeili customs authorities when I received the box for the first time – this is because they decided to check what kind of item costs 1$ and detained it. I had to pay 30$ storage fee (when they detain things, they store them).
I asked technical support, several times, what caused this problem and if there is a way to avoid this problem in the future. They ignored all my questions.
There was one problem with the replacement unit – the stylus for the touch screen was very loose in its slot. It was falling off its slot when you simply upended Iliad. I thought it is nothing, until one day I lost it. You can use Iliad without a stylus if you only need it for reading, but there are some things that require that darn stylus. For instance, you can’t change network settings without it.
I decided not to buy a new stylus because it was simply too expensive. Consider paying 50$ for piece of cheap plastic crappy stylus that you are going to loose anyway. It is cheaper now. Only 30$. Yet still too expensive for me.
Three months after I received a replacement unit, once again, a horizontal stripe appeared in the middle of the screen. It widened with time, so I applied for technical support again. This time I wasn’t too patient and got almost blunt in my emails to them. Don’t know if it has anything to do with my bluntness or it was bad luck, but this time, the cycle took months, again.
Replacement unit I received obviously wasn’t configured to work with my home wireless network. Since I didn’t have a stylus to configure it, I got stacked with version 2.10 of the software. Still, I kept using it, until three months ago vertical stripe appeared in the middle of the screen. This time the 1 year warranty was over so I decided not to apply for technical support but to write this review instead.
At the moment I’m saving some money to buy myself a new ebook reader. Didn’t decide which one to buy yet, but it certainly won’t be Irex Technologies Iliad.
I hope you found this article useful. Fill free to leave comments.