What would you get if you crossed Google's Android operating system with Wi-Fi, an e-ink display and a touch-sensitive color display? You'd get something called Alex, an e-book reader with an unusual configuration manufactured by Spring Design.
Physically Alex is a 7.9 by 4.7 by 0.4 inch thick, 11-ounce tablet with two screens; a 6-inch monochrome eInk electronic paper display (EPD) with 800 by 600 resolution and a 3.5-inch capacitive touch, full-color LCD screen. In use, the Alex is held in portrait mode with the large EPD above the smaller LCD display.
On the right side of the LCD is the power button and a "next page" button, while on the left side are buttons for "previous page" and "go back." Between the two screens is a synchronization button.
This last button is clever; it enables and disables the copying of the content display from one screen to the other. For example, if you're reading an e-book, pressing the sync button duplicates the EPD contents on the LCD display, which also shows on-screen functions that include access to the other documents in the on-board library, access to the document's table of contents, bookmark creation and retrieval, access to annotations and the highlighter, font size control, dictionary access, and, rather cleverly, access to e-mail and Twitter for sharing clipped content.
But the Alex is much more than an e-book reader; it's also a pad-style computer courtesy of the Android OS. When you're not reading electronic books you can listen to music, browse photos or watch stored videos. Then, when you're connected to the Internet (the Wi-Fi 802.11b/g version is shipping now and EVDO/CDMA and HSPA/GSM will be available this summer), you can download new content (from Google Books, Epub Books, The Gutenberg Project, Web Books, Feed Books or Smash Words) or browse the Web, watch YouTube videos or check your e-mail.
On the plus side, the dual display system works very well (although it is perhaps a little complex for the general consumer market) and the battery life is excellent (with Wi-Fi switched off the company claims you can read for around two weeks).
On the minus side, the Alex has some issues that really need addressing, most particularly the current lack of support for the Android Market, which means that all sorts of useful applications aren't yet available.
The dictionary also needs serious work. For example, under the entry for "settings" the third definition given is the inexplicable "(AmE) = SET (5)". Performance is also a little lackluster (page "turns" are slow) while the "Web Grabs" feature listed on Spring's site doesn't yet exist.
There's also no support for tethering the Alex to a PC or a smartphone and no Bluetooth support, which seems silly. Finally, and most importantly, the lack of support for simple text files and PDF documents are serious oversights.
At $399 the Alex looks expensive. It doesn't have the polish or broad functionality of the iPad, which costs just $100 more, and the Alex user interface is also much less intuitive. On the other hand the Alex is smaller, lighter and has way better battery life. If the Alex were to come down somewhat in price, get PDF support and provide Android Market access, it would be far more competitive.
That said, I like the Alex … a clever idea and a nice design with lots of potential. The Alex gets a rating of 4 out of 5.