iRex DR800S ebook reader review

On first impressions, the DR800S (on sale from www.libresco.com) does an uncanny impression of a paperback. It’s got an 8-inch screen – that’s only a couple of inches bigger than the 6-inch norm, but it hits the sweetspot; it has almost twice the screen real estate of the Kindle International, Sony Pocket or iRiver Story, but remains vastly more portable than the 9.7-inch Kindle DX.

OK, so the LED light on its left-hand corner that flashes is distinctly un-book like, but it lies atop a novel "flipbar" that apes how most people actually use a book. Hold the device like a book and the flipbar that your left thumb rests on can be gently rocked to turn the page. It can even be configured within the device’s setting menus to work either way, so you can turn pages as you would a book (right to left), or the other way around.

The flipbar can be used to operate all the DR800S’s menus, which are called up by a small button underneath the flipbar; again, it’s comfortable to use because it’s directly under your thumb.

It’s so easy and logical that we actually missed this feature completely for a few hours, reason being that the DR800S comes with a stylus pen that lives in the device’s included faux-leather case (a rarity in itself for an ebook reader). If you prefer, that pen can be used to operate all the DR800S’ functions, from turning pages to operating all of the menus.

That’s right – the DR800S has a touchscreen, though in practice it’s not really needed – yet. A software upgrade – version 2.0 – has just been announced for the end of April that will bring a new lease of life for both the touchscreen and stylus. Previous ebook readers from iRex, such as the Iliad and DR1000, have included software that allows both note-taking and scribbled annotations on PDFs, so we could see something similar come April’s end.

Happily, that April update also appears to address the DR800S’ main shortcomings. One problem is with the unit’s zoom function. While it’s a cinch to increase the font size on most documents, it doesn’t always work with PDFs, either failing to zoom at all, or leaving the text unwrapped.

We also found that the home screen failed to list important details of documents such as the title and author until after the document had been read. Ditto for thumbnails; tiny images of a document’s first page, as well as photos, were not presented in menus until after we’d viewed the file.

Again, we’re assured that this is about to be fixed, which should create a more rounded experience.

While it’s not locked into any online buying of books (unlike the US version, which hooks-up to the Barnes & Noble store using 3G – something that should come to these shores later in 2010), the DR800S doesn’t have complete file compatibility.

EPUB and PDB ebooks (Barnes & Noble’s format), TXT, PDF, JPEG, TIFF, GIF, BMP files (pictures look particularly good on this 16-shade greyscale E-Ink screen) are all dealt with, though HTML web pages, RTF files and Microsoft Office documents are not. iRex’s take on Microsoft compatibility is that business users who are likely to buy the DR800S at this price will be savvy enough to save any Word files they want to read as a PDFs directly to the DR800S.

And that’s the easiest way to transfer files to and from the DR800S; although it’s fitted with a 2GB microSD card that can be accessed – and swapped for a bigger version should you so desire – by unscrewing the back panel, it’s a bit of a fiddle.

Importantly for PDFs, and for anyone wanting to read in large print, the orientation of the DR800S can be changed to landscape, though that requires delving into the menu.

But most importantly, the DR800S is quick. Quick to load (most) documents, turning the page takes a fraction less than on most ebook readers.

Verdict

This is a serious ebook reader that’s designed for more than just books. That said, it doesn’t have half-baked ambitions beyond reading – the large screen real estate, compatibility with a plethora of file types (including photos) and fast page flipping makes this a pricey, pro-level ebook reader that’s a step ahead of the competition. Easy to operate with the best screen we’ve seen on such a device, the iRex DR800S is a great read, though something of a luxury; that excellent E-Ink screen comes at a high cost.