iRiver seems to be taking the ebook reader category seriously. We recently looked at their Story with Wi-Fi and now they have launched the Cover Story, their take on the touchscreen approach to ebook reading. There are two versions of the Cover Story: the Basic on review here (£149) and a Wi-Fi version (£179).
We've criticised touchscreen E Ink devices in the past because of the added reflection they encountered which detracted from the reading experience. Can the iRiver Cover Story cut it in what is becoming an increasingly competitive market?
The iRiver Cover Story owes its name to a slightly odd cover arrangement. An additional plastic cover comes with the device that will sit over the front to protect the screen, and in use will attach to the back. A choice of colours are available, the idea being that you can personalise your device. It attaches magnetically, but these magnets don't seem to be particularly strong and on a number of occasions we found the cover separated from the device whilst in a bag. A traditional folding cover would be much preferred, but the sleek design doesn't offer any attachment points for such a cover, more's the shame.
Having rubbished the namesake USP, let's see if the rest of the device fares any better. From a design point of view, it is reasonably inoffensive on the eyes. Constructed from solid-feeling plastic, it lacks the strokability of Sony's aluminium Reader series, but outclasses some of the less tactile devices from a materials point of view. The curved edges make it a nice ebook reader to hold and it feels comfortable in the hand.
The Cover Story measures 126.3 x 168.2 x 9.5mm, so it is shorter than many that offer extra buttons and controls across the bottom of the screen. The screen measures 6-inches on the diagonal, and gives you an 800 x 600 pixel resolution, which is entirely typical for this type of E Ink ebook reader device.
Unfortunately the screen suffers from the same failing that the first generation of Sony Reader Touch edition devices did: reflections and poor contrast. Comparing the Cover Story to a standard non-touch display, its clear that in going touch you have to live with those reflections, which we found something of a distraction when reading. Some, however, may well be happy to rearrange their reading environment to lessen glare, but it isn't the best it could be.
Unfortunately for iRiver, we've recently seen updated touchscreen Readers from Sony, which have improved this reflection problem, increased the greyscale colour depth to 16 shades (over the 8 offered by the Cover Story) and improved the contrast. We've yet to review those devices fully, but from what we've seen, the iRiver Cover Story pales (literally) in comparison.
The biggest problem we found was in contrast on the Cover Story. The background is grey, which is fine, but the text is grey too and we'd like it to be closer to black so it is more distinct. This isn't helped by the iRiver's user interface which is unnecessarily small in places – more on which later.
For those that aren't entirely savvy with E Ink, it is essentially a passive display technology. It is extremely energy efficient because it doesn’t use backlighting. Yes, you can't see it in the dark, but the raison d'être for E Ink is to replicate paper. It isn't designed to be the all-singing, all-dancing LCD display you'll find in an increasing number of tablet devices, but is literally designed to be like reading a book.
Whilst tablets such as the Apple iPad or the Samsung Galaxy Tab will also offer support for the file types and features here, the experience is vastly different and it shouldn't be a case of either or with these devices. If you want to replicate the experience of reading a book without the hassle of storing all your books at home, or carrying 15 books on holiday, then this one way to go.
Working around the device you get an indication of the other features it offers. A volume control resides on the left-hand side that works in cahoots with the 3.5mm headphone jack on the bottom and/or the speaker on the back. The Cover Story supports MP3/WMA/OGG files, so you can throw on a little music or perhaps even the Pocket-lint Podcast to keep you entertained. It won't win any prizes for audio quality and you need to be aware that comparatively music files are fairly large so will eat into the 2GB memory fairly quickly.
That might not be an issue as you'll also find an SD card slot hiding under a flap on the bottom accepting SDHC cards up to 32GB for expansion, which is a simple way to add music or other files. Hiding under the same flap you'll also find the Mini-USB hole for charging and connecting to your PC.
There is an internal mic that allows you to record voice notes (as MP3) and finally there is a stylus tucked away at the top of the device. Away from touch navigation, there is a controller bar on the left-hand edge offering home, return, forward and backwards (page turning). You can reorient the screen if you want this control on the right-hand side instead.
In general operation the stylus is unnecessary. The user interface presents itself looking like as a set of shelves. The top shelf has your recent books sitting on it and below this you have the "Media+" section to access music, recordings, the dictionary (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary) and finally settings. There is then a line of drawers offering Books, Comics, Bookmark (sic), My Folder, Memo/Snapshot.
You can pick a slightly different style of interface that rearranges this setup if you prefer, but overall we can't help feeling the home screen is a little fussy. Some, however, might be taken by the break away from conventional lists and menus. One criticism is that some of the text is small and if you want an ebook reader to take advantage of easy magnification, you'll have to wait till you get past the menus before you can do this.
Once you are into reading a book the Cover Story is nice enough. You can move through pages fast enough using the navigation bar, or by tapping on the screen - you can even tap on different sides to get a forward or backwards page turn. The page refreshes are fast enough for normal reading.
Tapping at the top of bottom of a page will bring up in-text options. These include the options of scribbling a memo (using the stylus or your finger), taking a snapshot (screengrab), which lets you adjust the area you snap which may or may not be of use. Of a more conventional use in this section is the bookmark option and text sizing, as well as access to the dictionary.
The dictionary option opens an on-screen keyboard so you can look-up the word in question, or a long press will pull up a definition of that word, although we found it wasn't always easy to hit the word we wanted with smaller text sizes. You can also annotate the text by scribbling on the screen and save your notes so they'll be there when you return to that page in the book.
Format support is good, with the mainstay EPUB being the format you'll encounter most if you plan to buy DRM content from online bookstores to read on the iRiver Cover Story. To make this possible you'll have to have Adobe Digital Editions on your computer to authorise the device and to handle the unlocking of the protected files for you to read. It's a shame that there is no mention of this in the Quick Start Guide that iRiver supply, as this is a point of confusion for many newcomers to ebook readers.
iRiver also have their own software – iRiver Plus 4 – but we found this fiddly to use so is probably best ignored. You can connect to your PC or Mac via USB and then drag and drop content into the relevant folders. The Cover Story comes preloaded with a collection of out-of-copyright classics which you might want to delete (or remove) to make it easier to find the content you actually want.
Major file types are supported, so you can view PDF and DOC as well as a range of image file types for viewing comics or pictures. PDF handling has been an issue for some ebook readers in the past. The Cover Story lets you zoom to eliminate white space from the original document and we like how close to the bezel the Cover Story lets you go – so you don't get the border that commonly sits around text on an E Ink screen. You can also zoom in on a particular part of a page, but if you then turn the page, you get a zoom of the same position on the next page, so you need to remember to return to a full page before moving on.
iRiver claim the Cover Story battery will give you 11,000 page turns and in the past we've used E Ink devices for around 3 weeks on a single charge. Listening to music will dramatically shorten this lifespan. Charging takes 5 hours.
Overall the biggest problem we have with the Cover Story is having to deal with a screen that is more reflective than a non-touch version and the accompanying lack of constrast. The interface is a little quirky too and we'd rather have something a little less styled and more immediate – for some the small text will be all but invisible.
Priced at £149, this is competitive territory for the Cover Story from a pricing point of view, but it faces a mighty challenge from Amazon with their £109 Wi-Fi equipped Kindle. The Cover Story does offer you freedom of choice when shopping for books as well as those additional touch features, but it's worth examining all your options.