The BeBook Neo takes the "traditional" (if we can use such a term for devices that have only been around for a couple of years) approach, offering an E-Ink screen, but incorporating Wi-Fi. Could this be the connected ebook reader that we have all been waiting for, offering open choice against the likes of Amazon's Kindle?
Ebook readers find themselves in a slightly awkward place at the moment. Apple's iPad has stoked the tablet furnace, and we are likely to see a wave of devices that will offer features that the BeBook Neo offers and more. Of course, the use of E-Ink technology for the display does mean that this ebook reader is easier on the eyes than those with backlit displays: people will say you can read the iPad without strain, but there's no getting away from the fact that it is backlit and the screen is too glossy for relaxing in the garden on a sunny day to read a little Simon Scarrow.
This is where the BeBook Neo's strength lies, in offering a good platform for reading, as do the other E-Ink devices we've reviewed. Say what you like, we still think there is a place for this type of device. Long battery life - weeks of reading - combined with that paper-like experience make these things great for reading novels on your travels.
The addition of extra features, then, poses something of a problem for the BeBook Neo. It's never going to be as good an experience as a fully-fledged tablet. The screen doesn't offer the same experience and the inclusion of Wi-Fi destroys one of the other benefits: the long battery life. The Wi-Fi can be switched off using a slider on the side of the device and that's advisable whenever it isn't absolutely necessary, because it drains the battery very quickly.
So what does the inclusion of Wi-Fi offer you? It allows the BeBook Neo to head online. Strangely Wi-Fi doesn’t remember which connection you use (but will remember your password) so you have to go through a connection process each time you want to do something online.
There is a basic browser, with links to Adobe, Google and Wikipedia, as well as MyBeBook.com. This isn't an ebook store, as you might expect, but a series of links offering up access to Foyles, Blackwell and WHSmith's websites. Surprisingly, these take you through to a full website experience, so once you arrive at one of these websites, you still have to navigate as normal, find the ebooks and then make your selection.
It's a shame this content hasn't been tailored to the device, or that BeBook hasn't aggregated and reformatted it: ultimately, this would make the experience better and encourage people to purchase books through the system. Navigation around pages is using the stylus to drag the page around, which is a little hit and miss.
But it does work and if you are a fan of downloading books from places like Project Gutenberg, then you'll be able to get the books directly into the device, in EPUB format, without using a computer, which will be a bonus for many.
However, the browser isn't the most stable and we found on many occasions that it would fail to load a page. When in an area of low Wi-Fi signal, it would simply not respond. But even sitting close to the router, we found it struggled to load pages. So much so, that we never managed to purchase an ebook from any of the supplied stores to download. The process isn't slick and simple like it is buying a book from the Kindle Store, so in this sense, it's almost better to ignore the connected option, and use your PC as normal to transfer books via USB.
The BeBook Neo gives you a 600 x 800 pixel resolution display measuring 6 inches. This is typical size for a reader and given that you can set the text size to fill your page, it makes for comfortable reading. The panel is a touch panel too, although it only responds to the supplied stylus that tucks into the back of the device.
This is something of a pain, because when you want to interact, you can't just use your finger, so it feels a little dated. However, unlike the Sony Reader Touch Edition, you don't get an uncomfortable level of reflection off the display either.
Being touch-enabled means you can annotate books, write notes or doodle pictures at your leisure. Of course, the touch display is needed to support the online ambitions, as when you come to navigate to a website, you'll have to use the on-screen keyboard to tap in the address or search string and so on.
At the bottom of the screen is a set of controls that not only handle your page turning, but also let you navigate the menus without using the stylus. The round controls consist of two rings, the outer of which offers the Menu and Back controls, along with page turning, whilst the inner ring gives you control on four directions, so you can highlight the option you want and press the central ok button.
It's a tidy solution, but not the most practical. It's easy to hit the other controls as you navigate, so the experience can be frustrating. We'd have rather seen additional page turning options elsewhere too, perhaps on the side of the device. Internally there is 512MB of memory, and the device measures 196 x 121 x 10.6mm and weighs a surprisingly-heavy 298g.
On the bottom edge of the BeBook Neo you'll find a volume control, Mini-USB, power button, 3.5mm jack and SD card slot. We did manage to power of the device a couple of times when resting it on a hard surface due to the placement of the power button.
Inserting an SD card is an easy way to add content if you don't want to use a direct USB connection to your PC, although given the nature of DRM and Adobe Digital Editions, you'll probably find yourself hooking up to your PC when dealing with purchased content anyway. SD cards are automatically detected, and files will be offered up, displaying documents or for viewing images.
Supported file types include EPUB, PDF, TXT, RTF, MOBI, CHM, PDB, HTML, along with JPG, PNG, GIF, BMP and TIFF, giving you reasonably wide support. The likelihood is that most will be using EPUB or PDF, however, if you want to read Word DOCs, they are not supported so you'll have to save in a different format first.
Despite the inclusion of a 3.5mm jack and volume controls, there didn't appear to be any music playback.
In terms of design, the BeBook Neo offers a plastic front, which feels solid enough and a rough metal back. The feeling of the back wasn't pleasant, a little like running your fingernails down a chalkboard. It looks smart enough, but wasn't as luxurious in the hand as the Sony or Kindle rivals.
As an ebook reader, the Neo is nice enough. It is a good size and the screen gives you the benefits of E-Ink without the reflections you'll find elsewhere. Page refreshing is fast and there are plenty of options, like being able to rotate the page and change the text size. However, given the poor experience we had taking the Neo online, we're not convinced.
Unfortunately you will be paying over the odds for this device. At £279, it is expensive for an experience that leaves a lot to be desired. A little refinement and the BeBook Neo could be a compelling option: make the Wi-Fi more user-friendly and tailor the content to suit the device and you'd be on to a winner.
As it is, the BeBook Neo feels incomplete and we aren't sold on the rough metal back. Ambitious, but the Neo fails to fulfil its lofty aims, and at this price, we'd expect a more complete experience.