Google is everywhere right now. The company has made a strong push with its Google Books project, but until now it hasn’t had a tie-in to a stand-alone e-reader. That changes with the iRiver Story HD, which goes on sale Sunday at Target’s stores and website for $140. The Story HD makes getting Google ebooks onto an E Ink-based reader reasonably easy; in my trials with the device, however, I found myself frustrated by the Story HD’s cheap design, poky performance, and Google Books interface.
The Story HD does a great job of distinguishing itself in display quality. As its HD moniker implies, the 6-inch display carries a 768-by-1024-pixel resolution, the result of an improved electronics backplane. That higher-res backplane in turn helps the E Ink technology—which already uses dozens of microcapsules per pixel to form letters and images on the screen—look better. IRiver is the first manufacturer to ship this technology in the United States; Hanvon currently uses it in China.
The result: Text looks sharp and clear, with smooth rendering and no pixelation or artifacts. The display supports 16-level grayscale. Text appears finer on the Story HD than on the third-generation Amazon Kindle ( ), but its black tones lack the contrast and punch of the Kindle (and the Barnes & Noble Nook [ ], for that matter). The lower contrast may be, in part, an optical illusion caused by the Story HD’s beige bezel; the Kindle and Nook each use a dark gray, borderline black bezel. Personally, I prefer the dark bezel to the cream-colored texture of the Story HD.
I routinely found the light text to be an issue while reading. Although the sans serif font—the Story HD offers only one font choice—rendered smoothly and lacked pixelation, the weak contrast meant that my eyes had to work harder to read. Contrast improved dramatically when I bumped up the font size from the default third option to the larger sixth option (you get eight in total).
Changing font size is simple, at least: You press the dedicated font button (two buttons over from the spacebar), and then you use the navigation bar and enter key to preview and select a font size. The maximum font size should be big enough to accommodate anyone whose eyesight requires large print, but Barnes & Noble’s Nook offers even larger text.
The font size is fixed, however, on the home screen. The text is adequate for book titles, but associated information at the right is surprisingly small, and could be a challenge for some users to read. The advantage is that you have a lot of information available in one screen—the source of the book, the file type, and the author name—and the information is pleasingly presented in a consistent layout.
Getting started with Google Books
Right from the unboxing, the iRiver Story HD shows that some thought was put into its execution. Not only does the cardboard box unfold logically to reveal the ivory-and-tan Story HD inside, but iRiver also has a getting-started guide already showing on the E Ink display. This is a wise and slick move, since most users might skip over the included six-page leaflet that introduces the basics.
As the on-screen guide promises, the Story HD starts up as soon as you plug it into your computer (presumably for power, since it doesn’t require any desktop software to work). The Story HD proceeds to walk you through the process of setting up the e-reader, providing eight screens of gentle hand-holding that the technology-averse will find comforting.
Unfortunately for the Story HD, this is also the point where the e-reader’s physical design may be problematic in use.
For starters, the Story HD has no page-turning buttons alongside the display; instead, those chores are left to the four-way navigation bar beneath the screen. Although that arrangement isn’t so bad for navigation, it is an awkward position for page turns, unless you’re grasping the e-reader by the lower third (only then is it clear that the approximately two-inch-long, centered button is situated so that it’s in reach of either your left or right thumb). The button does only four directions, and doesn’t allow you to push in as you’d expect; to make a selection, you must move over to the dedicated enter button located to the right. Travel between the nav bar and the enter and option buttons feels organic for navigation purposes, but I repeatedly expected the bar to push in to select something, and I disliked how stiff the buttons were.
Like the nav bar and its related row of Home, Back, Enter, and Option buttons, the rest of the 38-key QWERTY keyboard’s buttons are hard, plastic slivers that are stiff and difficult to press. The keyboard is not conducive to typing at all: The buttons pushed uncomfortably into the pads of my fingers, and made crunching noises as I pressed them. My fingers actually hurt just from the typing involved in the setup process. In fact, when I realized that I had to set up my Google Checkout for the account I used with the Story HD, I elected to do so on my computer rather than suffer typing all of my information in on the Story HD’s keyboard.
Physically, the Story HD is sized similarly to the third-generation Amazon Kindle. It measures 7.5 by 5.0 by 0.4 inches, versus the Kindle’s 7.5 by 4.8 by 0.3 inches. By comparison, the Barnes & Noble Nook and the Kobo eReader Touch Edition ( ) each shave an inch off the overall height; the Nook and Kobo both use an infrared touchscreen for navigation, instead of a keyboard and buttons.
The Story HD is lightweight, competitive with the recent Barnes & Noble and Kobo releases. iRiver’s e-reader weighs 7.3 ounces, lighter than the 8.5-ounce Kindle, and falling in between the 7.5-ounce Nook and 7.1-ounce eReader Touch Edition. The weight made it pleasant to hold—until I had to shift my hand down to change the page.
The Story HD uses a Freescale ARM CortexTM i.MX508 processor, and has 2GB of built-in storage (of which only 1.4GB is user-accessible). Along the right side is a sturdy flap door covering the full-size SD Card slot, which supports SDHC cards up to 32GB.
A few other physical design points: I did like the unusual yet logical location of the power switch. The slider sits toward the bottom of the unit, along the back—a surprisingly convenient spot, since my hand naturally ended up there when I first picked up the e-reader. I didn’t like the hard, tan, plastic backplate to the Story HD, which felt chintzy (not unlike the hard plastic keyboard buttons) and scratched easily. At the bottom is a Mini-USB port for connecting the reader to a Mac or PC for sideloading books and other files.
The reader supports PDFs and EPub files (including protected Adobe Digital Editions), as well as text files, FB2, and DJVU formats. It also can read Microsoft Office Excel, Word, and PowerPoint documents.
Navigating the Story HD
According to iRiver, the interface for Story HD is built inside a webkit browser. At times, it felt as if Google forgot to change things from a standard Web page, as several screens I navigated among felt like Web pages, roughly and blandly designed.
Overall, though, I liked where Google was going with this, its first iteration of Google Books on an e-reader. The home screen is not as graphical as the front page of the Nook or the Kobo, but it’s more appealingly organized than the Kindle.
At the top sits a banner for the Google eBookstore. Beneath that, the cover and title of book you’re currently reading. And below that is a sort bar that lets you organize your book collection by your Google Library, recently opened, favorites, title, or author. The list of books or files displays as title at left, and then, in smaller type (as noted earlier) the source, file type, and author. Only eight titles appear on a page.
As you navigate through this screen, a bolded bracket travels along the left side of the display, indicating your selection. This approach felt vaguely reminiscent of how Amazon’s first-generation Kindle operated years ago (although there, the selector was separate from the display).
From the home screen, the option button—at the far right beneath the display—brings a pop-up menu with a handful of useful features. You can switch wireless on and off, jump to the Google eBookstore, view your bookmark list, call up the built-in Collins English Dictionary, sign out of Google, and access the settings.
Critically, this options menu is where you can opt to download all ebooks in one click—an important point since it is possible to purchase a book either through the device, or from another Google eBookstore portal, and not have it stored locally. You can also refresh your library manually, and call up the title search bar (which then appears at the bottom of the home screen).
For additional options, drill deeper into the settings menu. For example, you can change your library view to a folder-driven view, password protect the entire device, and configure the wireless and power settings.
The Google eBookstore has clean, text-driven minimalist design. The main screen shows the top-selling books; six books are listed, each with a uselessly miniaturized cover, plus title, author, price, and user review rating. At the top of the page sits a search bar; next to it, a categories button so you can browse books by category. Bizarrely, when you go into the shop from the home screen, the Story HD pauses with a message saying connecting; it’s as if it’s first re-establishing the Wi-Fi connection when you click on the shop, and then needs a moment for the handshake to complete and the storefront to load. The delays happen on the outbound from the store, too: Each time you go back from the shop to your home screen, the Story HD pauses to refresh your library.
Once I selected a book to purchase, I was first prompted to sign into my account. My Gmail username was pre-populated, but I had to enter my password. This screen’s design looks like a remnant from a Web browser: The sign-in is in such small text you might question your 20/20 vision, and it’s inexplicably squished up into the upper left corner of the screen.
If you don’t already have Google Checkout configured for your Google account, you’ll next be prompted to provide your credit card information. (Tip: It’s easier to enter this information directly on a computer or even a tablet.) If you have Google Checkout, you’ll skip directly to a confirmation screen showing the book purchase, any tax owed, and a drop-down menu showing your payment options. Finish up and and your book is purchased.
However—and it’s a big however—your book isn’t downloaded. For that, you need to go back to the home screen, and make sure to download the book locally.
All of this is a few more steps than you need to jump through on iRiver Story HD’s competition. And if you’re buying multiple books in a row, it’s annoying to have to sign into the account each and every time.
Another annoyance: The seemingly lengthy (though only seconds-long) delay when opening books, during which a book-flipping message appears to indicate the book is loading. It is longer than on any of the competitors mentioned here, though not unexpected given that I experience a similar delay when using the Google Books app on my iPhone or even on an Android tablet.
Reading books went smoothly enough, with page turn flicker seeming minimal, but still present. I found a lot of books had issues with presentation of, say, the table of contents, and jumping around within a book’s chapters was awkward. Plus, there’s no way to make annotations—something that the e-readers from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo all offer.
But the ability to do over-the-air updates means that the rough patches in performance and usability that I’ve noted can likely be addressed in the future. For that matter, given the current Google+ surge, I wouldn’t be surprised if Google eventually added support for social networking, much like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo all have.
The big book picture
iRiver says the 1800mAh lithium polymer battery takes about 4.5 hours to charge, and it can last for up to 14,000 page turns, or up to six weeks on standby. That puts it close to, but not quite at, the longevity of the competition.
Frankly, that the U.S. market has gotten the iRiver Story HD at all is a surprise; the company introduced its first e-reader for international markets two years ago, and is only now bringing its third-generation product to the U.S. The partnership with Google Books should give this e-reader a boost, and may give Google Books a boost as well.
Macworld’s buying advice
The iRiver Story HD design feels rough compared with Barnes & Noble and Kobo, and the interface needs some work, too. But the emergence of the first Google Books-driven e-reader will surely drive competition among the players in this space, and that can only benefit book lovers.