iRex Iliad review

by Henry Farrell on November 28, 2007

The “howls”: “of”: “derision”: greeting the announcement of the Amazon Kindle last week reminds me that I never got around to reviewing the “iRex Iliad”: that I bought some months ago. I can’t provide a proper comparison of the two; not only do I not own a Kindle, obviously, but I haven’t even used the Iliad to read DRM-protected books (this has only become a possibility in the last few months; before that you were limited to PDFs and the like). But for my particular purposes as an academic, the Iliad works very well. It’s still a first generation technology, and has several kinks that could, and should, be ironed out. Even so, what I’ve seen convinces me that academics are likely to become early adopters of this technology _en masse_ when it comes down in price and becomes a little more user friendly.

Amanda of “Household Opera”: describes the kind of e-book reader that many academics might want to own, and lays out the reasons why Kindle doesn’t cut it.

I think a lightweight e-book reader with a good readable screen would be absolutely swell (especially given how much library school reading I’m taking on my Thanksgiving travels, and how I get twitchy if I go anywhere without something to read). But on the other hand, I wouldn’t want it to be tied to a specific vendor, and I’d want to be able to use it as a catchall reading device for all the random stuff I get from the ‘net — especially journal articles from databases, free e-texts from here and there, and text-heavy web pages I’d rather not read on a computer screen. The thing is, Kindle will let you surf the web and download things, but they have to be either in Amazon’s proprietary format, in .txt format, or in mobipocket format. If you want to read HTML or PDF files, you have to pay to e-mail them to your Kindle so it can convert them.

The Iliad is a fair bit closer to what academics like Amanda are looking for; close enough that I feel that even if I haven’t gotten to the promised land, I’ve at least gotten a few decent glimpses of it through the mountains. Academics usually cart around a lot of paper with them – student essays, articles that they have promised to review, articles that friends have fobbed off on them that they have promised with faintly guilty consciences to get around to commenting on one of these days, monographs, notes, scraps, pleasure reading etc etc. We’re book people. The usual result is we’re laden down with overstuffed briefcases and bags every time we get on planes, exploding with dog eared manuscripts which mate with each other while we’re not looking, producing bizarre hybrids in which the pages from several different documents have gleefully miscegenated. Since purchasing my Iliad, I’ve gotten this under control. Everything that I get in text format, I PDF in a big friendly font, anddiwbpload to the Iliad before travelling. I’ve quite grown to enjoy the resulting feeling of serenity and order – everything I have to read _en route_ fits in a small, light reader that can be squeezed with a bit of pushing and shoving in my coat pocket.

The screen of the reader looks lovely. It uses digital ink rather than an LCD screen, so that you don’t get eyestrain – instead, the text reads clearly in natural light (or even bright sunlight) – it’s black (or, for illustrations) various shades of greyscale on an off-white-to-greyish background. Occasionally, there is some ghosting, but not enough to be more than a minor niggle. The screen is considerably larger than the Sony Reader, which means that it’s possible to read documents formatted for A4 size, although it sometimes isn’t as comfortable as it might be (while the manual suggests that 12 point font is perfectly sufficient, I find that tiring on the eyes, although doable in a pinch – I prefer, where possible, to format documents in 16 point). The Iliad has a decent battery life of around 8 hours activity in real world conditions; plenty for a transatlantic plane flight. Its controls (at least the controls for moving around in the text) aren’t as intuitive as they might be, but you get used to them pretty quickly.

What distinguishes it from the competition, such as it is, is that it allows you to take notes using a stylus. This is essential for academics – and in some ways makes it _better_ than a regular book for a certain, squeamish class of reader. Charlie Stross had a post a while back (I can’t find it now), which talked about how e-books simply weren’t satisfying as physical objects in the same way as regular books. But this cuts both ways – I, for one, _don’t like_ marking up physical books with marginalia etc, precisely because I like them as objects, but I’m very happy to scrawl all over e-books. With the exception of the few books that I really feel attached to, I’d be very happy to turn my academic library into an assortment of annotated PDF files (maybe that makes me a little weird). Furthermore I’m looking forward to the posthuman future where we can swap our notations, style, with our mates so as to grown vast thickets of marginalia, vigorous dissents, links and references to other authors etc around the original text. The stylus isn’t as good as a regular pen; it’s about as responsive as the average stylus on a PDA (although it is based on a different technology). But this is still plenty good enough for scrawled notes and queries, comments on student papers, etc, etc, etc. When you have finished scrawling, you can upload the annotated PDFs to your PC to print them out etc.

The downsides.

First – cost. It’s expensive, especially for people paying in dollars, as it isn’t available through dealers on this side of the Atlantic (I bought it some months ago, when the euro/dollar differential was much better than it is today). If/when we see similar technology at about half the price, it’ll be a lot more attractive. Half that price again might make for a genuine mass market.

Second – Internet access. It has built in 802.11g, but you can only use it for a few, quite limited purposes (primarily downloading new versions of the basic software). You can’t use it to access the Internet more generally. This seems to me to be a little crazy – there are lots of fun things that you could do with a cut-down browser etc that you simply can’t do. While, for example, you can use RSS feeds, you have to set up to download them on your computer using Mobipocket or similar, and then munge them over to the reader.

Third – user modifiability. There is some interesting homegrown software out there for the Iliad (its operating system is based on a cut-down version of Linux). But the manufacturers don’t seem to go especially out of their way to encourage people to come up with interesting mods. A useful comparison is with Neuros’s media recorders, which run on entirely modifiable open source software, and which have built up a thriving community of modders and home-brewers as a result. I suspect that the Iliad people want to preserve some control in the hope that they can then use distribution channels (see above under Internet access, dearth of) as an additional revenue stream. This seems unlikely to fly, especially given the competition from Amazon – better by far to differentiate your product in the marketplace by becoming the anti-Amazon (I suspect that most of the documents that people _actually_ want to read on a set-up like this aren’t going to be traditional e-books, but instead user generated documents, downloaded PDFs and the like – the easier you make it for people, say, to download material without restrictions from the WWW, the more likely it is that they will like your product).

Fourth. Some technical clunkiness around the edges of the software. This is clearly a product that isn’t designed for non-technically savvy users – the set up procedure in particular was frustrating, with glitches that suggested stupid design decisions (e.g. you _have_ to register and upgrade when you plug the reader into your computer, and are given an automatically generated password, which in my case included characters that aren’t available on the Iliad keyboard, requiring further password change etc etc etc).

These annoyances aside, I think that it’s a good product. More generally, I suspect that over the next decade or two, devices like this might help bring through a radical change in academic publishing and reading practices. Scott wrote a “piece”: a few months ago talking about the problems of academic publishing, and linking to the “Ithaka report”: on new models of digital publishing in the academy. One of the problems with digital publishing of monographs is that very few people want to read anything longer than a short-ish article online, and the alternative, of printing out reams of 12 point Times New Roman A4 isn’t always that attractive either. Decent e-book readers, which allow you to mark up text, mean that you can read and annotate long texts easily without having to print them out. They’re an important underlying technology for whatever new ecology emerges. There’s a broad consensus among the digerati that e-book readers are a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist – but in the academy, not only does the problem exist, but it’s threatening to undermine the basic system of scholarly publishing. E-book readers aren’t a complete solution to this problem by any means, but I suspect that they will be an important part of that solution as it begins to emerge.



GreatZamfir 11.28.07 at 8:38 pm

Oh, if I had the money I would buy it right now, for all the downloaded papers needed for my graduation thesis work. But then again, if I had the money, I wouldn’t be a student needing the machine.


Kathryn 11.28.07 at 9:38 pm

My goodness, the cost on this thing is $700US.

It sounds great, but for that price tag, I’d have to sell a kidney or something.


sanbikinoraion 11.28.07 at 10:04 pm

You could buy a whole laptop for that money.


Brian 11.28.07 at 10:31 pm

It would have to fall a lot to make it worthwhile, but my goodness what a difference to academic life it would make.

In philosophy it is becoming more and more the norm that conferences are based around pre-distributed (and pre-read) papers, with the meetings confined to discussion of, rather than presentation of, the papers. It’s a good format, in that it maximises the value of the time you spend at the conference, but it means carting enormous amounts of paper to every conference. An e-reader that worked for these purposes would be great. At $200-$300 it would pay for itself just in saved printing and photocopying inside a year.

Maybe there won’t be a big market for this outside academia, and I still can’t imagine reading a full book this way, but compared to finding dog-eared photocopies in carry-on luggage, it sounds like a joy.


Cian 11.28.07 at 11:11 pm

“Maybe there won’t be a big market for this outside academia”

Doctors, lawyers, bankers, civil servants… Not a bad market if you can get it.


Barry 11.28.07 at 11:34 pm

With all of these products, there’s a triple whammy that the makers just don’t seem to understand:

1) Initial cost. These things cost $300 on up; that’s a *lot* of standard hard-cover books. The above-average reader who is the target audience still could take 1-3 years to recoup the up-front price in lower per-unit costs, and that’s only if they do all of their reading off of:

2) An incredibly limited selection of titles. For fiction, the title lists are generally far shorter than the above-average reader is accustomed to. In addition, there doesn’t seem to be the specialty market of reference books – is there any e-book model which has a good set of references in any one field available to it?

3) Lock it up and throw away the key: with cell phones, the initial cost is minor; the company gets it back on monthly fees. The service is provided by the company, however, for a minimum time. This is how they make their money. The e-book people seem to feel that they can charge a hefty up-front fee, and still lock down their reader to a very large extent.


loren 11.28.07 at 11:49 pm

great review, Henry. I’ve been coveting this little beauty for a while, but will hold off for a while based on your assessment. Along with a growing legion of bleary-eyed academics, I too have (what I thought was) a massive hard-drive, now stuffed with pdfs of journal articles, a few ebooks, emailed student papers, colleague’s manuscripts, etc etc. I yearn for e-ink and a dreamy interface.


Jasper 11.29.07 at 12:11 am

My reading of reviews of the Kindle device has admittedly been pretty cursory, but, that said, I really don’t quite get its appeal. Maybe I’m missing something but, besides the price, there are two issues I can’t get past:

1) Multiple Devices. The Kindle would represent yet another piece of equipment we need to carry around. Wouldn’t it make more sense to simply make laptops with Kindle-quality screens? I mean, the Kindle really isn’t anything more than just a browsing tool, right? Why not use your laptop — equipped with a much higher quality screen — to download and read books? Sounds easier than having to tote around another device. When it comes to equipment, consolidation works for me much better than multiplication.

2) Fedex. It would be one thing if it took a long time to obtain a book. But nowadays, if you can’t make it to a bookstore, a few mouse clicks can get you a book, in, like, 24 hours. I like instant gratification as much as the next person, but is 24 hours really that long of a wait for the real thing? A bound, paper book, in it timeless and perhaps unimprovable perfection, is still a classic. Modern society’s (and Federal Express’s) ability to get one into my hands extremely quickly really diminishes the appeal of reading books via a screen, even if there’s no wait at all.


grackle 11.29.07 at 12:19 am

It would be interesting to see a comparison of the Kindle, the Iliad and the Sony e-book (and any others out there). I’ve seen individual reviews of the three of them but no comparisons of their strengths and weaknesses


rdb 11.29.07 at 1:04 am

Reading Accelerando on the Iliad was pleasant – there’s a PD PDF formatted for it (needed proofing).
A4 PDFs are small for me, but there’s a modified PDF reader that tries to handle 2 column formatted PDFs, that I should try.
Image PDFs as from are slow to load.
The glibc documentation as HTML is formatted for A4,
similarly Python doco – but you can increase the text size – with the stylus, similarly following links seems to need the stylus.


Watts 11.29.07 at 1:38 am

Just as an FYI, the Kindle can convert books from other formats for free: the 10 cents per document charge is only if you mail it directly to the device. (Remember that the EVDO service it uses has no monthly service charge, so it’s paid for essentially on a per-use basis, generally by folding the cost into the book prices.) You can also transfer documents to it via USB. The Kindle also has a pretty substantial library available for a device that’s just out of the starting gate, and lower prices than at least some of the competition.

I’m not sure whether it’ll succeed — there are valid criticisms of both the device and its apparent business model — but I think a lot of the critics haven’t ever even seen one, much less played with one for a while. It’s apparent to me that Amazon is at least trying to learn from iTunes, which is a notable difference from past commercial e-Book attempts: most of the consumer market only cares about DRM when it gets in their way, but DRM alone is not a deal-breaker. Having a convenient, easy-to use service, a wide selection, and a reasonable content price is the real key.


Mike 11.29.07 at 1:46 am

But what will you use to decorate your walls? Undergraduates will no longer quake in their boots when they walk into professors’ offices (“Did she read ALL of those?”) if you replace objects with data.


bemused 11.29.07 at 1:47 am

The best ebook reader I have seen is the XO (one laptop per child, still available via “give one get one” through Dec. 31, $400 buys the two.) Here is a demo from the tech reporter from the NY Times:

The screen has a resolution twice that of conventional laptops, is readable in full sunlight, and operates at low power in reading mode. The screen rotates and flattens like a tablet for use as a book.


Barry 11.29.07 at 2:39 am

Bemused, thanks for posting that – it was a very nice review.


Warren Terra 11.29.07 at 3:07 am

Re #12:
You will be forced to go to the other extreme. I agree that a rather small- or even a modest – number of books/papers doesn’t intimidate the way a true plethora can – but what about extreme minimalism? If the office is basically empty except of art/toys/tools, then the implication that the office’s inhabitant arrived that week, is a true moron – or has it all in their head. And they’ll probably know the first option isn’t true, and hopefully you’ll already have convinced them the second one isn’t.


bemused 11.29.07 at 3:23 am

I should have added that the $400 purchase also brings a complimentary one-year T-Mobile Hotspot subscription. Do well by doing good. :-)


David 11.29.07 at 4:29 am

Well, I won’t hold my breath waiting but the best bet, proprietary tendencies aside, for someone making the ebook/ereader to die for, is Apple. Hell, I was looking across a bus aisle yesterday and realized a guy was scrolling the NYTimes website on his iPhone and it looked doable. As for price, my god, the iRex is B & O pricing. I’ll go hold my breath.


John 11.29.07 at 5:28 am

Above someone asked why not just make laptops with Kindle quality screens.

The reason for this is that E-ink has limitations that would make it unbearable if used for a laptop screen. Whenever there is a change made to an E-ink page (e.g., turning a page) the screen is powered up and the “ink” is configured a certain way, then the power turns off. The result is that you get a representation on the screen that is much closer to text than on a regular screen which is a bunch of pixels lit up (this is why reading on a screen produces eystrain; it is like reading with a flashlight pointed at your eye). The problem is, on your laptop the contents of the screen are changing all the time. To use an E-ink screen for a laptop would be like surfing graphic intensive sights using a 56k (or slower) modem. Only, it would apply to everything you were doing on your laptop (imagine creating a powerpoint presentation like that).

The different technologies have different advantages and unfortunately that means separate devices (until they invent a screen that can do both at once…but that will be a long time coming).


Kenny Easwaran 11.29.07 at 9:37 am

I was considering the Sony reader for a little while earlier this year, but decided against it because the price was a bit high, and the salespeople in the stores couldn’t tell me either how much memory it had (“80 books” – but how many megs?) or how it would deal with .pdf’s containing mathematical formulas and the like. This one sounds like a better solution for me, though it’s more expensive.

Perhaps when I’m no longer a grad student, and the price has come down slightly.


Nathaniel 11.29.07 at 10:57 am

I am seriously tempted by the “One Laptop per Child” laptop, since it seems like the best and most affordable ebook reader on the market, considering its high-res greyscale mode and long battery life (along with having a bunch of other amazing features :-) ). That limited timeframe hard sell is certainly working on me. However, the pitch of giving it “to a child in my life” makes me feel kind of guilty about keeping the laptop I would receive for myself.


Cian 11.29.07 at 11:05 am

The reason that laptops are not an alternative (and this includes the OLPC) is because its a different kind of display technology. Normal LCD laptops require light to be pumped through the LCD crystals so that you can see the display, which is tiring on the eye (which is why reading of a laptop is harder). eInk in contrast reflects ambient light, just like normal ink, requires far less electricity (as you don’t need a light source in the screen) and for reading purposes is identical to normal ink. However it would make for a lousy laptop screen as it only does black and white, and (crucially) has a very low refresh rate.


Slocum 11.29.07 at 2:46 pm

I’m an eInk (and ‘eye strain’) skeptic. People already spend many hours a day reading text and watching video on illuminated LCD screens — the idea that reading books and longer articles in particular is somehow a special eye strain problem strikes me as unlikely. Is there any actual data?

For my purposes, computer screens are fine at the desk and for portable reading and web-browsing, my Nokia tablet (think iPhone but with a larger and higher-res screen) works very well. I would love to have the free broadband wireless offered by the Kindle, but not the display.

And in terms of energy use, I’m certain that the back light in my tablet uses much less power than the reading light that would be needed to illuminate an eInk screen.


Barry 11.29.07 at 3:17 pm

“But what will you use to decorate your walls? Undergraduates will no longer quake in their boots when they walk into professors’ offices (“Did she read ALL of those?”) if you replace objects with data.”

Posted by Mike

I just saw the Matrix again (running on TNT?). Use those ‘waterfall’ displays of green characters running down the e-ink wallpapered walls of the office.


x. trapnel 11.29.07 at 5:16 pm

Thanks for the review. Perhaps these considerations can help out others:

I have the Librie, the first version of the Sony Reader. The software/interface sucks, because Sony had–and still has–the silly idea of selling to normal readers who want to buy way-overpriced, locked e-books (who won’t want a 300$ device) rather than academics who already have a flood of internet content they merely want to read. But independent developers have made it reasonably usable for html and text-only pdfs. Still, based on what Henry has said, if you’re the sort of person who would pay $300 for a Sony Reader, you’d probably be better off paying $700 for the iLiad. There is simply no good way to view full-page pdf images (like JSTOR scans) on the Reader, though there are some awkward workarounds, and these sorts of scanned files are still quite common. The difference between a 6″ 800×600 display and an 8.1″ 1024×768 one is just enormous.

Another alternative for academics–especially those who are bothered by the “other device” problem–is to go with a lightweight convertible tablet PC, like the Fujitsu t2010 or Thinkpad X61T. If you get the X61T high-res screen, for example, you get 144dpi (12.1″, 1400×1050), almost as good as the Reader’s 166. You’re still looking at a transmissive screen, so there’s more eye-strain over long periods than with e-ink, but a lot of eyestrain is about small blurry fonts and distance, and high-res tablets help with that. Both of those tablets have good battery life (>6.5 hrs or >5.5, for low-power uses like reading), and are reasonably light (~3.5 / 4.4 lbs). The tablet-ness also lets you take notes, etc.

I just got a X61T and so far I’m pretty happy with it. If I’m reading a 100 page pure text article, I’d rather read it on my Librie than the tablet, but the tablet is fine, much much better than any other transmissive screen I’ve ever used. (As for cost, these aren’t cheap, but if it’s the only computer you use it’s easier to justify.)


c.l. ball 11.29.07 at 9:29 pm

Thank you for the review.

One question: are articles in PDF image format viewable, readable, legible on the Iliad?

Some on-line databases, like ProQuest, still store articles that way (i.e., the text-select tool will not work; only the “snapshot tool” in Adobe Reader)


Mr Art 11.29.07 at 9:39 pm

slocum – there’s some evidence that reading from screen is less effective than paper: (though this was for CRTs, not LCDs)


rdb 11.29.07 at 10:54 pm

A4 formatted PDFs are readable – depending on the font, on the Iliad, but at 8″ diagonal cf ~14″, they’re small, ~1/2 size, so you need good eyes.
Image PDFs are slow to load, but do work.
The PDF viewer does have a magnify, using the stylus, but I haven’t played enough to have it down pat. This works with PDFs that are essentially images like the bitsaver computer manual scans too, but is slow.
The PDF viewer available from a developer with two column heuristics – which I need to get & try, presents a column at a time, which should make reading journal articles more pleasant.
Opening in landscape mode should be possible too.
Check the forums on the irextechnologies site.

If you’re creating your own content, or have sources for the documents you’re reading, there are instructions for setting up the PDF output for the Iliad. Just how well that will go with tables and figures…
The mobipocket demo excerpt of “Python phrasebook”
has one table that should have been tuned better.
If Kindle is using mobipocket format, maybe there will be more books available too.


Charlie Stross 11.29.07 at 11:04 pm

I’ve got a Sony PRS-505 (the new reader). The hardware is lovely; 800×600 epaper screen (much faster than the older PRS-500), 200Mb of on-board storage plus an SD card slot and a Memory Stick slot (good for 2Gb and 8Gb respectively). In addition to Sony’s own BBeB ebooks, it can read RTF and PDF — however, PDF magnification isn’t terribly good. (A firmware upgrade is allegedly due in a couple of months, including support for Adobe’s new ebook format.)

On the down side relative to the iRex Iliad, there’s no way of making annotations. On the up side, the battery life is staggering — I’ve just read one and a half novels (call it 500 minutes at my sluggardly reading speed) and there’s no noticeable battery drain from full. It charges off mini-USB and presents itself as a USB mass storage device when plugged into a computer; the open source LibPRS-500 package makes it useful for Mac and Linux users as well as Windows users (who also get Sony’s not-terribly-attractive walled garden ebook store application, which has all the worst traits of iTunes without the good bits).

I wouldn’t recommend the PRS-505 for an academic, but for someone who likes to read novels? It’s great. I’ve used a metric shitload of PDAs and smartphones, and the Nokia web tablets (770 and N800), and I think the PRS-505 is winning over the whole lot of them (including the N800). The range of light levels it’s readable in is especially good — backlit LCDs are basically useless in daylight. If I wanted to annotate texts it would be less than useful, but for carrying around a couple of dozen novels? It’s great.

As a side note, talking to a Linux developer, iRex appear to have borked the hardware design of the Illiad at a fundamental level by opting to have the kernel poll the hardware buttons. This prevents it from sleeping, which is why the Illiad has the 14-hour battery life rather than running for several thousand page-turns, like the Sony devices.

My inkling is that the software on the Bookeen Cybook 3 may be somewhat superior (it can cope with Mobipocket files, and others), but it too lacks the annotation capabilities. So among the current crop of epaper devices, if you want annotation, you need the Kindle or Illiad, if you want to read novels the Cybook or Sony Reader will do the trick … and for maximum flexibility, nothing beats a tablet PC (yet). Although my experience of using a tablet PC as an ebook reader was not good, given that I get wrist ache holding a hardcover for any length of time …


Elio M. García, Jr. 11.30.07 at 8:37 pm

The Hanlin v8 allows notetaking, I believe. No PDF though. On the other hand, the forthcoming v9, in the v9t model, will have a touch screen and PDF support. Price not yet determined, but I suspect it will be at least a couple hundred dollars cheaper than the iRex. More info at the maker’s website, here.


Henry 11.30.07 at 9:04 pm

that’s interesting about the borked linux – I had just assumed that the shorter battery life was b/c it required power to run the grid that allows the stylus to work.


mmy 12.02.07 at 5:11 pm

question for someone who has actually used the new iLiad — can you write comments on .pdfs and save the .pdfs with the comments on them?

(sigh, seriously thinking about buying one of these readers — I grade using a tablet pc which is seriously heavy — but I absolutely love the ability to write comments on the papers)

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