We're starting to see a fair bit of choice arriving on the e-reader market, with different devices offering a range of different functions. The BeBook Neo is one that tries to do it all — with reasonable results.
One of the first things you'll notice about the Neo is its heft. It's not actually extraordinarily heavy, but it has roughly the same weight as a paperback twice its thickness. This is due to its chassis construction: a clean white plastic façade backed by brushed aluminium. While this serves to give it a somewhat dashing look and a feel of solidity, the tactile impression of the aluminium is a little unpleasant — cold and rough.
The Neo keeps its twiddly bits to a minimum, too; the front of the device is installed with a nav-pad, with two concentric rings mounting a central button. It looks streamlined, and it's great having all your navigation in the one place; once you figure out how to get around the menus, navigation becomes almost instinctive. The outer ring turns pages and resizes fonts, the inner ring allows you to move around the icon-based menu screens and the central button allows you to select items. The one caveat we would add is that having one ring around the other can cause some mis-presses and, given the slow load times of e-readers, this can get slightly annoying.
However, if you don't want to use the nav-pad, you don't have to: designer Endless Ideas has included in the six-inch screen WACOM technology, which means the display functions as a touchscreen using the supplied stylus, which clips into the back of the device.
Being able to select icons, use the stylus to scroll, select and make notes on text, tap words to look them up using the dictionary function (you need to supply your own dictionary downloaded to an SD card), and scribble on PDFs and JPGs, or create new doodles, did in fact prove to be a useful feature, even if the execution was not the sharpest. Reaction to the stylus was delayed, which took a bit of getting used to; we sometimes scrolled further than we wanted because we thought the touch of the stylus hadn't registered, and then had to go scrolling back.
Wi-Fi connectivity allows you to browse the web (provided you can access a hotspot). Since the Neo isn't DRM-locked or even tied to a particular store, you can download ebooks directly to your device from stores such as Borders and Dymocks, as well as downloading free public domain books from sites such as Project Gutenberg and ManyBooks.
This is made easier by the fact that it supports a multitude of file formats: EPUB, PDF, TXT, HTML, RTF, MOBI, CHM, PDB, JPG, PNG, GIF, BMP and TIFF, as well as MP3 support for music and audio books. And, of course, it is compatible with Adobe Digital Editions, so if you prefer to upload books from your computer using the supplied USB cable, you certainly have that option.
As an e-reader, the Neo provides a pleasant experience. The E Ink display is of a decent quality, and you can resize text and navigate smoothly. The unpleasant texture of the aluminium back can be dealt with by purchasing a leather protective case accessory, which also protects the device, and the pages turn with a decent speed. We liked the MP3 support, which makes it a decent means for digesting books in audio as well as visual format, although if you have an MP3 player or smartphone, it's probably a little extraneous.
We're not sure, though, that the other features perform particularly well. E Ink was not designed with multimedia in mind, and its make-up — millions of tiny capsules filled with positively and negatively charged white and black particles that respond to an electric signal — means that it can only handle page changes slowly. If you're going to access the web on the go, you might find it less frustrating to use a smartphone. Similarly, if you're going to buy books, uploading them via USB might prove a smoother experience, particularly since the supplied power cable is a USB rather than direct-to-mains.
Another feature of E Ink is that it only uses power while turning a page. It was somewhat baffling and vexing, therefore, to discover the Neo switching itself off after a period of idleness, leaving us to twiddle our thumbs while it rebooted. If you just have five minutes at the bus stop and you want to spend it nose-deep in Stieg Larsson, it's irritating to waste time waiting for an e-reader first to switch on, and then load your book, particularly since one charge lasts 7000 page turns, give or take.
Overall, it seemed to us that the Neo was burdened with a superfluity of features. If you're a student, being able to cart your texts around on a lightweight device that you can make notes on would be really useful, and an integrated dictionary function is handy. However, with less costly e-readers on the market that perform the core features just as well as the Neo, it's hard to justify the expense, particularly since some of the features are poorly executed or frustrating to use.
If you're looking for an elegant, full-featured e-reader, the BeBook Neo does offer a smart and stylish reading experience overall. Like many good things, though, it also comes at a price. Unless you particularly want a touchscreen e-reader, it might be a good idea to shop around.