With the Amazon Kindle championing the category, the ebook readers have fast become the must-have gadgets of the last 18 months or so. Though E Ink still looks like a computer monitor from the early 1980s, outstanding battery life and paper-like readability are the two factors that continue to propel the popularity of these single-purpose devices. Australian company Laser is bucking this trend, with its ebook reader, the EB101, having a full-colour TFT display, bringing with it as many negatives as positives.
Colour me bad
From a distance the EB101 probably looks exactly like the ebook reader you've been looking for. Its 5-inch display may be smaller than you'll find on the Kindle or the Kobo, but it's certainly large enough to read off, and the lack of additional keys, like the Kindle's full-QWERTY keyboard, gives the EB101 a smaller footprint overall, making it almost small enough to fit into a pocket.
Once you get some power behind this screen you may be pleasantly surprised to find a full colour display — ebook readers are always black on white due to limitations in E Ink technology. The EB101 is without such limitations, its TFT display is just like the screen you'd find on a mobile phone — except for the fact that this display is positively terrible to look at. The colours on-screen looked washed out, and though it sports a WVGA resolution (480x800 pixels) everything tends to look kind of blurry. We put this down to the screen's appalling viewing angle; even when you view it from very acute angles the screen starts to polarise, washing the screen in a glassy, purple hue.
Using a colour display also sacrifices the stellar battery life that you should expect from an ebook reader. While the Kindle might offer up to three weeks of use between charges (or an estimated 10,000 page turns), the EB101 runs for between five and six hours before powering down. The difference is that E Ink doesn't require power to maintain the display, it uses a tiny surge to change the image on screen, but no power thereafter. LCD screens are backlit, however, meaning they require power all the time to keep the picture on-screen, whether this picture is something complex like a video, or something simple like a text document or ebook.
A multitude of media
The truth is, the EB101 is being marketed as an ebook reader when it technically isn't one. When you combine its multiple functions (video playback, music playback, digital photo frame), the EB101 is more a portable media player than it is an ebook. As well as playing a range of ebook files (ePub, RTF, TXT, PDB, DOC, FB2) it is also capable of playing AVI, MP4, 3GP and MPG video files, as well as MP3 and WMA audio.
So how does it stack up against other portable media players? It certainly has all the right odds and ends; a 3.5mm headphone socket for plugging in your favourite headphones, and 2GB of internal storage with a microSD card slot for expanding this with cards up to 16GB.
Once again, the screen is the big letdown for multimedia too. It might be cheap, but that doesn't mean the screen needs to be of such bad quality. This is one of those products where we wished the manufacturer included better components and charged a little more for the product overall. A great example of a similar device is the JCMatthew MyMovie, a 9-inch media player with a brilliant screen selling for AU$249. For an extra hundred-dollars you get a much better product, even if the MyMovie isn't capable of playing some of the same ebook files.
It's funny that we should mention the JCMatthew MyMovie in the paragraph before, because both the MyMovie and the EB101 suffer from truly mind-boggling controls. The EB101 has eight buttons around its screen plus a four-way navigation pad, and to be honest, we're still not sure what some of them do. The nav-pad handles most of the basic cursor positioning, and in some instances you will press "right" to select a menu item, but in other instances you'll press "M", which stands for menu, to bring up a menu in times when its not being used to select objects — see what a mind-warp this can be?
Transferring files to the EB101 is a piece of cake, it's really just a matter of mounting the disk on your PC and dragging and dropping the files onto the device. Laser makes this seem a little more complex by calling the memory "U-Disk" and by giving you a few buttons to press when you connect the USB cable, but don't be put off, it's all very simple in the end.
There is fast becoming too many options for book lovers making the switch to the digital page, with every factory in Asia pumping out an ebook reader or three, and local distributors hungrily snapping them up. For such a simple task, like displaying words on a screen, you might be tempted to look at cheapo brands for your ebook reader to save a buck or two. Our advice is to stick with the big brands for now. At AU$150, the Laser EB101 is AU$50 cheaper than Border's Kobo and the last generation of Kindles, but it's leagues behind in offering the same excellent reading experience.