iRex Iliad

Irex IliadFor over ten years we’ve been waiting for the mother lode of ebook readers. Many have come and gone, and they’ve failed for different reasons. Early models didn’t have the technology to live up to the promise and more recent efforts like the Sony Reader in the US have tried to lock users into a single format, iTunes-store style, that kept early adopters away in droves.

The Iliad, from Dutch vendor iRex, comes the closest to the promised land of digital book content than any model so far. It was made available in Australia mostly because of bookseller Dymocks’ ebooks launch in late 2007, but it’s available direct or through many online vendors as well.

It’s a small, light device, about 160 x 220mm and less than 400 grams. It connects to both PC and Mac and shows up as a removable disk with four folders, News, Books, Docs and Notes. Respectively, they let you connect wirelessly to news services, download ebooks and documents onto the device and take written notes with the onboard stylus. Next time you connect, the notes show up as pdf files you can simply drag to your desktop. The easy connectivity is a big selling point.

But the big one is the format friendliness. Have a bunch of PDF or text files to read? Ebooks from multiple vendors? HTML, JPG and PNG files? The Iliad can read and display them all.

The 8.1 inch Electronic Paper Display screen is a simple grey colour and isn’t backlit, which gives it a behaviour as close to paper as electronics can get with today’s mass market technology. The 1024×768 pixel resolution has 16 greyscale colours so there’s not much point putting colour images on the Iliad, but it’s primarily a text reader for a reason. There’s none of the reflection, anti-aliasing or flickering of a PC screen, and flicking through pages with the page turning bar down the left hand side is the closest you can come to holding a library in your pocket.

Aside from the four category buttons there are simple controls to move up and down through lists of files, or you can use the stylus on the Wacom-based touch screen. The Iliad has slots for a USB stick, SD card and CompactFlash card together with 128Mb of internal memory, so with anything up to several gigabytes onboard it could conceivably the equivalent of your whole bookshelf.

It connects over the Net via your PC for updates and patches as necessary, and it has 802.11g connectivity for updating or subscribing to news services wirelessly. There’s even a polyphonic speaker and headphone jack, although all attempts to load a sound file failed to yield a result. There’s a very large and dedicated third party developer community however, so you’ll undoubtedly get use out of all the Iliad’s features, even user-unfriendly ones like the capacity for sound.

Don’t expect a PC-like experience. Clicking with the ‘enter’ button or the stylus is slower than you’re used to and the Iliad takes time to respond, but to be fair it’s not designed to flick quickly between documents.

An open approach to formats and an ongoing software update process makes the Iliad the closest to the promised land of ebooks we’ve been hearing about for more than a decade.