I have a middling-to-long train commute to my work, and for some time now, I have been looking at an ebook reader or tablet-type computer to keep me occupied during these commutes. I preferred a tablet to an ebook reader since it would be a more versatile device rather than being dedicated to one purpose, but if the price was right, I was willing to look at dedicated ebook readers also.
The Augen EBA701, called “The Book” by the company, is a linux-based ebook reader. I found it on sale at a local shop for just $89.99 + taxes, so I picked one up on impulse to test it out. The device is also available at Amazon.com for about $20 more. It is one of the least expensive ebook readers out there, but claims to be quite capable. As you will see from this review, it is a jack of all trades, but a master of none!
The ebook came packaged in a small, compact cardboard box. Inside the box are the reader itself, a leather tri-fold cover for the reader, a slim user manual, a small CD, a charger and a USB cord.
The manual advises that the reader be charged for at least 4 hours prior to use, but I found that the reader was fully charged out of the box. On a full charge, the battery easily lasts 8 or more hours without the wifi on. The battery meter is not in the form of hours and minutes, but shows bars like on a cell phone. Once I was convinced that the battery life was more than adequate for my purposes, I did not conduct any rigorous test of it.
I first went through the manual. I found it to be quite basic, and written in very broken English. It was either written by a person who does not have a full grasp of the language or it was written originally in a different language and translated by a computer. For instance, this is the literal wording from the manual about how to set the time on the device:
♦ From “ TZ” , press “ Enter” come to setup time area
♦ Use “ Joystick” for select time area
♦ Press “ Enter” button again to complete the settings
Note: Frist time let eReader Connect to Wifi, come to any websites,
it will be update correct time from internet directly.
Notice the bad wording as well as spelling mistakes like “Frist” instead of “First”. Such broken and mis-spelt English is sprinkled liberally in the confirmation and error messages produced by the device during operation also.
The manual does not have any troubleshooting guide at all. Moreover, the manual contains pictures of the device, including a small reset hole on the back of the device, but has no mention of when, why or how one would use this feature. I am assuming the Reset hole needs to be used if the device becomes unresponsive and needs to be powered off by force (and I hope I never have to use it), but the manual does not say that anywhere at all. Overall, not very useful if you have the device in your hands and are willing to learn by trial and error.
The device has the following specifications:
- Display: 7 inch, TFT Back-lit LCD
- Resolution: 800 x 480
- Processor : ARM9 , 400 Mhz
- RAM memory: SDRAM 64MB
- Built-in Memory: 2GB
- Available Memory: 1.46GB
- Operating system: Linux2.6.24
- Reader formats supported: TXT, PDF, HTML, CHM, RTF, FB2, EPUB, WORD, TCR, PAML, DOC, OPEN E-BOOK, OPEN READER, MOBI, etc.
- Music formats supported: MP3,WMA
- Image formats supported: JPG, PNG, GIF, BMP
- Video formats supported: AVI, MPEG-4
- Office file format support: Notepad
- E-bookmark function
- Text to Speech function
- G-Sensor for automatic adjustment of orientation
- Compatible with SD card up to 32GB
- Dimensions: 226 x 130 x 13mm (8.9" x 5.1" x 0.5")
- Come with 150 Free eBooks preloaded
The device is pretty sleek and compact. It is slightly taller and thicker than an Amazon Kindle, and weighs a little more. But the screen is slightly larger (7 inches diagonally instead of 6 inches on the Kindle). However, the screen has a narrower aspect than on the Kindle because it has a resolution of 800x480 rather than the 800x600 on the Kindle. The screen is backlit rather than being E-Ink, and is color capable, not black and white. Even though the specs say the device is half an inch thick, to me, it looks more like a third of an inch thick.
The device itself is very easy to handle and manipulate. It fits easily in one hand, and you can operate the main controls, such as moving from page to page, with one hand. The leather tri-fold jacket is very well made and designed to slip on and off the device very easily. It allows you to access all the controls and jacks of the device without blocking any. However, it does make holding the device in landscape mode a little awkward. I found that folding one of the folds of the jacket backwards was reasonably easy and allowed me to rest the device on my lap in landscape mode
To the left of the screen are two buttons about two-thirds of the way down the device. These buttons are used to go to the previous page and next page while reading (they also move between pages on menus and lists), and to adjust the volume up and down while listening to music or playing videos. On the right side of the screen are two buttons also, about half-way down the device. The top button takes you to the opening screen of the device (marked “Home”), while the other button takes you to the next page while reading books (or while navigating menus and lists).
Below the screen you find the keyboard. It is laid out in QWERTY fashion, but the actual placement and size of the keys is not conducive to touch typing. It makes it easy for touch typists to find any given key, but it is primarily a thumb-operated keyboard. Some of the keys required harder presses to register than others. To the right of the keyboard is a joystick and two buttons marked “Menu”, and “Back”, along the bottom and right of the joystick. To the left, and slightly below the joystick is a key marked “Zoom”.
Along the bottom edge of the device, you can find the charger port, the USB port, the headphone jack, the SD Card slot and the power button. The charger is pretty small, and can handle input voltages from 100 to 240 V AC, producing an output of 5V DC at 1.5A. Because of the range of input voltages handled, you can use the charger pretty much anywhere on the planet where electricity is available, but it would have been better if The Book had been designed to charge off the USB cord. A separate charger can still be made available for people who may not have a computer to hook the device up to, but it should have been designed to charge via the USB port rather than a separate charger port.
The SD card slot is a little weird. You have to insert your card upside down, if you get what I mean. That is, the information printed on the card has to be facing towards the back of the device when you insert the card. Then, the card slides in and click into place. It comes out when you press the card in once more, and the spring-loaded mechanism releases the card. When a card is recognized in the slot, an SD icon appears at the bottom of the device's screen.
I tried inserting the card in the way I thought was right (printed information towards the top of the device) the first couple of times, and not only did the device not recognize them, but it was very difficult to push the card in and I almost could not get the card out again! The user manual makes no mention of how to insert an SD card into the device at all. I had no problems getting my SD card recognized by the device every time I inserted it once I figured out how to insert it. In fact, the device seems to read and open books off the SD card faster than from its own internal memory!
On the back of the device, you find the built-in speaker at the top, and the aforementioned Reset hole near the bottom.
When the device is powered up, it boots up and comes to the “Home” screen. There is a list of menu options to choose at this point. The joystick is used to navigate between the choices. I found the joystick quite easy to use since it can either be moved up and down or side to side only. There is no diagonal movement of the joystick. The menu does not “roll over”, so to go to the last option from the first, you have to go down the list one by one rather than going up the list once. Also holding the joystick in the down position does not move over the menu items continuously, you have to move from item to item by manipulating the joystick individually for each move. You highlight the option you want and then press the Enter key. On some menus, pressing down on the joystick does the same thing the Enter key does, but not always, so you have to get used to moving your hands frequently from the joystick to the Enter key. It would have been nice if the joystick had a reliable Enter mode.
The LCD screen is very bright and has good contrast. I had no problem operating the device under various lighting conditions. Most of the time, I was able to get by with the LCD brightness set to about half-way up the scale, but if you are in bright sunlight outdoors, you might have to turn it all the way up. But the screen is not glossy, so I don’t anticipate any glare issues under any conditions.
The first choice on the home menu is to continue reading. This will bring up the last book you were reading, at the last page you were reading. The next choice allows you to navigate among your favorites. Favorites can be websites, or they can be books or other media on the reader. Once added to the favorites list, there is no way I could figure out of ever deleting something. Even restoring the device to factory settings did not erase my favorites. In fact, there is no easy way to delete anything off the reader at all! But more about that later.
The next choice on the home menu is the library. This brings up a submenu that contains Audio, Digital Editions, Free eBooks, My Books, Picture and Video. If an SD card is in the slot, you first get a submenu that takes you to either the internal memory or the SD card memory. Choosing the internal memory then brings you to the above submenu. The folder structure of the SD card is presented if you choose the SD card memory. The folder structure is more for guidance than to strictly slot where each type of item goes. I could easily place audio, video, text and image files in whatever folder I pleased, and they all launched when clicked on without any problem. You can also copy over whole folder structures from your computer to the reader, and the reader can navigate folders and subfolders without any issues.
The Audio, Digital Editions, My Books, Picture and Video folders are empty. The Free eBooks folder contains the 150 free eBooks that the device comes preloaded with. They are all in Adobe ePub format, which seems to be the preferred format for eBooks on this device. The books seem to all be public domain books (books whose copyrights have expired) published by the Gutenberg Project.
The Settings menu item takes you to a set of submenus that allow you to set the time, brightness, etc., give you basic system information, allow you to format the device or restore the factory default settings, etc. You can also switch languages between English, Spanish or Chinese. This language setting affects only the menus, not the books on the device. Formatting the device wipes the available disk space clean (you lose all the files you have loaded onto the device, including the pre-loaded free eBooks), but the operating system is housed in the part of the disk that is not accessible to you, and it is not affected by the formatting.
WiFi is the next item on the home menu. Here you can turn the wifi on, and have the device scan for hotspots to connect to. Once you choose a hotspot, you input the password if it requires one. I connected to wifi at home with no problems at all. Once disconnected from wifi (because you took it out of range of the hotspot, for example), the device does not reconnect automatically. You have to again scan for hotspots, and reconnect to the one you want when you are within range of the hotspot. The password you entered, if any, is retained, so you don’t have to re-enter it. I kept the wifi off most of the time to conserve battery power.
The next item on the list is the browser. This brings up a basic browser with no toolbars, menubar, etc. This is pretty much the only mode in which a mouse cursor is visible on the screen. You navigate links by placing the mouse cursor on the desired link (you manipulate the cursor using the joystick), and then pressing the Enter key. The browser only loads up in portrait mode, and you can not rotate the screen, either automatically or manually. Because of the low 480 resolution of the screen in the horizontal direction in portrait mode, most websites will require you to scroll left to right. You scroll by moving the cursor to and beyond the edge of the visible screen. The browser (like most other things on this computer) is quite slow. You can save any site to your favorites menu, but remember that you can not delete favorites, so be cautious. Pressing the Menu key while in the browser gives you the option of saving the loaded URL into the favorites menu, typing in a new URL or exiting. The browser is almost painfully slow, and you can not move the cursor until the page finishes loading fully. The browser does not have any ability to go back or forward from the current website. If you want to go back to where you came from, you have to enter the URL all over again. I don’t think I will be using the device to surf websites unless I had absolutely no other choice, and absolutely had to visit a website for some reason.
The Buy Books menu item takes you to a website called www.ebooksmedia.com. It seems to be a decent site if you are interested in buying eBooks for your device. But I don’t know whether the selection and price are competitive. As can be expected, there are no free eBooks on the site at all. Even public domain works like Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address cost money.
The next item on the menu, “DRM Register”, allows you to register with your Adobe ID and password. This can only be done when the device is connected to a wifi hotspot. Once registration is completed successfully, it allows you to download and read Adobe DRM-enabled books on the device. The first few times I brought up Adobe Digital Editions on my computer while the device was connected to it, Adobe Digital Editions recognized the device as an eBook reader and offered to authorize the device using my id, but every time the attempt to authorize resulted in Adobe Digital Editions crashing and having to be shut down forcibly. After the first few times, Adobe Digital Editions just read the device as an external hard drive, and never offered to authorize the device as an eBook reader.
Music and Video are the next two items on the main menu. As the name suggests, Music brings up the music player, and lists all the songs in the Audio folder of the device. The device does not seem capable of reading MP3 tags, so it just lists the file names, and you can highlight and play whatever you want to play. The playback does not allow you to go to any specified time on the recording, skip parts of a recording or fastforward through a recording. You can play/pause the recording, and switch between songs. If you switch between songs, playback always begins at the beginning. Choosing Video bring up the list of video files in the Video folder of the device. Playback of video is similar to that of audio, with no ability to skip, move forward or backward, etc. The orientation in which the video is played depends on the resolution of the video. Most videos automatically play in landscape mode, and I found no way to control it or force it to play in portrait mode. The speaker on the device is quite weak, and is also usually hidden by the thick leather cover, so it is best to use headphones with this device (since there is only one speaker, there is no stereo output without using headphones either).
The device handled MP3 and WMA files without any problems. I don’t have any AAC or M4A format audio to test the device with. In the case of video, it handled WMV even though the manual does not make any claim about the ability to handle that format. It also handled AVI without any issues. But when I tried playing an MPG file, the device said it was unsupported even though the manual says it should be able to handle MPEG-4 video. Since my main concern was not audio or video playback, I don’t care much, but it is something to keep in mind. Since the device uses a regular back-lit LCD instead of E-Ink, videos displayed with no lag or shadow artifacts.
As far as pictures are concerned, the device has a curious restriction: it can not handle JPG files that are over 1MB in size. Trying to open such a file results in the error message “Unsupported Flie” (sic). Other JPEG pictures can be loaded without any problems, and they rotate automatically depending on how the device is held. You can also set the zoom level so that either the whole picture fits on the screen, its height fits or the width fits. You can also rotate the picture manually if you have a mix of photos that are portrait and landscape in orientation. If you put multiple pictures in the same folder, you can use the Next Page/Previous Page buttons or the joystick to move from one to the next without having to load each one individually.
The Notepad, which is the next item on the menu allows you to write stuff into a basic text editor. Whatever you write is saved automatically, and is brought up every time you open the Notepad. You can not save it on the device by giving it a file name, nor can you get rid of it except by deleting whatever you have entered manually. You can “export” the contents of the Notepad to a named file on the SD Card if one is inserted into the device. It is kind of pointless as far as I could tell. Even though the device can read books to you using its text to speech capability, it can not read what you write in the Notepad.
The “Power Off” menu item completely shuts down the device. Bringing the device back to life requires a complete boot-up once you have powered it off. You can also power off the device by pressing the power button for a couple of seconds. You can put the device in a sort of standby mode, where the screen is off, but the device remains booted up and ready to go instantly, by pressing and releasing the power button quickly. This is not mentioned in the user manual, but is one of the most useful features of the device because you can put it in standby mode to conserve power, but can start reading instantly without waiting for a full boot-up. This is a hidden feature you can discover only by trial and error!
Now, comes the fun part. How does it do as an eBook reader? The easiest way to transfer books to the device is by connecting it to a computer using the USB port and moving files over from your computer. At least that was easiest for me. Just to test it out, I transferred a bunch of books of different formats to the device, and ran a bunch of test on them. Once the device is attached to a computer, if you are running modern operating systems like Windows XP, the computer recognizes the device as an external disk. You have access to the User folder on the device with the subfolders you find under the Library on the device.
The transfer was quite slow. In one transfer, I moved 650 files occupying 150 MB from my computer to this device. That took about 25 minutes. Another time, I transferred 3 files occupying 24 MB, and that was handled in about 40 seconds. Transferring stuff from the device back to my computer was much faster. I copied the 150 free eBooks loaded onto the device (about 70 MB) to my computer in about 30 seconds. Connecting the device to your computer and accessing it through the file explorer on the computer is also the only way I found to delete any media (books, video, music, etc.) off the device. You still can’t get rid of your favorites, but at least you can clear up space on the device after you have finished reading some books.
The device only displays the file names of the books that are loaded on the device. It does not seem to have the capability to load or display any metadata about the book on the screen. And long titles are cut off after about 20 characters (I have a bunch of books on the device, for instance, that all read “The adventures of …”). You can not sort books in any order except the default (which by the way, seems to be the order in which they were put on the device. It is not even alphabetical!). So, you better know what you want to read, and how to locate it on the device before you load it up with a few hundred books and get frustrated trying to locate the one you want by paging back and forth through the list, and/or opening each book to see if it is the correct one! There are no lists of recently read books, etc., to choose from either.
Here is my experience reading (or trying to read) books in different formats on the device:
EPub: This is the default, and best-handled format on this device. The book gets rotated automatically depending on how the device is held in your hands. Some people have complained that the G-Sensor is too sensitive, but I did not have any problems with the sensor myself. The text is reflowed automatically when the orientation is changed. You can also choose what font to read the book in (there is a choice of 5 built-in fonts), with a good mix of serif and sans serif fonts. You can also set the font size according to your preferences. And the book is always reflowed correctly after each of these changes. The text appeared crisp and clear and was easy to read, with no sense of eye strain. Page changes can be effected by using the Next Page/Previous Page buttons, or you can use the joystick (after trying out different methods, I settled on the joystick method as the easiest since it is readily accessible in all screen orientations). In addition, you can set 4 different levels of zoom using the zoom key on the keyboard. If you exit the book and then go back into it a later time, you are placed in the same page you were on when you exited (it remembers where you were in a limited number of books. If you leave somewhere in the middle, read a lot of other books, and then come back to this one, then you are placed on the first page of the book).In addition to the font, you can also do other things using the menu button once you are inside the book. You can go to a particular page by page number of just go to the first or last page of the book. You can have the text read out to you (the reading is understandable, though a little stilted). You can place bookmarks or navigate to previously set bookmarks (you can actually delete bookmarks, seemingly the only thing the device has the capability to delete!). You can also rotate the text manually, and add the book to your favorites (with no way of getting it off that list later!). You can also adjust the viewing style by setting margins, line spacing and alignment. There is no way to search for text inside the eBook.
PDF: I have a large number of books in PDF format, so I was particularly interested in how this device handles PDF files. The device loads PDF files without any problems. However, you can not specify the font the book is to be displayed in or the font size. The menu for PDF books allows you to set the zoom level (original size, fit height, fit width or fit page), go to a particular page, read the book out using text to speech (if the PDF has words), add the book to the favorites list, or go to the outline of the book if the PDF file has a table of contents (you can then go to section or chapter beginnings by choosing the appropriate one from the outline). However, the pages are not rotated automatically based on how you hold the device. The book may be rotated automatically based on the zoom (you can use the zoom key to expand the text if the other settings result in text that is too tiny to read). The paragraphs are never reflowed, so really these books have only two zoom levels: one which allows the book to occupy the screen in portrait mode, and one which allows the book to occupy the screen in landscape mode. Not too bad, but not very flexible either. It would have been better if the device allowed rotation based on the G-Sensor, and allowed the zoom level to adjust automatically to fit the screen as and when the orientation changed.
After I connected the device to wifi, I was able to authorize the device using my Adobe ID and password. I then went to my local library’s eBook repository and downloaded a sample DRM’ed PDF eBook to the device. The device took about 15 minutes to download a 29 MB file (which makes the wifi speed on this device about half that on my laptop), and that book read the same way as a non-DRM PDF file.
CHM: This is another format in which I have a lot of books. The device claims to be able to handle CHM files, but its performance was quite disappointing in this respect. It loads the file, but seems to be able to navigate within only one chapter at a time. Most of the time, it loaded the first section of the CHM, and gave me no option to load the outline so that I could go to any other chapter. Some of my CHM files have links to other chapters in the form of next and previous links on the pages. These could not be clicked on since there is no mouse cursor to place on these links and click. One time, it loaded some random chapter in the middle of one of my CHM books, but that was the only time I could read anything other the first section of a CHM file. But the books were rotated automatically depending on how I held the device, and I could change the font, the font size, etc. I could also go to a particular page in the book, but the only page numbers presented as choices were pages within the chapter loaded. Very disappointing.
HTML: This was another major disappointment. I have a number of eBooks which are collections of HTML pages. Each page leads to the next page via links in the page for the next page, previous page, first page, last page, table of contents, etc. Individual HTML pages are loaded fine (when all the elements are self-contained), but I can not navigate to other HTML files that are linked to it because of the lack of a mouse cursor (HTML files are not loaded in the browser, for some reason). Also, if all elements of the HTML page are not self-contained, then the HTML file is not loaded correctly. I have a book whose images are all in a sub-folder named “Images”. Even though the Images folder was transferred to the device and placed in the same relative position with respect to the HTML file as on my computer, the device would not read it and put the images inside my loaded page. But the books were rotated automatically depending on how I held the device, and I could change the font, the font size, etc.
PRC: Mobipocket PRC files are well-handled by the reader, just like EPub books. In fact, there are practically no differences between the two that I could discern in my quick tests.
DOC: Microsoft Word files are handled by the device, but not reliably. The first time I tried opening one, it got stuck and never did finish opening it. After that, they loaded fine (but with quite a long delay of several dozen seconds), and behaved like EPub or PRC files.
Text: Txt files are loaded and displayed with no problems. However, hard returns in the text file are reproduced in the screen rendering, so if your file has a hard return at the end of each line of 80 characters, it becomes quite messy on the device as you switch fonts or zoom levels. Paragraphs are otherwise reflowed without any problems. You can change the font, font sizes, etc., just like you can on an EPub book.
RTF: Rich text files are loaded and displayed with no problems. They are handled just like EPub books as far as I could tell.
LIT: Microsoft reader .LIT files were not handled well by the device. Most of the time, the device said it was unsupported as soon as I tried loading it. But once, it got stuck trying to load the file, and it took some time for it to pop up the error message.
CBR: No support
CBZ: No support
DJVU: No support
I do not have books in any other format to test on the device.
The mini-CD that comes with the device contains a copy of the free, open-source eBook management software, Calibre. The version of Calibre on the CD was somewhat outdated, but you can download the latest version from www.calibre-ebook.com. I have never used Calibre before since I manage my eBook library in my own self-developed Microsoft Access database. But it seems like an interesting piece of software that I might start using in the future. Calibre has the ability to convert eBooks from one format to another on the fly, so it may be a good idea to transfer books to this device after converting them to EPub format using Calibre since the device handles such books the best. The CD does not even have an electronic copy of the user's manual (though selecting Help from the Settings menu does bring up an electronic copy of the user's manual). A PDF version of the user's manual is available at the Augen website under manuals.
So, here are the pros and cons of the device as I see them:
- Inexpensive, but well constructed (looks and feels solid)
- Reasonably compact and easy to handle
- Comes with a protective leather jacket
- Excellent LCD with good brightness and contrast
- Convenient placement of buttons to handle most eBook navigation
- Intuitive menu system and navigation
- Multiple intuitive ways to navigate through eBooks
- Reasonably stable (never crashed though it seemed to get stuck for a few seconds trying to do stuff), linux-based operating system
- Very good G-Sensor that is quick and reactive to changes in the way the device is held, but not overly so
- Handles EPub, PRC, DOC, TXT, RTF files very well
- Handles PDF files passably
- Wifi enabled
- Ability to authorize the device using your Adobe ID, and download and read DRM'ed EPub and PDF files from various websites
- Quick and responsive page turns
- Easy navigation of folders of images
- Long battery life, suitable for air trips, train commutes, etc.
- Ability to extend the battery life without completely shutting off the device by turning off the LCD screen
- Comes preloaded with several eBooks (though you can get the same eBooks for free yourself if you want)
- Able to handle most common audio, video and picture formats
- Easy to hook up to a computer since it is seen by the computer as an external hard drive (requiring no separate drivers, etc.)
- Card slot to expand memory using external media
- Takes regular SD cards instead of the more expensive MicroSD cards that most such devices seem to want
- Weak processor, leading to slow loading of books, browsing of websites, etc. (though once an eBook is loaded, navigating within it is quite quick, and page turns are practically immediate)
- Badly written user manual
- Badly written error messages and informational messages project an unprofessional image of the device
- Narrow aspect ratio and inability to rotate the browser application makes it impractical to surf most websites comfortably
- Very poor handling of HTML and CHM eBooks
- Difficult to figure out in which modes the G-Sensor is active and which modes it is not (available in some formats of eBooks, but not in others or while web surfing, etc.)
- Strange restriction on JPG size that precludes use of this device with most photographs produced by modern high-megapixel cameras
- No search functionality (either inside books or in the folders for a particular book)
- Folder contents displayed seemingly at random, with no way to look at the full filenames if they are longer than about 20 characters
- No ability to delete any media off the device except by hooking the device up to a computer or formatting the device
- No ability to read metadata from eBooks for use in display, sorting, filtering, etc.
- No ability to read MP3 tags to organize your music collection
- Separate charger and charger port with no ability to charge via the USB port
The Bottomline: This device is an example of a good idea spoilt by poor implementation. The device probably could have served as a pretty decent, full-featured linux tablet, albeit not touch-enabled. Instead, it was crippled into serving as an eBook reader with no way for the user to access the operating system directly to install applications, etc. And the book-reading functionality has been implemented in a very spotty fashion, leading to lots of claims about compatible file formats, but very few that are handled well. If the browser were made full-featured, that alone would be a giant step forward in the usability of this device as a general-purpose tablet. Then, test the device out with eBook formats it does not handle correctly and improve their handling or throw them out as unhandled, fix the JPG file-size limitation, write a decent user manual, and you have a very promising device. Notice that these are all software improvements, not hardware improvements, which I assume are a lot more expensive on a per-unit basis. As it stands right now, I would only give it 3 stars out of 5, overall.