Budget ebook reader debuts

Britain-based Interead is the first company beyond heavyweights Amazon and Sony to offer both a hardware reader and a sales pipeline for acquiring ebook content

Move over, Kindle, a new e-book reader is in town -- and it's coming from a newcomer to the consumer electronics universe. Britain-based Interead is the first company beyond heavyweights Amazon and Sony to offer both a hardware reader and a sales pipeline for acquiring ebook content. And while its initial offerings -- the Cool-er E-book reader and coolerbooks.com -- are a little rough around the edges, together they offer a viable, no-frills alternative to Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader.

"Cool-er has been designed to fit the requirements of a reader. They want it to be portable, light, to fit in a jacket pocket or purse, and they want it to do what they want to do in a simple manner," posits company founder Neil Jones.

Dissatisfied with the current status quo in ebook readers, Jones pursued his vision of an ebook reader earlier this year. Jones began a rapid-fire four-month development cycle in January, and partnered with a Taiwanese manufacturer on the device's design and production. The resulting Cool-er Reader is entering production now, and will be available at the end of May. The Cool-er Reader costs US$249, as compared to the Amazon Kindle 2's $379.

One aspect of the Cool-er Reader will sound very familiar: It has a 6-inch E-Ink screen. It also has 1GB of onboard storage (good for about 750 to 800 books), and an SD Card slot (as found on the Sony Digital Reader PRS-700 and the first-generation Kindle) for expanding data capacity by up to 4GB. The device weighs 6.3 ounces -- up to half the weight of other e-book readers -- and it measures just 8.6 mm thick, making slimmer than even the Apple iPhone 3G (which also is an e-book reader through several apps, including a version of Kindle).

The Cool-er Reader can handle EPUB-formatted books, in addition to Adobe PDF files, text files, and JPEG files. It can also handle up to eight languages simultaneously (although you can manually change the device's language to one of the supported eight languages, too). The device has MP3 playback, for use with audio books.

Hands On Impressions

I've been using a late production Cool-er and have to say it is a promising first-generation unit, but it's not without its rough spots. The navigation menus are inelegant and lack the general accessibility of its competitors. It has only a 2.5mm headphone jack instead of the standard issue 3mm jack (Jones said that was because of the unit's slim design). And the buttons on the device are noticeably stiff.

But I found a lot to like, too: The Cool-er is a featherweight, which makes it easy to carry. And, it comes in an array of colors -- eight, to be precise, including stalwarts like matte black and silver, and peppier colors like green, blue, red, and pink. The unit has a convenient mini-USB port on the bottom, for charging and for data transfers. (Check back for a more complete update on how the Cool-er works.)

How an unknown quantity like Interead will fare against the establishment remains to be seen, but Interead has taken the step to launch an ebook store, too-coolerbooks.com. There, the company offers over 260,000 e-books . Jones notes that's more than the 160,000 titles in Sony's digital book store's coffers (not counting Google Book Search) and about 4000 more e-books than Amazon offers. Interead plans to sell the books at 25 percent off of list price for Cool-er Reader owners, and 20 percent off list for the rest of consumers.

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