The BeBook Mini is a compact eBook reader with a 5in screen. It scores points over Amazon's Kindle in some areas, but overall it faces an uphill battle to gain market share; we also think there is substantial room for refinement.
For companies like BeBook, Amazon's hotly anticipated Kindle hitting Australian shores is a mixed blessing. On one hand, the Amazon Kindle is by far the world's best known eBook reader. On the other, the Kindle has helped raise the profile of eBooks dramatically and therefore build the overall market for devices like the BeBook Mini.
As its name implies, the BeBook Mini eBook reader is quite small. It measures just 105x150mm and is less than a centimetre thick; it weighs 160 grams. It's smaller than the Kindle but the design is not as sleek. For an obscure and unnecessary mobile phone comparison, think of the rather chunky and no doubt forgotten LG TU550 versus the iPhone.
Like the Kindle, the BeBook Mini uses an e-ink/electronic paper display (EPD). This technology requires power to render a page but not to continue displaying it. In other words, you don't have to turn on the BeBook Mini every time you want to continue reading — the current page will just sit there without draining any power. The battery is rated at 7000 page turns, and you can recharge it by connecting the included USB cable to your PC.
An EPD is quite astonishing the first time you see it. There's no backlighting, so it's far less fatiguing to read than the LCD displays used on mobile phones and notebook computers. In the right light the BeBook Mini can look almost like a product mock-up, with a sheet of paper inserted into a plastic grey case. The contrast is not as good as most physical books but it’s still adequate. As well as text, the BeBook Mini's screen can display images in eight levels of grey; not ideal for displaying photos but the quality is fine for many graphs and diagrams.
We did notice some strange text layout in the test Word and PDF documents we viewed (odd line breaks, for example). When a document uses a serif font it can be hard to read at small sizes (the zoom controls let you adjust text to a comfortable viewing size, and at higher zoom levels some documents are displayed in a landscape orientation).
Whereas the Kindle has a full QWERTY keyboard and a funky mini-joystick, the BeBook Mini has 10 number keys and a smattering of other buttons for functions like turning a page. The controls are adequate for reading books, but searching is a cumbersome task. The lack of a keyboard means you have to use the number keys in a similar fashion to typing an SMS on a conventional mobile phone — without predictive text input.
That's not to say that the BeBook doesn't score some points over the Kindle. It has an SD slot that takes memory cards up to 16GB in capacity; there is also 512MB of internal memory. This essentially means you can carry the US Library of Congress around if you have 1280 SD cards.
Unlike the Kindle, the BeBook Mini doesn't have 3G connectivity (and as a result, no Wikipedia access, for example). There is no Wi-Fi either, so you have to connect to a computer via USB or use SD cards to load books (the BeBook Mini shows up as another drive in Windows when it's connected to your PC). The lack of 3G is a big downside — with the Kindle you can purchase a book instantly from Amazon's store, wherever you are. This highlights a key difference between the two eBook readers: Amazon's Kindle is a service-subsidised device that relies on the exclusive link to a single online store for a revenue stream, whereas the BeBook is a far more "open" device, with the company relying on sales of the reader itself. Additionally, with the BeBook Mini there is no chance of an incident like the Kindle's infamous 1984 debacle.
The BeBook Mini supports an extensive list of file formats, including PDF and ePub (with Adobe DRM), text, Microsoft Word, HTML, RTF, PowerPoint and MP3 (there is a 3.5mm headphone jack). BeBook touts the eBook reader's ability to access the many public domain and free works available on the Internet (through sites like Project Gutenberg), but you can also buy DRM-protected books from vendors like Dymocks.
We think there are many things to admire about the BeBook Mini, even though it's an uglier device than the Kindle and has a much clunkier interface. We do appreciate the support for a wide variety of file formats. As it stands, however, if you're interested in an eBook reader that's more open than the Kindle then we'd recommend waiting for the next generation of devices. With innovations like touch screens starting to appear (on Sony's PRS-600, for example), eBook readers are set to get even more useful and easier to use.
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