I have been evaluating the iRiver Story HD eReader this week. While there are things to like about it: its integration with the Google eBook store (the only eReader integrated so far), an SD expansion slot that can hold up to a 32 GB card, and really good battery life; there are more things to dislike: the ridiculous keyboard (though, to be honest, there is not much use for it), long book load times, lack of file management, small fonts on the navigation screens, and lack of page turning buttons on the bezel. At $139.99 (available through Target stores or Target online) it is not going to compete with other eReaders like Kindle, Nook, Sony and Kobo that offer more features for the same, or even lower prices. After using it for a few days I am used to its quirks, but wonder what it’s designers and sponsors were thinking entering this highly competitive market with a less than up-to-date design and feature set.
In the eReader world, the reader itself is the mobile front-end to the bookstore, which means that the reality is that it is pretty much Amazon vs. the World. My money is on Amazon to win this contest. Therefore, when a challenger arises the first question is, what is its marketing edge? In the case of the iRiver it is supposed to be the Google eBook store, and while Google seems to be great at selling advertising, their online marketing efforts of their own products are pretty lame.
Part of the problem is Google’s history. Remember all those millions of books scanned by Google books? All those out of copyright, public domain tomes? Many of them are available for free at the Google eBook store (and thus the “over 3 million titles” available on the iRiver) but a little investigation will reveal that a preponderance of them are scanned image only versions, which are virtually unreadable (without a magnifying glass, at least) on the device. Don’t get me wrong. There are still many, many titles for sale at the Google eBook store, and many available that are free in the EPUB format that will allow re-sizing and re-flow of the text, but the Google eBook store in no way compares to the Barnes & Noble eBook store, not to mention the industry leading (by far) Amazon offering. When using the Google eBook store, look for the “Not Supported” indicator as you hover over a book cover, or on the book’s information page. If eReader and Flowing Text are not supported you can indeed add it to your Google Books library, and sync it to the iRiver, but good luck reading it.
Nevertheless, this is iRiver’s claim to fame as an eReader and if you are one who dislikes Amazon it is an alternative.
This is not to say that books purchased from the Google eBook store are DRM free. They are not. What is nice is that if you purchase the book at Google it syncs with your iRiver library seamlessly. If, on the other hand, you check out a DRMed book from a public library (I checked out books from the San Diego County and Escondido public libraries while testing the iRiver) you have to use Adobe’s Digital Editions software to sync them. This was not trouble free. I discovered that the authorization account id (email address) you use to authorize your iRiver device, and therefore the one you use at Google eBooks) needs to be the same one you use to authorize Adobe Digital Editions. If not, the device refuses to open books that are synced. It took about an hour to figure this out by trial and error, and I could not find a forum that addressed the issue in a practical way. Anyway, the point is, once you get Digital Editions working with your iRiver, it is a simple and effective way to sync eBooks checked out from libraries. The same is true of open source EPUB documents downloaded from Project Gutenberg and elsewhere.
Here is a good video from Google that displays the Story HD in action and explains how to obtain books from Google eBooks at the same time.
The Specs and What They Mean
The Story HD has WiFi connectivity, no 3G, though the WiFi seems to need to reconnect often, 2GB of internal storage (half that of the Kindle) but with an SD expansion slot. It is 7.5″ x 5″ x .37″ at 7.3 oz., as slender and light as any eReader, with a 38-key QWERTY keyboard whose keys are little plastic nubs or slivers that are nearly unusable. You need to depress them with your nails (if you have any) because they are so hard and offer so much resistance. Pressing the SYM key brings up an on-screen keyboard map that maps numerals and symbols to the alpha keys on the keyboard. The symbols are not even printed above they keys, which I find amazing and really dumb. Since you cannot make annotations in the book or document your are reading, there is not much need to use the keyboard, except to type in a word you are trying to look up in the built-in Collins Dictionary. Yes, I said type in. There is no way to navigate into the text to select a word to look up, as with Kindle. Another amazing drawback. It is not possible to annotate or highlight the book you are reading, as it is with other eReaders, and there are no social networking hooks on the iRiver Story either.
iRiver claims 14,000 page turns per battery charge, which reading an hour a day translates into about a 6-week battery life between charges. All eReaders that use eInk technology experience similar battery lives. Once the ink is arranged on the page, no power is consumed. What takes power is running the WiFi and throwing new ink on new pages. It takes 4.5 hours to fully charge the iRiver’s batter from a fully discharged condition.
iRiver makes a big deal of its 768 x 1024 pixel XGA 16-grey shade display, and the text it displays is sharp and clear. Kindle and Nook both use a 600 x 800 display, but their displays look just as sharp. The eInk of Pearl technology is so good that pixel resolution has little meaning when comparing displays of text only. Where it might shine is when graphics are displayed onscreen, but since they are so small and cannot be conveniently enlarged on this device, I did not see an advantage to the higher resolution screen. The HD moniker refers to this resolution, and not to any ability to display video or multimedia, which the iRiver Story definitely cannot do.
The device supports EPUB, PDF, TXT, FB2, and DJVU e-book formats, and the Office Viewer supports PPT, PPTX, XLS, XLSX, DOC, DOCX, and HWP file formats. It also supports the standard graphics formats, JPG, PNG, GIF and BMP, and even ZIP format. I was able to view DOCX files on the iRiver, but it does not claim to fully support the newest Office formats. Since EPUB is an open format, DRMed EPUB or PDF books like those from libraries) arrive in the form of .ACSM files (adobe encrypted files) which can only be read on your own device and, in the case of library books, will expire after a certain period. PDF and DOC files can be sideloaded (drug directly onto the device in Windows when it is connected with its USB cable, or synced while connected to the Adobe Digital Editions program) or downloaded from Google. Amazon Kindle books CANNOT be loaded on this device.
The iRiver web site indicates that it supports all flavors of Windows (2ooo, XP, Vista and 7) but makes no mention of Mac OS X. I was able to connect the iRiver to my Mac and drag files to it, but a version of the Adobe Digital Editions software did not exist for my version of OS X (10.7 Lion), so Mac users might hesitate before investing in this device. The Adobe web site described a convoluted way of installing the software on Mac, but no thanks.
For unexplainable reasons the iRiver Story HD does not have next-page and previous-page buttons on the case bezel. It relies on a centrally located 4-way rocker nav bar at the bottom middle of the device. This bar is close enough to the edges of the screen to make it possible to hold the device in one hand and turn pages, but it is awkward compared to the layout on the Kindle and Nook. There are also miniature arrow keys (left-right-up-down) at the bottom of the keyboard, but they are so small as to be useless for page turning.
Pressing the Option key with a book loaded allows for font enlargement, which works well as long as your book is in EPUB format. PDFs can be enlarged slightly (but not enough to become truly visible in most cases, at least to my eyes) or you can turn reflow off on them and enlarge the text, but lose all sense of the document’s structure, which will then break in strange ways.
The main home screen is divided into four sections: 1) a field that when selected will load the interface to the Google eBookstore; 2) a field showing the book you are currently reading and can be used to launch the same (though the book load time is the longest I have seen on an eReader); 3) a bar that can be used to arrange your list of titles, by Google Library (all the contents thereof from your use of Google Books), Recent books or documents, Favorites (mark a favorite by pressing the space bar when the selection symbol—a curly bracket—is next to it, Title, and Author; 4) a title listing of your books and documents, which may comprise many pages. While you can enlarge fonts within books and documents, you cannot do so on the Home screen, and the document descriptor tags are very small indeed. It is not possible to arrange your titles into folders or sub-categorize them except by marking some as favorites.
We are reviewing eReaders in an effort to identify one(s) we can recommend to students and faculty members, and are purchasing a few for community examination and workshops. Because the the limitations listed above, we cannot recommend this one to our community. Once you are used to its quirks, it is a perfectly good text reader. On the other hand, once you have read on another eReader, like the Kindle or Nook, its shortcomings become glaring. Once you have read on a tablet, like the iPad, it is even more so. Since there are apps for the Google eBookstore available on iPad, there is little reason to use that as a justification to recommend the iRiver device. Because of this devices limited ability to magnify images, it is unlikely to be useful by students in reading eTextbooks. If I had to give it stars, I would give it 2 out of 5. It does do a couple things well, but does not compare favorably with its competition.