If holding the launch of IRex's new e-reader at the New York Historical Society was designed to make a statement about a history-making new device, it did just the opposite. The IRex DR800SG, which demoed among hundred-year-old paintings in ornate gold frames, looked as old and archaic as the building it was revealed in.
Instead of an innovative new addition to the ever-more-crowded e-reader market, IRex gives us more of the same old thing. Actually, it presents less of the same, with fewer features on the reader than its competitors. There's no note-taking function, for example. The on-screen keyboard is small and awkward. And, of all things, it uses a stylus. And clearly IRex didn't put a whole lot of effort into the database-y sounding name.
It's hard to believe the company thinks this is worth $400. True, the e-ink technology looks nice, and the 8.1-inch screen is welcome compared to the Kindle and other readers' smaller screens. But in the age of the iPhone, where apps swish onto the screen and slick keyboards slide up and down, IRex's device feels like it's running a stodgy old Mac OS from the mid-90s. Without color. And while the bar that lets you turn pages and scroll the menu is cool, it's on the left, making it a bit awkward to use depending on how you’re holding the device.
The interface doesn't excite, with bland icons and a noticeable lack of features. Problematically, the device I demoed froze up when I rotated the page to landscape (a nice touch, though there’s no accelerometer so shifting is manual and slow), so I had to reboot and then wouldn’t come back from sleep mode. Not good.
One area IRex did manage to (sort of) innovate is the distribution of both the device itself and its content. Partnerships abound: Best Buy will sell the device in stores, Verizon is providing the 3G network, and Barnes & Noble is a launch partner for bookselling. Unlike Amazon's Kindle, the device supports eBooks purchased anywhere, so you won't lose your books if you decide to switch devices.
The reader is also open platform, and it's worth keeping an eye on IRex's plans to allow third party developers to design apps for the device. When they do, new data plans and payment options will have to be rejiggered--3G can’t be included in the price for new network-hogging apps.
So with its first foray into the U.S. market, IRex isn’t making much of an impression. More enticing are the company's plans to offer a true touchscreen device in mid-2010 and a full color reader by 2011. There's just nothing special about the DR800SG.
Too bad the reader was not presented as a budget option, at $79 or even $99. As one of the most expensive readers out there—and one of the most run-of-the-mill—it's hard to justify spending $400. History in the making? Not quite.