In the information age, printed paper documents are kind of passé. They take up space and use resources to produce and to ship. They’re a hassle to carry around. Maybe that’s why the “eBook” craze took off like wildfire when Amazon’s Kindle debuted a few years ago. eReaders are essentially portable LCD devices that display documents. But they look pretty chic, like the ubiquitous “data pads” in sci-fi adventures, and one can’t deny the appeal of carrying a small library’s worth of material in a device smaller than a paperback. I wasn’t really planning to buy an eReader, but I decided to give them a chance when I saw this off-brand model on sale.
I’ll get this out of the way: The Aluratek Libre eBook Reader Pro (which we’ll call “the Libre,” for short) offers a pretty basic, no-frills eBook experience. It’s priced in the $120-$150 range, placing it among other “entry-level” eReader offerings. As such, it lacks some of the features of its more expensive counterparts. It does not have touch-screen, wi-fi, or internet capabilities. It does not have a backlight or a text-to-speech mode. It’s just a fairly easy-to-use black and white Ereader that makes an awkward attempt at multimedia functionality (more on this later).
The Libre is a thin rectangle. It is about 6″ tall, just over 4″ wide, and about half an inch thick. Its casing is made entirely of black plastic, and it is dominated by a 5″ screen. It has a 3.5 mm headphone jack on the bottom and a USB/charging port and an SD card slot on top. The device uses a built-in rechargeable Lithium Ion battery, which apparently can’t be removed. The Libre supports MP3 audio files, and BMP, JPG, and GIF images. Supported E-book file types are PDF, TXT, FB2, EPUB, MOBI, PRC, and RTF. The device seems to have only 112 MB total of usable internal memory, but it supports SD cards of up to 32 GB.
Included in the box are the device itself, a carrying sleeve, an A/C adapter, a USB cable, a pair of “ear bud” headphones, a wrist strap, and a flurry of Quick Start guides and warranty manuals in various languages. The documentation also alludes to a 2 GB SD card, but as a customer service rep explained to me, this is only bundled for certain retailers.
The Libre’s build quality seems fairly solid, though I’d hate to drop it on any hard surface. The button layout is intuitive and mostly self-explanatory, with a scroll-bar on the left side of the screen, page back and forth buttons in the lower left corner, navigation and function buttons on the lower right corner, a series of numbered buttons on the right side which are mostly used to select items from the menu, and an on/off switch on the bottom. The buttons seem a bit stiff; time will tell if they get “broken in” with usage. The Libre’s small, slim form-factor made it a little uncomfortable to hold one-handed for long periods of time. I was a bit more comfortable switching the display to “landscape” mode and holding the device two-handed, like an actual book.
Connecting the Libre to a computer is a snap. It’s simply plug and play, requiring no software or drivers. Windows XP recognizes the Libre as an external drive; actually as two external drives – one for the system memory, and one for the SD card, if one is present. Upon opening these “drives,” one can create folders and drag and drop files as needed.
Navigation on the device itself is equally straightforward. The main menu offers eBooks, Pictures, MP3 Player, Settings, and Help. Various folders and files are selected with the numbered buttons on the right side, or the up/down arrows and the OK button. Books generally load in a few seconds, though certain files seemed to lag for whatever reason. Once a book is loaded, the pages generally turn in under a second. The text can be enlarged or the screen orientation changed quickly by pressing the respective buttons. There are options to search for keywords or access a table of contents, but only certain file types support these. Bookmarks can be added, but the Libre will immediately display the page you last viewed when powering on. When you back out of a document, your place will be kept for the next time you load it, which is quite useful.
Screen quality is probably the single most important aspect of an Ereader device, and the Libre delivers with a crisp, readable display. Text was dark and smooth in everything I read. Even when zoomed in to a ridiculous degree, letters remain free from jaggedness or pixelation. The Libre’s box advertises something called “ePAPER Technology,” which lends the screen “the same appearance and readibility [sic] of printed paper.” This is true to a degree; the contrast between the text and the background is consistent with a printed page. However the background color is a sort of pearl silver, with hints of yellow. This reflects light a bit differently than paper. You’ll find that certain angles definitely work better than others. Some angles will leave you with one part of the screen much brighter, while positioning the screen directly in front of (or under) a light source will cause glare on the screen. Overall, the Libre’s screen displays well, and is easy on the eyes.
As for battery life, the Libre advertises 24 hours of continuous use, with a 2-week standby time. This figure is surely affected by a number of variables, like whether you have background music playing. The battery indicator is comprised of three bars. I would estimate that I used the Libre for 10-15 hours of mostly reading over a period of almost two weeks before I was down to 1/3 capacity, at which point the device prompted me to recharge with repeated pop-up messages. In short, the battery lasts a fairly long time, but you’ll probably want to bring the charger for longer trips.
As an added bonus, the Libre doubles as an MP3 player, the capacity of which is limited only by the size of your SD card (up to 32 GB). All sound comes via the 3.5 mm headphone jack, as the device has no external speaker. The interface is basic, and reminds me of the earliest MP3 players on the market; you simply have a list of all your files. Selecting one will begin playing the track, and take you to a media player screen. You can pause or continue with the OK button, and decrease or increase the volume with the left and right keys, respectively. You move to the previous or next track with the page back and page forward buttons, or hold them (or hold up or down on the scroll bar) to backtrack or advance within the current track. The only options you have are to randomize or repeat tracks, turn off the LCD screen, redefine the hotkeys, or set music as “background music” so you can continue listening while you load a book. It’s worth noting that doing so will likely drain the battery faster and make other functions slower.
I listened to a variety of music with a couple different sets of “earbud” headphones, and was not particularly impressed by the sound quality. While not lacking in volume or range, I found my MP3s plagued by clicks, pops, and strange little fluctuations in volume between the right and left channels. These flaws were not apparent when listening to the same files on my computer or my dedicated MP3 player. If I had purchased this device for use as a music player, I would have been irked. But the fact is, I bought it for use as an eBook reader. The device is far too unwieldy to carry around on a jog anyway. As such, I’ll chalk off the Libre’s MP3 player capability as an extra feature which I probably won’t end up using. It’s probably meant more as a means of listening to audiobooks anyway.
The Libre also has a picture viewer function, which, like the MP3 function, seems a little impractical. The screen is crisp, and it displays images quite ably (see my photo of Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” included in this review). But nothing changes the fact that the image is simply a black-and-white LCD rendering. Details will be lost in any image with a lot of dark colors. It generally takes a couple of seconds to load an image, or to flip between images. You can alternate between portrait and landscape mode with a single button, and you can zoom in up to 200%, or out down to 50%. I can see why image rendering is a good idea for PDF books with illustrations or cover pictures. But if you’re looking for a device to show off your family photos, this probably isn’t it, unless you enjoy the novelty of seeing said photos as they would appear on an etch-a-sketch.
Gimmicky extras aside, the Aluratek Libre Pro does what it was meant to do – display eBooks – quite well. The screen is sharp. The battery life is good. It’s easy to use. And it supports a variety of file types. And while many (including myself, admittedly) prefer the feel of an actual book, this ultra-portable device is very handy on long commutes, at boring jobs, or in any situation where you want to get some reading on. Overall, the Libre is an admirable, basic eReader. Those looking for something a little more trendy or feature-rich may want to pay a few more dollars for a better-known brand. But for $120, I don’t regret my purchase.