$749 electronic reader by iRex could be more user-friendly

— -- Many business people are drowning in documents at work. Dutch company iRex Technologies designed its new series of electronic readers with these folks in mind. The first device, the iRex Digital Reader 1000S, went on sale this week. Too bad it's a disappointment.

IRex, which targets business users, is more of a burden to use than the more consumer-focused Amazon Kindle or its rival, the Sony Reader. The iRex readers cost a bundle, too.

At times, the preproduction unit I tested behaved like the buggy "beta" that it is. On the positive side, iRex boasts a 10.2-inch display that's much larger than the screens on the Kindle or Sony device. It's appealingly light. Like the Amazon and Sony devices, it exploits electronic display technology from E Ink.

It also demonstrates, perhaps, how the e-book reader category might soon expand.

A closer read:

The basics.

The iRex Reader will be available in three configurations. The 1000S costs $749 and has a built-in Wacom digitizer and stylus, meaning you can make annotations on the screen. While the $349 Kindle doesn't have a digitizer, it does allow you to connect wirelessly to the online Kindle Store, at least when you're in an Ev-Do cellular coverage area. In the Kindle Store, you can browse and download digital books on the fly without being tethered to a computer.

You'll have to spend an additional $100 for a wireless version of iRex; the $849 1000SW will add Bluetooth and Wi-Fi when it arrives later in the year. IRex says you'll be able to access an iRex Delivery Server to download digital newspapers and other content. Still, it won't be anything comparable to the Kindle Store. You can use the Bluetooth, iRex says, to connect wirelessly to a 3G cellphone. But it remains to be seen how well that might work. The device will have a very limited Web browser.

Coming far sooner will be the entry-level iRex Digital Reader 1000, assuming anything that costs $649 can be categorized as entry level. It lacks the digitizer and the wireless. You'd think for those prices iRex would supply a wall charger. Instead, it's a $23 option.

You're meant to charge the reader by connecting it to a computer via USB, but a PC isn't always close by. IRex claims about a two-day battery life, but my prototype didn't quite make it that long. The 1000S weighs just over a pound, is less than half an inch thick and is a little smaller than a standard 8.5-by-11-inch piece of paper. It comes with a leather case and a 1-gigabyte SD memory card for storing documents.

IRex will supply very limited content when you buy the device. But the main idea, of course, is to carry your own office documents. You must connect the USB cable to a computer and perform a drag-and-drop operation to get the files you want to read onto the SD card.

I ran into some initial snags trying to get content from both Windows Vista and Windows XP computers onto the reader.

IRex is compatible with Adobe PDF files, HTML, Mobipocket PRC and several image formats.

The reading experience.

The large display and E Ink-based screen are well suited for digital newspapers and other reading materials, though at least one PDF document I added was tough to make out. To be fair, the original document was in color, while the iRex device is gray-scale.

I sampled PDFs of Alice in Wonderland, Crime and Punishment and other works. You can jump to pages in a document by using the stylus to tap on tabs at the bottom of the screen. Or you can use your finger to lightly tap physical arrow sensors on the outside of the screen.

But the system is slow to boot up, and the interface is unattractive and unintuitive. If I turned the machine on when the SD card (with content) was inserted, the first and only thing visible on the home screen is an icon for settings.

Icons for documents, inbox and help showed up only if I inserted the SD card after the machine was turned on. An oddly labeled "up a level" icon on the home screen is a dead giveaway that iRex could use a lesson in designing far-friendlier software.

By summoning a main menu, you can rotate the display, add bookmarks, find words and look up dictionary definitions. But the only way to turn the device off is to summon that menu again and tap or navigate to a turn-off-device icon.

I'll make certain allowances for a beta device. But I'm hard-pressed to recommend something this expensive and this much of a kludge.

E-mail: ebaig@usatoday.com