This review has been a long time coming, because it was actually several months ago that Sharper Image sent me the first Literati unit to review. It’s been a long time in coming partly because I got too busy with my day job and other writing to get around to it, and partly due to various technical issues.
I suppose the review is largely academic at this point, given that the Literati actually is no longer available at full price at Best Buy, Bed Bath and Beyond—even the Sharper Image website itself no longer carries it. Boscov’s has it, but at a $69.99 clearance price rather than the original $149.99 retail. (Woot had it for $49.99 + $5 shipping a couple of days ago.) And I’m not sure it’s worth even that much.
So I guess it blew through and fell off the market in about four months. It’s not terribly surprising—though there are a few things to like about it, the Literati really never had much to offer compared to the comparably-priced e-ink readers with identical functionality.
This isn’t really the review I originally meant to write. I didn’t get as much time to play with the Literati as much as I would have liked. I never could get the first one, which I wrote about here, to load my own e-books properly, and the Sharper Image people subsequently asked me to wait and review a second post-release unit they would send me with newer firmware in it, instead. So I did.
However, I’d only fiddled with the second one for a few minutes before it locked up entirely, freezing up with a static pattern on the screen and not responding to any attempt to restart or reset it. When I wrote back, they told me that particular glitch couldn’t be fixed outside of the factory, then sent me yet a third unit. I had better luck with this one in that I got to use it for a few hours—then it, too, locked up in exactly the same way as the second.
The Sharper Image people were very nice and accommodating, and I have little doubt they would send me a fourth unit if I asked. (Well, if they were still actually selling them, which on reflection I guess they aren’t.) But I still haven’t sent back any of these three (and I will be sending them as soon as I can dig up where the boxes with the return mailing labels got buried in my room, since in their broken state they’re not of any use to me), and there comes a point where you just have to say “enough”.
It’s a pity, because I actually did like a number of things about the Literati during the brief period in which I was using it. There were other things I didn’t like so much, and I don’t think it’s really as good as an e-ink reader for a number of reasons, but if it weren’t for the technical problems I would have said it would make a decent pick if you could find it marked down to below $70 and nothing else were available in that price range. But after going three for three flawed units (or, to be fair, I suppose I should say two for two since I really shouldn’t count the pre-production beta), I’d be hesitant to recommend it if it were otherwise the best reader in the world.
I started using the third Literati unit at about the same time I picked up a Kobo Wireless for $60 at Borders, so some comparisons are inevitable—especially since they seem to use slightly different versions of the same overall operating system. They both read the same formats of files, largely EPUB and PDFs.
They had basically the same user interface, with the addition of the keyboard and left and right paging buttons on the Literati, and both had the same habit of flashing epigrams while loading and also of taking approximately forever to process content after uploading onto the device. (I never noticed that kind of delay with the Sony or Astak readers I reviewed previously.) They also have similar wireless shopping capability, with access to the Borders e-book store.
What I Liked
The biggest thing I liked about the Literati were the two sets of page forward/back buttons on the left and right sides of the reader. The Kobo only has a four-directional D-pad for controls, meaning there aren’t many ways you can hold it and read, but the Literati’s controls gave me a lot more flexibility. I also liked that its screen was visible in the dark, like my iPad’s. I could see reading some in bed with the lights out, which I couldn’t do with the Kobo (though, granted, I could do with my iPad or iPod Touch). At similar font sizes, the Litati screen could hold maybe 20% more text than the Kobo, too.
Some people have a problem with the window being too tall and narrow. I thought I would, too, but after reading with it a bit found it seemed pretty natural. When I read e-books through Ibis Reader on my web browser, I often have the screen narrow because it’s easier to track back and forth on the lines that way, and tall so I can see more text. I honestly didn’t have much trouble getting into reading given the screen dimensions. (I did have some other problems with the screen, though, which I’ll go into below.)
I also liked the thumb keyboard, at least some of the time. Particularly when I was entering my wifi password into the store function with it. Thanks to the keyboard, and the LCD-rather-than-e-ink nature of the screen, the Literati’s interface felt a lot faster than the Kobo’s (which often frustrates me). Overall, if not for the technical issues, and if I didn’t already have better readers in my iPod Touch and iPad, I could probably have been happy with this device as a make-do e-reader.
What I Didn’t Like
But there were a number of things I didn’t like so much. First of all, the screen. While the 7” diagonal 800×480 screen has approximately the same pixel density as the iPad’s 132 PPI, I don’t think the font rendering is quite as good as Apple’s; the letters all tended to be a little blurry around the edges.
To an extent, that kind of thing is unavoidable in LCD, and it probably looked worse than it was because I’d just been reading from the ink-on-paper-sharp e-ink screen of the Kobo. But even in comparison to the iPad, the font rendering just didn’t seem to be quite up to par. And the iPod Touch might have a smaller screen, but even the first-generation model has 30 more pixels per inch than the iPad and Literati, so it looks better too.
Of course, the Sharper Image publicists I’ve been in touch with point out that the Literati really isn’t meant to be compared directly to the iPad—it’s a simple device for people who just want to read, not something that tries to mimic the iPad’s wider range of capabilities. Still, I don’t think that a head to head comparison on appearance is unwarranted, especially as the original iPad’s price drops with the introduction of the iPad 2.
And the format of the book list pretty much invites comparison—rather than a list of title and author, it displays the covers of books in the “facing outward on bookshelf” style used by iBooks and Classics. Of course, the screen is smaller, so it can only display nine at a time—and unlike the iPad, there’s no way (that I could find) to switch it to a much simpler (and preferable) textual list which could show a lot more titles per screen.
To make matters worse, I never could get the thing to page reliably between pages of titles. I could start on a screen with “1-9” and hit the arrow key and then be at “46-54”. I’m not sure whether I was doing something wrong or it was just symptomatic of the malfunction that would eventually brick the machine, but I spent a lot of time arguing with the interface.
I also didn’t see any way to pull up a search box to go to a specific title. Sure would have been useful given that there was a nice hardware keyboard I could have used to type a search term in! (Though, again, it could just have been there and I didn’t find it. But I sure didn’t see anything on the screen that said “search”.) You could hit the first letter of the author or title you wanted when you were sorting by author or title and it would jump there, but that was about the extent of it.
Something else I didn’t like was the cramped amount of file space. The Kobo has 1 gig of onboard storage, but the Literati only has 512 megabytes—and I didn’t even have access to all of those; when I mounted the reader as a USB drive, Windows claimed it only had about 200 megabytes free. I put 175 of my e-books on, rather than all 500+ that I could fit on the Kobo—but then when I paged through them, the Literati told me I only had 113 on it. (The Kobo didn’t have any problem listing all the books I put on it.) When I tried putting an SD card with all the books on it in the slot, the Literati churned away processing new content for a while, and then crashed to static.
I don’t have too much to say about the store interface at this point. I’ll probably cover it in detail when I review the Kobo, since it uses the same one, and I’ve had more recent experience with it. The keyboard is useful here for searching, but it sure is too bad that the web access isn’t a little more general. If an e-ink device like the Kindle can do it, why can’t a color LCD one like the Literati?
It seems like such a waste to have a nice bright color LCD and a full-fledged hardware thumb keyboard and not be able to do much with it, especially given how much bigger and bulkier (and hence, clumsier) it makes the reader. It doesn’t have to be perfect or even good, but just to have it at all would be useful in those situations where you have your ereader but nothing else and want to check your mail. It’s like buying a car that you can’t take out of your driveway.
When you get right down to it, why even have a color LCD if you’re just going to use it for reading black-and-white text? Sure, it makes the cover illustrations look prettier, but at the cost of making the text fuzzier and harder to read, and giving you a much shorter battery life—and since the text is 99% of what you’re using the e-reader for, it seems like a poor tradeoff.
And comparable e-ink readers, on which the covers don’t look as good but the text looks perfect, are falling into or past the same price range—I picked up a Kobo Wireless at Borders for $60, and don’t expect that to be the last deal I find. The Kobo Wireless doesn’t have as many controls, and has more sluggish menu responses, but essentially has the same functionality and more onboard space, and books look a hell of a lot better. And it’s also small and light enough to slip into a jacket or cargo pocket, which the Literati definitely is not.
So I certainly wouldn’t recommend buying the reader at full price, and I’d be hesitant about snagging it at the $70 clearance. For $10 less, you could get a $60 Kobo if you’re near a closing Borders, and I have little doubt there will be other e-ink readers nearly that cheap at regular price by the end of the year.