When it was unveiled back in January, the Story HD, iRiver's first entry into the US e-reader market, boasted all manner of exciting technologies, including an "HD" display and a souped-up (in e-reader terms) processor. Things have changed in the past six months, thanks in part to new Nook and Kobo devices. The other week, however, iRiver pulled out a pre-release surprise that turned plenty of heads: a partnership with Google Books. Are these features enough to make the company competitive in an already crowded market dominated by the Kindle? Find out the answer to all that and more in the review below.
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iRiver Story HD review



Hardware


Make no mistake: the Story HD doesn't score any points for looks. Perhaps we're just spoiled having played around so extensively with the latest Nook and Kobo readers, which adopt seamless displays, not unlike smartphones and tablets. But iRiver's device looks downright ancient, bringing to mind the first-generation Kindle, whose own design was already dated when it debuted way back in 2007. The device's case isn't helped along by the inclusion of a miniUSB port (not micro) or the coffee-colored rear and matching pill-shaped buttons on the front, which seem out of place with the device's white face.

Some users will certainly welcome the inclusion of the 38 button QWERTY keyboard over the kind of infrared touchscreen found in many other e-readers, though with the device's relatively limited functionality, the need to type doesn't extend too far beyond searching for titles in its book store. The keys themselves are small, uncomfortable slivers that make us long for the Kindle's more comfortable round keys.

A spokesperson told us that touch is a feature the company is considering adding in the future -- one gets the feeling that iRiver just sort of missed the boat on it this time around. Oddly, the company also opted not to include page buttons on the bezel of the reader, instead requiring the user to flip through the pages with a large, loose button beneath the screen or arrow buttons located in the bottom left-hand corner of the keyboard. Neither option is particularly ideal.


The inclusion of the keyboard also requires a larger footprint. The iRiver measures 7.49 x 5.02 x 0.37 inches, putting it on the larger side of the current generation of readers, making it thicker and wider than the third-generation Kindle, which also crams in a QWERTY keyboard. However, iRiver did knock the weight down to 7.3 ounces, beating out the Kindle and Nook WiFi. The device feels solid and is easy to hold with one hand, though toggling between pages will likely be a two-handed task for most people.

The Story HD packs an 800MHz Freescale i.MX508 processor -- the same chip inside the Kobo eReader Touch Edition, and the same clockspeed as the TI OMAP 3 powering the latest Nook. Also like those devices, the iRiver has 2GB of built-in memory -- half what the latest Kindle offers. However, the inclusion of an SD slot (no, we don't mean microSD), renders any quibbles over built-in storage moot.

According to iRiver, the device's battery should last around ten weeks, assuming you read for about an hour each day. That sounds like more than most of its fellow readers' claims, but there's really no standardization for measuring e-reader battery life. The fact is that most of these E Ink devices last long enough for you to forget the last time you charged the thing. Not surprisingly, there's no 3G option here, which likely won't bother most shoppers, but it's worth noting, given that Amazon just started selling the Kindle 3G (with ads) for $139.

Display


Here's where the whole HD thing comes in. No, the iRiver Story HD doesn't do 1080p playback, and it doesn't hook up to your Blu-ray player, but as far as E Ink displays go, the device packs a lot of pixels into its six-inch screen -- a fact that has been one of iRiver's primary selling points since it announced the device back in January. The display has 768 x 1024 resolution -- that's higher than the Kindle and Nook's industry-standard 600 x 800. The result is undeniably sharp, but given the fact that most readers will be using the device primarily to view pages comprised entirely of text, it's hard to imagine that making a huge difference in the lives of most of its users.

When the device was first announced, iRiver also talked up the Story HD's page refresh speed, expecting it to be the fastest of its kind when it hit the market. The Story is certainly fast, but can no longer claim the title of "fastest," with a rate that's now on-par with that of the then unannounced Nook and Kobo. Unlike those readers, however, the Story HD tends to do a full flicker refresh between each page, like the Kindle.

Software


Just as it was looking like the Story HD would come to market as a mostly unremarkable device, however, something happened: the company announced a partnership with Google, making it the first e-reader to offer out-of-the-box integration with Google eBooks, giving users access to the software giant's library of 3 million free titles and hundreds of thousands of paid books

iRiver has made no bones about its pride in that fact, making Google a centerpiece of the device's software, both through pre-loaded public domain titles like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Great Expectations and through the use of the Google eBookstore as its primary marketplace.



The reading experience is stripped to pretty much all but its most basic functionality. The default screen page is monopolized entirely by the text, with no title on the top and no page on the bottom -- though numbers do sometimes appear in incredibly small font in the right margin. Your progress also flashes on the screen every time you turn the page or click the Option button.

That button also lets you buy the book (in the case of a sample), skip to a specific page, bookmark, look up a word in the including Collins dictionary, view the book's table of contents, and adjust the font size -- there are eight font sizes in all.

Like most other current readers, the Story HD can display PDF files, and unlike some of the ones we've tried out (cough Nook) it does so with ease. Like the Kobo, the Story HD can also zoom in and pan PDFs -- the process is a little tedious, but it's a handy feature nonetheless.

The UI is quite barebones, with a homepage consisting of a straightforward list of the reader's contents. The titles can be sorted by name, date downloaded, favorites, and author. Toggling through all of this using the device's buttons made us really miss the touch functionality on the Nook and Kobo. Above that, you'll find a column showing the title you're currently reading, along with a small thumbnail of the cover. The top of the screen, meanwhile, is dedicated to a Google eBookstore link, which looks rather a lot a banner ad.

Clicking on the eBookstore column will prompt you to connect to a wireless network -- the device seemed have some trouble maintaining a connection, even when the network was strong, prompting us to log in multiple times. The store itself is also fairly bare, offering a simple search box at the top and defaulting to a list of best sellers below. The Categories feature offers up some more options, if top selling books aren't your thing.


Wrap-up


Were it launched rather than just announced back in January, the Story HD may well have been a contender. As it stands, however, the reader is a victim of its own timing, having been eclipsed by both the Nook and Kobo -- and we still haven't seen what Amazon has up its sleeve for the next generation. The device's "HD" display is a nice feature, but it's hardly enough reason to recommend it over the competition. The Google partnership is neat as well, but again, it's just not as compelling is it might sound at first, since the software giant's content can already be loaded onto most readers, and from the sound of it, this is the first of many such partnerships to come. The basic nature of the software, meanwhile, might not be a deterrent from users looking for a simple e-reader, but it really just underscores one of the Story HD's biggest shortcomings -- there's just nothing all that compelling about it.

It's worth mentioning that we noticed some disturbing distortion across the display after a week of use, with E Ink lines running lengthwise, rendering the midsection of the text largely unreadable. Gently shaking the device only exacerbated the problem, creating new vertical lines that increased in darkness even after we placed the reader down. iRiver assures us that this is the result of impact on the screen, though we weren't able to detect any trauma to the outside of the device and can't point to an incident that might have caused such an issue -- the reader went through the same paces as the Nook and Kobo before it. Either way, this relative fragility doesn't seem to bode well for the device's build quality. That said, even taking this issue off the table, the Story HD's features don't really add up to a reader that we can recommend.
iRiver

iRiver Story HD

Pros

  • Hi-res display
  • Quick processor
  • Google books integration

Cons

  • Uninspired feature set
  • Minimal software offering
  • Unattractive design
Summary