The Alex eReader (by Spring Design) is one of those products that probably would have gotten a lot more attention had it managed to come out before the iPad. However, as it stands, the $399 Android-powered device--which features both a 6-inch e-ink display and a 3.5-inch, 16-bit color touch-screen LCD--has been overshadowed by the arrival of Apple's slate.
Though the Alex eReader shares some similar traits to Barnes & Noble's dual-screen Nook, it has no tie-in with Barnes & Noble. In fact, Spring actually sued Barnes & Noble for similarities it saw in the Nook.
Beyond the dual-screen design, the Alex's key selling points are its built-in Wi-Fi, the ability to stream video and surf the Web (on its smaller color screen), and the fact that it runs the increasingly popular Android operating system.
Long and narrow, the 11-ounce Alex has a bit of an odd shape, measuring 4.7 inches wide, 8.9 inches high, and less than a half inch thick. That makes it a little more difficult to hold in one hand comfortably, though--at about 0.66 pound--it is fairly light.
The eReader comes with a 2GB of internal memory, and the microSD expansion slot supports cards up to 32GB. Earphones, an AC/USB power connector, and a padded cover ship with the unit. While it's missing the sort of built-in 3G cellular data connection found on the Nook and Kindle, the Alex does--on paper, at least--present quite a decent feature set.
In assessing the Alex, it's worth taking some time to try to determine what it does better than some of its competitors. For starters, the color touch-screen is not only larger but sharper and seemingly more responsive than the Nook's color LCD nav bar. We also like the icon-based home screen, which is more intuitive and slightly easier to navigate than the Nook's interface. There are icons for the BookStore, Browser, Calculator, Email, Gallery, Library, and Music, Reader, Settings, Wi-Fi, YouTube (Beta), and a User Manual.
The Alex uses the aging version 1.6 of the Android operating system. But the bigger problem is that there's no built-in app store. Spring Design says that this version of the Alex supports "Android applications that do not require GPS, camera or 3G connectivity." But the company provides no guidance as to how you can install such apps. (Company reps say that a video tutorial will be added to their Web site soon.)
The Alex's 3.5-inch screen is lot more akin to a smartphone's screen than the Nook's narrow navigation LCD, so you feel like you're using a smartphone when your focus is concentrated on that lower screen. The Web browser does have its limitation, but it is more usable than the Nook's or Kindle's browsers--though it's still a bit frustrating to be limited to the smaller bottom screen.
While this is no iPad in terms of rich multimedia capabilities, it is a notch up from the Nook (and an even bigger step up from the Kindle). The color LCD displays pictures pretty well and also plays back video (MPEG2, MPEG4, and 3GPP formats), though there's some banding and jagged edges due to the limited resolution of both the screen and some of the files we played back.
Like the iPad, the Alex doesn't support Flash at this time, though Spring Design's FAQ says Flash will be available in the next generation of Alex products--in other words, don't look for it to be added to this unit via a firmware update. You can, however, access many YouTube videos via the beta YouTube app.
On the audio front, the Alex's Android-based media player can handle most standard non-DRM audio formats (MP3, M4A, AMR, MIDI, WAV, and OGG Vorbis), and you can play music in the background while reading other apps. However, it can't handle closed audiobook formats (such as Audible). There are built-in speakers, but we were distressed to see that Spring Design went with a 2.5mm headphone jack (such as those found on older cell phones), not the industry-standard 3.5mm jack. In other words, you'll need an adapter dongle to use your headphones (assuming you don't want to use the ones supplied by Spring).