Hands On: BeBook Mini E-Reader

Bebookmini  006I was liking this cutesy e-reader. Until I got my hands on a Kindle the other night. Now I understand why the Kindle gets so much love.

Let’s first look at the BeBook Mini’s better qualities. It runs e-ink. Nice. It’s easier to read than a backlit screen, though you can’t read it in the dark, but seeing how readers of books have been getting around this problem for centuries, we’ll count it as no biggie. Besides, e-ink is readable in sunlight. Backlit screens not so much.

It’s compact. More so than the Kindle. I could find a space for it in my overnight bag where the Kindle would not have fit. The Mini’s dimensions are 150 x 105mm. The 8-level greyscale screen is five inches (125mm, diagonal). The Kindle’s dimensions are 203 x 135mm with a 6-inch screen.

The Mini has an SD slot for memory expansion so together with a standard USB port, that makes two ways to get stuff into the Mini. Supported file formats run to ePub, PDF, doc, html, bmp, jpg, png, gif, tif, djvu, fb2, wol, txt, ppt, pdb, lit*, chm, rar, zip, mp3, mobi*, prc*, htm and mbp. (*=non DRM). It’ll also do text-to-speech for popular file formats, although the cyberbabe voice could take some lessons in diction from the talking GPS girl.

There are 10 numbered buttons underneath the screen, five of which have a second function. Menu mining is a matter of point by numbers. Page navigation has three methods. The left/right buttons on the left side of the screen, the 9 and 0 buttons underneath the screen, and the toggle on the right side of the device, which is the best method for flipping pages. Battery life is excellent. I had it on for days at a time and read hundreds of pages and the battery meter barely dipped down to the 25 per cent mark.

You can see from the picture there are two other buttons on the left of the number pad underneath the screen. The bent arrow takes you backwards, the menu button on the right of it pops up an options menu for the current page.

Expected features are here. Bookmarking, three-level page zooming, go to page, etc. The BeBook will connect to Mac or PC and mount as a USB drive. It has 512MB flash memory. But adding new books is not nearly the seamless process it is with the Kindle 2’s 3G-based downloads. You can download 20,000 classic book titles, all of them free, from the BeBook web site but new releases require you find a place to buy them.

And where would that be? BeBook’s site has a bunch of links to commercial ebook sellers but none of the links work. I tried Barnes & Noble but this leading seller requires a credit card with a US billing address. Oh. Google search? Yeah, sure, that turns up sites to get content from. But, well...it’s all a bit hard, really, except, I suppose, for those early ebook adopters who with their healthy bookmark folder full of places to buy know exactly where to go. And speaking of hard, the Mini has a search function but entering text via the number buttons is a pain.

In use, the menus and navigation took little effort to get used to, but compared to the Kindle’s elegant control layout and keyboard, the BeBook Mini looks a bit primitive.

But the crunch factor is the price. And this is going to hurt the BeBook, which is priced at $389. The Kindle is expected in Australia at about the $300 mark. A bit less for quite a bit more, including the Kindle’s killer feature of content updates and purchasing over 3G, which as I saw the other night works in Australia via an AT&T roaming partner.

(You can get more info on AT&T’s roaming arrangement with international partners over at Fierce Wireless.)

When you consider the competition growing in the e-reader market, which Gizmodo’s Dan Nosowitz has well summarised here, the BeBook looks a bit lacklustre. By itself, not a bad device. But out on the playing field, it’s gonna find the Kindle 2 and other products a bit hard to contend with, both on features and price.

That said, the BeBook may find itself a niche among those who have for years been reading books on a smaller device such as a Palm and don't need lots of whiz-bang features, but do lust after a simple device with a bigger screen. They may also like the fact it's not tied into any single online reseller. It can be ordered online from the BeBook Australia web site.