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Old 10-30-2009, 09:33 AM   #1
Steven Lyle Jordan
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A PDA guy reviews the 5" Pocket PRO


One nice perk that’s resulted from my recent 15 minutes of fame at the hands of the New York Times has been the attention of a few of the movers and shakers in the e-book field… including Astak, resellers of a number of eInk-screened e-book readers on the market. (That’s “Astak,” not Aztek, as I kept finding myself saying at first!) Astak’s Bob Barry contacted me, and I discovered that he and I clearly had a lot in common when it came to the positive aspects of e-books, especially from an environmental standpoint; right away our e-mails started to take on the tone of lifelong comrades in the Global Battle for Environmental Sensibility. So when Bob asked if I would do a review of a new 5” EZReader Pocket PRO (a rebranded Hanlin V5 reader) that they would send to me, I felt honored, and duly jumped at the chance.

This would be the first of the dedicated devices that I would try, having read on a PDA for quite some time, and being happy with the format, LCD screen and multiple-format flexibility for reading. But the 5” Pocket PRO was supposed to solve many of the issues related to dedicated readers, namely reading more formats, being a bit more compact, and providing a better high-contrast eInk display.

The reader was ready to go right out of the box, though Astak recommends letting it get a full overnight charge first. It comes packaged with a leather cover, a set of earbuds, and a carrying lariat that attaches to the bottom of the book. An included USB cable will attach the device to your computer, or connect the wall plug to the end of it for a wall-charge (charging it off your PC is possible, but it’s faster on the wall). A printed manual is also included, but the device has the manual duplicated electronically, in English and Chinese.

The first thing I discovered was that the screen was an excellent eInk display: Bob had informed me that the smaller size allowed for more pixels per inch, resulting in a screen of higher contrast. Text was clearly crisp and sharp, and the 8 levels of grayscale displayed graphics such as book covers well (depending on the cover, of course… some color book covers just look like muddy messes when converted to grays). Everyone I showed it to was impressed by the screen quality right off.

The reader’s controls were easy enough to operate. I liked the 3 choices of page-changing controls, and usually found myself using the 9 and 0 buttons on the front menu board for page changing. The rest of the menu board is used to select menu items based on the number displayed next to them, and the round Return and Menu buttons on the front were easy to get used to. The Pocket PRO is not a touchscreen device, so the screen stays free of fingerprints. If you insert an SD memory card into the top slot, the Pocket PRO will open to that first, and you use the menu buttons to switch between SD and on-board memory, then to select your files. The USB cable connects the Pocket PRO to your computer, where it is recognized as a new drive, and allows you to move files onto it, create folders, and arrange everything from your desktop. Most other e-book applications on your computer will also recognize the reader as a new drive, and allow you to load documents onto it from apps like Adobe Digital Editions, MobiPocket, eReader and Calibre.

I did encounter an occasional problem with the unit seemingly “locking up” during operation, usually when a book was being open, and often within the first few pages (the cover, TOC or setup/copyright info). Embarrassingly, I showed the device to two people, and it managed to lock up on the cover of two different books as soon as they tried it! (Not the best way to demo something… sorry, Bob!) In both cases, turning the Astak off, then back on, allowed the book to be read beyond the point of lockup. There is also a reset button on the back of the unit, but I only used it once. Based on the instructions, this lockup is a known issue, but obviously not considered serious. I know it didn’t bother me much, it just meant an occasional extra minute spent rebooting the reader.

The Pocket PRO advertises that it can read multiple e-book formats, and I tried all of them. The good news is Yes, it can open and display them all; but some formats don’t display well unless they are optimized for the Astak’s screen size. Letter-sized Word docs, for instance, display at such a small font that they are for all intents and purposes illegible. Although you have some font resizing control, it generally only allows you 3-4 font size settings with most formats. Different formats also render differently, varying in font type, line spacing, paragraph indents, etc, so it wouldn’t be a bad idea to see some examples of formats displayed by the Pocket PRO, so you know what to expect before you buy.

One thing I noticed in most formats was a slight problem displaying italics (when using Times for a font, at any rate): Individual characters would sometimes seem “cut off” on the right side. It took me a bit, but eventually I realized was that in some formats, each italic character was essentially being generated as a black image on a solid white rectangle… imagine a letter on a playing card. Sometimes, those cards overlapped each other, the card to the right overlapping the card to its left, resulting in instances like the letter “o” being partially obscured by the letter “f” of “of.” This (and the font sizing limitations) is an issue caused by the rendering engines licensed to the Pocket PRO, not with the hardware or firmware. PDF and ePub files seem to be the exception in this case, but there may have been other combinations of formats and fonts that solve this font overlap problem, too.

Here’s the best news: The Pocket PRO lourves ePub! I tried a few ePub files (including novels of my own), and found the widest range of font choices available, and IMO the best-rendered layouts of any format. I also experienced no “lockup” with any ePub file, as I had with every other file format at least once (the other exception: PDF. Nice job, Adobe). Next in display quality would be PRC (MobiPocket) files, I’d say, but as it’s a very subjective thing, again, try to see them for yourself.

Unfortunately, a lot of e-books come with DRM, and the DRM support on the Pocket PRO is limited. Because Adobe’s rendering engine is on-board, for example, MobiPocket is required by license not to open DRM’d Mobi files. Essentially, you can use Adobe Digital Editions on your computer to open a DRM’d ePub or PDF file, then send it to the Pocket PRO. But the encrypted PRC file I sent from Mobipocket Reader and the encrypted PDB from eReader would not open. I don’t believe you can open encrypted files with any other formats, as far as I could tell. A DRM-laden file loaded onto the device won’t hurt it… but it will either not display in the menus at all, or it will display, but when you try to open it, you’ll get a window that advises you the file cannot be opened because of the DRM file type. Again, this is a restriction created by the format licensees, not by Astak or their firmware, and it’s a pretty common problem across all devices. So, if you have access to a lot of DRM’d PDF and ePub e-books, or non-DRM’d e-books (or can break the DRM on those you have—but you wouldn’t do that!), the Pocket PRO might be perfect for you.

I quickly got used to eInk’s “1-second flash” changing pages, and never considered it a distraction. One thing I didn’t love was that, upon turning on the Pocket PRO, I had to work my way through a menu to find the book I was reading—and with one of the books that was five pages into the menu, scrolling to the fifth menu page, then selecting the book, and waiting for it to load, took 45 seconds, what I’d consider a tedious wait. It would be nice if the device just opened to the book being read as soon as you turned it on, and saved you the trouble of that menu-diving. Using folders to group your books can also be a big help, so you’re not scrolling through so many pages to get to the desired books. Fortunately, it opens the e-book where you left off, even if you hadn’t set a bookmark (sometimes it would open a few pages back from where you left off, probably at the beginning of the “page,” so you might find yourself doing a minute of re-reading to catch up).

I checked out the on-board MP3 player, which sounded great (though, these days, you have to search to find a bad player!). The MP3 controls are basic, just designed for you to start it playing, set things like your volume, then move on to reading a book while the music plays. The reader includes earbuds that are okay, but screaming for those little foam covers to make them more comfortable. I just plugged in my personal earbuds, and life was good!

I also tried the text-to-speech function on the PDF manual. I sure am glad I’m not dependent on it to read to me, because I thought it was pretty bad! There were no natural cadence breaks or pauses, no inflection, and irregular breaks between words… I’d rather listen to a first-generation Cylon than one of these! Even looking at the text as it was being read, I had trouble following along with it. This is actually considered state-of-the-art for device TTS… which means somebody has a lot of work cut out for them to improve this!

Turning the device off means pressing the on-off button… and holding it. If you just click it, the book goes into an energy-saver mode, requiring a second click to get back out of it. After 5 seconds or so of holding the button down, the device fully shuts down.

One thing I can’t address is battery life, as I am not one of those people who reads every day for a quarter of the day, as some people claim to do! For me, it’s about 2-3 hours per day, during my commute to work, and a few minutes here or there. I will say that with those kind of reading habits, I used the Pocket PRO for 3 weeks without running down the charge, and that was just reading, no MP3s playing or TTS droning at me. Since I figure most people can get to a wall plug to top it off at some point in 2-3 weeks’ time, I wouldn’t think anyone would have a problem with this power usage.

So, here’s the operative question: Will this old PDA reading dude switch to the spiffy new eInk device? In this case, I’m afraid not. Although it did a great job with ePub files, its slow on-off and menu functions felt glacial next to my PDA. Also, I’ve never had problems reading my PDA’s LCD screen, so although the eInk screen looked fantastic, it wasn’t enough to make me switch. But if I was planning to switch to an eInk reader, I’d pick this one up. The 5-inch size was great for reading, the screen is excellent (and everyone I showed it to agreed, bar none), it’s lightweight and jacket-pocketable (I carried it around in the pocket of my cargo pants for days), and its basic design is well-executed and utilitarian-attractive. It’s a nice machine, worth the price of admission for a basic dedicated reader.
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Old 10-30-2009, 09:54 AM   #2
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On eInk vs LCD

Something else I’d like to mention, related to the ongoing discussions comparing LCD and eInk screens. I pointed out in the above post that I read on PDAs, at home, at work, and about (on my PDA), as I have for over a decade, now. I know how to adjust my LCD screen for brightness, contrast and font size, and I use the ClearType setting that is standard on most Windows systems (including the PDA) for optimum viewing quality. As soon as I get an LCD screen, I make these changes on the spot. That’s why I’ve had no problems reading from LCDs during this time.

During my review period, I used the Astak Pocket PRO during my train-commute to work, a roughly one-hour trip in each direction. I habitually read on my PDA on this commute. Occasionally, my eyes would get fatigued while reading, and I’d close my eyes and doze for a bit, usually to come back to reading later. This happened more often going home than coming in, and it didn’t happen regularly.

During my time with the Pocket PRO, I noticed roughly the same amount of instances when my eyes would get too fatigued to read, and I’d need to take a break. No more, and no less, than reading on a PDA with a smaller LCD screen. My fatigue was caused by overall physical fatigue (and considering I work at a desk all day, that’s not something I’m proud of… but there it is), and my eyes were equally impacted by the type of screen I read from.

Although I realize not everyone’s eyes are like mine, I honestly believe that a great many people who do not like to read on LCD screens have never learned how to properly set them for their eyes’ comfort level. Learning how to adjust these settings has made a world of difference for me, and I think it would be more than enough to make many other people comfortable with LCD reading.
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Old 10-30-2009, 10:19 AM   #3
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Good review. The way to fix the italics problem you mentioned is to load your own fonts. The internal ones slant the regular font to get italics. When you load your own you can supply four files with all font combinations covered, regular, bold, italic, and bold italic. (There are some tricks required to get this to work in ePUB but hopefully this will be solved soon.)

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Old 10-30-2009, 11:20 AM   #4
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Originally Posted by DaleDe View Post
Good review. The way to fix the italics problem you mentioned is to load your own fonts. The internal ones slant the regular font to get italics. When you load your own you can supply four files with all font combinations covered, regular, bold, italic, and bold italic. (There are some tricks required to get this to work in ePUB but hopefully this will be solved soon.)
As I discovered, ePub was the one format that didn't need new fonts to fix the overlap problem. But good to know (maybe something that Astak can take care of for us!).
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Old 10-30-2009, 12:13 PM   #5
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The font handling in ePUB and PDF is done by ADE so this demonstrates the difference in behavior on italics handling and font handling. Which format did exhibit the problem?

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Old 10-30-2009, 12:46 PM   #6
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As I recall, I saw it in Mobi, LIT and PDB. Don't remember if I tried TXT or HTML.
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Old 10-30-2009, 12:58 PM   #7
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Nice review. As another long-time PDA reader, I decided I wanted a bright-sunlight reader, and narrowed it down to the Astak 5" or the jetBook.

The difference boiled down to: the Astak had DRM capability; the jetBook was cheaper. Since Bed, Bath, & Beyond sent me a 20% off coupon about that time, the jetBook was a _lot_ cheaper, so I bought it. The characteristics of the two readers are very similar, down to some of the flaws you mentioned in rendering.

I miss my old Compaq Aero 1550. What I'd really like is a WM6.5 PDA with a 5" reflective LCD screen in an aluminum Rhinoskin case. I'm not holding my breath. Oh, and a pony.

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Old 10-30-2009, 01:24 PM   #8
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Great review, agree wholeheartedly with everything, except.......

For the love of eating my kid's halloween candy, I still cannot get a single epub to open on my pez!!! Homemade epubs, downloaded, whatever- they won't open.

I have to send it back for the peely-exchange, so I'm hoping the second will open epubs, getting sick of converting to pdf's, as I find the font too big on mobi's.
Still don't know if it's a mac thing or what

The only time I read on my itouch now is when I'm in the hot tub with the itouch ziploc'ed in a freezer bag
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Old 10-30-2009, 01:32 PM   #9
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That is odd: I ported a number of ePubs into the PocketPRO myself with no problem. One was made with Calibre, the others made by Sigil from my own files, and all were non-DRM. (I'm on a WinXP platform.)

Have you used ADE on your Mac to move the files? I understand ADE should see the "pez" as a drive, and allow you to move the files after you've opened them in ADE.
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Old 10-30-2009, 04:50 PM   #10
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firmware should fix the freezing.
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Old 11-02-2009, 01:32 AM   #11
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Definitely a great review. With the seeming demise of the PDA, my plan was to replace one of the key reasons I used it with the PEZ. I've got a pretty extensive library of .lit files and was really disappointed with the way they display on the PEZ.

I'll not do away with my PDA, but at this point have added another device to my laptop bag, a device I (so far) have used a lot more than the PDA. It took me a while to ween myself off of the Palm Pro/Visor to the Pocket PC, but I'll do it eventually.

[Now if I can just find a device to handle my contacts and calendar]
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Old 11-02-2009, 07:32 AM   #12
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I like the review!

I've been a PDA reader for ages as well and only recently switched to e-ink (partly!) I generally use my mini for day-light reading and my LCD device (mostly my JE100, the Loox720 hasn't had this long a vacation since I got it...) for night time reading.


And thank you for finding out what happened with those italic fonts... I noticed those as well, especially with the font I'm currently using, but didn't really look into it . I mainly read mobipocket, as I don't like the epub application, no page numbering, no battery status, and no bottom and top margin. And don't even get me started at those numbers on the right margin...


If you ask what I'd prefer reading, I'd say my transflective PDA screen, but then 5" instead of 3.4"... I do like the e-ink, but I like the flexibility of my LCD screen (colours, possibility of backlight and still perfect daylight reading). As soon as a 5" or 6" transflective LCD screen device arrives, I'm hooked...
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Old 11-02-2009, 12:11 PM   #13
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I mainly read mobipocket, as I don't like the epub application, no page numbering, no battery status, and no bottom and top margin. And don't even get me started at those numbers on the right margin...
I admit, the one thing I wish the ePub app had was a progress indicator (because simply providing a page indicator doesn't tell you much, when you don't know how many pages are there). The ghosted page numbers on the side were odd, and I wasn't nuts about the way they obscured some words, but I git used to it. Still, Adobe should kill that feature, it just plain sucks.
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Old 11-02-2009, 12:22 PM   #14
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I admit, the one thing I wish the ePub app had was a progress indicator (because simply providing a page indicator doesn't tell you much, when you don't know how many pages are there). The ghosted page numbers on the side were odd, and I wasn't nuts about the way they obscured some words, but I git used to it. Still, Adobe should kill that feature, it just plain sucks.
I use Calibre to set a right margin of "13" on epub, that seems to fix the "smeared" text when there is a page number.
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Old 11-02-2009, 12:29 PM   #15
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I use Calibre to set a right margin of "13" on epub, that seems to fix the "smeared" text when there is a page number.
Good thinking! Have you managed to do that with a DRM'd ePub file purchased from another vendor?
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