The Astak EZ Reader Pocket Pro

The Astak EZ Reader Pocket Pro


Price: $199 (the EZ Reader website)

Vital specs: 5-inch E-Ink display; supports Adobe ePub and PDF DRM; SD card slot (supports up to 32GB SDHC); mp3 player; text-to-speech; search within books

Accessories: USB cord; wall charger adapter; earphones; case; wrist strap; screwdriver and extra screws (for replacing the battery).

Astak’s new 5-inch EZ Reader Pocket Pro is a surprisingly strong competitor for best casual ereader (i.e., an ereader with no keyboard or wireless). The obvious comparison is to Sony’s new PRS-300 “Pocket Edition”—which has the same price point and size—and the Pocket Pro stacks up pretty well.

The Pocket Pro offers all the extras a standard 6-inch ereader does (a cover, an SD card slot, an mp3 player), whereas the PRS-300 has none of these features (and for some that’s been a deal-breaker). The Pocket Pro also has a few ground-breaking features that no other casual ereader has, namely text-to-speech and the ability to search within ebooks. Astak is also working on eReader format support, which would make it the first E-Ink device to support eReader books.

However, there are some annoyances that come along with the Pocket Pro. Primarily, its user interface is clunkier than a Sony’s. The Pocket Pro is a Hanlin build, like the BeBook, which I never liked as well as my Sony PRS-505, even though I wanted to. Pocket Pro shares some of the BeBook’s flaws, like the interface, but it’s also fixed many of the BeBook’s issues, and it boasts significantly better firmware (and Adobe DRM as opposed to the dying Mobipocket).

The Pocket Pro works best (and very well) for ePub books, other formats have some small issues attached. More on that below, under “Reading books.”

Ultimately, I see the Pocket Pro as a work in progress, with some rough edges that could still use polishing. Astak’s hard at work, though: they’ve already released two firmware updates (available here) since the Pocket Pro debuted a few weeks ago, and they seem to have more improvements in the works. These updates have both added major features like search, and worked to refine the display of PDFs. And, of course, their customer service is much better than Sony’s.

Let’s get into the details.

Physicality: B+

I like the feel of the Pocket Pro more than the BeBook. The plastic seems thicker and stronger, and it has a slightly rubberized feel. The cover is hands-down the strongest I’ve seen, although it’s a little bulky, and hangs over the Astak about a third of an inch on all sides.

The Pocket Pro is locked into the case on three sides with little plastic clips. While it initially felt like I might break the clips trying to get the device out, it’s actually a slick little system, and there’s one main clip that easily releases the whole device.

It still feels light compared to the metal of the Sony Reader, but that’s not a big issue.

The menus are significantly lower contrast than the text of ebooks

The menus are significantly lower contrast than the text of ebooks

Out of the box, the menu screens looks a little washed out and gray, especially when you see the high-contrast USB-connection screen. There’s something in the firmware that doesn’t use the highest contrast the hardware is capable of when displaying menus.

The ebooks themselves are high-contrast and quite readable (difference pictured), so this is only an oddity, but it is kind of annoying.

As far as accessories, Astak includes a lot with the Pocket Pro. In addition to the cover and a USB cord, there’s a pair of earphones, and a screwdriver and a couple of extra screws to replace the battery. Best of all, there’s an included adapter that lets you charge directly from an outlet.

Interface: C

The mp3 player interface: So the 2 is volume down and the 7 is volume up? What does the 3 do?

The mp3 player interface: So the 2 is volume down and the 7 is volume up? And the 3 does what?

This is the Astak’s significant drawback. The Pocket Pro uses roughly the same Hanlin interface as the BeBook, and it’s not my favorite. It’s just not as intuitive as the Sony’s interface; you have to find the number of the item you want, and then match it to the numbered button at the bottom of the device.

This problem is worst in the music player (pictured). I repeatedly found myself staring at the options, trying to figure out which button did what I needed.

Oddly, there’s a toggle switch on the side of the device, but it only turns pages, it can’t move between menu items, or even hyperlink options in tables of contents. (It can do a few other things if you push in and toggle, but ultimately, I never found that too useful.) If that switch could work as a two-way directional pad, it would make the interface a little more intuitive, at least.

While actually reading, the interface is better, and it’s about as good as you can expect when searching inside books (more on that in a bit). But I can’t see it ever becoming second nature.

In the end, this is more of an annoyance than a real problem, and it speaks to the quality of the Pocket Pro that this is its biggest flaw.

Getting books: C for Macs, A for PCs

The Pocket Pro talks directly to Adobe Digital Editions, and also shows up as a removable drive on your computer, which makes it simple and easy to get books on the device. And the Pocket Pro has the ability to borrow library ebooks, which you need an annoying hack to do on the BeBook.

I really like Adobe Digital Editions for managing ebooks. It’s simple and it gets the job done without problems. I got almost irrevocably confused by Sony’s new eBook Library software for Macs, but then, I’ve never liked it. In fact, my favorite part of using it has been how easy it was to use Digital Editions instead (until EBL 3.0), so a device that uses Digital Editions exclusively is perfect.

You can manage folders in the Pocket Pro’s hard drive, so you get the convenience of Sony’s “Collections” without the hassle.

However, there’s trouble for Mac users. The EZ Reader doesn’t properly eject from the Mac system, and it has a tendency to get corrupted by being repeatedly hard-ejected (i.e. plug yanked out).

If you use a Mac, I recommend connecting your EZ Reader once, to register it with Digital Editions, and then loading ebooks exclusively on your SD card, independent of the Reader. You can drag ebooks from your Digital Editions library (Documents -> Digital Editions) directly to your SD card. You might need to reflash your firmware if the Pocket Pro gets corrupted; instructions and firmware are here, under Support -> Firmware Download. The good part is that you won’t need to re-register with Adobe, so registering and reflashing should give you a clean device. Also, if you use a Mac, see my note about SD cards below.

In addition to Adobe (and regular) PDF and ePub, the Pocket Pro supports DOC, RTF, HTML, TXT, MP3, WOL, CHM, RAR, ZIP, FB2, DJVU, BMP, JPG, TIF, PNG, GIF, PPT, LIT, and non-DRMed PDB. And Astak is working on eReader format (DRMed PDB) support, for all those Fictionwise readers, which would make them the first E-Ink device to support eReader, and the first device to support two different kinds of DRM.

Reading books: B+

As far as the physical experience of reading, the Pocket Pro is equivalent to most other ereaders. There’s the famous E-Ink flash, and page-turning time is roughly the same as with all other devices I’ve used.

As far as formats, the Pocket Pro does best with ePub books. I had some trouble with PDFs, either not zooming in correctly (with non-Adobe PDFs of uncertain origin), or not zooming in enough. And the Pocket Pro has the same formatting problem with zoomed PDFs as all other ereaders.

If you put your own .doc files on the Pocket Pro, you’ll get two copies, one real document and one empty ghost copy. This is a weird problem inherent to Hanlins, it used to happen with the BeBook, too (and it might happen with other non-DRM file formats). It’s a minor but continual annoyance, especially since you can’t delete the ghost copy.

With .doc and .rtf files, you might also want to bump up the font size before you load them on the Pocket Pro. The device wants to show you the entire page (as it does with PDFs), and sometimes even the highest zoom level isn’t a comfortable size.

Bookmarking was vastly improved with a new firmware update. The original system was limited to five bookmarks, corresponding to the number button 1 through 5. In the new system, you hit 6 to bookmark a page, and you hold it down to see your catalog of bookmarks, which can hold at least ten bookmarks at a time.

You’ll also be able to change fonts with the Pocket Pro, which this reviewer found quite tempting. However, it doesn’t work with Adobe ePubs or PDFs, just your own non-DRMed files.

One last note about this: there’s no menu bar when you’re reading, presumably to save screen real estate, so you have to bring up the menu to see what page you’re on. It’s not too annoying, but it is an extra step.

All in all, I was very comfortable reading ePub books, and a little less comfortable with other file formats. But Astak has already improved PDF support, and seems to be working hard to address customers’ requests.

Text-to-speech: About what you’d expect

This is definitely great for those with visual impairments. But I’ve never been a big fan of text-to-speech because I just can’t follow the robot voice that misemphasizes sentences, pauses in the wrong places, and misreads words (the difference between the present and past tense of “read,” for example, is impossible for the robot to get right).

The Pocket Pro’s voice sounds similar to the Kindle’s robot voice, which is to say, robotic. It treats all punctuation (question marks, commas, periods, slashes, etc.) the same, as a short pause.

Also, it’s pretty much worthless with PDFs. Since PDFs are visual files and not text files, the robot just doesn’t know what the words are, so it just says garbled nonsense. Much, much better with .docs and .rtfs, but I won’t be using it anytime soon.

One good thing is that it’s smart enough to auto-turn the page, but there’s a lag.

Music playing (and pictures): Also, about what you’d expect

The music player and picture viewer are both as good as other full-featured ereaders. The music interface is not good, but the music itself is clear and the same quality as you’d get with a dedicated mp3 player.

I don’t know who looks at pictures on black and white ereaders, but it’s possible. The Pocket Pro adds the ability to change contrast and brightness.

The search interface

The search interface

Searching within books: A-

For an ereader with no keyboard, the search interface is quite good indeed. It’s a bit like the first days of texting, you have to hit the 1 three times to get a C, the 2 twice to get an E, and so on. The timing is a little tricky at first, but when you get the hang of it, it’s quite fast.

After you hit enter, you use the page buttons to cycle through the results.

My one complaint is that the page numbers don’t show up when you’re going through results. You have to exit the search and bring up the menu again to see what page you’re on or to bookmark the page you’re on.

All in all, though, this should satisfy those who want searching.

Conclusion: B+

Seeing as I never cottoned to the BeBook, I was skeptical of another Hanlin ereader. But I was quite impressed by the Pocket Pro. Its big advantage is that it doesn’t sacrifice any features of the 6-inch model, except an inch of screen size. It does music, pictures, and SD cards every bit as well as the 6-inch ereaders that cost $100 more.

It has a slightly clunky interface, and a few minor annoyances, but Sony will have its share of little headaches, too, and Astak will definitely be better on customer support.

If you want a cheap, casual ereader, the choice is basically between the PRS-300 and the Pocket Pro (the jetBook enters the picture if you don’t need DRMed ebooks). If you want music, SD cards, text-to-speech, or search—or you don’t trust Sony—the Pocket Pro is definitely the device for you. Otherwise, it comes down to how much you value the interface.

If you want a touchscreen or wireless-enabled ereader, check out our ereader comparison. Personally, I think the more expensive ereaders have significant drawbacks (no library ebooks for Kindle, low contrast for Sony Touch, huge price tag for iRex), so the PRS-300 and the Pocket Pro are the first two I think you should consider.

Postscript: A note on SD Cards for Mac users

I had some trouble with various SD and SDHC cards on this device, and I finally figured out that Mac OS X does weird things to SD cards when it “erases” them. Here’s how to get OS X to properly format your SD card for the EZ Reader. (Note: I use Snow Leopard. I’m pretty sure this fix works with Leopard, not sure about Tiger.)

You’ll want your SD card to be formatted in FAT32 so it’s readable by the EZ Reader (as well as both Windows and Mac machines). However, if you use Disk Utility and simply select “Erase,” the EZ Reader won’t read the card.

Instead, in the Disk Utility window, select the SD card you want to format and click “Partition.” Under Volume Scheme, select “1 Partition.” Then click Options (below the partition window), and check “Master Boot Record.” Finally, under Volume Information, change Format to “MS-DOS (FAT)” and click Apply.

This will erase everything on the card, so make sure it’s backed up.