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BY NICO VREELAND

So CES officially opened today and, sure enough, prices were announced for the Spring Design Alex and the Plastic Logic QUE. Up until today, I would’ve classified the Alex and the QUE as the two most exciting new ereaders. Then I saw how they’ll cost: The Alex is going for $399, and the QUE is $649 with WiFi, $800 (!!?) with 3G.

Yesterday, I guessed that the Alex would go for $350, and the QUE for $500. I considered those conservative estimates; i.e., I was ready to be pleasantly surprised. Eesh, was I ever wrong.

The big takeaway from these price announcements is simply that ereader manufacturers don’t care about the casual reader. These devices are getting more expensive, not less, and that’s not a trend that’s going to steal the Kindle’s thunder anytime soon.

But there’s more to glean from six digits and a couple dollar signs.

The Alex’s price point hurts it, but it’s not dead yet

The Alex has a similar interface to the Nook, but it’s nearly 150% of the Nook’s cost. For that money, the Alex had better be fan-freaking-tastic. Early reports say it’s better, but not mind-melting. Gizmodo said the Alex’s user interface is “no less awkward then the Nook, and capable of a lot more.” It does feature what’s basically an Android phone in its bottom half, so the potential is there.

Personally, I haven’t been sold yet, and I was a guaranteed customer if this thing cost $100 less. Keep your eye on this one, but I can’t help feeling Spring Design made their sales team’s job harder with such a high price. It also doesn’t seem to have 3G, which takes the shine off the “online reading” feature. The Alex goes on sale February 22nd; perhaps by then Spring Design will show us something that justifies the price tag. Find the Alex here.

The QUE costs a month’s rent; this is a toy for rich people

If the Alex needs to be fantastic, the QUE needs to change ereaders forever for the ducats it’s asking. $800 is iRex territory, reserved for the kinds of customers who buy overpriced gadgets because they’re really expensive, instead of in spite of their cost, or stealing them from others. This is clearly not a device for students, or casual readers, or newspaper lovers; it’s only—as the QUE website states in no uncertain terms—for businesspeople.

Fine. It’s not for me, I get it. But $800 is not gadget money; $800 is laptop money. And what can the QUE do that a smartphone/ereader combo can’t? Moreover, what can the QUE do that the upcoming Apple iSlate won’t do better? Anybody who has to think about spending that money probably won’t spend it on a QUE.

Worst of all, Gizmodo says the QUE’s slow, which is an absolute killer for a device like that. This video from Engadget does not assuage those fears either, as the QUE rep tries to explain away the slow refresh rate by saying the software is still in beta (it’s been a year and a half since a workable demo—and it’s still in beta?); hopefully, it’ll be ready to go by April, which is when the QUE will actually make its way in your hands. Not your hands, per se, but, you know, the hands of that rich jerk next door who leases a Lexus. Find the QUE here.

 

Still no perfect ereader

In C4’s early days, almost a year ago, I wrote a post on “the perfect ereader,” one that would include a really fast processor, handwriting recognition/document editing features, and tight Bluetooth integration so you could work on papers and then toss them to your computer. We’re effectively no closer today than we were eleven months ago. The QUE seems to be working toward that goal, but wants to build a luxury brand, not a useful, widely appealing tool.

Here’s my new idea of a perfect ereader: one that does reading perfectly. The Kindle doesn’t do library books, the Sony Reader has serious software problems, the Nook is kludgy and half-finished and probably stolen, and the Alex and QUE have yet to prove they’re worth the money. Why can’t one device make buying, borrowing, and reading books easy and enjoyable? At this point, I’m not hoping for perfection, just a lack of obvious drawbacks.

 

So what can we get excited for now?

The Skiff, I suppose. And the new Samsung ereader looks quite interesting, though it also suffers from price-itis. And then there’s the looming specter of the iSlate. I genuinely hope that the iSlate dominates the QUE’s market, and shows companies that ereaders need to be readers, not fancy calendars.

My own plan is to wait until summer. I’m predicting (or hoping for) a sharp Alex price drop in the first few months after it comes out, and—like I said—I’m a guaranteed customer at $300.

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