In many ways, installing Android applications enriches these devices but there are drawbacks. First, there is no consistency, with many external Android applications not optimised for E-Ink, as they are designed for tablets. Many fonts require changes to weight, anti-aliasing and extra-contrast to work with E-Ink. This is accentuated in the case of the Icarus Illumina XL 8 due to the relatively low resolution and E-Ink Pearl.
If there is to be a larger e-reader then software development should consider the hardware used, with its limitations and potentials considered. As an example, Amazon’s entry level Kindle comes with an E-Ink Pearl display and similar low resolution; in the case of the Kindle there is a bottom up approach in which software is developed while considering hardware limitations. For example, to remedy issues with a low resolution display, both font weight and contrast are increased.
As stated, the operating system is developed by Boyue and based on Android Jelly Bean. The operating system comes with its own stock e-reader applications - Adobe Reader and FBReader. Regarding PDF support, the Icarus Illumina XL 8 comes with only Adobe Reader. For e-books, Adobe Reader is very limited and unstable (the application often crashes). FBReader is the better option - which can be set as default in settings - as it offers the option to increase font weight through the ‘bold’ option, other than better overall stability. Unfortunately, neither Adobe Reader or FBReader allow the user to export highlights and notes. Overall, both applications are bare-bone compared to other applications or Kindle and Kobo e-readers. Further, Many of the fonts pre-installed are not optimised for E-Ink and so it is left to the user to search for appropriate ones (fonts may be side-loaded in a designated folder). I recommend this link for E-Ink specific fonts (recommended fonts would be Miller, Minion and Constantia). More disappointing is a broken PDF e-reader - pinch-to-zoom doesn't work and selecting text to highlight often doesn't register.
Installing external Android applications compensates for the limitations of the pre-installed software. However, returning to the discontinue between software and hardware, this burdens the user with testing different applications and fonts, something beyond most users, before settling on what works. For the experienced user, on the other hand, it makes the Icarus Illumina XL a versatile device. If the pre-installed software is poor then there are dozens of applications that are far better. I found Moon+ Pro and Bookari Premium to be the best of the bunch. To optimise both applications for e-ink, it is recommended to turn off page turn animations and to force bold some fonts. The premium versions of both applications can be purchased from Google Play and the APK extracted to be then side loaded and installed on the device.However, the free versions, with less features, can still be installed via the Good e-Reader application store. The store contains most e-reading applications.
For PDF files then choices are more restricted. As most PDF applications, including Moon+ Pro and Bookari Premium, are designed for tablets then few come with an image and contrast enhancement feature. Image and contrast enhancement is a must for E-Ink screens, more so with E-Ink Pearl, as texts appear pale and difficult to read. EBookdroid is one of the few that allows picture enhancement, as well as being feature rich. The problem with Ebookdroid is that these features are hidden under layers of an overly complicated interface. Importantly, while an eight inch display is not ideal, it works well with PDF files. Complementing the eight inch across, the Icarus’s extra width means many PDF files can be read in portrait comfortably. When this doesn't work there is the option to turn files in landscape mode; with the larger screen estate it is possible to scroll through half a page, in landscape, with large text.
A nuisance, if you decide not to use the pre installed applications, is that the user defined settings are not designed to work with Android applications. This means full-screen flush times, status-bar and brightness settings are optimised with the stock e-reader/PDF applications. It is possible to have the status bar appear with an external application but this takes part of the screen - only by hiding the status-bar do you get full-screen. Further, the pre-installed file manager opens e-books and PDF files with the stock software. However, there is a workaround by installing an Android file manager application, e.g. ES File Explorer, that allows the user to choose which application to use.
|Nook Simple Touch with Glowlight (late 2012) compared to the Icarus Illumina XL 8|
|Kindle Paperwhite 3 (Spring 2015) compared to the Icarus Illumina XL 8|
|Kindle Paperwhite 3 (Spring 2015) front-light compared to the Icarus Illumina XL 8|
Performance and display
Performance is very good. Applications work without hindrance and larger PDF files open and may be navigated comfortably (I tested the Icarus Illumina XL 8 with a PDF file exceeding 120MB and there was little lag or crashing). This crucial factor puts the device ahead of other e-readers. Compared to the Pocketbook 840 - an eight inch device I previously used - there is little stuttering, lags or crashes. Unfortunately, relative to other e-ink devices, the battery life of the device takes a hit with its dual core Rockchip RK3026 processor. Turning off the WiFi, with low or no front light, the user could expect three to four days of consistent use. With the WiFi turned on, however, battery life would be just over a day of use. As this is an e-reader it makes little sense to keep the WiFi working in the background.
The display is adequate but contrast could be better. Many older devices and the current batch of entry level e-readers, with E-Ink Pearl, have better contrast. Differences are stark when compared to the Kindle Paperwhite - something expected with the Paperwhite’s E-Ink Carta screen and near twice the resolution.
The front-light, on the other hand, is comparable to the first generation Kindle Paperwhite (late 2012) and despite LED lights at the top, bottom and sides of the screen, the lighting is not even and appears more cloudy when the front-light is increased (see pictures for comparisons). Compared to the Pocketbook 840’s front-light, the Icarus Illumina XL is noticeably inferior.
Another problem with the display is significant ghosting. I would speculate this is another firmware issue, as it can be resolved by forcing a full screen flush when turning the device on/off or navigating the interface.
In different ways the Icarus Illumina 8 XL is one of the better larger e-readers. Potentially, with the right software development, it could be even better. The main problem is Boyue’s sub-standard firmware, which is relatively untouched by Icarus. Allowing the user to install Android applications compensates, to an extent, for the firmware’s shortcoming.
Before trying an Android e-reader, I was a sceptic. In many ways, I remain a sceptic. Key Android applications, e.g. Kindle and Kobo, offer a poor experience with e-ink. Further, many applications are designed for tablets and require a certain know-how to customize them to work with E-Ink. With that being said, I would rather an e-reader come with the option to install third party Android applications, as it offers good choice and many potential workarounds. Also, Android is an enhancement with the possibility to install applications such as Dropbox, Evernote, Instapaper and many more (I will devote a future post on recommended applications for Android e-readers).
Overall, I like the Icarus Illumina 8 XL. It is light (275 grams) and large enough to be a viable PDF reader. Android makes this e-reader versatile and the hardware, with the right tweaks, works well with some applications. However, in my opinion, Android should not be there to compensate for poor software. External applications could be a very useful add-on but the default stock e-reading software should be designed so that most users do not need to customize and experiment to find solutions. Due to this, the Icarus Illumina XL is a niche device for the experienced e-book geek. For the general user, on the other hand, it would be better to stay away.