Thursday, 19 May 2016

Review of the Icarus Illumina XL 8: A versatile e-reader for e-book geeks

There is no e-reader, larger than 6.8 inches, from either Amazon or Kobo. With this space existing smaller vendors have sought to meet the demand for larger e-readers, with some releasing re-branded Onyx and Boyue devices. The reviewed e-reader is a re-branded Boyue device that is near identical to an eight-inch e-reader released by Artatech (Inkbook 8). Overall, neither Icarus or Artatech significantly develop the stock firmware released by Boyue (Energy Sistem, in comparison, does develop the software for their range of six-inch e-readers). Energy Sistem, Icarus and Artatech all release re-branded Boyue e-readers with Android pre-installed. Accordingly, it is possible to install external applications.

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.

Firmware 

 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 Adobe Reader installed. 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 sideloaded in a designated folder). It is disappointing that the PDF e-reader is buggy - 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 sideloaded and installed on the device. The free versions, with fewer features, can still be installed via the Good e-Reader application store. The store contains most e-reading applications.

For PDF files the 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, 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 still works well for PDF files. Complementing the eight inches across, the Icarus’s width means many PDF files can be read in portrait comfortably. When this doesn't work there is the option to turn documents 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 to work with the stock e-reader/PDF applications. 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's 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. 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 just adequate but the 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 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 by turning the device on/off.

Overall Verdict 

In different ways the Icarus Illumina 8 XL does have its positives. Potentially, with the right software development, it could be 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 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.

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 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.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review! Had to search the whole internet for a decent review. :)

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  2. I mean, no one else gave specifics like "with wi-fi on, battery life would be just over a day of use"! That's the kind of stuff I want to learn from a review and not by after I buy the device..

    Thank you for your work Basem

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  3. Thanks for the feedback Chris. Please note it was an estimate - the general point is that the battery is not so good, compared to other e-readers, whether the WiFi is on or off. When it is on, it drains much quicker.

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  4. great review, would the battery life be enhanced by using a battery saver app?

    ReplyDelete