Friday, 8 February 2019

Likebook Mars review: a versatile device for the right user

The Likebook Mars is a worthy update to the Likebook Plus. The device is powered by a Freescale RK3365 octa-core processor and has 2GB RAM and 16GB storage (there is also the option to expand storage via an SD Card slot). At first, I was sceptical if an octa-core processor was necessary but after prolonged use, the extra power makes a difference. If you view the Likebook Mars as an e-reader with some bonus add-ons, due to Android, then you will not be disappointed. On the other hand, as an E-Ink tablet, the Likebook Mars is a failure mainly due to the limitations of E-Ink. The user experience in even non-intensive applications, e.g., Kindle, Wikipedia and Kobo, is terrible.

Battery life 

Battery life is a weakness. If the device is used exclusively as an e-reader – utilising the native e-reading software – the battery life is close to the Kindle Oasis. This means an estimated use time between two to three days of regular usage. Two to three days of usage isn’t bad but after using non-Android e-readers it does feel like a downgrade. I’ve also noticed, sometimes, sudden drops in the battery after waking the device. The cause of erratic drops might be due to background tasks running (possibly another problem with Android as an operating system for e-readers). Turn on WiFi and do tablet tasks in third-party applications, e.g., browse the web, check emails, read articles in Pocket, and battery life isn’t even comparable to most tablets. Using third-party applications, with WiFi activated, I would estimate battery life to be between 5 – 6 hours.

Display 

The device has an E-Ink Carta screen with a resolution of 300 PPI. This might be subjective, but I found the Kobo Aura One’s screen, despite the identical resolution, to be better with text appearing clearer and less faded. It should be noted that the Likebook Mars allows the user to adjust the contrast level through the status bar settings. This not only affects text in e-books and PDF documents but also book covers and images. It is a useful feature, and this means text appears darker when reading and compensates for the relative lack of clarity. As I will explain in the software section below, it is also possible to enhance the contrast level in third-party applications too. Overall, the Likebook Mars’s display is good and preferable to the Kindle Paperwhite and Oasis (the Kindle Oasis, considering its premium pricing, has poor contrast).

The built-in light is on the colder side and isn’t bright and even as the Kobo Aura One. Also, there is no option to adjust the night light’s intensity level. The night light is either on or off and when on it produces a warm orange glow. Personally, to avoid light emission that causes eye strain, I usually don’t use an e-reader’s built-in light.

Software 

The Likebook Mars comes with no user manual. I didn’t find the lack of a manual to be a big issue, but it might be for other users less familiar with e-readers. Regardless of experience level there will be time spent to know the device and discover its features. Another problem is the poor translation of menus and settings from the Chinese. The translation is mainly understood but sometimes it is not clear, and you need to select the option to discover its purpose.

I recommend sticking to the native software if possible. Using the built-in software prolongs battery life and is neatly integrated into Boyue’s operating system through reading settings and navigation menus (third-party applications, as they are not specifically designed for E-Ink, can tax the battery). Performance is also generally zippier in the native software and more stable too.

The built-in software’s reading settings allow the user to choose the number of pages turned before a full refresh is activated and change the refresh mode. In the page refresh mode settings, it is possible to choose one of three modes: ordinary rapid and regal. Rapid mode speeds up page turning but results in a lower text rendering quality. Ordinary mode maintains text quality but slows down the page turning speed. Finally, I am not sure what the purpose of 'regal mode' is. The aim of regal technology, according to E-Ink, is to resolve the problem of ghosting that occurs when there is no full-page refresh; the goal is to create a clearer reading space. In the case of the Likebook Mars – if indeed the purpose is to resolve problems with ghosting – I didn’t notice any significant difference between ordinary and regal modes. Activating both modes doesn't resolve the issue of ghosting. The ghosting after effect is not bad but it is noticeable and sometimes, to solve the problem, I had to force a page refresh by powering off and then powering on the device.

Overall, the native software is functional and most expected features are supported. Below are some positives:
  • There are several type settings features available – this includes the option to change line, word and margin spacing. There is also the option to change the interval spacing between paragraphs. 
  • The user can sideload fonts. 
  • PDF text reflow works well. There is also the option, in text reflow, to change font size, row and word spacing. 
  • In PDF documents it is possible to adjust contrast, clip margins and zoom content to fit width or page. 
  • Exporting notes and highlights is supported. 
Below is a list of negatives:
  • In the e-book reader (this doesn’t apply to PDF documents) there are gradient scales to separately alter word and picture contrast. Unfortunately, it appears, both scales don’t work independently – the picture contrast scale alters the black levels of an image, but it also affects text too. 
  • The e-book reader forces indentation and there is no option to turn this off or choose when to apply the feature or remove it altogether. 
  • It is not possible to highlight text in PDF text reflow mode. 
  • There is no option to drag to scroll – you can only tap or swipe to scroll. Also, there is no way to pinch to zoom. The latter is an important missing feature and one that the device’s processor is more than capable of supporting. 
  • Oddly, while exporting notes and highlights is supported, it is only possible to export to Evernote. I also noticed that notes are organised chronologically and not by page number.
  • Highlighting text isn’t smooth. To highlight the user needs to long press on a word and then carefully drag where to end the highlight. 

Third-party applications 

As third-party applications are hit and miss, I will dedicate a further post on a selection of recommended applications. In this section, I will discuss some supported features that make Android applications more usable on Mars’s E-Ink screen. A lot of the features listed, again due to the absence of a manual, need to be discovered and then tested.

Long press on a third-party application and you get the option to turn-on full-screen mode, turn-on A2 mode, set the number of pages turned before a full refresh, adjust the DPI zoom level and select whether contrast adjustment is manually set or set to system contrast. Some of these features don’t function correctly, e.g. the contrast scale does not work, and it is best to just use the system contrast. There are two other features – ‘animation filtering delay’ and bleaching function’ – but it is not clear what they do.

It is particularly useful, due to applications being designed for tablets and smartphones, that you can adjust contrast levels in third-party applications. A2 mode is a feature that makes it possible, for example, to read websites without the slow refresh as you navigate downwards. I don’t think A2 mode is an adequate solution as you get a lot of ghosting due to the absence of a page refresh. It is also possible to turn the mode on or off via the top system bar. Finally, the user can multi-task between opened applications and close unneeded applications to clear memory.

Again, a lot of these extra features make third-party applications work better. Nevertheless, most Android applications are not suitable for E-Ink. Even e-reading applications – for example, Kindle and Kobo – are sluggish and with text, appearing faded.

Conclusion 

The Likebook Mars is an e-reader for the experienced user. The experienced user will appreciate the versatility of the device and with the right know-how will be able to, for example, install dictionaries and find appropriate Android applications. The powerful processor also makes navigating PDF documents frustration-free. For the user that wants greater control and more options then the Likebook Mars is preferable to the Kindle Oasis, Kobo Aura H20 Edition 2, Kobo Aura One and Kobo Forma. If Boyue polishes and simplifies the software, then the device’s user base could potentially expand. A better translation of features and a manual would also be helpful. In its current state, however, the device caters for a niche user base.

Pros 
  • Contrast level adjustment. 
  • Google Play Store is supported. 
  • Useful features designed for E-Ink enhances the usability of third-party applications. 
  • Zippy performance due to the Octa-core processor. 
  • SD Card supported. 
  • 2GB RAM means smooth multi-tasking. 
Cons 
  • Battery life is subpar for an e-reader. 
  • Due to the convoluted software, the device isn’t user-friendly. 
  • Poor translation of interface and menus can confuse the user. 
  • Some features are buggy and sometimes don’t work. 
  • Key features missing in the native e-reading software, e.g. no pinch to zoom for PDF documents, no text alignment options and no control over indentation in e-books.

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