astak.jpegIt’s been about a year since I got my Sony 505, and although it’s a great device, I have been itching for an upgrade.

The Kindle has finally hit Canada, and it has features the Sony lacks—on-board dictionary (which I would not use when I read in English but would use often when I read in French), on-board Wikipedia and free book samples, a search feature and other goodies.

I have been taking advantage of the facilities at a local community centre, and not being a huge music person, was getting bored with the same 100 or so songs that have been on my iPod for the last decade, so the text to speech feature particularly intrigued me. But what did not intrigue me was the price!

When I learned that the Astak Pocket Pro—$100 cheaper—shared this feature, and furthermore that a local friend had one and was willing to loan it to me—I jumped at the chance to check out the Astak Pocket Pro.

First impressions

The Pocket Pro is an adorable little device. The one I borrowed was blue, and although it suffered from the now apparently fixed peeling paint issue, it was comfortable to hold and considerably lighter than my 505. It had a removeable cover which made it look like a book.

There were numbered buttons at the bottom, a round button to conjure up the menu, side buttons on the left to turn pages, and a jogwheel on the right for the same purpose. I was used to having buttons on the right from my Sony, and my hand kept straying to that area, but after awhile I got used to flipping pages with the jog wheel.

Loading content

The Pocket Pro loads onto the computer as an external drive and you can drag and drop files onto it. You can also use folders to sort the content. The one I was testing had come with a memory card full of free books, some badly formatted, in text and PRC.

Astak’s reader can additionally handle mobipocket, epub, HTML, PDF and other formats. I loaded content onto the memory card in a variety of formats for testing purposes.

The device is also compatible with Calibre. I had it plugged in when I opened Calibre, and after a moment, it appeared as a device and I could transfer content into the main directory. If you want to use the folder navigation though, it’s probably easier to drag and drop files directly where you want them.

The only advantage of Calibre for me was what I had trouble ejecting the device from the desktop (it kept appearing to eject and then popping up again). It seemed to eject better when I chose the ‘eject’ command from within Calibre.

Reading content

I did not find a format for reading content that suited me. Epub from commercial sources displayed the best depending on how it was formatted—one book which was on there when I got it looked great and was fully justified, but one I loaded myself had margins which were far too large.

Epubs I converted myself from other formats were not justified. I also found that epubs I went back to after reading something else did not always open on the page I had left them at. Epub files did have good zoom options with multiple choices, but I did not find a way to set a default zoom. The default it comes with is much too small and I got tired of having to readjust every book one at a time as I opened them.

Mobipocket looked great. I downloaded some of my multiformat reads from Fictionwise in mobipocket format and they were fully justified, navigable via table of contents or hyperlink (if you press the menu button, there are options for both) and were crisp and clean-looking. There were also three font choices, an option that was absent in the epub viewings. However, there was not a zoom option to make the font bigger, and text to speech is not permissable with mobipocket files.

So overall, I found it was a lot less seamless of a reading experience. If it was important that the file look nice, mobipocket was the better choice, but then I couldn’t have it read to me and I couldn’t make the font bigger. If I wanted those options, the file invariably would look choppy and it wouldn’t always remember my page. I think the firmware needs some bug fixing and standardizing of options here. I should have the same options for every format I read.

The software was not the only part that was glitchy. The buttons were not always terribly responsive, and several times, I had to select an option more than once before it registered. I also found that the menu button was terribly placed so that when the cover was closed in my hand, I often would knock it by accident. If text to speech was on, it would then disable, thus defeating the purpose of letting one walk around with the reader and have it recite.

Text to speech

The text to speech feature was the prime selling point of this device for me. I planned to use it during my morning commute and at the gym, which would mean that on a gym day, I could accumulate an extra hour of reading. It was easy enough to turn on and off (a little TOO easy to turn off, as I mentioned!) and, although definitely a tad robotic-sounding, would have been passable for me except for one fatal flaw. It cannot handle apostrophes at all! So, a sentence like ‘it’s not his fault’ would read ‘it tee is not his fault.’

That, on top of the usual text to speech issues common to all such devices (reading of homonyms, pauses in odd places etc.) made this completely unworkable for me. It was better with non-fiction which tends to have fewer contractions as it does not rely as much on colloquial dialogue. But given how often I plan to use this feature, it is worth investing more in the nicer implementation.

My verdict

Sorry, Astak. This strikes me as very much an entry-level gen 1 device. It needs standardized menus and feature sets across all formats for a transparent reading experience; better control over font size, appearance and justification; more responsive and better thought-out navigation options, both on the software and hardware front; and text to speech that is smoother and can handle standard words, including those containing basic punctuation markers such as apostrophes, without choking.

I am buying a Kindle.

Editor’s Note: Ficbot just reported that she got a Kindle through Craigslist and will pick it up tomorrow. I hope we’ll have her review soon. —PB

See also Chris Meadows’s series of reviews of the Astak Pocket Pro. —CM


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