Last year, we covered Good e-Reader’s Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for a 13.3″ e-ink Android tablet. With the tablet having funded successfully and shipped out to its backers, and a new Kickstarter campaign for a 6.8″ e-ink Android tablet underway, it seemed like a good time to look into how the tablet has done. Were the backers happy with the end result?
While I did come across some complaints, particularly on MobileRead threads and the product’s support page, the nature of tech support is that you only ever hear from the people who have a problem—happy customers, not so much. I did also reach out to some backers who were satisfied with the product, even given its $699 price tag. While the final product is somewhat unpolished and probably best suited to gadget geeks who are used to fiddling with their hardware, the project seems to have gone well on the whole.
The Tablet is Shipping
The first important thing is, of course, that the hardware did ship, and the backers got the product they paid for. (Or at least about 60% of them have so far, according to Good e-Reader operator Michael Kozlowski, who says they’re still in the process of shipping outstanding orders.) A number of crowdfunded projects never even get that far—even on Kickstarter, where I gather that project requirements are rather more stringent than for Indiegogo. For a relative unknown like Good e-Reader, whose first attempt at a crowdfunded reader fizzled dramatically, that had to be a big worry.
As I noted in the original story, the tablet’s specs aren’t great. It has the same amount of on-board storage as the very cheapest smartphones (though many apps can be installed to an SD card), and a fairly old version of Android that won’t run some newer applications. What’s more, it includes neither Bluetooth nor a USB host controller, so there is no way to connect an external keyboard or other Bluetooth devices. But the specs were available from the outset, so those most underwhelmed by them could simply not bother ordering.
Also from the outset, Michael Kozlowski pitched it not as a general-purpose Android tablet, but as a multi-platform e-reader that could read books from multiple stores (via their respective Android apps) on one device. The e-ink screen’s monochrome color and low refresh rate would make it poorly suited to many tablet applications, but it would work well with e-reading and note-taking apps, as long as its users were fine with on-screen keyboards and a stylus. And if e-reading is all you do with it, you don’t really need much capacity for additional applications—so might as well keep the costs as low as possible.
Straight from the OEM
According to a Lilliputing piece I turned up, the Good e-Reader reader is a rebranded version of Netronix’s 13.3″ ED0Q02 tablet, which Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader checked out at CES in 2015. As the manufacturer of the hardware for Nook, Kobo, and Bookeen Cybook e-readers, Netronix is not exactly a newcomer to putting together e-ink hardware. Perhaps that’s why the company developed a 13.3″ reader tablet in the first place, in the hope that one of those brands might have been interested. In any case, it looks like Good e-Reader is one of the only entities that wanted to bring the design to market; the only other 13.3″ e-ink device is the Onyx Boox Max, which is apparently also based on Netronix hardware.
The biggest complaints I’ve found are that, due to the reader’s older 4.04 version of Android, a number of more modern apps don’t quite work properly—and those that do are often not optimized for a black-and-white screen (since e-ink isn’t exactly a common use case for an Android tablet). Some users also reported issues getting the Google Play app store to work. Some even mentioned that an internal component had come unstuck from the back of the case and could be heard sliding around inside (one user was able to fix it with a hair dryer). In the support page’s comments, Michael Kozlowski requested people running into that issue contact him for further assistance.
Most of the problems seem attributable to the fact that this tablet isn’t a sleek, finished product from a big company with a big technical division who could polish the design and work the bugs out before releasing it to the public—they’re basically taking what the OEM gives them and passing it on directly to the users. If you’re aware of that going in, you have less reason to be disappointed.
Questions and Answers
When I was preparing this story, I asked Michael Kozlowski for email addresses of some of the backers, and emailed about a dozen of them with some questions. Two responded, and both reported they were by and large satisfied with it. Pierre, a backer from Switzerland, said he had originally been disappointed because the Kindle app didn’t work as well as he’d expected, but then he realized it was the perfect note-taking device for his needs. That is largely how he uses it, as well as for reading scientific papers that don’t work well on smaller e-ink screens. Backer Thomas Ally says that he uses it mostly for digital comics from Comixology. Both also reported having a few problems due to the older Android version and non-optimized apps, but had hopes that things would improve when GoodEReader is able to release a more recent version for the device.
I also reached out to Kozlowski with questions about some of the issues users have reported about the product and the campaign. One report I had seen on MobileRead was that the campaign regularly deleted refund requests and other negative comments from the Indiegogo project page. Kozlowski replied, “Some of the refund requests we have deleted are because we already refunded them or they spam us every day, even though we are talking to them via email. This represents an extremely small minority of customers. The people who are happy and satisfied rarely post.”
Kozlowski added, “Right now all of our capital is tied up in orders to fulfill almost all of the outstanding orders, so we are unable to do refunds for the next few months.” Again, this seems to be a necessary hazard of dealing with a small operation that has to rely on crowdfunding capital to get the product made in the first place.
When I asked how the upgrade to Android 5.0 was coming along, Kozlowski explained that it was slow going because the platform’s idiosyncrasies—such as the lack of Bluetooth, a USB host controller, or basic telephone functions—meant the upgrade would require a lot of customization.
So, on the whole, the 13.3″ e-reader Indiegogo campaign is doing its best to fulfill orders for the product it solicited. The problems it runs into are exactly the problems one might expect from a largely hand-to-mouth operation that doesn’t have the capital or manpower to do much more than send along what the OEM makes for it. But on the other hand, almost no better-funded company seems interested in trying to provide a 13-inch e-ink device at all. So, if your needs are specialized enough that you want what Good e-Reader has to offer, you pay your money and you take your chances.
A New Kickstarter
With one successful project mostly behind him, Kozlowski isn’t content to rest on his laurels. He’s taking another run at the 6.8″ e-ink tablet project that failed before the 13.3″ one worked—this time on Kickstarter, which does have a better reputation for finished projects than Indiegogo. The price for this device is $199, which will deliver a 6.8″ e-ink tablet using the same firmware and features (apart from screen size) as the $700 13.3″ tablet.
Kozlowski attributes the earlier project’s failure to his inexperience running such projects, and not realizing just how much publicity and marketing was required to reach prospective backers. (As I’ve also noted, it’s not exactly an uncommon failing when it comes to crowdfunding projects.) He says that learning from those mistakes allowed the 13.3″ tablet’s campaign to be a success, and he is confident the new 6.8″ campaign will be able to succeed also. Kozlowski concludes:
So here is the low down about the 13.3 and the 6.8. Both of these devices use the same firmware and provide the same user experience. It is a dedicated note taking reader, ideal for professionals, students or people who need to read and edit PDF files. We also have a fully functional e-reading software that provides a robust experience to read your favorite e-book. We support all the major formats, including EPUB, MOBI, DOC, TXT, FB2 and others. Our e-reader also runs Android 4.0.4, which means you can install thousands of apps. We bundled our latest with the Good e-Reader App Store for E Ink which has 35,000 apps that work on E Ink screens and we are very proud of this.
Kozlowski has also offered to send me a review unit when they are available, which I will certainly accept.
So, is it worth investing in this project? If you understand in advance what you’re getting and are okay with that, I don’t see why not. You’re not getting a polished, super-customized experience with the impeccable support of a major corporation behind it. You’re getting a straight-from-the-OEM e-ink device running an older version of Android, with low on-board memory and no Bluetooth or USB host controller (Kozlowski said that they considered adding these but it turned out that few backers wanted them and fewer still were willing to pay what it would cost to add them). There’s no guarantee that an OS update will be ready soon, or at all, or that the device will ship in a timely manner.
But on the other hand, it’s a device that few other vendors are willing to supply—outside of a few tech geeks, the overall demand just isn’t there for a tablet that uses an e-ink screen instead of LCD. Perhaps that’s the most amazing thing of all about this new world of crowdfunding-based product availability—that just those people who want such a thing can get together and order a niche product that bigger companies don’t see any profit in supplying.
So if you’re willing to put up with those drawbacks in return for the features you know you will be getting, this could be the right device for you. But if not, you’d probably be better off buying a Samsung Galaxy Tab A for the same price.
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