The Pico-Life W960 and How I Almost Owned One

Update 8th October 2010: I’ve since bought a Kindle 3, and have posted a followup, Enkindled, featuring a comparison between the two readers.

When I’ve been asked about buying an eBook readerI I say I’m simply waiting for colour e-ink displays to become available and cheap. My plan is to demolish my dead tree book pile and simply switch to eBooks, and with the colour display I can stop subscribing to magazines too. But with the selection available recently, I’ve been getting eager to forget all of that and buy into e-ink.

The hardware has been around for a while now and prices seem to be creeping down at the same pace as the technology advances – which is to say incredibly slow. Not helping matters, one leading pioneer company filed Chapter 11 in the USA recently, and more importantly the dedicated eBook reader has taken a massive hit in the form of the ubiquitous iPad, which trades the readibility of e-ink for an LCD screen and the shortened battery life, while providing eBook reading as just one of it’s many features.

Still, I just want to read. Knowing how bad reading on my Blackberry’s screen becomes I couldn’t cop out on an iPadII one of the ever-growing selection of the new LCD readers. Until recently you couldn’t even buy a reader in Australia, but now with Amazon offering up it’s Kindle overseas, Borders and Angus & Robertson serving up the barebones Kobo, and a few stores offering rebadged OEMs from Asia, eBook public awareness is growing.

OfficeworksIII to my great surprise advertised three readers in their latest catalogue. The first was a scary 5″ LCD model with an equivalent price, and two seemingly identically featured e-ink models for under $300. The details were vague, so I took the trip to my local to find out more.

Located inexplicably with the laptops and hidden at ankle height were the three readers. I asked if they had display models, to which I was told they were too easy to steal. I’d almost decided against it when she mentioned taking the already-opened box to the counter to have a look, “…like the last bloke did”.

An immediately disappointed checkout lady opened the box while asking what it was and how it worked, and seemed more interested once she knew what this strange thing did. I obliged, hoping she might help people in future.

I was surprised just how small the unit is; there’s only the screen and a few navigation buttons below, so the whole reader ends up smaller than a Penguin Classic paperback. As the battery was completely flat I couldn’t test any of the features that might help me decide on it, so I asked about their return policy. Begrudgingly I was informed that I could return it up to a week later, but I’d have to keep the box and receipt. Still amazed by the size I decided to take the punt, knowing full well I could change my mind.

Once home and charged, I could try out the reader in detail. The positives:

  • It feels great in your hands, and the weight (a mere 156 grams) is evenly balanced and considerably lighter than anything else on the market.
  • The page turning buttons on the back are a welcome change from most readers, and even being a southpaw they’re still more handy than front navigation.
  • The internal 2GB memory seems more than enough for a dedicated eBook reader without having to use an SD card.
  • Plugged into USB it becomes a mass storage device, so it’ll play friendly with Linux and anything else you throw at it. Even though you could drag and drop books onto it, you’ve got full Calibre support to make life easier.

Unfortunately, the many negatives:

  • The obvious kickers with a no-frills reader; no touchscreen, no WiFi, no 3G, and no dictionary.
  • Piano black finish is a terrible fingerprint magnet, but great for forensically proving who deleted your bookmarks.
  • The screen, although bright (and with that trademark light-catching background) has a fair degree less contrast than a regular book.
  • The feather-touch navigation buttons on the bottom are all too easy to press accidentally while reading, and recovery is made more difficult by the confusing menu system.
  • Format-wise, ePub worked fine as did plaintext, but I couldn’t get plucker books to work at all. I didn’t test PDF, although the manual states that PDF rendering is so intensive that MP3 support is turned off during reading.
  • Forget trying to change the font if it’s not your style; the only one available looks a lot like Arial. There are five sizes, although anything beyond the smallest two are laughably impractical for reading.
  • Although the page turns are what you’d expect from an e-ink screen refresh, there seems to be a distinct lag to certain operations such as changing the font sizes.
  • There’s no slipcase or cover to protect the screen, and with it’s odd size and protruding navigation button, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything off the shelf to fit well.
  • The operating system is not designed for readers, with several confusing levels and really ugly UI.
  • The box states that you expand the memory with micro SD, yet the slot is for regular SD. Worse still…

The single worst negative is the false advertising – both on the box, online and in store. The W960 screen both Pico and Officeworks would have you believe is 8 shade greyscale, which simply isn’t true. Here’s a jpeg of a black-to-white gradient I made with GIMP displayed on my unit:

The big screen lie

As you can see, it’s the cheaper 4 shade greyscale screen. For reading this might not be a big deal, but for books with illustrations or browsing your own photosIV it’s nowhere as good as the newer screens available in more expensive readers.

The only way I discovered this is because Pico are simply rebadging this unit for Australia, and all the other rebadges around the world (including the manufacturer) state that the true 4 shade screen in their specs. Elsewhere The Pico Life W960 is also known in other countries as the Teclast K3, the Mediacom Jerry-Book E60, and the Oaxis W960.

The only other dubious claim is of the 1500maH battery, as other brands state there’s only a 1000mAh inside – something completely impossible to verify either way without breaking the unit apart. There’s no accelerometer in this model either (to switch between portrait and landscape) which is unusual as a video online of another rebadged unit clearly demonstrates that handy feature.

I was at odds on whether or not to keep or return the W960 – for every thing I liked about it there seemed to be another reason as good to rebox and return the thing. With a few days up my sleeve on the return policy, I read a book on it. The very next night I went to continue where I’d left off and found the screen blank.

The battery is supposed to last 20 hours, but from all other readers I guessed that would mean twenty hours of reading. This wasn’t the case; you will have to charge this device at most every day, and at least every second day if you use it or not.

This was the nail in the coffin; I didn’t want to spend more time charging a device than I was to use it. Repackaged as good as newV I returned it for a full refund, with only a few cursory questions as to why.

I think the most important aspect of the current selection of eBook readers is the interface, and while the asthetics and hardware of the W960 (sans the screen) are great, the awful software and resulting battery life make it a poor choice. While writing this both the Kindle and Nook took big price dives, making this reader all the more redundant, and me happier that I returned it. Now all I have to do is finish my dead-tree books.

More photos available on my Flickr

W960 Front cover W960 Back cover Contents W960 Rearview W960 Frontview The navigation buttons Rear buttons Underside of W960 Charging E-ink screen E-ink screen Displaying JPEG Main menu Size comparison The big screen lie

  1. Only once or twice, mind you. []
  2. Or forgive myself for spending that sort of money on one either! []
  3. A sad, expensive version of OfficeMax in the USA []
  4. No idea why anybody would bother, though. []
  5. Although there was no real factory reset, so the two public domain books I added were still there, along with my bookmarks. []
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16 Responses to The Pico-Life W960 and How I Almost Owned One

  1. Kerry Neighbour says:

    I bought the cheaper Dash. No real problems with it except for the weird aspect ratio. Battery life is fine. Everything very good actually, for the price. Since it was an LCD screen, it was totally useless in daylight – even inside. But ok at nighttime. I looked at the eink models like this one, but thought that they were too basic for the money.

    I ended up with a Pocketbook 302 – which is a great reader. Touchscreens are the way to go!

  2. Darryl Adams says:

    I was supprised to see e-book readers at Officeworks, and I am glad I saw
    your review on Mobiread.

    Can I refer or quote your review on oz-e-books.com?

    Thanks for the review, it saves me having to buy 3 ebook readers :-)

    • Chris Gray says:

      Sure that’d be okay – if you want to use any of the photos be sure to play nice with Flickr policy (linking to the original page on their site).

      Hopefully it’ll save some other people’s time as well!

      If the three were priced at say $69, $99 and $129 they might still have an edge, but at this stage I think OfficeWorks are going to burn their fingers with these.

  3. Pingback: Delimiter – An overview of Officeworks’ eBook readers

  4. This is a great review. I have been looking for a reader that will allow me to read non-DRM-protected PDFs and I checked out this PICO at Officeworks and it looked pretty good except for the full text justification which is just silly, but the four-level greyscale and battery liability that you highlight puts me off it.

  5. P.Fredericks says:

    Nice review.

    I myself have been using the W960 for a little over a month now & for my needs, find it to be a pretty good unit.
    As a device for reading books only, it’s pretty good. I could care less about it’s picture displaying & music playback abilities. Listening to music while reading is tends to be more of a distraction for me, & what’s the point of keeping the family holiday snaps on a device that can only display B&W images?
    The things that annoy me most are (most of them are already stated above):

    The clumsy navigation joystick.

    Loading times for some types of file formats (basically anything other than txt & pdf can take anywhere fro 30 seconds – 2 minutes to load).

    The both overly sensitive (when your fingers accidentally come within 1 cm of them) & sometimes non-responsive (when you actually want to use them) touch keys.

    Lack of protective case (there is nothing suitable available anywhere that’s even remotely compatible with it).

    Text (txt) files not encoded in unicode resulted in some random English text being displayed as Chinese characters (sometimes just 1 letter in the middle of a word). This proved frustrating when initially converting files to txt.

    And, yes, the false advertising.

    For pdf’s though, I’d hardly bother. I kind of suspect you wouldn’t bother on most other e-readers either. Most pdf books are formatted in such a way that to display / read a full page on a 6 inch screen is not practical, unless you have exceptional vision to read the tiny text. Zooming is an option, but with the W960, in particular, scrolling up / down & left / right with the joystick would eventually drive you to pound it to pieces with a hammer. In most cases, txt & epub files are the way to go.

    I would have to question the battery life, however. Apart from the initial recommended full charge of 4 hours, my W960′s battery has yet to go have a full recharge. Granted it does get connected to the PC twice a week or so for the transfer or editing of files, but this only amounts to 10 minutes of charge at a time, tops. I read for an hour on average most week nights & a couple of hours on Sat / Sun, & it’s never been lower than 3/4 of full charge. I did notice that by default, it is not set to automatically shut down when not in use. I had to change the default setting to turn mine off after 20 minutes (if not active) to save power.
    I’ve never had to use the bookmark function as it seems to remember & reopen every book to the last page I was on automatically, which is great (I really didn’t like the idea of having to manually insert bookmarks every time I turned it off).
    Price is a bit steep for what it offers ($240 @ Officeworks), but it’s still on the lower end of the price scale for a 6 inch e-ink display.
    It looks nice & does feel very comfortable in your hands. Build quality is good. For something so small & thin, it feels surprisingly strong & sturdy. The rear page turn buttons make it great for one-handed reading, but also make it nearly impossible to find a suitable case / cover.
    I’ll admit, it’s not particularly user friendly & it took a bit of a learning curve to get familiar with it, but it’s far from a dud & I think most would be pretty happy with it.
    Teamed with the wonderful ‘Calibre’ software (free) for e-book format conversions, the W960 makes a pretty solid, if somewhat basic e-reader.

    • Chris Gray says:

      I wasn’t aware of the sleep mode you mention – I didn’t notice anything of the like in the manual nor the myriad of menus. No doubt that was the reason for the poor battery life I encountered. Good to hear with an automatic sleep mode there’s no drained-battery problem.

      They still really need to drop the price; not even considering the latest Kindle and Nook pricing, the equally bare-bones Kobo is $40 less and far more usable.

      Although I’m no fan of the W960, I agree that with Calibre, the form-factor and weight, it’s a solid reader.

      It’s just that it could have been so much better. :)

    • joan white says:

      hi i have pico life and am happy with it except it always turns off before i manage to read a full page so then have to turn it on again which is a pain do other readers have this trouble

      • Chris Gray says:

        That sounds like a strange problem, and something that no eBook reader should do to you. If there’s not a setting you can change to delay the sleep mode, perhaps you have a faulty unit?

      • Tony says:

        Hi. I have the same problem with the unit turning off before I read a page ( and I read quite quickly!) This is the only thing which I find a problem. I paid only $99 so I’m not complaining, but wish the problem could be fixed.
        Cheers, Tony.

  6. naught101 says:

    Officeworks seem to have fixed the greyscale levels specs, on their site at least: there’s another model, the 6001 that has 8 levels: http://www.officeworks.com.au/retail/products/Technology/Ebooks-and-Digital-Pens/Ebooks
    Price seems to have come down a bit too.
    Know if you can zoom pdfs?

    Thanks for the review… I’m still considering it.

    • Chris Gray says:

      Good to see, apparently they were just passing along the incorrect information from Pico-Life.

      I didn’t test PDF so I can’t say how the interface works insofar as zooming, but I’d imagine it would be as basic as the rest of the options.

      • P.Fredericks says:

        Yes, pdf’s can be zoomed, but unlike txt/epub/mobi/lit etc formats, the text cannot be scaled to fit within the display borders. Once zoomed, you need to scroll left/right/up/down to read the page. This might be tolerable if it wasn’t for the clumsy joystick scrolling & slight lag in scroll response which ultimately make reading zoomed pdf’s a pain in the you-know-what.
        The only pdf’s I have on my Pico are ones that have been converted from rtf’s or doc’s with modified/custom font, page & borders sizes.
        However, thanks to the W960′s terrible grey scaling, any images within these pdf’s look pretty lousy.

        When shopping around, I’d recommend taking a SD card with 1 book each of as many different formats as possible & road test them on any of the readers you look at (if the retailer allows it).

        Don’t get the wrong impression, despite my relatively minor gripes I’m very happy with my W960.

  7. Terry says:

    I have had a PICO W961 for about a year. I had some trouble trying to work out how an ereader worked and also found a fault with downloading epub books which turned out to be the fault of my Windows system, not the unit.
    When I worked out how to put books on (from another computer), I was delighted. For technical help, the assistance I got from Mint Technology was fantastic. He was so patient and helpful and this was a second hand one from ebay!
    The battery life on mine is wonderful! I read a lot on planes and trains and have never gone lower than 3/4 , reading for up to 2 hours at a time and sometimes haven’t recharged for a month.
    I find the screen so easy to read and usually opt for the middle size font, so easy to change to.
    I store some favourite BW photos on it and some music, but, to be honest, that is not what I want it for.
    I love the lightness of it, the easy page change.

    However, I am a library fan and I realize it cannot read Adobe Digital Editions which my library stocks, so I cannot get such books as I really want.

    I am seriously looking at later models such as the Pico BK7021 which will be released in November 2011 at JBHiFI.
    Cant wait to check it out and ses if it is as good as Kobo or Sony.

  8. phil says:

    i almost purchased one,how ever your report on the e\pico put me right off, office works had it tucked away in a corner ,as for staff, enough said, now looking at sony,would also like coloured screen and text to speach feature thanks

  9. jack says:

    OK now this is so annoying i can’t even purchase a book on this thing.

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