When you follow the musings of the press at this time of year, you often see proclamations of many things as being the next big thing. Unfortunately, many times these next big things are frequently irrelevant in 6 months, and virtually unknown in 2 years.

I fear that is what it will be for the many, many variations of e-readers put forth at the Consumer Electronics Show last week. There are so many variants that there is no way all of them will survive. Many because they are simply bad designs, but quite a few because they might be a decent platform, but lack the advertising muscle behind them to become widely adopted.

A story from PCWorld declares 2010 the year of the e-reader, but I believe I can declare that 2011 will be the year of the e-reader waste, for I have seen more than a few cycles of CES, both from afar and also by being in attendance.

Spring Designs Alex Reader

In spending some quality time with Spring Designs’ $349 Alex, I came to appreciate much about the company’s approach to an e-reader. It doesn’t have the biggest display, nor is it the the most colorful. But it does have a highly usable and well-integrated LCD screen (running Android), and its ability to flow content browsed anywhere on the Web to the e-reader gives this model a unique edge over the competition. Add in the company’s announced partnership with Borders for acquiring content, and this is one of the most promising models I’ve seen.

Entourage eDge

The dual-screen Entourage eDge is aimed squarely at the education market, and company’s deal with text book makers like McGraw Hill underscores its emphasis on students. Due out in February, the $490 eDge has a clamshell design (that can flip be used as a book or as tablet) and dual displays, a 9.7-inch E-Ink and a 10.1-inch LCD.

The LCD side runs Android software, customized with applications for annotations and sharing content. It is a tablet in the end. It comes with a stylus for the tablet LCD side (but you can navigate the tablet side with your fingers, too—just push a little extra hard because of the touch screen overlay). There’s a functional and large on-screen USB keyboard, but the company says it’s not intended to replace a netbook.

The three-pound eDge will work with an external USB or Bluetooth keyboard if you want to type a lot. It comes down to what you are going to use the device for. With both ePub and PDF support, the device holds appeal for both education and business users, and carries the price of a well-powered netbook (or the cost of its primary competitor, the Amazon Kindle DX).

Plastic Logic Que

The sleek, highly anticipated Plastic Logic Que is quite the antithesis of the Entourage eDge. It’s slim, and superlightweight. It feels comfy in one hand, unlike the unwieldy feeling Kindle DX. The Que has a black plastic bezel (albeit a fingerprint-prone one), and has a capacitive touch E-Ink touch screen that supports page turn gestures, too. Where other e-readers have a glass backplane, the Que has a plastic backplane for support—hence its light weight. Plastic Logic uses Barnes & Noble’s ebook store; while you can buy anything, its interface and indeed most everything about the device is aimed squarely at business users. Due in April, the 4GB Wi-Fi version will cost $649, while the 8GB Wi-Fi and 3G capable model will cost $799.

Fujitsu Flepia

Let’s get the bad news about Fujitsu’s Flepia out of the way: Right now, it’s only available in Japan. The good news is that Fujitsu is looking into bringing it to the U.S. Hopefully, the company will do so soon, as this flexible e-paper reader looks very promising. The unit on display here was customized for showing off in the U.S., but its interface was clean and colorful (underneath was Windows CE). It has a 1.2 second refresh rate, and the lightning fast scrolling compared with the Kindle and Nook. This slim, 4gram model was especially attractive given its color display: Its passive matrix touch screen supports 64, 260K, and 4096K colors. There’s no backlight, yet images could look bright and brilliant since the display is designed to reflect back red, green, and blue ambient light.

Expanded Options from Cool-er

Cool-er expands its presence and lineup with new offerings this year. The first, which we reviewed, was acceptable for a basic and inexpensive e-reader, but I never liked the stiff controls. The company introduced three models at the show—the Cool-er Compact (with a 6-inch E-Ink screen and 2GB of onboard memory), the Cool-er Connect (with Wi-Fi and a touchscreen), and the Cool-er 3G (due midyear). The readers support ePub and PDF, and Cool-er has an associated online bookstore with 2 million titles.

iRiver Story

At a mere .36 inches thick, iRiver’s Story e-reader is one of the thinnest we’ve seen. But even more impressive at this size is the list of bundled features (which is typical of iRiver products). According to iRiver’s news release, the Story will have a QWERTY keyboard, a 6-inch e-Ink display, a Microsoft Office file viewer, MP3 player (of course) with headphone jack, voice recorder, and personal organizer “with memo pad and scheduler.” It will have 2GB of internal memory (most of the e-book readers we’ve seen top out at 1GB) as well as an SD card slot for adding up to 16GB of additional storage.

The Story will launch later this month, with a Wi-Fi-enabled version coming later this year.

DMC Copia E-reader

DMC plans to unleash a bevy of e-reader options on the world by June. With six models across two lines—Ocean and Tidal—the DMC Copia e-readers cover a range of options from 3G to Wi-Fi, with keyboard, without, and of course, large screen versus pocket. In talking with Copia, I was impressed by the company’s commitment to the nascent e-reader market—that’s underscored by the company’s ambitious plans to launch six different models, ranging in price from $199 to $299, and in so doing, acknowledging that among e-readers, consumers will want choice, and that one size will not fit all, literally–there will be different things that excite different users.

More notable, though, is the company’s holistic approach to its e-readers. While the readers stayed under glass and couldn’t be touched at CES, the designs looked promising. And the readers are complemented by Copia.com, an e-commerce and social networking driven site that will launch as the bookstore community for the Copia e-readers.

Skiff

The Skiff is an 11.5-inch, 1200-by-1600-pixel resolution e-reader from a spinoff of Hearst Corporation that made its debut at CES. It’s one of the largest–and at a quarter of an inch thick–one of the slimmest e-readers that we’ve seen. Unlike other e-readers that are more focused on books, the Skiff is made with newspapers and magazines in mind. While the screen is currently monochrome, the company told Computerworld that a color version might ship sometime this year.

Amazon Kindle DX with Global Wireless

The Amazon Kindle DX with Global Wireless looks like the old Kindle DX, except it can now wirelessly download content outside the US. Its price is unchanged–it costs the same $489 as the older version. The updated Kindle DX won’t arrive until January 19, but you can preorder it now from Amazon.

MSI E-reader/Netbook Concept

Is it an e-reader? Is it a netbook? MSI says that its dual-screen tablet concept can be used as both. Unlike typical e-readers that make use of e-ink displays, MSI’s concept uses two LCD panels. This should help keep costs down and will let users view books in full color, but LCDs aren’t as easy to read outdoors and cause eye fatigue more easily than e-ink does. MSI doesn’t plan to ship any of these under its own brand name, but says that it can product them for any company that wants to sell them at any time, so watch this space.

The above list of ten designs all look like they might possibly be serious designs that will continue to provide the user with functionality for some time, but I believe that, after looking at several stories about a few of them, that they will not survive because they are simply not sturdy enough to take the the daily use and abuse that people will dish out.

Longevity for many of these things (once you buy in) remains a question of accessible content and build quality. Many of the designs look too fragile, and those that don’t, unfortunately, may get an early reputation as being too heavy.  These assessments don’t make sense, but then neither are the assessments of the users of laptops, where many units that were better made, sturdier, and had better features, are but a memory now.

One thing about buying a name like Kindle – you won’t be the only one in the crowd who got fooled when these things all are rendered useless in a year or two. For some, that amount of usage will be worth the price of admission, and if you truly value the convenience that much, it may be worthwhile. After that, you can retire your reader to the shelf where you keep your Pet Rock.

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A new British survey has revealed that 9 out of 10 people like Chocolate. The tenth lies.

Robert Paul

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