Back before the Internets were invented by Al Gore, we couldn’t just look up information on a computer when we had questions about people, places and things. In those days our ‘google’ was a set of Encyclopedia Britannica books. Today, all that same info that we used to look up in multiple volumes of hardbound books can be accessed with our computers and smartphones. What about people that don’t have access to the internet or a computer all the time, but still want to have information at their fingertips? For those people, we have the WikiReader.
WikiReader is a copy of WikiPedia in your hand. For those of you not familiar with WikiPedia, it is a collaborative information website that was started back in 2001 and has grown to be one of the top 10 visited sites on the web.
WikiReader is a handheld touchscreen device that gives a physical form to the same information found on the Wikipedia website. You can carry over 3 million topics with you wherever you go and you won’t need a WiFi connection or subscription fees to use it.
2 AAA batteries
The device has a White plastic case with a monochrome LCD touchscreen tempered glass display. Below the display are three rubber control buttons. The reader feels solid and its size is very pocket friendly at 4 x 4 inches.
Along the top edge is a small power button. Pressing it will turn the WikiReader on almost instantly. Pressing and holding the button for a few seconds will power down the device.
There’s a battery compartment on the back that houses 2 AAA batteries that are included in the package. With normal use, those two batteries should provide power to the WikiReader for a whole year if you use the device for 15 minutes a day.
Removing the batteries reveals a microSD card slot which stores all of the Wikipedia information. The card is how you will be able to update the reader with new info. You can download the updates for free if you like. Just be aware that the download is going to be 4GB or so, so you will definitely need a broadband connection. If you prefer an easier update process, you can pay $29 for 2 updates per year that will be mailed to you on a microSD card.
The touchscreen is easy to use and doesn’t take any real effort to tap the keyboard or scroll. It’s a capacitive touchscreen, so you have to use your finger and not a stylus.
The LCD display reminds me of PDAs back in the PalmPilot days. It’s fine for reading where you have plenty of light, but since it lacks a backlight, viewing the screen in lower light is difficult.
Looking up Information
When you power on the reader, it will automatically put you into search mode, which displays a keyboard along the bottom half of the touchscreen. The keyboard is small, but I didn’t have much trouble using it. As you tap the keyboard to spell words, the upper part of the screen will list the top 5 topics that match what you’re typing as you type them. You can then tap one of the words to switch to that topic or you can press the search button to remove the keyboard and show a larger list of topics that matched what you typed.
Once you tap a keyword / topic, you can use your finger to scroll up and down the screen to read the entire text. There will be links to other topics that you can tap to follow and read too. This is where I discovered my first complaint with the WikiReader; it doesn’t have a Back or Forwards button. If you start following a trail of links, the only way to get back to the beginning is to either tap the search button to see your last search list, or tap the history button to see the list of topics that you’ve viewed. Another missing feature is the ability to bookmark a topic if you want to save it for later. When you power off the reader or it powers down on its own, powering it back on, will not resume from the last read topic. It always defaults back to the search screen. You’ll need to press the history button to list the last read topics if you want to try to find your previous place.
One feature that is kind of fun is the random button. Pressing it will give you a random topic. Surprise! It’s fun to use it once a day just to learn something new. I actually find myself using the WikiReader almost exclusively for this one feature.
I really wish that the WikiReader had a higher resolution color display. That way images could be included with the text to make the information even more dynamic. WikiPedia includes a lot of images to help convey ideas and info. Without those images, it does feel like there’s a little something missing from the experience. That said, I looked up several topics on the WikiReader and on my computer using the WikiPedia site. I’m happy to report that the information on the reader matched (minus images and the various info tables that some topics include) the same info on the WikiPedia site for the same topic.
Who is the WikiReader for?
As I’ve played around with this device, I’ve asked myself who might spend $99 to buy one? Would I buy one for myself? Not likely. I already sit in front of a computer all day and night and have a fast internet connection and a large color display. I’d rather just use the WikiPedia website itself instead of a small monochrome device like this one.
Even though this device isn’t one that I would buy for myself, I can see it being useful for someone like my 75 year old father. Although he has a computer and a DSL connection, he almost never uses it because websites are too hard for him to navigate and he gets frustrated. I could see him using the WikiReader though.
I can also imagine the device being useful for looking up information while traveling on a plane, train, bus, boat, car, etc. And it goes without saying that the WikiReader would be perfect for people and kids that do not have a computer or an internet connection. But that said, I’m wondering if someone that doesn’t already have a computer or the internet would be able to afford the $99 price tag.
I think the WikiReader is an interesting device, but I’m just not sure how popular it will turn out to be. I think it may be a product that has come to market 5 years too late. What do you think of the WikiReader? Would you buy one?