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New wikiReader lets you take online encyclopedia offline

James Galbraith (
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Openmoko, maker of the first open source cell phone, released its new WikiReader handheld. The $99 device allows you to browse over 3 million Wikipedia entries without the need for wired, or wireless Ethernet connectivity.

The WikiReader features a large, monochrome touchscreen display that lets you scroll through articles and click on embedded hyperlinks. The WikiReader--which measures 3.9-by-3.9-by-0.8 inches and weighs in at 4.5 ounces--won't display article images on-screen, but is meant to be viewable in a variety of light settings, including bright sunlight. By opting for a low-power monochrome display, Open Moko claims the WikiReader's two AAA batteries can last for about 500 hours, or a year of regular use--about 15 minutes a day, the company estimates.

There is no way to connect the WikiReader to the Internet or to your computer. The article database is stored on a MicroSD card and for $29 a year, the company will send out an updated card. OpenMoko representatives said that updates would be available via download to your computer, requiring a MicroSD card reader in order to update the Wikipedia entries.

The device sports just four buttons: a power button on the top and three navigation buttons--Search, History and Random--on the bottom of the screen. Clicking the Search button brings up a QWERTY keyboard on the touchscreen. As soon as you start typing, the WikiReader starts a list of suggestions based on the characters you've typed so far. History allows you to browse the articles you've already viewed, and the Random button surprises you with one of the WikiReader's 3 million-plus English language articles. The WikiReader offers parental controls to protect children using the device from accessing inappropriate articles.

Company representatives dropped off a production sample late last week for me to try out. Even though I like the idea of a portable pocket-sized encyclopedia and admire its eye-catching design, I found myself struggling with the touchscreen keyboard. It required more pressure and precision than I'm used to and I had to keep checking after typing each character to ensure that it was recognized properly. I'm sure that over time, I would get used to it, but I'm also fairly sure that over time, the novelty of Wikipedia-to-go would wear off. And while the content should be able to occupy my curious 8-year old in the backseat of the car for hours, I doubt the lackluster, text-only monochrome display could hold his attention for very long.

If you're a Wikipedia junkie and don't already have an Internet-capable smartphone--like the iPhone and its countless Wikipedia apps--or travel often to locations without Internet connectivity, the WikiReader might be worth considering. But with Wikipedia content available already on the iPhone, other smartphones, and connected notebook computers, it's difficult to imagine most people wanting to add this one-trick pony device to their personal, portable electronics arsenal.

The WikiReader is available now from OpenMoko's WikiReader store and Amazon.

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