Monday, August 13, 2018

Product Review: Field Expedient e-Readers

You have your fishing rod and you've caught a fish. You remember how to build a fire. You even have some spices on hand. Now how do you actually prepare it for dinner?

This is why an e-reader with an emergency and survival library belongs in your preps.

When deciding that an e-reader should be in my Bug Out Bag, I decided it needed three features, in this order:
  1. It had to be durable. I expect to take this to who knows where, and I expect that it will be difficult to impossible to replace or repair it during an emergency. Survival in rough conditions is an absolute must.
  2. It had to be easy to charge. Having to keep a proprietary charger on hand that requires a wall outlet does me no good if I don’t have a wall outlet on hand.
  3. It had to be cheap. I cannot afford a lot of device for something that will sit around most of the time doing nothing.
To that end, I decided to test two devices that I had sitting around. The first was a Nintendo 3DS XL (a portable gaming device) that I occasionally use. I had already put a 16 gig SD card into it; to turn it into an e-reader, I installed Calibre (a free third-party program) to mange and convert my various e-books into formats that can be read on any device.

The other item I decided to try was an old prepaid Huawei Union smartphone that I bought when I was trying out FreedomPop. I gave it a 16 Gig microSD card and purchased a cheap ($6) Otterbox-style case for it.

Nintendo 3DS XL

  • Very much the most durable of the two. As much as the smartphone held up just fine in testing, the handheld game console is designed to be used by small boys, and therefore survive all the abuse that entails. I know people who have regularly dropped the handheld consoles from tall heights, have run them through the washing machine (and dryer) multiple times, left one in a stream overnight, accidentally run them over with cars on and so on, all without actually making the device unusable. 
  • Actually has a nicer screen setup for reading. I find myself turning it sideways and using the direction pads as a page turner. This was a big difference when I was reading for long periods of time for leisure.
  • Plays MP3s natively. Just put them on the SD card. 
  • Still a gaming device. The library of game software available for this means that it is an excellent method to distract teenagers (or yourself).
  • Not a bad battery life, and would probably be notably better if I had a new battery. I found it lasted 1- 2 days of use between charges.

  • The charging cable is proprietary. Even thought it looks like a USB to microUSB cable, it's not; the end that plugs into the device is just slightly larger than microUSB. This means that you can't use standard cables to recharge it, so if yours breaks or is lost you have no way to charge the device.
  • They are expensive to purchase, even used. This is partly due to the durability of the unit increasing its resale price.
  • It does not have Bluetooth.
  • You have to sideload everything. In this case, you have to take out the SD card and plug it into the computer. Not a big deal overall, but still inconvenient.

I would say that this is an excellent option if you already have one on hand and  you don’t mind sticking one into your Bug Out Bag. If you have a teenager or small child, this is an ideal device to hand to them.

Huawei Union (Freedompop)

  • Uses a standard cell phone charging cable. I did not have to purchase a new cable or wall adapter, and the one that came with it is cross compatible with my other devices.
  • The battery life is excellent due to its small screen size and the fact that I am not using it for anything that requires a lot of wireless communication (no data, no phone calls). It goes 3-5 days between charges even as I listen to audiobooks all day.
  • Small form factor. Once again, the smaller screen size came in useful when I decided to try putting it into small pockets in my gear. 
  • Can run most android apps.
  • In a pinch, you can set it up as a phone. Even phone without carriers are able to call 911 (this is required by law) so it's still useful for calling for emergency help. 

  • Smaller screen. Not as nice to read on as the 3DS. 
  • More likely to attract attention. A game system is generally not seen as a luxury item whereas smartphones are, possibly because portable game systems have been around since the 1990s whereas smartphones are only a decade old. 
  • Needs a screen protector. The 3DS folds up to protect its screen when not in use, but the Union does not. Online reviews agree that without a screen protector, there is a very real chance of it getting cracked.

The Huawei Union has been just fine for durability for its price point, but online reviews say that it has the weaknesses of all cell phones: the screen will crack, it responds poorly to being submerged in water and so on. To be fair, it seems to be quite rugged for a cell phone (especially with the cheap case I put on it), but it does seem to come in second to the 3DS XL.

A comparable (and slightly nicer) cell phone by Tracfone is available on Amazon for $35. A screen protector and a case cost a combined $15 USD, giving you a usable device for $50. A 32gb SD card costs around $12 at time of this writing and will hold a huge number of books in text, and a fair amount of audio.

However things go, having a library on hand can be useful, even if that use is fighting boredom.

Good luck, and don’t forget to practice.

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