Anyone who thinks their ereader choice is a straight fight between a Kindle and a few choice products from Kobo should think again. This isn't the first ereader from French company Bookeen, but it is its best value version to date.
The clue to its key feature is in its name; its backlit e-ink screen instantly puts it into the mix with the likes of the Amazon Paperwhite, Amazon Voyage, Kobo Aura H2O and Kobo Aura HD. With an RRP of a mere £80 (US$109, about AU$160), it's really designed to appeal to those after their first ereader while maintaining more premium features.
An ereader with a six-inch screen, the Cybook Muse weighs 190g and measures 155 x 116 x 8mm, which makes it among the lightest around, and one of the easiest ereaders to hold in one hand.
I also found it possible to pocket while wearing jeans, and it fits nicely into the inside pocket of a suit jacket, though only just squeezed into a shirt's chest pocket. It's 17% smaller than its predecessor, the Cybook Odyssey.
Like a tablet, the Cybook Muse has an edge-to-edge glass front that brings a classy look, plus there's no ridged frame liek the one found on the the Kobo Aura HD. However, the downside of the edge-to-edge design is that if you put the Cybook Muse face-down on, say, a bedside table – surely a typical scenario – it could get scratched or scuffed.
Bookeen sells a basic protective cover for £24.90 (US$29.90, about AU$38) (which adds 5mm to the thickness) in black, red, pink and orange.
Unlike a tablet, the Cybook Muse's built-in battery lasts an entire month. It's arguably more ergonomic than a slate too, with its tapered sides on the rear makes it easy to grasp. It also features a cut-away corner on the bottom-left as you read, which serves no purpose, but looks distinctive.
Physical buttons on the Cybook Muse include a raised page-turner each side of the screen (though since it's also got a multi-point touchscreen, they're not essential) and a hard menu button underneath the screen.
The undercarriage features a microUSB slot for recharging, an on/off switch, and a microSD card slot. The built-in memory is 4GB, which is standard across most ereaders (and enough for a huge 4,000 graphics-light books).
Running on a single core Cortex A8 1Ghz processor, the Cybook Muse includes 256MB RAM for slick operation.
The screen itself is an e-ink Carta HD Display with 16 grey levels, and a resolution of 758 x 1024 pixels that means 213 DPI (dots per inch), which is HD quality without threatening the market leaders; the latest Kindles and Kobos regularly achieve 260-300 DPI.
Somewhat surprisingly for such a cut-price ereader, the Cybook Muse also has a Wi-Fi antenna, and even includes a basic web browser.
However, the most striking aspect is its FrontLight, created by LEDs in conjunction with an invisible laminated light diffusion film to spread the light evenly across the screen.
It's capable of 20 different brightness levels, from eye-searing nonsense to the lowest setting, which is just about perfect for reading in a blackout or in bed at night.
The Cybook Muse is also available without the illumination option, as the Cybook Muse Essential, which costs £59.90 (US$89.90, about AU$116) less.
Bookeen also sells the step-up Cybook Ocean for £149.90 (US$189.90, about AU$244), which increases the size of the screen to eight inches while also claiming the title of 'world's thinnest' ereader at a mere 7mm.
However, the Ocean's larger screen has the same 1024 x 768 resolution as the Cybook Muse, so has a poorer 160 DPI.
Interface and performance
The Cybook Muse sports a pretty basic Linux-based interface called BooReader, which is divided up on the home page into three sections; at the top is the cover of the book currently being read, with a percentage figure for how much you've read as well as an (arguably more useful) version that counts actual pages.
In the centre is a library section, which hosts four book covers, though you can scroll through your entire collection here with speedy refreshes (the Cybook Muse is set, by default, to do a 'proper' e-ink refresh only every five page turns) and access a full-page folder of your books. Along the bottom is a link to Bookeen's online shop, which is sadly lacking in books.
Press the menu button – a hard button on the device itself – from anywhere on the Cybook Muse's interface and up pops a choice of navigation options.
They are: home, library (there's a choice between browsing lists or grids of books, with each containing an icon of the cover and very bold type for the title that's easy to read at a glance), shop (which requires Wi-Fi to be configured), front light (which merely activates a pop-up for switching-on the light, and configuring its exact brightness) and menu (for configuring Wi-Fi, refreshing the page, and checking for firmware updates).
The Cybook Muse doesn't have a particularly slick or graphics-heavy user interface, but browsing the device – and even the online store – is quick, and it all feels rather sleek in a back-to-basics way.
This is an ereader primarily for reading, which for such a cheap device is hard to argue with.
By default, books are laid-out as 20 lines of clear, crisp-looking text, with 5mm of margin either side. Touch anywhere on the edge of the screen and the page flips. Page turns can be done manually, too, by hitting the dedicated buttons on each side of the device.
Both buttons are ideally placed for operating with the thumb of the hand holding the Cybook Muse, which is crucial to it being easy and pleasant to use.
A 'browse' button in the eBook store section of the home page is for navigating titles on sale, right? Actually, it takes you to a WebKit-based web browser and defaults to Google, which is a bit of a surprise. However, it's slow, it's cumbersome and the need to use that virtual pop-up keyboard once again makes everything tedious.
Also, the screen proves nowhere near sensitive enough to choose from the rather squashed search lists. I tried to download a free EPUB ebook directly from the Project Gutenberg website, but to no avail.
But who needs a browser on an ereader? Reasonably smart, very simple and focused on reading – and with plenty of options for customisation of layout and text – the Cybook Muse never detracts from what's important. Helped along by that thoroughly effective Cortex A8 1GHz processor, reading is everything here.
Reading, shop, battery and media
A touch anywhere on the screen, other than the edge) while reading a book brings up an in-book menu that's surprisingly comprehensive.
There's a slick 'go to' option that presents a slider in-book to skip quickly to other pages and chapters; as you move the slider it gives you a real-time chapter/page read-out of where you've got to.
Annotations (bookmarks, highlights and notes) can be added, though here's where the software lacks intuition and polish.
Pride of place goes to the text settings section. There's a choice of seven fonts (including the specially optimised default Caecilia font developed by Bookeen, a serif font that's easy on the eye and easy to read), 20 font sizes, and a lot of choice between line spacing, margins and alignment layouts.
The screen is pure white, clean and crisp at all times, suggesting that those after a higher DPI count are spending money on specs, not performance.
The Cybook Muse refreshes the e-ink completely (via the usual 'black flash' on the screen) only every five page turns, but it does leave shadows in between. It's easily changed to every page turn if you want to keep things really clean.
Although the choice between touch and a hard button for page turns is nice, there is an oddity; use the button or touch the side of a page and the page turns quickly and cleanly, but gently swipe it and the same thing happens, but only after a full refresh.
Though the backlight is perfectly fit for purpose, it's not the finest around. While reading Call of The Wild in a total blackout I had to choose the very lowest setting to avoid glare, and I did notice some slightly uneven brightness.
It's not patchy, in fact the text is illuminated evenly and without streaks, but there is a noticeable fading towards the very bottom of the page and along both sides, which is to be expected.
The Cybook Muse has 100 books pre-loaded. That might sound great, but there's a lot there that's out of copyright anyway and freely available from websites like Project Gutenberg and Open Library. Besides, many are in French, German and Dutch. There are 36 pre-loaded English language books, with about 10 each provided for six other European languages.
The Bookeen Shop is very poor. The first hurdle is having to create an account using a French language-only form, the second is the snail-like speed of the Cybook Muse's pop-up virtual keyboard, and the third is that the drop-down list of countries runs to over 10 pages … and is in French. Ah oui, Royaume-Uni … merci. So tedious.
Once that's done, it's then necessary to create or tie-in an Adobe Digital Editions account, for which you'll get an AdobeID necessary for downloading DRM-protected ebooks, which is normal procedure on non-Kindles. Trouble is, that defaults to France as country of residence, and it takes an age to change.
Once done, it attaches your AdobeID account to the Cybook Muse and you're good to go. There are stacks of free ebooks to download, though many are in French, which makes a lot of the navigation rather needless for mono-linguists.
There's a 'less than €5' section, and a bestsellers tab, though during my test it was empty. Searching proved fruitless, too, with 'Girl With A Dragon Tattoo' and 'Gone Girl' – titles that are both in Amazon's top 10 – missing from the Bookeen shop. All books are on sale in Euros, too, which might incur exchange expense for UK and US users.
Inside the Cybook Muse is a rechargeable Li-Polymer battery with a capacity of 1,900mAh. That's about par for the course on an ereader, and with Wi-Fi switched-off Bookeen claims it will last an entire month.
Two weeks of rampant reading – often with that FrontLight activated and some Wi-Fi-based tests – saw it run down to about 40%, so I've no reason to doubt Bookeen's claims.
The Cybook Muse handles a plethora of ebook formats, but it's not exhaustive. The common EPUB, PDF, HTML and TXT files are handled as well as the rarer FB2 (FictionBook, a 'big in Russia' XML-based open format) and DJVU (used by some scanners) filetypes.
The one omission? There's no support for MOBI files, which are commonly used (though EPUB should cover 99% of purchased books). Photo file support comprises JPEG, PNG, GIF, BMP, ICO and even TIF and PSD, which should cover all bases.
However, photos are very slow to load, both in full-screen and in thumbnails although this won't be your primary reason for picking up the Cybook Muse.
Linked to an iMac via a microUSB cable, the Cybook Muse popped-up as a USB drive and I dragged-on a plethora of filetypes, which were sorted into photos and books, with all of the latter put into a virtual folder in the library marked 'new', with thumbnails of the front covers conveniently trailed on the home page, too.
PDFs often prove a chore for ereaders, but here they're handled reasonably well. The 'fit to page' option does exactly that, while zooming-in on small text means scanning around the document purely by swiping the touchscreen.
It's a tad slow, but OK. However, the highlight for PDFs is 'reflow', which scrapes out the text and presents it without photos and graphics, just like a 'normal' ebook. It's a little hit-and-miss, but in our tests, largely brilliant and useful.
However, occasionally the always-on caption across the bottom of the PDF display software that contains the document's title and the zoom percentage actually blocks the visibility of a line or two of text.
Amazon Kindle Voyage
The latest model from Amazon is superior to the Cybook Muse, but at £169 (US$219, about AU$250), it's much more expensive. Unlike the Cybook Muse, it supports the MOBI ebook format, though mostly deals in its own proprietary format based on MOBI, called AZW.
The massive resolution of 1430 x 1080 achieves a mighty 300PPI, which dwarfs the Cybook Muse's 213 DPI. However, the Voyage's neat edge-to-edge glass look, and its backlight, are both equalled by the far cheaper Cybook Muse. At 7.6 mm, the Voyage is ever so slightly slimmer, but it does weigh a touch more.
The ereader that started the craze for backlit e-ink screens is easy meat for the Cybook Muse. At 212 PPI, the Paperwhite has an almost identical resolution, and at £109 (US$119, about £181) for the Wi-Fi-only version, it's closer to the Cybook Muse's low price.
However, it's only got 2GB of storage compared to the Cybook Muse's 4GB, and at 206g and 9.1mm, it's heaver and fatter, too (partly because of it's twice-as-big battery). Overall, the Cybook Muse has the Paperwhite beat, apart from actually getting books.
At 9.7 mm and weighing 233g, the Kobo Aura H2O, the only fully waterproof ereader on sale, is substantially thicker and heavier than the Cybook Muse.
However, its much more detailed screen achieves 265 DPI while it also supports unprotected MOBI files, which puts it a notch ahead of the Cybook Muse. But do remember that this is a more expensive £139.99 (about US$244, AU$255) device.
Contrary to popular belief, there is more to ereading life than Amazon's Kindle. Well designed and easy to operate, Bookeen's latest ereader offers all the essentials for readers who don't want to get locked in to Amazon's bookstore.
A super-light, 8mm-slim edge-to-edge glass design, a simple one-hand operation, and an effective backlight make this cut-price ereader hard to resist.
Probably the highlight of the Cybook Muse experience is the excellent hardware; this device is exceptionally well designed and both looks and feels a lot more expensive than it is. The pure white page, speedy navigation and page turns, and particularly the choice to turn with a touch of the screen or a tap of a button, is hard to resist.
Buttons are perfectly placed, with the Cybook Muse being easy to hold and operate even with one hand, so it's perfect for reading while standing-up on busy trains and buses, on platforms and in airport queues.
The choice of fonts and layout options is extensive enough, and the low price makes it affordable for those of us who really don't want to carry a heavy £300+ tablet just to read a book. The freedom to read most kinds of book formats is welcome, as is a slick handling of PDFs. The white-on-black reading feature is a nice option, too.
The sign-up process for the online book shop is long and reliant on an unresponsive keyboard; this is the lowest point of the device, and I'm not convinced many users will get through it successfully. Nor does the shop have the choice of titles that it should. It's also all in Euros.
That means using Adobe Digital Editions to its fullest and shopping around online for ebooks, which means you'll need a desktop computer or laptop.
Considering its price there's not much else to dislike about the Cybook Muse, though the lack of MOBI file support is a shame. The other issues are tiny; the backlight isn't the very best around, the plastic rear picks up a lot of fingerprints, while its reliance on micro SD card slot rather than a full-size SD Card might be inconvenient for some.
Ereaders travel. They get left on trains, and lost down the back of sofas. They go places – such as jacket pockets – where they can fall out, so it's best if they're not a huge investment. At about £80, the Cybook Muse is really good value.
It's not the best ereader out there, but for those not wanting to get locked-in to Amazon's bookstore, happy to source ebooks from elsewhere and keen on to read PDFs frequently, too, the Cybook Muse is a great value.
It doesn't quite reach the standards and specs of the twice-as-expensive market leaders – the Kindle Voyage and the Kobo Aura H2O – but it gets close, and has the Kindle Paperwhite firmly beaten at a fraction of the cost.
Is the BooReader software as polished as the market leaders? In terms of the extras it offers or the online book shop, no – it's just not as intuitive. But for the simple, uncomplicated reading of books, it more than suffices (and there are plenty of customisation choices for fonts and layouts) as long as you can get hold of them.
Is the hardware as good as those ereaders that cost twice as much? With the effective backlight, ultra-slim 173g design and edge-to-edge design taken into account, absolutely – and that's what makes this cut-price ereader worth contemplating.