19 December, 2010

Anyone for a good book?

Something to say about Reading

Some of my many books

iPAQ software ebook readers

When comparing electronic reader programs for the PocketPC platform, I'm dismayed by the paucity of offerings. There aren't too many options available for free, and a lot of the programs are somewhat limited by the small amount of memory available to use on my iPAQ. For reading html, there's always the included Internet Explorer, for text, you can use Word, but those aren't usually what ebooks are delivered in. For example, there's epub, pdf, lit, pdb and a score of others. Programs that support one format don't usually support other formats, so to read all the formats, I have to install multiple programs.

I finally found something positive to say about Microsoft's Reader program - at least on my little iPAQ, it works better than the competing Freda and hasn't hiccuped once on any of the .lit books I've fed it. In contrast, every few pages or so in Freda, I'd have to drop into "Book Properties" and back to the page before I could view the next few pages, as otherwise I was presented with black screens, or the screen simply wouldn't refresh with the new page. What a shame I can't actually activate Microsoft Reader on my device, as Microsoft doesn't support running the ActiveX applet on the iPAQ. In addition, I'm stuck with the size of the font the program chooses to display some book text in, which isn't the same as the fontsize in the font settings page. If the .lit file specifies a font size, I'm unable to override that. Add to that, the only format the reader program seems to support is Microsoft's own .lit, meaning I have to go somewhere else for anything else.

Mobi software released Mobipocket, which supports some common formats (pdb, txt, html) but not others (pdf, epub); in addition, it costs. In comparison, Freda is free software, and supports reading epub documents, but doesn't support pdb or pdf. And to read pdf, I had to install PocketXPDF—thankfully it seems to work well if I use the "Plain Text" mode. This does the job much better than trying to run Adobe's official offering, which seems to assume we like panning the page back and forth to read a page, and seems to have been built for devices with screens that are 640 pixels wide, or even 800 pixels, and doesn't provide a "render in plain text" mode.

Other alternatives

I've been looking for an effective portable device to read ebooks in multiple formats; PDF, epub, lit, HTML or even plain text are the formats I seem to be dealing with recently, but I suspect I won't be dropping $299 on the local eReader—the Kobo. Nor would I be able to afford the Sony eReader, and the Amazon Kindle isn't available in New Zealand (though this has since been remedied)—and costs a bunch, just like the others. I suspect the disadvantage of all these eReaders is that they only read books (or occasionally play music in addition) and are expensive for what they do. If you add in the cost of the books, often you have a ebook solution that isn't much less expensive than a paper version, with the only real positives being the fact you can store multiple books on one slim device, and you can—depending on what country you're in—purchase and download books wirelessly. But you'd better not drop it, or you'll be paying out more money.

In addition, I could quite imagine having more than the thousand books capacity that the Kobo provides internally. Thankfully the Kobo designers included a SD slot, though when putting a large SD card into the Kobo you'd better be prepared to wait a while until the Kobo has finished cataloging the books. I put my 2Gb SD card into a shop's sample Kobo, but after three minutes I gave up waiting. Clearly, if you're going to put books onto a 2Gb SD card, you'll probably leave the card in the device. In addition, I quite often want to do other stuff with a portable device aside from just read ebooks—sometimes I want to browse the web, play some music, play a quick game of Sudoku to while away the time, or maybe even take some pictures. Devices that do most—if not all of these things—are available for nearly the same cost as the more expensive readers, and provide me with all the other stuff I want to do. About the only negative is the shorter battery life in comparison.

In addition, I want colour screens. Some of the books I read have (wow!!) colour diagrams in them, and I'd hate to reduce them to 16 greys. So colour is pretty much mandatory for me—one reason why the battery life is shorter. Nobody's made an e-ink device in colour yet, or not that I've seen.

Anyone for a book?

Books are dead, long live Ebooks, A debate?

I recently watched a debate whose premise was "From the book to the hard drive: books are dead", featuring some of our local literati and other notable presences. In essence, two teams of three members had to debate whether books in paper form were well on the way to being buried, or keeping pace with modern alternatives. Needless to say, the debate was adjudged a success for the team for the negative—that is, that the book has not died, and is still relevant.

But that rather begs the question, doesn't it? Personally, I find I'll read an e-book in preference to a real book for one reason—portability. With a real book, it can come in any one of six different formats—fourteen if you add in children's book formats—and can be as thick or as thin as the pages allow. In addition, you have to remember to carry around some sort of bookmark if you can't remember the page you're on. I refuse to dog-ear my pages just to retain the current page number—eventually, folding those page corners will mean the corners start falling off. Then there's the weight, again dependent upon if the book's a hardcover, a trade paperback (my preferred format) or a smaller paperback, and—again—how many pages were put into the book. Occasionally, publishers will add extra pages in to promote further books either by the author themselves, or other authors that the company just happens to also publish for. Then there's the dustjacket if the book's a hardcover.

Then there's the quality of paper used—most books seem to use a paper that yellows readily, and very few books I own actually have the "white" paper so loved by booklovers. Leaving them in the sun—or even strong light—causes this yellowing that's impossible to reverse, and looks ugly. The paper becomes quite brittle, easily tearing and difficult to repair correctly. Using sellotape is a definite no-no, but there aren't many cheap repair tools that actually work. Also, if the glueing job isn't up to snuff, then you start losing pages from the spine almost as soon as you start reading. I have at least three paperbacks that run the risk of losing tens of pages this way.

Instead, with a portable device it's always the same size, it's always the same thickness and weight, has no corners to dog-ear, only has to be charged up every so often, and is eminently readable in most conditions if you've got decent hands. For the readers that have their own backlight, you can have the device in most lighting conditions, but with the ones that don't, you do have to consider ambient lighting conditions, but at least for the e-ink displays, you don't have much reflectivity of the screen. Then there's the fact that you don't have to break a book's spine—a pet peeve of mine, but rather easily done in today's books. In fact, you don't have to turn any pages, you simply press buttons or stroke the screen to turn pages.

My only regret is that the manufacturers haven't been able to bring the manufacturing costs down to the extent where a good—and I am talking good book reader won't cost you much more than it would cost to get ten or twelve books. Devices currently tend towards smaller page sizes because it's easier to produce a small display (or a larger greyscale display) than it is to do a full colour screen of say, an A4 page in size. Small screens also make for a more portable device—one that can be slipped into a pocket, instead of a bag. Indeed, with cellphones, there are already e-reader programs that duplicate what the Kindle and their kin do. And in addition, it's a computer and communications device. Wonderful!


However, in favour of books—and I am talking about paper and hardboard here—are some of those same things I have mentioned. Publishers are able to produce books in multiple formats, small for handbags, large for coffee table presentation and large format imagery. In addition, they can add in pictures from esteemed artists, cover the books in a protective dustjacket (mostly to market the books) or print directly on the cover—typical for paperbacks of any size—again, to market the book so someone would want to pick it up and buy it. Some publishers even add their own bookmark for hardcover books. And fold-out maps are a rare addition that you'll never seen on any electronic device—who has a fold-out screen on their e-reader?

They don't require batteries, don't require energy to operate—except when lighting conditions are poor, will often take a drop without damage unless you happen to be reading in the bath, in that case books of any type will get wet. The only storage they require is a space on a bookshelf, preferably not dusty, not flooded with light, and not prone to mold. In return, books give joy, tears, thoughtfulness, or in some rare cases, inspiration.

Vive la book!