Shallow Thoughts : tags : pda

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Mon, 20 Dec 2010

Android tablet as an ebook/RSS reader

I reviewed my Archos 5 Android tablet last week, but I didn't talk much about my main use for it: offline reading of news, RSS feeds and ebooks.

I've been searching for years for something to replace the aging and unsupported Palm platform. I've been using Palms for many years to read daily news feeds; first on the proprietary Avantgo service, but mostly using the open source Plucker.

I don't normally have access to a network when I'm reading -- I might be a passenger in a car or train, in a restaurant, standing in line at the market, or in the middle of the Mojave desert. So I run a script once a day on a network-connected computer to gather up a list of feeds, package it up and transfer it to the mobile device, so I have something to read whenever I find spare time.

For years I used Sitescooper on the host end to translate HTML pages into a mobile format, and eventually became its primary maintainer. But that got cumbersome, and I wrote a simpler RSS feed reader, feedme.

But on the reader side, that still left me buying old PalmOS Clies on ebay. Surely there was a better option?

I've been keeping an eye on ebook readers and tablets for a while now. But the Plucker reader has several key features not available in most ebook reader apps:

  1. An easy, open-source way of automatically translating RSS and HTML pages into something the reader can understand;
  2. Delete documents after you've read them, without needing to switch to a separate application;
  3. Random access to document, e.g. jump to the beginning or end, or 60% in;
  4. Follow links: nearly all RSS sites, whether news sites or blogs, are set up as an index page with links to individual story pages;
  5. Save external links if you click on them while offline, so you can fetch them later.

Most modern apps seem to assume either (a) that you'll be reading only books packaged commercially, or (b) that you're reading web pages and always have a net connection. Which meant that I'd probably have to roll my own; and that pointed to Android tablets rather than dedicated ebook readers.

Android as a reader

All the reviews I read pointed to Aldiko as the best e-reader on Android, so I installed it first thing. And indeed, it's a wonderful reader. The font is beautiful, and you can adjust size and color easily, including a two-click transition between configurable "day" and "night" schemes. It's easy to turn pages (something surprisingly difficult in most Android apps, since the OS seems to have no concept of "Page down"). It's easy to import new documents and easy to delete them after reading them.

So how about those other requirements? Not so good. Aldiko uses epub format, and it's possible (after much research) to produce those using ebook-convert, a command-line script you can get as part of the huge Calibre package. Alas, Calibre requires all sorts of extraneous packages like Qt even if you're never going to use the GUI; but once you get past that, the ebook-convert script works pretty well.

Except that links don't work, much. Sometimes they do, but mostly they do nothing. I don't know if this is a problem with Calibre's ebook-convert, Aldiko's reader, or the epub format itself, but you can't rely on links from the index page actually jumping anywhere. Aldiko also doesn't have a way to jump to a set point, so once you're inside a story you can't easily go back to the title page (sometimes BACK works, sometimes it doesn't).

And of course there's no way to save external links for later.

So Aldiko is a good book reader, but it wouldn't solve my feed-reading problem.

And that meant I had to write my own reader, and it was time to delve into the world of Android development. And it was surprisingly easy ... which I'll cover in a separate post. For now, I'll skip ahead and ruin the punch line by saying I have a lovely little feed-reading app, and my Archos and Android are working out great.

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[ 14:14 Dec 20, 2010    More tech | permalink to this entry ]

Wed, 15 Dec 2010

Archos 5 Android Tablet review

[Archos 5]

For the past couple weeks I've been using a small Android tablet, an Archos 5. I use it primarily as an ebook and RSS feed reader (more about that separately), though of course I've played with assorted games and other apps too.

I've been trying to wait for the slew of cheap Android tablets the media assure us is coming out any day now. Except "any day now" never turns into "now". And I wanted something suitable for reading: small enough to fit in a jacket pocket and hold in one hand, yet large enough to fit a reasonable amount of text on the screen. A 4-5-inch screen seemed ideal.

There's nothing in the current crop fitting that description, but there's a year-old model, the Archos 5. It has a 4.8-inch screen, plus some other nice hardware like GPS. And it seems to have a fair community behind it, at archosfans.com.

I have the 16G flash version. I've had it for a couple of weeks now and I'm very happy so far. I'm not sure I'd recommend it to a newbie (due to the Android Marketplace's ban on tablets -- see below), but it's a lovely toy for someone fairly tech savvy.

My review turned out quite long, too long for a blog post. So if you're interested in the details of what's good and what's bad, you'll find the details in my Archos 5 Android Tablet review.

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[ 21:22 Dec 15, 2010    More tech | permalink to this entry ]

Sun, 13 May 2007

Feisty Fawn: The Adventure Continues, with the Visor Driver

When we left off, I had just found a workaround for my Feisty Fawn installer problems and had gotten the system up and running.

By now, it was late in the day, time for my daily Sitescooper run to grab some news to read on my Treo PDA. The process starts with making a backup (pilot-xfer -s). But pilot-xfer failed because it couldn't find the device, /dev/ttyUSB1. The system was seeing the device connection -- dmesg said

[ 1424.598770] usb 5-2.3: new full speed USB device using ehci_hcd and address 4
[ 1424.690951] usb 5-2.3: configuration #1 chosen from 1 choice
"configuration #1"? What does that mean? I poked around /etc/udev a bit and found this rule in rules.d/60-symlinks.rules:
# Create /dev/pilot symlink for Palm Pilots
KERNEL=="ttyUSB*", ATTRS{product}=="Palm Handheld*|Handspring *|palmOne Handheld", \
             SYMLINK+="pilot"
Oh, maybe they were calling it /dev/pilot1? But no, there was nothing matching /dev/*pilot*, just as there was nothing matching /dev/ttyUSB*.

But this time googling led me right to the bug, bug 108512. Turns out that for some reason (which no one has investigated yet), feisty doesn't autoload the visor module when you plug in a USB palm device the way other distros always have. The temporary workaround is sudo modprobe visor; the long-term workaround is to add visor to /etc/modules.

On the subject of Feisty's USB support, though, I do have some good news to report.

My biggest motivation for upgrading from edgy was because USB2 had stopped working a few months ago -- bug 54419. I hoped that the newer kernel in Feisty might fix the problem.

So once I had the system up and running, I plugged my trusty hated-by-edgy MP3 player into the USB2 hub, and checked dmesg. It wasn't working -- but the error message was actually useful. Rather than obscure complaints like end_request: I/O error, dev sde, sector 2033440 or device descriptor read/64, error -110 or 3:0:0:0: rejecting I/O to dead device it had a message (which I've since lost) about "insufficient power". Now that's something I might be able to do something about!

So I dug into my bag o' cables and found a PS/2 power adaptor that fit my USB2 hub, plugged it in, plugged the MP3 player into the hub, and voila! it was talking on USB2 again.

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[ 20:10 May 13, 2007    More linux | permalink to this entry ]