Android tablet as an ebook/RSS reader (Shallow Thoughts)

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 ]