Shallow Thoughts : tags : tablet

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

Wed, 26 Aug 2015

Switching to a Kobo e-reader

For several years I've kept a rooted Nook Touch for reading ebooks. But recently it's become tough to use. Newer epub books no longer work work on any version of FBReader still available for the Nook's ancient Android 2.1, and the Nook's built-in reader has some fatal flaws: most notably that there's no way to browse books by subject tag, and it's painfully slow to navigate a library of 250 books when have to start from the As and you need to get to T paging slowly forward 6 books at a time.

The Kobo Touch

But with my Nook unusable, I borrowed Dave's Kobo Touch to see how it compared. I like the hardware: same screen size as the Nook, but a little brighter and sharper, with a smaller bezel around it, and a spring-loaded power button in a place where it won't get pressed accidentally when it's packed in a suitcase -- the Nook was always coming on while in its case, and I didn't find out until I pulled it out to read before bed and discovered the battery was too low.

The Kobo worked quite nicely as a reader, though it had a few of the same problems as the Nook. They both insist on justifying both left and right margins (Kobo has a preference for that, but it doesn't work in any book I tried). More important is the lack of subject tags. The Kobo has a "Shelves" option, called "Collections" in some versions, but adding books to shelves manually is tedious if you have a lot of books. (But see below.)

It also shared another Nook problem: it shows overall progress in the book, but not how far you are from the next chapter break. There's a choice to show either book progress or chapter progress, but not both; and chapter progress only works for books in Kobo's special "kepub" format (I'll write separately about that). I miss FBReader's progress bar that shows both book and chapter progress, and I can't fathom why that's not considered a necessary feature for any e-reader.

But mostly, Kobo's reader was better than the Nook's. Bookmarks weren't perfect, but they basically worked, and I didn't even have to spent half an hour reading the manual to use them (like I did with the Nook). The font selection was great, and the library navigation had one great advantage over the Nook: a slider so you could go from A to T quickly.

I liked the Kobo a lot, and promptly ordered one of my own.

It's not all perfect

There were a few disadvantages. Although the Kobo had a lot more granularity in its line spacing and margin settings, the smallest settings were still a lot less tight than I wanted. The Nook only offered a few settings but the smallest setting was pretty good.

Also, the Kobo can only see books at the top level of its microSD card. No subdirectories, which means that I can't use a program like rsync to keep the Kobo in sync with my ebooks directory on my computer. Not that big a deal, just a minor annoyance.

More important was the subject tagging, which is really needed in a big library. It was pretty clear Shelves/Collections were what I needed; but how could I get all my books into shelves without laboriously adding them all one by one on a slow e-ink screen?

It turns out Kobo's architecture makes it pretty easy to fix these problems.

Customizing Kobo

While the rooted Nook community has been stagnant for years -- it was a cute proof of concept that, in the end, no one cared about enough to try to maintain it -- Kobo readers are a lot easier to hack, and there's a thriving Kobo community on MobileReads which has been trading tips and patches over the years -- apparently with Kobo's blessing.

The biggest key to Kobo's customizability is that you can mount it as a USB storage device, and one of the files that exposes is the device's database (an sqlite file). That means that well supported programs like Calibre can update shelves/collections on a Kobo, access its book list, and other nifty tricks; and if you want more, you can write your own scripts, or even access the database by hand.

I'll write separately about some Python scripts I've written to display the database and add books to shelves, and I'll just say here that the process was remarkably straightforward and much easier than I usually expect when learning to access a new device.

There's lots of other customizing you can do. There are ways of installing alternative readers on the Kobo, or installing Python so you can write your own reader. I expected to want that, but so far the built-in reader seems good enough.

You can also patch the OS. Kobo updates are distributed as tarballs of binaries, and there's a very well designed, documented and supported (by users, not by Kobo) patching script distributed on MobileReads for each new Kobo release. I applied a few patches and was impressed by how easy it was. And now I have tight line spacing and margins, a slightly changed page number display at the bottom of the screen (still only chapter or book, not both), and a search that defaults to my local book collection rather than the Kobo store.

Stores and DRM

Oh, about the Kobo store. I haven't tried it yet, so I can't report on that. From what I read, it's pretty good as e-bookstores go, and a lot of Nook and Sony users apparently prefer to buy from Kobo. But like most e-bookstores, the Kobo store uses DRM, which makes it a pain (and is why I probably won't be using it much).

They use Adobe's DRM, and at least Adobe's Digital Editions app works in Wine under Linux. Amazon's app no longer does, and in case you're wondering why I didn't consider a Kindle, that's part of it. Amazon has a bad reputation for removing rights to previously purchased ebooks (as well as for spying on their customers' reading habits), and I've experienced it personally more than once.

Not only can I no longer use the Kindle app under Wine, but Amazon no longer lets me re-download the few Kindle books I've purchased in the past. I remember when my mother used to use the Kindle app on Android regularly; every few weeks all her books would disappear and she'd have to get on the phone again to Amazon to beg to have them back. It just isn't worth the hassle. Besides, Kindles can't read public library books (those are mostly EPUBs with Adobe DRM); and a Kindle would require converting my whole EPUB library to MOBI. I don't see any up side, and a lot of down side.

The Adobe scheme used by Kobo and Nook is better, but I still plan to avoid books with DRM as much as possible. It's not the stores' fault, and I hope Kobo does well, because they look like a good company. It's the publishers who insist on DRM. We can only hope that some day they come to their senses, like music publishers finally did with MP3 versus DRMed music. A few publishers have dropped DRM already, and if we readers avoid buying DRMed ebooks, maybe the message will eventually get through.

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[ 17:04 Aug 26, 2015    More tech | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sat, 12 May 2012

Downloading Adobe-protected books to a Nook using Linux

University of Chicago Press has a Carl Zimmer book, A Planet of Viruses, as their free monthly e-book.

I know Zimmer is a good writer. but the ebook, despite being free, is encumbered with Adobe's version of DRM, which unlocks via a Windows or Mac program. I use Linux, and wanted to read the book on a Nook. Was I out of luck?

Happily, the instruction page they sent when I signed up for the book helpfully included a section for Linux users. Hooray, U. Chicago! It said Adobe Digital Editions will run under Wine, the Windows emulator. I'd been meaning to try that anyway, and a Carl Zimmer book seemed like the perfect excuse.

And overall, it worked pretty well, with only a few snags. Here are the steps I had to follow:

Authorizing a book using Adobe Digital Editions in Linux on Wine

Install wine (on Ubuntu, I used apt-get install wine).

Download the Adobe Digital Editions setup.exe

Run: wine setup.exe (this should install ADE inside your .wine directory)

Copy the file, e.g. URLLink.acsm, into .wine/drive_c/My\ Documents/ Don't bother trying to open it with ADE -- the program won't open anything except PDF and epub. Curiously, the only ways to open the file from ADE are to drag the file onto the ADE window or to pass it as a commandline argument:
wine start .wine/drive_c/My\ Documents/URLLink.acsm

Now ADE should download your book and display it. You can read it there, if you want. But you won't want to -- it's not a good reading interface.

Authorizing a device with Adobe Digital Editions under Wine

Now how do you get it into your ebook reader? ADE running under Wine doesn't recognize devices such as ebook readers. so nothing will be copied automatically. But you can copy it manually.

In theory, the drive letter should stay mapped, so you should be able to use it for opening future books. Just remember to mount your device to the same location before running ADE under wine.

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[ 11:03 May 12, 2012    More linux | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sat, 30 Apr 2011

Ubuntu "Natty Narwhal" on the ExoPC

Intel hosted a MeeGo developer camp on Friday where they gave out ExoPC tablets for developers, and I was lucky enough to get one.

Intel is making a big MeeGo push -- they want lots of apps available for this platform, so they're trying to make it as easy as possible for develoeprs to make new apps for their AppUp store.

Meego looks fun -- it's a real Unix under the hood, with a more or less mainstream kernel and a shell. I'm looking forward to developing for it; in theory it can run Python programs (using Qt or possibly even gtk for the front end) as well as C++ Qt apps. Of course, I'll be writing about MeeGo developing once I know more about it; for now I'm still setting up my development environment.

But on a lazy Saturday, I thought it would be fun to see if the new Ubuntu 11.04, "Natty Narwhal", can run on the ExoPC. Natty's whizzy new "Unity" interface (actually not new, but much revamped since the previous Ubuntu release) is rumoured to be somewhat aimed at tablets with touchscreens. How would it work on the ExoPC?

Making a bootable Ubuntu USB stick

The first step was to create a bootable USB stick with Ubuntu on it. Sadly, this is not as easy as on Fedora or SuSE. Ubuntu is still very CD oriented, and to make a live USB stick you need to take an ISO intended for a CDROM then run a program that changes it to make it bootable from USB.

There are two programs for this: usb-creator and unetbootin. In the past, I've had zero luck getting these programs to work except when running under a Gnome desktop on the same version of Ubuntu I was trying to install. Maybe it would be better this time.

I tried usb-creator-gtk first, since that seems to be the one Ubuntu pushes most. It installed without too many extra dependencies -- it did pull in several PolicyKit libraries like libpolkit-backend-1-0 and libpolkit-gobject-1-0. When I ran it, it saw the USB stick right away, and I chose the ubuntu-11.04-desktop-i386.iso file I'd downloaded. But the Make Startup Disk button remained blank. I guess I needed to click the Erase Disk button first. So I did -- and was presented with an error dialog that said:

org.freedesktop.DBus.Error.ServiceUnknown: The name org.freedesktop.PolicyKit1 was not provided by any service files

Dave (who's wrestled with this problem more than I have) suggested maybe it wanted a vfat partition on the USB stick. So I quit usb-creator-gtk, used gparted to make the stick into a single vfat partition, and restarted usb-creator-gtk. Now everything was un-greyed -- so I clicked Make Startup Disk and was immediately presented with another dialog:

Installation failed

No clue about what went wrong or why. Okay, on to unetbootin.

When I ran unetbootin, it gave me a helpful dialog that "unetbootin must be run as root." Then it proceeded to show its window anyway. I can read, so I quit and ran it again as root. I chose the iso file, clicked OK -- and it worked! In a minute or two I had a bootable Ubuntu USB stick.

(Update: unetbootin is better than usb-creator for another reason: you can use it to burn CDs other than the default live desktop CD -- like if you want to burn the "alternate installer" ISO so you can install server systems, use RAID partitions, etc.)

Booting on the ExoPC

[Ubuntu Natty running on ExoPC] Natty booted up just fine! I inserted the USB stick, powered on, leapt for the XXX button that shows the boot menu and told it to boot from the stick. Natty booted quite fast, and before long I was in the Unity desktop, and, oddly, it started off in a banshee screen telling me I didn't have any albums installed. I dismissed banshee ...

... at which point I found I couldn't actually do much without a keyboard. I couldn't sign on to our wi-fi since I couldn't type the password, and I didn't have any local files installed. But wait! I had an SD card with some photos on it, and Ubuntu recognized it just fine and popped up a file browser.

But I wanted to try net access. I borrowed Dave's Mac USB keyboard to type in the WPA password. It worked fine, and soon I was signed on to wi-fi and happily browsing the web.

"onboard" keyboard

What about an onscreen keyboard, though? I found one, called "onboard". It's installed by default. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a way to run it without a keyboard. Unity has a "+" button that took me to a window with a text field labeled Search Applications, but you have to type something there before it will show you any applications. I couldn't find any way to get a list of applications without a keyboard.

With a keyboard, I was able to find a terminal app, from which I was able to run onboard. It's tiny! Far too small for me to type on a capacitive display, even with my tiny fingers. It has no man page, but it does have a --help argument, by which I was able to discover the -s argument: onboard -s 900x300 did nicely. It's ugly, but I can live with that. Now if I can figure out how to make a custom Unity launcher for that, I'll be all set.

Unity on tablets -- not quite there yet

With onboard running, I gave Dave back his keyboard, and discovered a few other problems. I couldn't scroll in the file browser window: the scrollbar thumb is only a few pixels wide, too narrow to hit with a finger on a touchscreen, and the onboard keyboard has no up/down arrows or Page Up/Down. I tried dragging with two fingers, but no dice.

Also, when I went back to that Unity Search Applications screen, I discovered it takes up the whole screen, covering the onscreen keyboard, and there's no way to move it so I can type.

Update: forgot to mention that Unity, for all its huge Playskool buttons, has a lot of very small targets that are hard to hit with a finger. It took me two or three tries to choose the wi-fi icon on the top bar rather than the icon to the left or right of it, and shutdown is similarly tricky.

So Natty's usability on tablets isn't quite there. Still, I'm impressed at how easy it was to get this far. I didn't expect it to boot, run and be so usable without any extra work on my part. Very cool!

And no, I won't be installing Natty permanently on the ExoPC. I got this tablet for MeeGo development and I'm not welching on that deal. But it's fun to know that it's so easy to boot Ubuntu when I want to.

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[ 13:46 Apr 30, 2011    More linux/install | permalink to this entry | comments ]

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

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