Shallow Thoughts : tags : tablet
Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.
Wed, 26 Aug 2015
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
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.
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
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.
[ 17:04 Aug 26, 2015
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Sat, 12 May 2012
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
(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.
- Plug in your ebook reader.
- Mount the device wherever you like -- /media/nook, /nook or whatever.
- With ADE not running (quit it if it's running),
map a drive letter to the mount point:
- Run winecfg
- Click the Drives tab
- Click Add...
- Choose a drive letter (I chose D:)
- Under Path: type in the mount point, like /nook
- Click Show Advanced
- Set the Type: to Floppy disk
- Click OK to save it
- Now the drive is mapped. Re-run ADE:
wine .wine/drive_c/Program\ Files/Adobe/Adobe\ Digital\ Editions/digitaleditions.exe
ADE should now see the device and ask you if you want to authorize it.
- In ADE, drag the chosen book onto the left sidebar entry for the device.
- umount the reader ... and now your new book should show up in the library.
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.
[ 11:03 May 12, 2012
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Sat, 30 Apr 2011
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
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
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:
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
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.
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
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.
[ 13:46 Apr 30, 2011
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Wed, 15 Dec 2010
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
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
[ 22:22 Dec 15, 2010
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