Shallow Thoughts : tags : nook

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 ]

Tue, 26 Jul 2011

Nook Touch: the good, the bad, and the crazy

I've been dying to play with an ebook reader, and this week my mother got a new Nook Touch. That's not its official name, but since Barnes & Noble doesn't seem interested in giving it a model name to tell it apart from the two older Nooks, that's the name the internet seems to have chosen for this new small model with the 6-inch touchscreen.

Here's a preliminary review, based on a few days of playing with it.

Nice size, nice screen

The Nook Touch feels very light. It's a little heavier than a paperback, but it's easy to hold, and the rubbery back feels nice in the hand. The touchscreen works well enough for book reading, though you wouldn't want to try to play video games or draw pictures on it.

It's very easy to turn pages, either with the hardware buttons on the bezel or a tap on the edges of the screen. Page changes are much faster than with older e-ink readers like the original Nook or the Sony Pocket: the screen still flashes black with each page change, but only very briefly.

I'd wondered how a non-backlit e-ink display would work in dim light, since that's one thing you can't test in stores. It turns out it's not as good as a paper book -- neither as sharp nor as contrasty -- but still readable with my normal dim bedside lighting.

Changing fonts, line spacing and margins is easy once you figure out that you need to tap on the screen to get to that menu. Navigating within a book is also via that tap-on-page menu -- it gives you a progress meter you can drag, or a "jump to page" option. Which is a good thing. This is sadly very important (see below).

Searching within books isn't terribly convenient. I wanted to figure out from the user manual how to set a bookmark, and I couldn't find anything that looked helpful in the user manual's table of contents, so I tried searching for "bookmark". The search results don't show much context, so I had to try them one at a time, and there's no easy way to go back and try the next match. (Turns out you set a bookmark by tapping in the upper right corner, and then the bookmark applies to the next several pages.)

Plan to spend some quality time reading the full-length manual (provided as a pre-installed ebook, naturally) learning tricks like this: a lot of the UI isn't very discoverable (though it's simple enough once you learn it) so you'll miss a lot if you rely on what you can figure out by tapping around.

Off to a tricky start with minor Wi-fi issues

When we first powered up, we hit a couple of problems right off with wireless setup.

First, it had no way to set a static IP address. The only way we could get the Nook connected was to enable DHCP on the router.

But even then it wouldn't connect. We'd re-type the network password and hit "Connect"; the "Connect" button would flash a couple of times, leaving an "incorrect password" message at the top of the screen. This error message never went away, even after going back to the screen with the list of networks available, so it wasn't clear whether it was retrying the connection or not.

Finally through trial and error we found the answer: to clear a failed connection, you have to "Forget" the network and start over. So go back to the list of wireless networks, choose the right network, then tap the "Forget" button. Then go back and choose the network again and proceed to the connect screen.

Connecting to a computer

The Nook Touch doesn't come with much in the way of starter books -- just two public-domain titles, plus its own documentation -- so the first task was to download a couple of Project Gutenberg books that Mom had been reading on her Treo.

The Nook uses a standard micro-USB cable for both charging and its USB connection. Curiously, it shows up as a USB device with no partitions -- you have to mount sdb, not sdb1. Gnome handled that and mounted it without drama. Copying epub books to the Nook was just a matter of cp or drag-and-drop -- easy.

Getting library books may be moot

One big goal for this device is reading ebooks from the public library, and I had hoped to report on that. But it turns out to be a more difficult proposition than expected. There are all the expected DRM issues to surmount, but before that, there's the task of finding an ebook that's actually available to check out, getting the library's online credentials straightened out, and so forth. So that will be a separate article.

The fatal flaw: forgetting its position

Alas, the review is not all good news. While poking around, reading a page here and there, I started to notice that I kept getting reset back to the beginning of a book I'd already started. What was up?

For a while I thought it was my imagination. Surely remembering one's place in a book you're reading is fundamental to a device designed from the ground up as a book reader. But no -- it clearly was forgetting where I'd left off. How could that be?

It turns out this is a known and well reported problem with what B&N calls "side-loaded" content -- i.e. anything you load from your computer rather than download from their bookstore. With side-loaded books, apparently connecting the Nook to a PC causes it to lose its place in the book you're reading! (also discussed here and here).

There's no word from Barnes & Noble about this on any of the threads, but people writing about it speculate that when the Nook makes a USB connection, it internally unmounts its filesystems -- and forgets anything it knew about what was on those filesystems.

I know B&N wants to drive you to their site to buy all your books ... and I know they want to keep you online checking in with their store at every opportunity. But some people really do read free books, magazines and other "side loaded" content. An ebook reader that can't handle that properly isn't much of a reader.

It's too bad. The Nook Touch is a nice little piece of hardware. I love the size and light weight, the daylight-readable touchscreen, the fast page flips. Mom is being tolerant about her new toy, since she likes it otherwise -- "I'll just try to remember what page I was on." But come on, Barnes & Noble: a dedicated ebook reader that can't remember where you left off reading your book? Seriously?

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[ 20:46 Jul 26, 2011    More tech | permalink to this entry | comments ]