Monday Ebooks, Outlier Edition


Smart Bitches, Trashy Books recently ran several reviews of ebook readers as a comparison for their readers who are considering purchasing such a device. We were amused when we realize that we now own four (yes, FOUR) ebook readers and none of them are one of the best-known devices: Kindle, nook, Sony or Kobo. Our Inner Geek is continually fascinated by the hackability and flexibility of these lesser-known devices, and combined with a general suspicion of closed ecosystems and some good timing (that is, good deals on new and gently used devices falling in our way), we find ourself an ebook device outlier.

Pocketbook 360Lately, our PocketBook360 is our reading device of choice, and indeed is referred to as The Precious, though it was not our birthday present, as much for its sleek looks as for our pleasure in using it, which is considerable. We have the Ivory PB360 with the matching leather pouch. Taking it out of the pouch, it seems impossibly tiny, thin and light; indeed, with its integrated screen cover, it looks rather like a makeup compact, but slipping off the cover–which snaps onto the back while one is reading–reveals a 5″ e-ink screen, two “wing” buttons and a D-pad.

The PB360 can handle a wide variety of unDRMed formats, and can use Adobe Digital Editions DRMed epub and PDF out of the box. One can also read ebooks from public libraries using the Overdrive system. Reading unDRMed books is a much more pleasant experience out of the box, as the PB360 uses FBReader in its firmware, making the books extremely customizable on the user end, including fonts, margins, and line height. We quickly found and installed an extremely cool hack–an updated version of FBReader that allows the use of the device’s gyroscope to turn pages by simply tilting the device to the right or left. However, we found to our dismay that ADE DRMed books do not allow this feature or the lovely customization, so what to do? Say it with us: PIRACY IS OUR ONLY OPTION. Well, not really. We pay for our books, and then we strip the DRM so they look pretty on our pretty reader. We don’t share our books (except in a certain, more or less legal way that we will discuss later). We just want to fix them up a little; and ADE books on many devices needs fixing. For some weird reason, when you increase the font size, as some of us Middle-Aged Austen Whores require, in some ADE books the margins increase as well until you end up with about ten words in the middle of the screen. When the book is un-DRMed, we can set margins and font as we like.

Cybook Gen3So, we are delighted with The Precious, but what of our other three readers, you may well ask? Our first reader, the Bookeen Cybook Gen3, is still kicking around, but is rather long in the tooth now, having undergone two hardware upgrades since we received ours; and Bookeen has moved on to newer devices, including the Opus, which is more or less the same as the PB360, but with a different case and Bookeen’s own firmware. However, we were playing with the Gen3 the other week, opened a book on it, became interested, and have been reading it in bits and pieces. We can see the attraction of the larger 6″ screen, which is standard on the Kindle, nook, and Kobo devices, but lately we have been more attracted to the portability of the smaller devices.

We also really like certain aspects of Bookeen’s firmware–the true nested folder navigation, the use of book covers (WHEN THEY ARE PROVIDED, grr) in the title index, the ability to “flip” through a book by holding down the page-advance key, and the general attractiveness of it. It has that French design aesthetic that we like, and is probably the most attractive-looking firmware of any of our devices; but the device is the first Gen3, with a slower processor and less RAM, and it shows. The thing takes forever and a day to boot up, especially if you have a lot of books in your library, and it does not reopen to the page where you left off; the later hardware, however, does allow one to “lock” a page where you left off. The user can choose between firmware that uses either DRMed Mobipocket (note: NOT Amazon DRM) or DRMed ADE; on our older device the ADE books refused to open, so we flashed it back to Mobipocket. Again, the later hardware, and other devices in the Bookeen line such as the Opus (another tiny, thin and light device, built on the same platform as the Precious), are compatible with either format, depending on the firmware.

EZReader Pocket ProThe EZReader Pocket PRO was our second ebook reader, and the first with a 5″ screen. We loved the pretty blue color and the soft-touch paint, but unfortunately the paint began to wrinkle and peel after several months–almost everyone who has owned one has reported this problem. The firmware handles an exhaustive variety of unDRMed book formats, but is not what we would call aesthetically pleasing. Again, DRMed ADE works great on this device, and you can borrow ebooks from the library, but the firmware has the same failing with ADE and the same weird and unpredictable formatting issues, which cannot be changed by the user without stripping the DRM. However, a big advantage the EZReader Pocket PRO and its big brother, the EZReader Plus, have navigation buttons in several places, so that the reader can change her grip and use either hand for navigation, and the buttons also provide quick shortcuts for menu options. Also, for several formats of unDRMed books, the EZReader devices use Coolreader for its firmware, which, like FBReader, provides myriad end-user customization choices. We’re interested in playing with the EZReader plus, with a 6″ eInk screen, the great Coolreader-based firmware, and upgrades for faster operation, but buying a fifth ereading device would be silly (wouldn’t it?) so unless a gently used, well-priced device happens to fall in our way–it could happen–or we win one in a contest, it’s unlikely that we will acquire one. However, we wouldn’t discourage our readers from checking it out. For readers outside the U.S., the Hanlin V3/V5, BeBook, ECO Reader, and LBook devices are basically the same device, with slightly different firmware. There are some other rebrands for this device as well. It’s a sturdy little thing and hard to go wrong with it if you’re not all about the pretty. The Editrix’s Dear Sister expressed interest in reading the Millennium Trilogy by crack peddler author Stieg Larsson, which we owned–but in ebook format. So having an excess of devices at the moment, we loaded those books and some others we thought she would like onto our Pocket PRO and gave it to her. She will return it to us, presumably with the books still on it; a perfectly legal way to lend/share an ebook, we think!

JetbookThe latest ereader in our stable is the Jetbook; the original device, not the Lite (the main difference is the Lite uses AA batteries, which we never seem to be able to keep on hand, so we weren’t much interested in it). The main difference between this device and the others we already had was that instead of an eInk screen, it has a transreflective LCD screen; in other words, like a regular computer screen, but not backlit. It resembles the screen from a calculator or digital watch. We are hoping that HP, which bought Palm earlier this year, will produce a tablet device with a screen by PixelQi, which can have the backlighting turned off to become transreflective; the original One Laptop Per Child device has such a screen. If HP produced such a tablet using Palm’s WebOS, particularly in a size like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, that would pretty much be the Editrix’s dream device, and would also probably become our ereading device of choice. We mainly purchased the Jetbook to try out the transreflective screen, and while we greatly prefer eInk, we are still surprised by how much we like this little device. The stock firmware is fairly dreadful, but it has one great advantage over all our other devices: it can handle Barnes & Noble’s flavor of Adobe Digital Editions DRM, which is slightly different from regular ADE (which it can also handle) and rather easier to use (more on that later). We downloaded a bunch of freebie editions of B&N Classics over the summer, and the Jetbook rocks with them. Another advantage of LCD is the instantaneous page turns, with no “flash” as in eInk. Frankly we don’t even notice the flash anymore, but the fast page turns are pretty neat. There are some issues with glare, but the Jetbook can be read in direct sunlight, unlike most devices with LCD screens (yes, iPad, we’re looking at you). Incidentally, the Aluratek Libre, which is now sold in Borders stores in the U.S., is basically the same device with slightly different firmware; we are told one can flash the Jetbook firmware onto the Aluratek to read B&N books, which probably would not make Borders very happy, all things considered.

As far as the B&N firmware goes on the Jetbook, we loaded a bunch of the Barnes & Noble classics onto an SD card (the Jetbook’s onboard memory is negligible, but it handles up to 32GB SDHC cards, so no biggie) and popped them into the Jetbook. They appeared in the library with no problem. The first one we opened asked us for our username (our name in all caps with no spaces worked) and the credit card number on file with B&N. After we entered it once, we haven’t been asked for any other books–even when we loaded new books onto the device. No fussing with ADE–just download the book and pop it onto the SD card and you’re ready to read. It’s definitely simpler than the old flavor of ADE DRM, but you will have to enter the CC number on each new device–even many years down the line, presumably. This could be problematic if one switches credit cards or gets a new number.

The main drawback of the Jetbook is battery life–unlike eInk, which only uses power when a screen is changed, the Jetbook uses power the whole time it is turned on, so it must be charged more often. Most people with Jetbooks seem to prefer the Lite version, which uses AA batteries for power, apparently under the dictum that “you don’t always have access to a power outlet but you can buy AA batteries anywhere.” We are more likely to have access to a power outlet than to have AA batteries to hand, so there you go. 🙂 However, if the Jetbook were our main ereading device, that might become an issue because we read a LOT and would quickly run down the battery. We are having fun playing with it, however. Jetbook recently released a new reader, the Mini, which truly deserves its name; it’s barely bigger than an old-school PDA, and lists for $99. However, it cannot be used with DRMed books and only handles two formats, .txt and FB2. The manufacturer suggests using the wonderful, free software calibre to convert books to those formats, which, while not a difficult or terribly time-consuming process, seems a bit unwieldy; and if the books are DRMed, of course it will have to be stripped first.

For any reader that uses Adobe Digital Editions to handle its DRMed books, and doesn’t provide integrated download or dedicated syncing software, the process to get books on your device isn’t that much less unwieldy. We have it down to a science now and barely notice it. We purchase the book (usually from Kobo, but we still use Books on Board and some other retailers). Since we use Firefox for our home browsing, we pop up the Downloads window and double-click on the downloaded file. Adobe Digital Editions pops up, and the book loads to ADE and opens. Since we don’t like to read on the PC screen, we close ADE, find the directory for our ADE books (in My Documents on our computer), and transfer the book to the device, usually by putting it on an SD card.

The Precious uses MicroSD, which occasioned a rather hilarious encounter in Best Buy when we went to purchase a card. They did not have Sandisk MicroSD cards, our brand of choice, in less than 8GB sizes, which seemed rather much for an ebook reader–we’ve never even succeeded in filling up a 1GB SD card, even with hundreds of books–and it cost more than we wanted to pay, but they had a decently priced 2GB MicroSD card in an unknown brand. Standing in front of the display, holding the generic MicroSD card and double-checking one more time to make sure we hadn’t missed a SanDisk brand card, we must have looked like the stereotypical Confused Woman Who Does Not Understand Electronical Thingamajigs. A Best Buy employee came up to us and said alertly, “Is that for a camera or a smartphone, ma’am?”

We replied, “It’s for an ebook reader, actually.” (Most take regular SD cards, including those sold in Best Buy.)

Best Buy Employee, in tones of disbelief: “And it takes micro?”

Us: “Yup.”

Best Buy Employee, clearly thinking, “B*tch crazy, and let her buy the wrong card if she insists on it,” walked away.

So far the generic-brand MicroSD card seems to be working well enough. And we have redundant backups of our redundant backups for the most part. 😉

So what does this oh so teal deer mean for the rank-and-file Janeite? Not much, but we were moved by the original posts on SBTB to write about our own outlier experience. We think most readers will be perfectly happy with one of the more well-known devices, especially those with a Wifi or 3G connection for easy purchase and downloading; there have been times when we’ve been stuck in the middle of a hack and ready to throw all our readers out the window and just go buy a nook. Just remember that the retailers of devices attached to a store want you to stay in their book-retail ecosystem. They will make it much easier to stay within their walled garden and not browse too much outside. But they are nice gardens, so if you prefer them, go for it. We went over the wall a long time ago, and yet find roses everywhere.

And remember, if you have a smartphone, iPod Touch, iPad, or even an old-school PDA (Palm or Windows), you can download software to read ebooks. Kindle, nook and Kobo have apps for the newer devices, and you can purchase and read books via these apps without buying a dedicated device. All the services offer freebie books, and of course you can get free public domain ebooks from sites such as our favorite, Girlebooks, for any device. Things will get really interesting if Amazon decides to market a multimedia tablet device of some kind…and we hear Barnes & Noble will have an Interesting Announcement on Tuesday…but that is for another Monday Ebooks. Until next time, Gentle Readers, remember–Ebooks Are Nice, Too!

2 thoughts on “Monday Ebooks, Outlier Edition

  1. I do a lot of the books reviews at GirlEBooks and you are right about old PDAs as readers. My favorite eReader is my old Palm Treo 680. Not a lot of bells and whistles, but a backlit screen (for reading in bed), easy to hold and operate with one hand (and pet the cat with the other), the keyboard is nice to use for comments and highlighting, and one can’t beat the battery life. I do miss that built in dictionary on my Kindle, however. Laura sends me most of my books in MobiPocket format–not quite as seamless as receiving them on the Kindle via Whispernet, but then I save twenty cents (or is it fifteen?) every time I receive a book for the Treo.


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