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Posts Tagged ‘e-reader

Some neat e-reader tools

After deciding some months ago that none of the currently available e-readers could meet all my needs, I didn’t think about them for a while. The recent “price war” between Amazon and Barnes and Noble has me reconsidering: at less than $200 for a Nook or a Kindle, I could probably live without some of the hardware features I want, especially if there is software that can help bridge the gap.

I’m still undecided about buying a device, but I wanted to catalog some of the programs and hacks that I’ve (re-)discovered as I looked into the issue a second time.

  1. Calibre looks like a great piece of desktop software for managing e-books. It knows how to talk to multiple e-readers, and can inter-convert between popular formats, allowing (e.g.) Kindle readers to read ePub books by first converting them to Mobipocket format.
  2. Savory extracts some of the code used by Calibre to allow Kindle users to download and convert ePub books directly on their reader, without having to go through desktop software.
  3. epubjs is a nice ePub reader written entirely in JavaScript, so if the Kindle and other non-ePub devices ever acquire a JS-enabled browser, or even just a local JS interpreter/engine, this will be another option for reading ePubs there. There is also a post at Ajaxian about some other JS-based ePub readers here.

The main issue I have, though, is in dealing with PDFs. It doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to justify the expense of a large-format e-ink reader in the near future (the Kindle DX is the cheapest, I think, at $489!). I’m still looking for a comprehensive set of tools for manipulating PDFs so that I could read them easily on a smaller screen. Specifically, I need tools for:

  • extracting text from text-based PDFs, or at least being able to reflow them and trim their margins
  • converting scanned images of book pages in PDFs into text via OCR software

I haven’t found a complete solution for either task, but I have come across various programs that do some of these things:

  1. PDFMunge is a Python program that can help with the task of trimming margins and reflowing text in text-based PDFs.
  2. pdftk is a comprehensive Java library and command line tool for manipulating PDF files.
  3. Google Docs now has the option to use OCR to convert PDFs to text. It doesn’t work perfectly, especially for more technical material, but it’s easy to use. I believe it is based on Ocropus and/or tesseract-ocr, both of which are Free software and can be built and run locally (if you can figure out how to do so…the dependencies are pretty significant).
  4. Briss looks like a nice way to crop scanned PDFs using a GUI interface.

Written by whereofwecannotspeak

June 25, 2010 at 1:08 pm

With all the e-readers out there, why can’t I find one I want?

Lately, I have been intrigued by the prospect of buying an e-reader, mostly because I find myself printing and carrying around an enormous amount of PDFs. As a graduate student, I have to read quite a lot, and it would be great if I could keep all my readings in one place, with notes, in a searchable format. I don’t much like reading on a computer screen, so a reader with an e-ink display seems like it would be a great solution for me.

Sadly, none of the e-readers available today seem to have the full set of features I would want:

  1. e-Ink Display: I can’t read for long periods on an LCD, so that rules out something like a smartphone, netbook, or tablet PC.
  2. Expandable storage: one of the big downsides of the current Kindle is that its storage is limited to the 1.4GB available to you when the device ships. I especially can’t understand why Amazon removed the SD card slot that the Kindle 1 had.
  3. Physical keyboard and note-taking abilities: this tells in favor of the Kindle, but against the Barnes and Noble Nook, as well as against a lot of the other e-readers I have seen. I want tactile feedback when I’m typing; I can’t stand typing on touchscreens. Some readers appear to offer no textual input at all, which isn’t much use to me; I need to mark text as I read.
  4. Wi-Fi: another black mark against the Kindle 2. It’s nice that Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and others want to offer me free 3G service as a way to ensure that I can impulse-buy books from anywhere. But without Wi-Fi as a fallback, I am scared off by clauses like this one in Amazon’s License Agreement and Terms of Use:

    Amazon reserves the right to discontinue wireless connectivity at any time or to otherwise change the terms for wireless connectivity at any time, including, but not limited to (a) limiting the number and size of data files that may be transferred using wireless connectivity and (b) changing the amount and terms applicable for wireless connectivity charges.

    Having a fully Internet-ready e-reader would make it much more useful to me, but it’s clear that Amazon wants nothing of the kind. They want to control the kind of information I can get, which they couldn’t do if they included a network interface that — horrors! — didn’t route all traffic through their servers. I don’t really want Amazon, or any other company, knowing everything I read online. And I don’t trust them not to “discontinue…or otherwise change the terms” of my Internet access through their blessed portal.

  5. Support for open formats, including PDF and ePub: most of the non-Kindle readers win here again, though it’s not clear how much of the PDF standard any of them supports. A lot of the PDFs I read are scanned images from actual books, and I would like to have simple tools for cropping pages, or splitting one page into two, to better fit a reader’s screen.
  6. Extensible platform: I’d like to be able to write my own programs, or download others’ from the Internet, if the built-in software doesn’t cut it — preferably without having to root the device. For doing academic reading, programs like a multi-lingual dictionary or a citation database would be helpful. Amazon has a Kindle Development Kit in the works, which is nice, except that it’s Java-based; I would much prefer, say, a combination of Python and C. (I’m not sure yet if JVM implementations of Python, Ruby, Scheme, etc. will work on the Kindle…but that would be great!) The Nook has nothing so far, but the fact that it’s running Android points to hackability in the future, with or without Barnes and Noble’s support. Other readers have more explicitly open software platforms, but without a large number of users, they probably won’t see much development.
  7. Low price: the $259 that Amazon and Barnes and Noble are currently both charging is about as high as I would be willing to go. I simply can’t afford to sink $300 or more into a highly specialized device. This unfortunately rules out a lot of the lesser-known readers for me, because they don’t have the agreements with publishers that would allow them to subsidize their hardware with e-book sales.

So what am I to do? I’d love to be proven wrong, and find a reader out there that has all these features and more. But until then, I think I’m stuck with paper.

Written by whereofwecannotspeak

February 13, 2010 at 3:26 am

Posted in Free Software, Geeky Shtuff, Ideas

Tagged with , ,