Yann Vernier’s Blog

2010-12-30

PocketBook Pro 903 – early impressions

Filed under: Ebook reader — yannv @ 02:55

Just yesterday, I got a birthday present. It’s not close to my birthday; it was on preorder back then, and then got considerably delayed. The item in question is a PocketBook Pro 903, a 9.7″ e-ink ebook reader. Here’s a collection of my early impressions.

After unpacking the PocketBook Pro 903, I was first confronted with the poweroff screen. This is a simple sales sheet, proclaiming the model and a few features. Some slight ghosting was visible, and I was glad to see Project Gutenberg acknowledged as the source for the preloaded books. It also proclaims wireless connectivity (3G, Wifi, Bluetooth), the digitizer, text to speech, 16 formats supported, periodic software updates, over 25 dictionaries, and “expanded software and application options for reading”. The bezel has rounded corners, hiding a few pixels from view.

As it turns out, the text-to-speech appears only supported in the Adobe reader, which only supports PDF and ePub formats. An ebook reader could get away with only supporting those two, but PocketBook make an attempt at covering more – a large part of why I chose it. For instance, DjVu is supported out of the box. The software updates can be a mixed bag; for instance, the model 302 was sold for features it still doesn’t have (keyboard support), and I’ve seen Sony release updates specifically to destroy functionality. Still, I chose this model because PocketBook have been relatively open (publishing SDKs and source for their OSS based programs) and worked on improvements. At the moment, the SDK they have published does not work for this model, but it has been promised.

The reader powers on with a short press of the power button, despite the manual claiming a longer press is necessary. In fact, I’ve already powered it on by mistake once. Boot time is about twenty seconds; I probably won’t care much once I’ve set the bootup screen to the last page or some such. That’s a standard feature, by the way.

Once powered on, I was greeted by the main menu. It is built with a bunch of rectangular windows and a status bar. The default theme looks a little poorly fit, with a couple of “Not set” entries in the main menu, empty regions on the top and bottom, and the widgets look like little more than icons. Some update their contents, but the calculator is just ridiculous with fake buttons; tapping anywhere on it instead launches the calculator program. This made me laugh out loud, as it was an obvious misfit for the device; it uses a fixed size appropriate to smaller devices. Luckily, there’s actually a second, more convenient calculator in there; it pops up if I tap the status bar, along with a browsable calendar.

Navigating the device feels somewhat uneven. Some useful features, like selecting a zoom area with the digitizer, aren’t there. Other bits feel clumsy, like entry on the virtual keyboards; I can tap away at whatever speed I like, but it takes its sweet time not only displaying the text, but animating each virtual key to acknowledge the taps. The hardware buttons seemingly do not allow typing ahead, however, so I must wait for intermediate results when moving across menus, paging, or switching zoom levels. The keyboard has a new layout, less optimized for the five way navigation button than earlier models, and seems to require the stylus to operate; a bad move.

Reading a PDF

The first book I read was the included user manual. It immediately greeted me with an inconsistency, as the title clearly states “PocketBook Pro 903” with a picture of a model 602 or 603 device. This starts a bit of a trend, as PocketBook reuse their documentation just as eagerly as their software. The choice of PDF is also unfortunate, as it makes it unnecessarily hard to adjust the text for legibility. It did give an opportunity to test the reflow, but that rarely works quite the way you wish; it struggles with telling what line breaks to keep, and cannot merge pages. As reflows go, it does impress with not destroying all tables and figures, and even handled columns. Links in the table of contents work by merely tapping in AdobeViewer, but not in pdfviewer; and the default keymapping for links mode seems not to work at all, because the navigation button is hardcoded to scroll. However, since reflow mode converts internally to a text which needs no scrolling, it works when reflowing. The manual figure showing where all the buttons are has some light gray legends, making them very hard to make out, and the actual labels are on another page – the paper quick start had a much cleaner figure. The logo on the first page also shows very differently in AdobeViewer or pdfviewer. In either viewer, the zoom modes are missing the obvious choice of zooming to a pen-marked region, and AdobeViewer strangely maps next and prior buttons to left and right. It seems focused on adjustments to read a column when zoomed in, as vertical steps are much larger than horizontal ones.

Reading DjVu

The DjVu viewer has a very similar interface to the PDF viewer, being a paged document viewer. Since DjVu is actually a bitmap based format, there aren’t as many options. I’m mainly missing manga oriented ones, like scrolling right to left, top to bottom instead of top to bottom, left to right (the latter only in columns mode). Since this is one of the programs that source is available for, this shouldn’t be too hard to fix eventually. There is a search function that works on DjVu files with the search/copy text layer.

Notes and scribbling

I chose a digitizer enabled model mainly for note taking; the technology used in this model avoids a layer on top of the screen at the expense of only working with the stylus. Unfortunately, it turned out to be less supported in the firmware than I’d expected. I had tried out the note taking function in the SDK for earlier models, and there notes could be edited using the mouse. A notepad was a mix of text notes, fresh scribbles, and links into books with partial screenshots of the page. Only that last seems to remain, and is blended with the book’s table of contents.

The scribbling program earlier demonstrated on youtube is present, but entirely unconnected to the notes function. It handles a simple list of pages, and the text tool simply draws text; you can resize the box while placing one text block, but once you’ve tapped outside, it’s just a bit of image. It’s a demo level program, not more, though it does demonstrate reasonable response times on eink.

Add-on programs

This is a quite promising portion, but at this time poorly represented. The SDK for the new models has not yet been published, so I cannot yet add my own programs, and programs built for the earlier devices do not run on this one. It’s quite likely that’s only because of missing libraries. Some programs are functions that should be folded in elsewhere, like scribble and notes, and some have been, like the calculator (although the popup one doesn’t have square root). Most have not been adapted to the larger screen, though some adapt themselves.

Internet programs

PocketNews is an onboard RSS reader. I have not yet tested it.

The web browser is a version of Midori, which is remarkable in two ways: First, it uses an entirely different graphics library. It’s a Gtk+ program, and this paves way for a lot of more widely available programs; in particular, I’d like to see Xournal for note-taking. It still blends with the inkView library, as the virtual keyboard attests. However, the button navigation demonstrated earlier is absent. The second remark is on a much sadder note: Midori is LGPL licensed, which means you must offer source with it. However, I don’t even see mention of the license, let alone the source code. It’s also buggy, as it fails to recognize a non-breaking space with an error message. It does allow file downloads and uploads, but does not support SSL and picks mobile pages (which often makes sense, but not when Gmail suggests downloading a non-existent client).

Utilities

A calculator, which lives in the upper left corner; a clock, which is insanely oversized (if you want a €400 wall clock); and the scribble program, a very basic demonstration of drawing images.

Games

Chess, again sized for a smaller display. Kosynka, which is a solitaire game, even turns the display around to fit the imaginary borders. The snake game uses the whole screen, and demonstrates an action game on eink, which feels rather odd. Sudoku is also sized for the small screen, and has a widget for a main menu shortcut.

Hardware

This is undeniably a weighty device. The bezel is somewhat angled, such that it is thinner by the screen itself, and this gives an uneven reflection of light around the corners; while that probably improves the structural integrity, it looks a little off. The stylus is a little fiddly to get out, which may help to not lose it, and the volume and zoom level rockers are small. I rather think they should have kept the second set of paging buttons on the left edge. Of all the buttons, the navigation set seem small for the large device while the paging buttons have a somewhat loose feel. Using microSD also feels a bit strange for the size, but doesn’t really matter. I have, despite the instructions printed on a sticker, not managed to get the battery compartment open; that would be necessary to use the 3G module, so this is not good. The stylus is quite accurate, but seems to have a little odd sensitivity; sometimes it is clearly detected, as the activity light comes on, but does not generate taps. As for the battery, I’ve fiddled with the device for a day and it has passed one threshold; this says nothing yet.

Dictionaries

There’s a widget for dictionary, which is completely redundant as it shows no information and is on the main menu as well. Either of them starts the dictionary in full-screen mode, which immediately requires keyboard entry of a word to look up. That was my first encounter with the stylus requirement of the new keyboard layout. A slew of dictionaries are included, mostly translation but also a couple EN-EN. The dictionary can also be accessed within the book readers, but there’s no shortcut on the level of double-tapping a word. Also, all the controls are done by little icons that aren’t so intuitive; on my device, they are exit, list nearby words, pick word from book, enter new word, and switch dictionary.

Text to speech

This is a mode within the Adobe viewer, where you have to first select where to start reading. The synthesis is fine, but the speech is quite loud and does not react to the volume rocker. One has to navigate the menu, repeatedly, to adjust it, and a mistaken press may interrupt the reader instead. Before it goes really soft, the audio cuts out completely, and there’s no indicator of what the level is. Not very polished.

MP3 player

As primitive as they come, the music player supposedly only handles MP3, and has a shuffle feature. It it certainly not good for audiobooks, with the lack of structure or bookmarks. Its best features are that it runs in the background, and has an interactive widget for the main menu (and that’s mainly good because it shows it can be done). The widget shows filename cut off to the first period, not the last, so my test song showed up as “2”, but it has functioning progress indication and buttons for pause and song skipping. The volume rocker, oddly, worked only when the player was focused. This really feels tossed in there, which is a strange combination with the surprisingly good stereo speakers, and there’s no real excuse for not supporting Vorbis.

Connectivity

This reader has more connection options than most cellphones. There’s 3G, Wifi, Bluetooth and USB. The radio options are fairly power hungry, and the activity light stays on when they’re in use.

3G

I haven’t had a chance to actually test this, because it was not preconfigured, and according to the manual I need to install a USIM card; I understand that’s a cut-down SIM card. Once that’s done, you’ll need to set up the connection with APN and so on; I don’t know if it can be read from the SIM, but there are manual settings. Quite why you need 9 of these setting profiles I’m not sure, but there they are. There’s a hardware switch for disabling 3G, which I reckon may actually cut power to it; it has no effect on the other options.

Wi-Fi

802.11b/g should, in theory, mean it may reach 54Mbps. That’s a meaningless statistic, though. All I can really say is it works just fine, at least with my WPA-PSK network. Setup was a breeze, though I did miss the option to see the passphrase while I entered it. Opening the web browser causes the reader to scan for networks, and you get to choose which to use; it remembers, but does not show, passwords. Closing the browser does not disconnect, but there’s a status icon you can tap to do that. That also lets you see some statistics, but sadly not the address. Preconfiguring networks in the configuration menu allows it to connect automatically, and you can tune automatic disconnection there.

Bluetooth

There are currently two options usable on Bluetooth; dial-up networking, to use a cellphone or similar as a modem, and object exchange. That’s the “send file” function, common to computers, PDAs and cellphones. Oddly the popup dialog for incoming files doesn’t close when the file transfer is finished; it feels quite counterintuitive to have to press cancel. Also, the status icon does not allow turning bluetooth off like wifi, and there’s no setting to turn it on temporarily.

USB

This option does not drain the battery; on the contrary, it’s the only way to charge the battery. When connected to USB you can choose to export the data partitions (internal flash and microSD) to the computer, or just charge, leaving the reader usable. Linux could use USB for network connectivity as well, but the firmware only enables mass storage mode.

The next day

As you see above I tried out quite a lot on my new reading device during the first day, including connecting it via USB to both transfer files and charge. That first was actually a bit of a problem, as I got filesystem corruption on my microSD; I can’t quite rule out a preexisting condition however, and it seems to work now that I’ve wiped it in a separate card reader. Anyhow, back to this morning: I was very surprised, when powering the device up, to see it halt with an empty battery symbol. It wouldn’t resume function until I connected the USB cable again, and then claimed battery low. So it appears to have completely drained the battery overnight, while not in use. Actually worrying, but clearly not a constant thing as it had spent days in the mail without doing so.

Speed

As earlier stated, it takes about 20 seconds to power up fully. This isn’t necessarily useless time, as it can be set to show the last shown page if you were reading a book when you turned it off. The overall impression is somewhat slow, but most of it comes from the interface waiting for display updates. If typing ahead could interrupt those, instead of being ignored, I would like it much better. I can, however, appreciate that it’s not a clear-cut choice, so it could be optional. I have not encountered any crashes or hangs.

Here are a few rough measurements of some activities that take a noticeable amount of time:

Power on 20s
Opening a directory in the library ~3s
Opening a 30MB 15Mpixel/page DjVu 25s (did warn)
Switching pages in that DjVu ~3s
Opening a 15MB technical PDF (DisplayPort 1.1a) in AdobeViewer 9s
Same 15MB PDF in pdfviewer 9s
Opening a 6MB image PDF (Underground 1) in AdobeViewer ~8s
Opening it again in AdobeViewer ~4s
Paging in Underground 1 using AdobeViewer ~2s
Opening same 6MB image PDF in pdfviewer ~1m18s, no warning
Opening again in pdfviewer ~1m16s
Paging in Underground 1 using pdfviewer 40s

I’ll note that the DisplayPort PDF renders more correctly in AdobeViewer. It appears pdfviewer has been modified to render things black, giving much higher contrast, but this is not an advantage when done to a logo background (green portion of the manual) or the “Superseded: Not For New Designs” watermark on the DisplayPort specification. The one place I did want it to do that, those gray legends in the manual, I had no such luck. On the other hand, however, the title page of Underground initially showed up completely blank in AdobeViewer. In pdfviewer, that title page displayed nicely.. but all others were messed up to the point of illegibility, and paging takes forever. Changing the zoom level down to 90% caused AdobeViewer to show the title page, and it also does some caching so reopening the book does not take as long. Part of that is prerendering nearby pages, as leaping about in the file could take ~15s to render a page – but once visited, they were quick. In short, none of the viewers are flawless but the Adobe viewer seems better for PDF. A positive note is that this screen really is sufficient to read the comic book.

During these tests, the device kept nagging me that the battery was low, and I should charge. This was with the USB cable connected (it didn’t even boot without that), which the status bar indicated with a lightning symbol on the battery icon. What does it really expect me to do?

Under the battery cover

I mentioned trouble with the battery cover. It’s necessary to get it open to install a SIM card. After finding several comments in the German MobileRead forum that the hasp (that “PocketBook pro” button on the back) doesn’t actually work, I managed to get the lid off by using a bit more force than I’d felt comfortable with. The battery is thoroughly secured, connected with springy pins and held in place by a screw. A minuscule screwdriver for this was included in the box, but takes a lot of effort to use because the screw was tight. The SIM slot itself is next to the battery, but requires removing the battery to put anything in. It takes normal mini SIM, as most cellphones, rather than the micro SIM used in some places. Curiously, there’s what appears to be an unused ZIF thin film connector near the buttons; this type of connector is pretty fragile, and usually used for one-time installations like the screen or digitizer. I thought the 903 was the fully equipped model, and it’s a somewhat surprising connector type for debugging or such.

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