Yann Vernier’s Blog

2011-11-06

Moving the blog

Today I helped my mother getting a wordpress site up on our domain, vernier.se. Mostly so that I won’t forget to keep it running, I decided to move my own blog over there, too. I apologize for any inconvenience, but please head on over.

Yann Vernier’s blog at yann.vernier.se

2011-10-12

Firmware news

Filed under: Android, Ebook reader — yannv @ 15:41

Yesterday, on my way home, I saw a long awaited bit of news; CyanogenMod 7.1 has been released. This prompted a round of firmware updating for both the HTC and PocketBook (I know, that’s not an Android device – but I was looking up firmware news), and here are my notes about the experience at this very early stage.

Android update – CyanogenMod 7.1

Most of this went well. I found it very hard to look up what’s new in the newer ClockworkMod (5.0.2.0), and as it’s recovery level stuff, I was hesitant to install it. In the end, I did install it, and it works fine. The new ROM manager (4.5.0.1) doesn’t seem to manage passing commands to the recovery mode, so I now do backups and upgrades from the recovery menu itself. In fact, I had to, as the initial upgrade attempt led to a complete hang; recovery mode installing of 7.1 fixed that, at least.

As for the new update, the changelog is rather exhaustive but some details only show up in testing:

Bluetooth tethering

It’s supposed to be there – sdptool browse on a laptop shows PAN service. The downside here is that what I used to have was Bluetooth DUN, and that’s what my ebook reader supports. Obviously the issue here is more with pocketbook’s lockdowns (or I’d just add PAN into the pocketbook), but it’s just not doing the job for me.

Touch to focus

Works just fine, actually; I just had to switch focus mode to touch. Unfortunately, that disables the half-press autofocus. I would have preferred to have touch do touch to focus and half-press do center or maybe last point focus; perhaps also long touch to snap a picture once focusing finishes. Trying this feature out inadvertently led me to discover that doubletap zooms the preview, which is helpful.

Calendar

I initially forgot to reinstall the Google apps. I’m not sure if it’s because of this, or because of installing them from the original zip, but it ended up wiping my calendar. If I had it backed up to Google this would not be an issue, but apparently this is Google’s way of punishing offline users, because even restoring a full backup doesn’t get it back. As the calendar is as critical to me as the phone book, I’m very disappointed.

PocketBook update – D903.2.1.2 20110916_194508

This update was a little smoother. Dump the update file in the internal flash, choose update, and there it goes. Although this is not the first 2.1 firmware, it’s still a beta and introduces major new features; think of it as another prerelease. But it’s a bit of a milestone, and I’ll show why.

Multitasking

You read that right. It runs Linux, so of course it has been multitasking all this time, but now you can officially jump between programs. We’ve done this with some hackery before, such as review’s hack to scribble on screenshots, but not to this level. The quick menu (formerly last open books) now shows active programs, holding Back shows not only which are open but what program (so we can tell pdfviewer and adobeviewer apart). This really makes the 256MB RAM of the 903 work for us, as we can have multiple books open (I personally keep jumping between datasheets, protocol specifications and such).

One detail here is that long Back no longer defaults to force quit (but it is configurable). The Task list (also referred to as Express-menu and Task manager) has a new context menu to kill tasks, although they’ve forgotten to add translations for the choices; they show as @task_goto and @task_kill. I’ve also had issues with slowdowns and even the system becoming unresponsive, but it doesn’t happen easily; one might want to do simple housekeeping like closing books with Back instead of jumping out with Home.

New library browser

One of my major reasons to choose the PocketBook was that you could browse the filesystem, and therefore arrange your books any way you like with directories. It didn’t have very good metadata handling. The new library browser is sharp, slick, and fast! It can filter on books we’re reading or favorites; group by folder, author, series, genre or format; sort by file name, title, last open, creation, series or author, in either order; and search instantly. The popup menu to select viewer, handle files and such is now shown with a long press of the center button, because the menu button toggles the library view options menu.

I find two weaknesses with the new browser: Jumping to specific pages in a long list is gone, but this is mitigated by the list updating near instantly with the paging buttons. Also, returning to the list after launching something doesn’t necessarily get you to the same item you were on before.

Note taking and text to speech

The new note taking we saw in the previous release, which has optimized scribbling on top of pages, is now available in pdfviewer and fbreader, not only adobeviewer. This means it works for most supported formats (djviewer is still lagging). This actually brings us a note taking feature that can compete with any other brand, very good going!

The text to speech engine, likewise, is now in pdfviewer, adobeviewer and fbreader.

On-screen keyboard finally usable

Oh, we could enter things. But it was incredibly sluggish, because every time you entered a letter it would slowly flash that key before moving on to what you typed next. Now those animations are allowed to overlap, which means we can type about as fast as it goes, rather than type then wait an eternity for it to finish drawing. It’s not flawless however, as moving around with the buttons sometimes leaves a key highlit; but this is a minor cosmetic flaw.

New web browser

Yes, again. This time around it looks to be Arora. It properly supports stylus calibration, paging with the page buttons, and saving settings and bookmarks. There’s even a file selector to open local files, should you wish to get html files rendered accurately instead of the reading oriented view of fbreader.

It’s not all good, however; it’s impossible to navigate without the stylus (menu causes it to exit), it also plays animated GIFs (seriously, just give us the last frame and stop wasting energy), and it does not get the mobile or printer friendly layouts of pages. It also does not allow editing URLs, only entering new ones. Offline usage is seriously crippled by it attempting to go online repeatedly even when it does not need to, but at least it doesn’t simply close like the old one did.

It seems like the old browsers are gone (I’ll have to investigate this closer), including breaking PocketNews.

FBreader update

FBreader has received some proper attention this time around; along with text to speech and note taking, it got what looks like an upgrade to a more recent upstream release. This means it supports images and formatting (at least to some degree), making it much more reasonable for viewing epub and html material.

Conclusion

This is not the update that brings the PocketBook to a level I recommend. It is the update that brings its featyre set out of a level I’m embarrassed to own. I only wish the same could be said about the company and restrictions (why do these companies demand we respect their sabotage while they do not respect the developers’ licensing?). If you have a 603 or 903, I’d say the update is well worth it, but for other models I haven’t an inkling. I’d say the next things to work on are: Zoom and pan controls, button controls for a web browser, perhaps text to speech and new notes in djviewer, and bluetooth PAN. But we already know PocketBook do not take advice. It’s not quite risk free, as I’ve had to hit reset once (and we don’t have a tool for that in the stylus like Palm did), but it’s a considerable step up.

2011-09-14

Some more Android bits

Filed under: Android — yannv @ 23:23

A few apps were omitted from my previous post about Android, mostly because I considered them not that helpful for the audience at large. However, I don’t really have a large audience, nor a clue what they’d like to see – so that’s a pretty poor reason. And of course a few were added since, to cover unanticipated whims. So, here’s a few more.

STHLM Traveling

I nearly always use SL (Stockholm local transit) to get around. They offer a usable web search, and a wap page (which they’ve naturally downgraded to the point a search can’t be bookmarked on my older WAP browser), but STHLM Traveling simply beats them for convenience. It searches the same backend, but has smoother completion, can search from current position, allows saving routes without registering some online account and so on. Straightforward and helpful.

E-nummerguiden

This tool would really be useful to a wider European audience, but it’s in Swedish. E numbers are simply a database of food additives within Europe, and this lets me look them up. It’s good to be able to tell what’s what even offline. Wikipedia do cover the list. The downside of this app will sound silly – it just doesn’t handle input that well. The search button does nothing, and it doesn’t use numeric entry although all it’s for is looking up numbers.

Simon Tatham’s puzzle collection

Really installed more out of habit than anything else. On the E71, I frequently used the puzzles, but on the HTC I rarely do – in part because it’s much better for reading, and in part because the controls are just worse. I’m not at all accurate with the capacitive touchscreen and the optical trackpad requires awkward motions instead of simple presses.

PDF viewer

Naturally, the phone can’t beat my e-book reader for displaying PDFs, but it does have interactivity and online connectivity going for it. So as I browse the web and find an article, I frequently want to see the contents. A PDF viewer was in order, and I don’t much like what Adobe have done on other platforms, so I figured I’d go for an open source one. The one I got is called APV (although it shows as PDF Viewer), and it’s just decent. I’m likely to reconsider this one, as their webpage linked me to VuDroid.

Addendum: Nope, VuDroid wasn’t even close. Admittedly I like getting DjVu viewing too, but the interface was awful (fullscreen does not mean cover my screen with an unnecessary and unclear UI widget instead of content), and it was really slow. As it is now, that’s one app that won’t replace APV. APV annoys me enough by popping up zoom buttons (it lacks pinch) every time I scroll, but those do go away.

Google Sky Map

A rather neat gimmick, this shows stars – something I had plenty of programs for, but it fits well in this format. Using the accelerometer, location, and compass, it maps nicely to how you point the phone.

StopWatch & Timer

I added this simply because I’ve missed the functions on the E71. It’s fairly decent, though the whole thing looks like a bit of an advertisement. Always the nitpicker, I have to point out this not only does only one timer (for stopwatch, that’s fairly normal and it does laps), it only does one of the functions at any time. So no stopwatch while the timer is ticking, and no nice way to time multiple things. I could go to the effort of writing a better one, but I have other time wastes like writing this down.

Incidentally, I also got my first homebuilt Android app running this Monday. It’s of very local use only (remote control for a robot at work), so it’s not going up for public use, but it’s a start. It was nearly a pure web port using PhoneGap (and there’s the link I’m most likely to have a use for in this whole article), but I did have to add one line of Java to get it to go fullscreen properly.

2011-08-10

Useful Android addons

Filed under: Android, Gadgets — yannv @ 09:30

It had to happen. Given my gadget mania, physical wear, and Nokia’s new direction (straight down the drain), the replacement for my E71 has at last been selected, and it’s an Android phone.

I still required a physical keyboard, GPS, extensibility and tethering. On the wishlist were high resolution screen, good battery, openness and good platform support (like the scripting support for the E71 did not get). So I ended up with a HTC Desire Z, seemingly also known as Vision or G2.

With a background from PalmOS and Symbian, I had some demands for the PIM portion of the device. Unlimited reminders, a readable calendar, and note taking. From the E71 days, I also use the map quite frequently, so preloading maps was important. And a SSH client for remotely accessing my shell accounts. Reading up on Android, I found the default installs are a bit of a crapshoot (in particular, the HTC was unnecessarily sluggish), but the platform can be mixed and matched rather well. So I set about finding tools.

Basic system

I went for CyanogenMod, as I love to tinker, it listed a few attractive features, and a friend uses it as well. As it turned out, starting it up took a bit more effort than expected (the instructions I found were wrong), and some of the listed features were absent (in particular, camera focus controls). It’s quite possible some of the features I started searching for later were actually included in HTC’s offering; I do not know.

Calendar

Some searching online, browsing through reviews and examining screenshots, led me to install Jorte. It is a calendar with a focus on plain looks, but with many options and a slightly more direct interface than the original calendar. I hit two little gotchas in setting it up, however: First, set it to use Google’s calendar for storage, not its own, or repeated events won’t work. Second, in order to avoid duplicated alerts, turn alerts off in the old calendar, and find the oddly named “When not notifying at Google Calendar mode”; this setting must be off to enable Jorte’s alerts. I’m not yet entirely certain what to use in the end; the one thing I’ve not found in Jorte that Calendar has is selecting time graphically (tap a time to create an event).

A particular feature I’ll probably want to find later on is recurring tasks. Mainly for chores like shopping and laundry, these would be tasks that show up as reminders a set time after they’ve been completed.

Messaging

Email

I installed K-9 Mail, as well as APG for PGP support. It offers usable IMAP support including folders.

SMS

I had initially thought I’d be adding something for this, perhaps chomp.. but the default Messaging app looks good enough to me.

Remote access

I use ConnectBot for SSH access. The version I installed doesn’t recognize the Tab key, and I have to mess with the software keyboard to get < or >, but it’s a start.

Note taking

This section quite baffled me. There was no apparent note taking included; neither text nor scribbles. So I searched and found Note Everything. While it’s the first app so far to have a Pro variant, the difference is only in extra features; there are no ads to suffer, and the free version is quite usable. It offers text, doodle and audio notes. The latter two are quite basic (though at least easy to export), but the text notes can stand a little closer inspection. You can organize notes in folders, put them on the home screen as widgets (although only their title shows up), and even link them together WikiStyle.

Calculator and unit converter

Lots of options, as usual, but the one I’m using currently is handyCalc. The one gripe is that there’s no soft keypad for hexadecimal entry. It does a lot of other things, however, like equation system solving, editable history, custom variables and functions, and graphs. The advanced features may require going through the demo or tutorial, but luckily that is included. It also covers units and currencies.

GPS stuff

For geocaching, I installed (by advice from a friend) c:geo. It works well, including custom directions (by coordinates plus bearing and distance), online logging, and compass. I added Geohash Droid for geohashing, which seems much more basic but usable. It does link to the day’s wiki page. And of course, there’s Maps – and the addon to precache areas, which I found under the Labs menu choice.

Data auditing

This is another surprising omission. I couldn’t find how much traffic I had been using on my cellular data plan, so I installed 3G Watchdog. There are some reports of inaccuracy, and it can only log traffic from when it is installed, so I’ll see how it holds up. The Pro variant allows tracking each application, which could come in really handy.

Shortcuts

Not an app, but quite helpful – beyond categorizing your apps into folders, putting apps (and particular views inside) on the home screen, and multitasking, I find I can bind pretty much the whole keyboard to jump directly to my apps. This is done in Settings→Applications→Quick launch, where Search+letter can be bound.

2011-03-16

PocketBook firmware update – 20110312

Filed under: Ebook reader — yannv @ 10:56

Today, I took the plunge to update the firmware in my ebook reader. I wish the version number made sense, but they already reused the 2.0.4 number, and supposedly the new firmware update function offers a 2.0.6 that’s really 2.0.5, so there you have it – this release is D903.2.0.5 20110312_174324. And for some reason, the update archive is named sw_20110312_903_LIBRI_2.0.5_libri_user. After reformatting the internal storage memory I found out where Libri came from – this firmware has a link to libri.de instead of bookland.net for a main screen widget.

Anyway, on to the impressions.

The release notes list three versions back – which as far as I know, means all the way back to the release firmware for the x02 series. I recognized some functionality under 2.0.4 was indeed included in my 2.0.4. I think the direct TTS controls on the directional ring were not, but I’m not certain. The volume buttons certainly were not. As there’s more than one 2.0.4, and the two changes I know of are not listed, I find the list a bit unrealiable. One point I find really worrying, as it implies the device can refuse to operate at all based on a rejected license. That sort of sabotage is really bad form.

Confirmed changes in my firmware update

  • There’s a new firmware update choice in the maintenance menu. This makes the Pocketbook more usable standalone, and allows users to not learn the bootloader tricks.
  • The calculator widget is now a working calculator. The feature of starting the calculator application didn’t work, because the new applications directory was not installed.
  • The games directory is removed without warning, with all its contents, repeatedly. There’s no need to reboot for this to occur.
  • The reloading picture shown when I disconnect from USB storage mode is incorrectly rendered (only half of it shows, stretched out, like a 2bpp image shown as 1bpp).
  • There are now working button controls for the TTS in AdobeViewer. Sadly, there’s still no way to select the correct language within a book.
  • Note editing with the stylus is finally in, along with text notes. This was the major gripe in missing features, good job!
  • Changing pages with the Dictionary showing no longer hangs the reader. For some reason I had to select my dictionary again, it had randomly changed to Polish-English.
  • The keyboard now has shaded grayscale buttons. A simple waste of time, in my opinion, but it doesn’t seem to slow it down notably. More importantly, it now works with the buttons, so I’m not left without recourse if I lose my stylus.
  • The connection window now lists 3G, which is kind of pointless as I have no SIM card.

There are some new niggles (silently removing an entire directory, repeatedly!). Some niggles I don’t know if they were around before – when I pop up the last open window on the main screen, pretty soon the clock draws over it. This also suggests that the clock widget spends a lot more time drawing itself than makes sense. The Bookland web browser doesn’t seem to offer going anywhere else anymore, and the website is still horrible, so that feature has gone from bad to useless. PocketNews, on the other hand, contains a usable web browser that I had not seen before. Why we have three different ones I’m not sure.

In order to recover the Applications folder, I had to reformat the internal memory and restore the other contents from backup. It still removes the games folder, however, so if you have things to save there, put them elsewhere. Once that was done, I could open the new calculator – and it’s much improved! They weren’t kidding when calling it a scientific calculator, as it now has base conversion, trigonometry, exponential functions and so on. It also uses the entire screen.

Another new program is a customized Links 2 web browser. This is the browser used in PocketNews, but also added in the Applications folder as links. I used to have it as my main browser on all my lower powered machines. It works decently, although I can’t help wondering how horizontal scroll without the stylus should work, I’m missing the settings and bookmarks, and more importantly – it doesn’t know to quit when I hit Home (which is called Menu in the manual, I mean the house button – calling the book button Home makes even less sense) to go to the main menu (it exits on a press of Return). One thing really sets it apart from midori, which appears to be unchanged; Links allows simple paging with the next/previous page buttons.

The manual has been updated as well, but I haven’t yet checked what the changes are (the obvious thing is a much too large font). I’ll be updating the Problems article with which are fixed, and which are new.

2011-01-11

Problems with my PocketBook 903

Filed under: Ebook reader — yannv @ 08:44

I’ve decided to make a public record of the things I think should be changed with the PocketBook 903. Some are serious bugs, other little niggles, and yet others things about how the company behaves. Mostly this record is so I won’t forget things to check once updates start to appear. Some issues occur in multiple categories.

System level issues

  • Writes to my microSD card fail in unspecified ways. The bug is all the way upstream from Samsung (makers of the SoC) but neither company tries to help.
  • Formatting the microSD card triggers a recalibration of the touchscreen for no apparent reason.
  • Turning Bluetooth on and off is (apparently) only accessible in the settings, and there’s no choice for temporarily on. Wifi can be turned off from the status icon, why not bluetooth?
    Found another way: mapping the power switch to “last read books” pops up a window with Bluetooth toggling, button lock, power off, books, music player.. should be the default.
    Improved in 2.1.2; the status bar icon is now tappable, for both wifi and bluetooth, and a new Quick Menu adds task switching to the popup menu.

Usability issues

  • The virtual keyboard is not usable with the buttons.
    Fixed in 2.0.5.
  • pdfviewer zoom menu is not usable from the buttons.
    Fixed in 2.0.5.
  • Web browser does not use the digitizer calibration. (Not verified; but for others, the scrollbar can be unreachable.)
    2.0.5 has an additional web browser, Links, which also supports buttons.
    2.1.2 adds yet another web browser, Qt based, apparently replacing the prior Gtk+ based one.  This one does respect stylus calibration and finally uses the page flip buttons as page up and down.
  • Trying to open bookmarks placed in AdobeViewer may open pdfviewer (if it was last used for that book), which does not know the bookmarks and goes to the first page.

Documentation issues

  • The manual shows the virtual keyboard of a 602, which is quite different on a 903 (602 type works without stylus, 903 type does not).
    Fixed in 2.0.5.
  • At one point, the manual shows a quickmenu with both Voice and Settings choices. I have found no such thing as Voice is in AdobeViewer only and Settings in FBreader.
    Fixed in 2.1.2; the text to speech now works in FBreader and pdfviewer.
  • Overall, the manual is simply poorly translated. (Not reverified; in 2.0.5 it’s also poorly formatted.)

Company behaviour

  • Much of the core software is GPL or LGPL licensed. PocketBook have not published the source for the currently distributed versions, and are withholding the development tools as well.
    It actually gets worse, as the previously published “sources” simply weren’t. It is not OK to just shove a .o binary file into the GPL kernel sources.
  • The microSD write bug was replied with “get a class 4 card” and then ignored. No indication why a class 4 should work better was made, nor is this a documented requirement, only something spouted on the forum. It is also a violation of the SD specification.
  • The device is apparently tivoized, with PocketBook withholding root access from the owner, and firmware updates in an undocumented format (possibly GPG signed, the libraries are there).

PDFviewer

  • Bookmarks in PDFviewer do not show up in the Notes menu (from the main menu).
    Fixed in 2.0.5. However, mixed bookmarks cause confusion in both Contents order and trying to open them, as PDFviewer and AdobeViewer do not use the same format.
    Similarly some bookmarks did not carry over into 2.1.2.
  • PDFviewer handles grays strangely, rendering watermarks and backgrounds black while leaving others.
  • The table of contents is inaccessible if the PDF doesn’t have one, even if notes or bookmarks have been placed.
    Fixed in 2.0.5.
  • The zoom choice from the menu requires stylus input.
    Fixed in 2.0.5.
  • The search command does not find anything.

AdobeViewer

  • The search command hangs when looking for more occurences, possibly only once reaching the last.
    Fixed in 2.0.5 – but it can still miss occurences, and the hang seems to occur when searching backwards, still.
  • Switching pages with the dictionary up leads to a hang. The Dictionary button causes a page turn, so this can be triggered with two presses on the same button.
    Fixed in 2.0.5.

Text to Speech

Text to speech was adobeviewer only until 2.1.2, when it was added into fbreader and pdfviewer.

  • The text to speech volume cannot be preset, and is only controlled with a horrible menu popup cycle. Compounded by the total lack of level indication and strange behaviour (goes from loud to normal, then cuts out entirely).
    Fixed; 2.0.5 added button control.  As of 2.1.2 the popup merely indicates the meaning of the direction buttons, and volume buttons work.
  • Text to speech language should be settable per book, and in the reading mode itself.

Web browser (Midori, 2.0.5 also has Links and an unknown contender in Bookland)

  • Touchscreen calibration is not supported.
  • Rotation is not supported.
  • Settings are not saved. (Review made a workaround.)
  • Bookmarks are hard to access and cannot be edited.
  • Entities are not properly supported (shows on the default page, google mobile).

Main menu

  • Most widgets are merely dumb icons: Dictionary, Calculator, Sudoku, eBook, PocketNews. Worst with Calculator, which looks like it has buttons but doesn’t.
    2.0.5 makes the calculator work, and improves the separate calculator app.
  • The theme is poorly matched to the screen size. There are blank regions on the top and bottom. (2.0.5 tweaked the corners.)
  • In last open books, one cannot get choices for the book/file itself like in Library.
  • Pictures have been shown with a double width calendar widget; I’ve found no way to get that.

Dictionary

  • The list of dictionaries is quite unwieldy. Add some sort of categorization (by language, for instance) and use a larger part of the screen!
    At least 2.1.2 allows skipping faster through the list by holding up or down.
  • Dictionary from the main menu immediately demands a word. Entering nothing shows nothing, while anything else allows browsing the dictionary. It should open like a book.

Music player

It is downright strange to expend so much effort on audio hardware and none at all on the software.

  • Only accepts MP3. There’s no excuse for not supporting Vorbis.
  • Does not handle any structure at all; only a list of all MP3 files installed, with or without shuffle.
  • Widget only shows filename up to the first period. “2.Autiotalo.mp3” is not called “2”; it’s actually a properly tagged file as well, but the main player UI doesn’t understand tags either.
  • Volume buttons do not control volume unless focus is directly on the mp3 player.
  • No bookmarks, necessary for audio book use.

Zoom and scroll controls

This gets its own heading because it’s really common to pdfviewer, djviewer and AdobeViewer.

  • It’s a no-brainer that zoom and pan should be selectable with the stylus (mark the region to show). They aren’t.
  • There should be a zoom to contents command, rather than zoom to page width.
  • Fit entire page is also an obvious missing entry, though often the “100%” choice does this. Where’s the zoom to correct size for PDF (which specifies size) and DjVu (which specifies DPI)?
  • Multipage view should be sensitive to page size; I had comic strips that would fit several on top of each other, but there’s no such layout choice. Instead it mangles them into a fixed layout.
  • Vertical scrolling is only available in page steps; there’s no way to finetune to strip the top margin. Frequently renders the nicer zoom levels impractical.

Note taking

This is where it gets ridiculous. The old SDK featured drawing with the pointer in notes, but the 903 does not. The scribble program is entirely unorganized. Bookmarks can’t be named. About the only thing the pocketbook has going for it here is use of well known formats (html and bmp). review has written an addon to link screenshots and scribble together.

Fixed in 2.0.5. The SDK options to edit text and graphics for notes are now present, although the eink optimizations making Scribble responsive are not present.
Fixed even more in 2.1.2. The new optimized scribbling and marking on top of pages is now present in FBreader, pdfviewer and AdobeViewer. djviewer still has the old unoptimized screenshot strip and scribbling.

Wishlist items

I have replaced my Nokia phone with an Android phone, and the new model doesn’t have the same type of Bluetooth tethering. Whatever it has (I expect Bluetooth PAN rather than Bluetooth DUN), it does not work with the PocketBook. There was a DUN app for Android, but it demanded a distinct dial code rather than *99#, so that did not work either. I’m left reading stuff off my phone while on the train if I want to grab it from the net then and there. Of course, the correct fix would be transferring things to my reader in the early morning, but it’s a waste to have these connection options not work.

January 2.0.4 update

Triple fail here. First, the update is called 2.0.4 – just like the version I already had from December. Second, in renaming the “games” directory “applications”, they added a script that automatically removes the games directory, whatever is in it, and not only when installing the update. Third, it broke the DRM. As the only improvement I’ve heard of is a prettier virtual keyboard, I think I’ll pass.

March 2.0.5 update

Some real changes here. Much improved calculator app and widget, several bugfixes, new Links web browser, working notes. It still keeps removing the games directory. It also turns out the “pretty” keyboard added button navigation, so it’s not only cosmetic.

I’ll surely find more things to update soon enough, and there’s bound to be one or two I simply forgot. But it’s a start, and once put here I can find them again.

September 2011 update 2.1.2

A remarkably good update, this adds heaps of features and fixes a few bugs and flaws. In particular, features like note taking over pages in almost all formats (djvu still has the 2.0.5 variant), a much improved library function and multitasking bring it up to a level where it can possibly motivate its price tag.. barely.

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.

2010-11-30

Hand powered electrical generators

Filed under: Gadgets — yannv @ 00:46

When I was younger, the dynamo flashlight was a fairly common product. Usually it would consist of an electromagnetic generator, a lightbulb, a flywheel for energy storage and a lever with some sort of clutching mechanism. One would squeeze the lever into the body of the device to add power, then allow it to extend again. This could easily be operated with one hand, even wearing mittens, as one simply closes and opens the gripping hand.

Nowadays, I’d be vaguely annoyed at any generator that didn’t provide an outlet. I’ve been on the lookout for a handheld generator, and while lots are available, most are simply hand cranked. Those require much finer manipulations, and tend to end up with obvious inefficiency as our arms just aren’t unlimited rotary joints. Besides that, frequently the device itself it downright fragile, which doesn’t mesh well with the concept of applying force to get it to work at all. I’d like something different.

Squeeze dynamo

I finally found one; the Revolve xeMicro. It looks like a decent enough product, but I’d prefer a european plug if the device is to have AC input. I’ll keep looking a bit.

Gyroscopic

A nice little article on hackaday pointed out this possibility. A commenter linked to a commercial offering of the same thing called Manual Power. This has a configuration which appeals to me; there’s no crank, in fact no externally moving parts, and it doubles as a decent training device. I’ve had the opportunity to test one without the power harvesting feature. One for the wishlist, or perhaps when I have money to spare.

Pull-cord

I heard of the Potenco pull-cord generator through the One Laptop Per Child project. It has a rather impressive power output, at the cost of requiring two attachment points; though one could allow one to be static, say, tied to the backpack or held underfoot. Unfortunately, it isn’t available for purchase – and I’m not inspired with much hope when the FAQ hopes for this to change mid-2009, over a year ago.

Another company, supposedly called “Easy Energy” (like dozens of others), has shown both pullcord and pedal generators under the brand Yogen. Unforunately, they recently (2011-08-11) decided to drop off the net, so that doesn’t look very promising, either.

Linear motion harvesters

Kinetic energy harvesters like nPower PEG rely on some internal moving weight, typically a magnet sliding through a coil. I’ve seen flashlights of such design, and while most of them are rather inefficient, it could have the advantage of being passively usable. The suggested example is attaching it to a backpack, thus converting a little energy from each step. Again, however, this particular model doesn’t seem available to purchase.

As usual, I would dearly love suggestions of further options!

2010-10-20

E-book reader

Filed under: Gadgets — yannv @ 19:46

My gadget mania has struck again. As is my habit, I again selected basically the most expensive device on the market of some particular type. It started, pretty much, with finding a version 2 Kindle in a friend’s sofa. Neat device, I thought, and fiddled about with it for a while. It was tempting, but there are a few things I don’t like about the Kindle.

  1. Amazon control the device, not I. Sure, they have less control if I never go online with it, but half the point of a Kindle is their free data service.
  2. The resolution is too low. I read many technical documents, where 600×800 is just slightly too small to be practical.
  3. The contrast was just slightly disappointing. Not a showstopper, but annoying.

Still, I just couldn’t get the idea out of my mind – so I started looking about for alternatives. MobileRead hosts a wiki with a rather helpful overview. Turns out, there were a whole slew of promising demonstrations. Kindle DX exists, but has the same control issues and notably higher cost. Irex has closed. Nemoptic apparently went bankrupt. Brother SV-70 is apparently only for the Japanese market and only their own proprietary format. The Skiff reader had a clear advantage in resolution, but the whole company was swallowed by News Corporation (as yet not to be seen again) before release.

Somewhere along the line, the old idea that a stylus for handwriting would be nice resurfaced. The trigger this time was reading about the Onyx Boox, but for a measure of how far back the concept has interested me, I have an RS-232 connected inductive digitizer from Genius. It’s old, and not very flashy, but does work – although the last time I used it I had to patch the driver to work with recent Xorg. I’ve tried a few touchscreen devices since, such as the TuxScreen, Palm III, and Agenda VR3. There’s an important side effect of the most popular technologies (capacitive and resistive) – glare and reduced contrast, the very things the e-ink needs to avoid. The Boox 60 didn’t have a particular problem with this, because the inductive digitizers can be placed behind the screen. The downside is that a specific stylus is required, so these aren’t touch screens (apparently that’s what you have to call it nowadays to sell), but it makes up for it with higher precision and, again, no extra layer in front of the screen.

There’s one concern I haven’t yet mentioned. I’m a programmer, and like tinkering with all my gadgets to some degree. I absolutely loathe it when the manufacturer takes effort to destroy this option (hello, Sony), but if they elect to be helpful, that matters to me. One brand stuck out in this regard, a Ukrainian developer called Pocketbook. They have released SDKs and sources, and significantly, showed active efforts to maintain and enhance the firmware for existing models. The developer site, hosted at sourceforge, was filled with Russian discussion, but they are currently expanding – with offices all over the place, and a multilingual bookstore. They’re about to launch a few new models, and the top of the line – Pocketbook Pro 903 – is what I’ve ordered. The deal closer, really, was seeing no less than three active and helpful representatives on the mobileread forums.

So how well did this model stack up to my feature wishes?

  • Active updates from Pocketbook, flexibly overridable firmware, and an active developer community – they do have a DRM thingy, but they point out themselves that’s only because publishers demanded it. Control: Good enough.
  • Resolution: Turns out the nicer options (1600×1200) aren’t anywhere to be found. The 903 has the top E-ink model, at 825×1200 – same size as Kindle DX.
  • Contrast is, rumours have it, slightly worse than the new Kindles (“Pearl” is apparently the cream of the crop) but better than earlier generations, as the one I tried. It will suffice.
  • Inductive digitizer makes navigation easier and scribbles possible, without sacrificing legibility.
  • Connectivity is just overkill – Bluetooth, 3G+GPRS, WLAN. This thing can connect through my cellphone if its own SIM won’t do.
  • Memory is not shabby – 256MiB RAM, 2GB built-in flash, and a micro-SD slot for expansion, upgrades or experiments.

There are other details, such as a frankly impressive PDF reflow feature, but thus far it’s enough to excite me. Certainly there’s silliness about too, such as the “Pro” moniker present on all the new Pocketbook E-ink readers. By the way, the 603 model has the exact same features with a smaller screen, and the 902/602 differ by dropping 3G and the digitizer. All of them should run the same software, including all the add-ons.

2009-04-29

SmartConnect and the wonders of DRM

Filed under: Nokia E71 — yannv @ 15:25

When I updated to firmware 210, I found I needed to reinstall a lot of software. BirdStep SmartConnect was one of them.
SC provides a function that is standard with many other phones, that of automatically selecting a useful Internet connection from those currently available. This is missing in S60 3fp1 which the E71 (but not the E71x, with the same hardware) uses. This was quite the drawback for an ambitious E series device, so Nokia found a workaround. They licensed BirdStep SmartConnect.
It still required the user to find the program, though. You do so using the Download! service, where it is one of a myriad items marked as costing 0. Or was – now it’s marked “try for free”. The first time I installed it, it worked fine. The downside of installing this way is that I got no SIS file, so when I needed to reinstall after a firmware upgrade, I had to find it all over again.
So I did. It was marked “try”, and after installation, considered itself unlicensed and refused to work.
I looked the issue up on the ‘net and found two plausible culprits – an online license check during installation and stale data files from the previous install. It turns out that enabling online license checks merely causes the download to fail. The other fix, which was listed on BirdStep’s FAQ, actually worked.
After three reboots, two manual erasures, and a bunch of reinstall attempts, I had managed to wipe the botched licensing data, and the newly installed program automatically reported a licensed E series device, for a feature that should have been included from the start (and could – remember, this was with a firmware update). How astoundingly convenient and helpful for the customer, wouldn’t you agree?

Update: The Download! service is no longer available. Nokia now expect you to use Ovi Shop, which requires a huge download, apparently does invasive stuff to your system as it demands you reboot the phone, and yet leaves the now useless Download! app in place. It also forces updates, which mean downloading and rebooting all over again. I haven’t searched through that to find SC again, but it certainly complicated the process further.

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