I’ve been reading e-books and similar documents for some years now, and thought I should document how I find, convert and view e-books. I’ll also cover the devices and software I use to read books.
To summarise, my e-book workflow utilises the Plucker file format, Sunrise Desktop Remote, Firefox with “Send to Sunrise” remote plugin, and (depending on hardware) either Plucker reader or FBReader.
While Plucker may not be the best format to use for e-books (some purists get pretty involved in e-book formatting and presentation) for my purposes, Plucker is more than good enough.
I’m writing this article because e-readers and e-books are finally looking like they’re becoming mainstream, and there is a real risk that as proprietary formats like .lrf (Sony), .lit (Microsoft), .azw (Kindle) and others become common, it will be to the detriment of open formats like Plucker and FB2, which have a lot to offer. Recent arrivals on the e-book scene from Amazon and Sony have introduced more incompatible formats, further fragmenting the market. Sure, there are a lot of utilities that allow you to convert your documents to .lrf, but why should you have to? Amazon own Mobipocket; so why did they decide to use an incompatible format for their Kindle bookstore?
Unfortunately, formats like Plucker and FB2 have more to offer their audience than they offer publishers, who are all trying to lock content to their file formats and devices, rather than promoting an open system that benefits the end user and the e-book market as a whole. So-called DRM (Digital Rights Management) has the potential to be a nightmare for all end users – who, a few years down the track, may find their libraries either non-existent or useless as some purchasers of music online have recently experienced. For example, if Sony ever goes out of the E-reader business, how are users going to view the DRM .lrf books they own? DRM prohibits conversion to another format, and other new devices may not be permitted (or even have the interest) to implement the ability to read DRM .lrf books.
One of the largest sources of reading material is freely available on the internet (to all intents and purposes, it is the Internet) and few e-reader manufacturers want people to figure out that they can download more than they can read in their lifetime for free, rather than buying Sony or Amazon e-books. So, here is how I do it; you might have some better methods. If you’ve any suggestions please leave them in the comments.
My current system has evolved over about 5 years of reading documents in electronic formats on handheld devices, and my choices have been steered by my hardware, preferred source of reading material, ideology and lifestyle.
While I use PCs to do almost everything they can be used for, I do not use PCs to read books or other long documents; I find that it is more convenient to use handheld devices for this. I’ve spent most of the past year away from any PCs and without internet access for up to 2 weeks at a time and so I prefer to use this time to catch up on reading content that is best read offline.
I started years ago with a Palm IIIxe, and upgraded to a Tungsten T3 when they became available. In my experience Plucker is the best format for use on both of these devices, and my system has evolved around this preference.
I also use a Nokia 770 Internet Tablet, and I use FBReader on this device as it is capable of reading Plucker files.
Although there are other, excellent e-book formats available, as I’ll show in this article, while it is quite old (the Plucker website has not been updated for several years) Plucker has some pretty compelling features when you look at it in the context of a complete end-to-end system.
I’ve never bought an e-book. I do have an account at Fictionwise, and sometimes download some of their free content, but I’ve never bought a book from there; there is just too much other content available elsewhere. Some authors make their books available online for free (Doctorow, Stross, Watts and others); some publishers (Baen, Tor) also publish free content online. And of course, online content has to compete for my time – I still read paper books from the library, and have a backlog of paper books from book fairs and the like.
I find almost all of my content while web browsing although I have RSS feeds watching some sources of free content. A large amount of my e-reading consists of online content readily available but which I prefer to download and read offline on a handheld device. As well as books, this includes long magazine, newspaper or blog articles, stories or commentary. Plucker in conjunction with the Sunrise Desktop “distiller” is capable of handling quite extensive websites.
Sunrise Desktop is a cross platform Java application that takes the content at an URL (including local files) and converts it into the Plucker file format. This works with most web pages, local html documents, text, and graphics. The Plucker format doesn’t handle images very well, and doesn’t handle tables at all; but it does preserve links and page relationships so navigating through even quite extensive layers of links offline works really well. Sunrise Desktop was written by Laurens Fridael and is published under a BSD license. Don’t confuse it with SunriseXP, which is a PC (Windows) application by the same author, but closed source. SunriseXP may also do much of what I require, but I don’t think it has the Firefox plugin that I use most often.
There are two (actually, three) ways to use Sunrise.
The first is to set up a document list, with (optionally) scheduled updates of web sites, RSS feeds or content that will happen automatically. For example, a daily update of BBC News is a great way of getting the equivalent of a daily newspaper onto your reading device. A weekly update of The Oil Drum will keep you up to date with events related to oil. A daily update of APOD is always interesting.
The intention behind making content update automatically is that you don’t have to remember to go and download the content – it is just there every time you look at it. If you had to manually add this content to your device, you’d never do it. Its a lot like doing backups 🙂
There is a detailed tutorial at http://www.mobileread.com/forums/showthread.php?t=6262 which does an excellent job of covering how to set up and use SunriseXP, and includes advanced configuration. Much of this tutorial applies to Sunrise Desktop as well.
The second way to use Sunrise is for one-off documents. These can be added manually – just copy and paste the URL into Sunrise as you would for any automatically updated documents, but the best way is to use a plug in for Firefox. Sunrise Desktop includes a “Send to Sunrise” plugin which simplifies adding a one-off document to Sunrise – you just right-click on any web page and select “Send to Sunrise” from the context menu; confirm or edit the document title and click “OK” – you don’t interact with the Sunrise application itself when adding documents this way. They’ll be listed in the lower document panel of the Sunrise Desktop if you check.
The default Sunrise installation allows you to use Sunrise and the Firefox plugin when both are running on the same machine, which will suit many people. I use multiple PCs and I don’t want to run Sunrise on each of them, so I run Sunrise on one system only (it is actually an old Windows 2000 installation running on VMWare) and make use of an improved version of Sunrise called Sunrise Remote.
Sunrise Remote is an awesome little hack that allows any instance of Firefox running the “Send to Sunrise” plugin to send a document to Sunrise that is running on a different system. The only requirement is that Sunrise Desktop has access to the same URL that the plugin is specifying.
So, at home I have Sunrise Desktop running continuously on a virtual machine, with multiple PCs (HTPC, desktop, laptop, tablet PC) running Firefox 3.0 or 2.0 with the Sunrise Remote plugin installed. Each instance of Firefox requires two lines in about:config to be added to handle authentication with the remote Sunrise Desktop. No matter which device I am using, I can add content to Sunrise easily and in the same way for all devices. The output directory from Sunrise Desktop is on a fileserver; the devices running Firefox do not need to be able to see this directory.
All that is necessary is to periodically copy or sync the content of the Sunrise Desktop output directory to the reading devices – either manually or using rsync – and your content is ready to travel with you. The system works beautifully, integrates perfectly into my normal browsing habits and is so easy to use that it makes a compelling system that is practical and usable.
I use two handheld devices; a Palm Tungsten T3, and a Nokia 770 Internet Tablet. Both have approximately the same size touch display (about 4″), though the Nokia is higher resolution (at 800×480 vs 480×320) and better quality, for practical purposes while reading this makes little difference.
What does make a difference though, are ergonomic factors. While neither device is perfect, the Palm is smaller, lighter and easier to hold, with buttons located in a better position than on the Nokia (when using both devices in the landscape position). In addition, I have a hardware button mapped to launch the Plucker reader on the Palm, while on the Nokia FBReader has to be launched from a menu.
However, battery life on the Nokia is far better than the Palm.
I also have an Ipaq HP5450 PocketPC, with Vade Mecum installed. The hardware has few redeeming features as an e-reader (it is heavy, doesn’t support landscape mode and has poor battery life), and the software also falls far short of Plucker reader; consequently I never use it for reading.
Possibly more important than hardware is the difference between the software these two devices run. The T3 runs PalmOS 5.2 with extra fonts and font smoothing, and for reading I have the original Plucker reader installed. This works well, and in many respects is far better than FBReader installed on the Nokia.
The Nokia 770 has been upgraded to OS2008HE, with a port of FBReader installed. Though the device is quite old now and runs very slowly with that OS, for reading it is certainly more than fast enough.
FBReader is capable of reading many more formats than the Plucker reader, and has extensive configuration and navigation options. FBReader library management is quite nice, allowing you to view and edit extensive details about the books you’ve added. Plucker reader has a much simpler library interface, allowing you to categorise documents, mark them when read etc.
However, where Plucker really shines (and FBReader falls down badly) is that Plucker scans for and adds documents to the library automatically, while FBReader requires that you add plucker documents manually. As you can imagine, in situations where I may be adding 50 or so documents at a time, there is a clear incentive to use Plucker reader for this reason alone.
I tend to use Nokia and FBReader for reading full length books or other long articles, and to use the T3 and Plucker reader for general news, websites and short articles that I will generally delete after reading.
I’ve ordered (and expect to receive quite soon) an e-ink based e-reader; the BeBook reader. This is a version of the Hanlin V3 reader (also the same as the lBook reader).
These are all the same hardware running similar Linux based firmware, and using the Cool Reader engine to display books (so a wide range of formats are supported). A port of FBReader is available for these devices, and a complete replacement firmware (OpenInkPot) is underway. While I don’t expect to be able to read proprietary formats or books protected by DRM on the device, I do expect to be able to read the type of content I currently read and have been reading for the last 5 years.
In a way, I’ve made my choice to support what looks to be an open platform that fits with my current usage and workflow.