N900 - The E-book Reader?

by Tina Holmboe 11th of July 2010 (archive)

Perhaps you’ll recall that I wrote a blog entry on the topic of e-books, formats and readers a lil’ while ago — and promised to return with yet another article when, and if, I decide on an N900?

As the eager reader will know, I did decide on a Nokia N900, and I’ve now used it as an e–book reader for some time.

Introduction

Prior to the really juicy details … let’s get the more–or–less mandatory annoying ones out of the way.

As far as I understand European and Swedish law, I am within my rights to convert a legally purchased e–book to a different format if it is required to do so in order to read the book; aka when replacing an ageing reading device with a new one that has no support for the original format. That said, IANAL.

The views herein are mine, and mine alone. This really shouldn’t be required, but the topic matter is such that I can’t avoid it. Books, and the way we read them, are intimately connected to who we are; our personal perspectives and history. What is right for me may not be so for you. Please avoid yelling at me for expressing a personal opinion on the topic, for tho art crunchy and taste good with ketchup.

From a philosophical point of view I see no particular future for dedicated e–book reading boards. Despite the advantage in terms of readability and battery life of e–ink, the very last thing people want is to carry Yet Another Gadget. Subject, of course, to your personal usage pattern.

The example book used is «A Study in Scarlet» by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1887), retrieved from Project Gutenberg, and converted from text via Tetropy to XHTML 1.1 and from there via Calibre to Mobipocket and EPUB. Each step of the conversion has been carefully checked, and the end result previewed with Calibre’s ebook–viewer application.

The typography is set to mimic that of The Strand Magazine as it were when the first Sherlock Holmes stories were published. This may or may not be reflected in the rendering.

Screenshots are taken with Maemo’s internal mechanism (CTRL + SHIFT + P) and uploaded as–is.

The Device

If you’ve kept up with my ramblings you will be fairly well versed in N900–ology by now. You’ll be aware that the device has a 3.5 inch screen, with a 800x480 resolution and 16:9 aspect ratio. This yields a dot per inch (DPI) or pixel per inch (PPI) ratio of 266, roughly. I am aware of the discussion regarding DPI vs. PPI differences; not to mention the LCD vs. e–ink debacle.

The device is 110,9 millimetre long, 59,8mm wide, and 18mm thick. It weigh in at 181g — for reference purposes the Amazon Kindle is at 290g, and the Apple iPad at 730g. My previous e–book reader, the multipurpose Palm T|X, stayed at 148g.

The N900 is noticeably heavier than the Palm, yet also narrower. It fits better in my hand, although the wider screen on the T|X was slightly more comfortable. This is compensated for by the increase in PPI and overall screen quality.

For the purpose of this article, the upper left hand volume «rocker» requires mention. Under normal circumstances pressing down on the right side of this button will increase the volume; pressing down on the left will decrease it. Note also that the position described above is dependent on the device being in landscape mode, with the logotype up.

Finally, the battery is a Nokia BL–5J Li–Ion battery, rated at 1320 mAh. With the backlight on full, a 3G connection used for mail every 30 minutes, the WiFi transmitter engaged, and the incoming message notification light merrily blinking I get roughly 2.5 hours of constant reading.

That’s not good. Luckily it is not how I normally read e–books, so let’s turn off bluetooth and wifi, and dial the backlight down slightly. In this mode, which I find pleasant to the eyes, the N900 lasted a good 8 hours. That is quite acceptable.

The Readers

There are, to my knowledge, four e–book readers available for Maemo 5 at the time of writing. I am quite intentionally ignoring PDF books, even though there are two readers for the format, as they are not a topic of interest for me. PDFs tend to be printer–centric, and are rarely well suited for reading on small devices.

FBReader

Version 0.10.7–1. The Maemo 5 release of this application differ somewhat from the desktop version, and is not completely adapted to the N900 UI. FBReader is a dedicated e–book reader, however, with no external book catalogue connections (yet). It has support for EPUB, FB2, Plucker, OEB, OpenReader, HTML, text, Ztxt, Palmdoc (Aportis), TCR, Mobipocket, and CHM.

GSoC (now: Mebook)

Version 0.0.6–2. Still in development, but showing great promise. This application focus on EPUB support.

The program is in the alpha stage, which, in programming speek roughly means it could be unstable, and possibly lead to data loss. That said it’s the darned best alpha–level release I’ve ever laid my sticky fingers on.

When «turning» the page I’ve noticed, at times, some delays and a chequered background showing up; at other times it’s slow. And that, as far as I can tell, is it — no instability, no memory hogging, no CPU killin’.

MGutenberg

Version 0.3.1–1. This application is specifically written for the N900 and is a Project Gutenberg catalogue browser with a built–in e–book reader. It has support for Plucker, FB2, HTML and plain text files.

EPUBReader

Version 1.2.9.1. Adds EPUB support to the MicroB browser which ship with Maemo 5 — or so I thought. It would appear that MicroB, which is based on Gecko, is sufficiently near other Gecko–based agents in heritage that it can load and use the extension, but it doesn’t work properly. Alas. My fault for not reading the original posting at maemo.org properly.

Now that Firefox Mobile 1.1 — based on Firefox 3.6 — is out, I’ve installed it and 1.2.9.1 of EPUBReader.

JS–based readers

In addition to these four, there exist a plethora of JS–based EPUB readers. Since EPUB is, basically, XHTML 1.1 + CSS we ought not be surprised.

Some, such as epubjs, render very nicely, but require that the EPUB file be uncompressed to the same directory as the JS code. This gets a little odd when all you want to do is read the book.

Others, such as rePublish, work poorly even on the desktop — I could not get it to function properly on either Opera or Firefox. Yet others, such as js–epub, are libraries for building e–book readers more than fully fledged readers in their own right.

In all fairness, epubjs works very well indeed on Firefox 1.1 as long as you accept the font–size specified as your own. The problem isn’t in the rendering, however, but the hoops required to get there. Alas.

Features

FBReader

Feature–wise FBReader is by far the most complete even if some capabilities from the desktop– and N810 version are still missing. There is, for example, a good hierarchical book library function but it can only sort on author, and not title or tags.FBReader - epub

Except for this you can configure most everything: line height, margin, indentation, lead, font family, size, colours … you name it, you can adjust it. The plethora of settings allow you to compensate for the poor CSS support.

You can also rotate the display, making it easy to read in portrait mode. The volume rocker function as a combined page up/down key; an important feature which means you don’t need to tap or drag the screen while reading.

The N900 rests comfortably, as mentioned, in my left hand, with the volume rocker making it easy to «flip» pages back and forth. Should I wish to use my right hand I can rotate the screen 180 degrees and still get access to the hardware keys; an important feature.

MGutenberg

MGutenberg, on the other hand, has no easily reached configuration options except «Inverse colors» and «Portrait». It is basically impossible to adjust the typography except, presumably, by actually editing the CSS/HTML.MGutenberg

Rotation support is limited to landscape and portrait, and you scroll by either tapping the top/bottom of the screen, or by dragging your finger or stylus across. There is no fullscreen mode that I can find.

One detail which breaks the deal for me, is the lack of any practical way of enlarging, or reducing, the font. The default text size is pleasant, but a little too big for my taste.

MeBook

GSoC, now rather more simply named «MeBook», support EPUBs, and EPUBs only. It obeys — much to my delight — the CSS as specified in the book, and is perfectly adapted to to Maemo. MeBook - epub

At the moment there are only six different user options to specify, which is so different from FBReader that I had to look twice — but nothing much is actually missing.

You can set whether the volume rockers should scroll smoothly, or jump from page to page; whether it should run in portrait or landscape, with black on white or white on black text, the font family and –size, as well as whether the backlight should be kept on.

The latter is a feature I have yet to see in any of the other readers. It can be achieved by way of the so–called «Simple Brightness Applet», but having it available to the one application where I want the backlight on is a pleasant surprise.

To get full–screen mode, tap twice in the middle of the page; to get the table of contents double–tap again and locate it in the lower left hand corner. To add a bookmark, press down in the middle of the screen and wait for a context–menu. A bookmark is identified by a text, and a colour — nicely done.

Another interesting detail is the fact that in portrait mode, with scrolling set to «page», you can sweep right/left to get the next/previous page. It appears impossible to sweep too far. Very book–like and appreciated.

EPUBReader

When I first tried out the Firefox Extension «EPUBReader» I thought it a little bit of a fake :) EPUB, basically, is XHTML 1.1 plus CSS 2.1, something Firefox already support. That takes care of the rendering issues. EPUBReader

These browser extensions have never found a supporter in me, mostly due to the underlying user agent — it has been a slow, monolithic construction. But …

For an e–book reader, using the browser has a number of advantages – first and foremost in terms of the rendering quality. This, next to the PPI of the device, may very well be the single most important factor.

EPUBReader has come a long way, and the rendering engine in Firefox 1.1 is quite remarkable. One difficulty is the fact that adjustments to style and layout have to be done in the CSS file embedded within the EPUB — this will likely put off casual users, as it’ll make it very hard to adjust preferences for EPUB–files you do not have full control over. The desktop version has a preferences editor, but I could not find it in the N900 release.

According to the author, the lack of fine–grained options in the mobile edition is a pragmatic choice based on the amount of work required versus the user base. Again I can’t fault that, but hope it’ll change.

There are also, at the moment, some issues with the font–resize icons disappearing when turning the device to portrait mode, as well as lines not re–flowing to fit the screen. That said, the author is proving most helpful. The menu–bar issue has been corrected — look for a new revision Very Soon Now — and the re–flow appears to be an effect of me specifying max–width in em on paragraphs.

A few other difficulties exist. EPUBReader does not, as far as I can tell, remember your last position when Firefox is shut down, or when switching books. It is, however, possible to manually add a bookmark — a function which works as expected, and which we are all quite familiar with from «real» books.

This said, I am most impressed with the support, and with how well the application works. I’ll certainly test new versions as they are released.

Conclusion

My conclusion, for now, is that even with the quirks, FBReader is feature–wise the best e–book reader for the N900 — in July 2010, mind. EPUBReader ranks a solid second but does carry the weight of Firefox, and MeBook is very quickly climbing my list.

Quality

FBReader

It has to be said: FBReader has some odd quirks indeed. Their support for MOBI, for example, is far better than their support for EPUB – a shame, as I would prefer to use the latter.

As it stands it would appear that the EPUB book does not obey the settings in FBReader, whereas the MOBI book follows them reasonably correctly. None of them do well with the included CSS :(

I have included four screenshots of the sample book in MGutenberg (directly downloaded from Project Gutenberg), FBReader (epub), FBReader again (mobi), EPUBReader and MeBook.

In addition there is one screenshot of FBReader with the same MOBI file, but this time using the FreeSerif font. The sheer quality of the rendering is, alas, not easily conveyed in this fashion. When looking at these screenshots, keep in mind that the actual screen is more crisp and clean than this.

The Droid Serif font is particularly pleasing to the eye :) and gives you approximately 45 characters per line (at –1 in the settings).

You may notice, for example, that the EPUB and MOBI versions use quotation marks correct for the period and location, while the MGutenberg version uses «normal» straight up quotes. This can be improved by creating a more well–adapted HTML version for MGutenberg, of course.

Images, both cover and inline, display nicely.

MGutenberg

MGutenberg render acceptably, but the lack of controls such as font family and –size does pull it down. There’s little else to remark on.

MeBook

MeBook score very high indeed on rendering. It obey CSS, as mentioned above, which gives untold possibilities for very well designed e–books. In addition it has built–in support for changing the font family and –size, something which is a requirement for the application to go «mainstream» — most users will not, even if they could, want to take EPUB files apart to change the rendering.

Images, both cover and inline, display nicely.

EPUBReader

EPUBReader, as a Firefox XUL extension, render beautifully, and obey the CSS specified in the EPUB very nicely indeed — although the author has, up until now, made a conscious choice to always use Arial, in order to avoid problems with books specifying unreadable fonts.

I can hardly disagree with his logic, but as the N900 has PPI enough to make even serif fonts render nicely I’d quite like an override button somewhere. His user–support is excellent — kudos, Michael — and so we’ll see what happens.

Conclusion

For now…. FBReader is my e–book reader of choice on the N900. It needs improvement, in particular in the adaptation to Maemo 5. Some of the controls are quite impossible to use.

There’s nothing out there right now which can push it off that position, but both EPUBReader and MeBook are very quickly gaining.

I’m hoping for great things from them both :)

Screenshots

References

* FBReader * MeBook * MGutenberg * EPUBReader * epubjs * rePublish * js-epub