Thursday, December 31, 2009

Problems with Kindle

I recently switched from Kindle to nook. Here's a list of reasons why I would make a major investment in a competing product.
  1. The nook's screen is far superior to the Kindle's in my opinion at least.
  2. Hoping that Barnes and Noble offers better service to smaller eBook publishers.
  3. The silent but immediate removal of affiliate payments on eBooks.
  4. Amazon telling me that I "don't mind its DRM". (Hint: I particularly mind their form of DRM.)
  5. Amazon signing authors to exclusive deals which presumably will get their eBooks off of any competing platform's reader.
  6. The complete shift of the industry to embrace Adobe's Digital Editions... except for Amazon. While the nook seems to use a form not yet compatible with other readers, it seems that's a temporary setback. In the meantime, any ePub book encrypted with Adobe's DRM will read back on the nook. This means in addition to Barnes and Noble, I can buy from Sony, plus dozens of indie publishers. Additionally, Borders is opening an eBook store using the format, as is Google. That's a lot of openness (well, for a DRM laden world at least), and in stark contrast to Amazon's policy of "own a Kindle, buy books from us. End of line."
Why not another reader? Well, I want wireless access - I do most of my book buying in bookstores, but I prefer to buy eBooks. That pretty much narrows the choice down to the big three (Amazon, Sony, Barnes and Noble). Of them, you can tell why I am a former Kindle user. Sony's only wireless reader has a touch screen (hello reduced legibility of eInk screen, fingerprint smudging) and a price tag that's $140 higher. Besides, free cookies are delicious, and offset the purchase price by $1.99 everytime I grab one!

Special thanks to TeleRead. I read a lot of blogs, but when it comes to eBook issues, most of the stories tend to come from them. Check them out!

Calibre and Slashdot Warning

A quick warning - using the latest 0.6.31 Windows release of Calibre, I had set Slashdot to download once daily as part of about 20 sites I've scheduled. I woke up the next morning to find it less than 10% done - but my IP had been banned by Slashdot. Your mileage may vary - but there may be a serious bug in this version of the Slashdot news plugin that may cause enough traffic to get you (temporarily) banned.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Great nook My Documents Sorting Workaround

So the nook 1.1.1 update brings a lot of goodness to the table (mostly: SPEED) and generally turns the nook from a promising device to a fantastic device. However:

Your own personal books are impossible to browse!

It would seem that books you "side load" (which is a fancy way to say copy onto the nook via either USB and your Finder/Windows Explorer or sync via the uber-excellent Calibre) appear on your nook in the order in which they were copied.

On my Mac, that means if you grab a list of 20-30 books and copy them to your nook's "My Documents" folder, you have NO HOPE of them being sorted in any useful manner, since even if the list appears to be alphabetical when you copy it, the Mac will dutifully copy the files in the order in which they are stored on your disk, which rarely is alphabetical!

"steve10" over at nookverse, a site I just discovered thanks to the Google search term "nook my documents sort workaround" has the issue solved for Windows users, but dutifully notes it does not work for Linux users. One can add Mac users to the list of people his workaround doesn't quite work for.

I spent some time writing a script to change all the file create/modified times having misinterpreted what is happening here. I figured when they said "the order in which the books were copied" meant "newest on top, oldest on bottom" and that resetting all the dates/times on the books so the earliest time stamp matched the first author alphabetically would do the trick. Sure enough - this does nothing. What's really happening is it's being sorted based on the order in which your files were written to the disk, with the first file appearing first - forever!

On a Mac, or Linux machine do a:

ls -f "/volumes/nook/my documents/"

NOTE: Linux users - your nook almost certainly doesn't appear in that path - type "mount" from the command line to see where it actually shows up.

This will show you the true order of files and directories on your disk.

There's hope, however. I use Calibre to manage my non-Barnes and Noble sourced books and documents. It creates a directory per author, which I've "helped" by making sure all my Calibre items are given a "Last Name, First" author name (makes sorting much, much easier).

So how do you reorder your directories on a Mac (this should work for Linux, but I have no test machine handy)? With the provided script.

What it does, in a nutshell is:
  1. Verify that there is indeed a /Volumes/nook/my documents folder - a sure sign that your nook is indeed mounted. If you are trying this app under Linux you'll certainly have to edit that portion!
  2. Rename your my documents folder to mydocs.old (now would be the time to warn you not to have a folder called mydocs.old on the root of your nook, as unlikely as that is).
  3. Grab a list of all folders inside mydocs.old, sort them alphabetically (and alphanumerically for that matter), and then move them into a new "my documents" folder one by one (one by one is the key here), starting with Beck, Glenn and ending with Zakaria, Fareed. Naturally those starting and end points will vary based on the actual authors on your nook!
  4. It then removes the (hopefully) empty mydocs.old.
  1. This script seems to run great on my Macintosh and my nook.
  2. I offer no warranty, nor even a reasonable guarantee that it's harmless. I think the script should work on your Mac and your nook - but have no real way of doing so.
  3. It's a hack and a workaround. It's not a polished script, since I assume I won't have to run it soon - we're all hoping Barnes and Noble tidies up this functionality in the rumored January software update.
  4. Yes, I can (within reason) answer your questions / help you with the script - just drop a comment on this post and I'll do my best.
  5. No really, remember - this can completely work - or it might delete some books of your nook / crash your Mac / brick you nook / cause a major power outage in your town / who knows what might really happen.
Without further ado - the script. I run it every time I sync a new book via Calibre, and after 3 or 4 syncs it's still working pretty well... for me!


IFS=`echo -en "\n\b"`

# Make sure Nook is mounted and "my documents" exists.
if [ -d /Volumes/nook/my\ documents ];
echo "WARNING: No Nook detected."
exit 1

# Grab list of folders (Calibre users: this corresponds to authors)

totalcount=`ls /Volumes/nook/my\ documents | wc | awk '{print $1}'`

echo "There are a total of $totalcount authors to process."

cd /Volumes/nook
mv my\ documents mydocs.old
mkdir "my documents"

for folder in $(ls /Volumes/nook/mydocs.old | sort -f);

mv mydocs.old/$folder my\ documents


rmdir mydocs.old

UPDATE: If you aren't using Calibre / have files in the root of My Documents not necessarily in a folder this script will work - but since it doesn't read any metadata, those files will be sorted by filename, not necessarily by author. So if you store all your files in the root and wish to sort by title - it will work. If you mix and match some files managed by Calibre (stored by author) and others copied by hand and stored by filename - your sort won't be perfect - but you won't lose anything!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

"Acoustic" Jams

Not really sure where I even got this anymore, but I have a bootleg of Jimi Hendrix with the seemingly suggestive title "Acoustic Jams". Sure enough, it's chock full of Jimi wailing on an electric guitar.

Nook vs Kindle

So having (finally) spent a few hours with my (finally) delivered nook, which immediately updated to 1.1.1 after registration, I can offer a few tidbits that will hopefully help those on the fence.

I think the most important thing to realize is that all of the early reviews were based on the 1.0 firmware. That's actually a shame, since it gave a very unfavorable impression of the nook and in reality - by the time all but the very earliest adopters (I'm talking people who pre-ordered on day 1) received their nooks, 1.1 was out minimally, and 1.1.1 for most of us.

So here's the scoop on the 1.1.1 update:
  • Page turning is noticeably faster. It's probably a quarter to a third of a second slower than the Kindle 2 but still responsive enough for all.
  • The LCD screen is incredibly more responsive. The book cover feature is still a tad sluggish when you swipe left and right, but ALL other aspects are absolutely tremendously more responsive.
  • Entering a book is perhaps 100% improved. If you've already started a book, it jumps right to where you left off (no stopping at the details page and clicking on read). If it's the last book you were reading - no "formatting" delay. If it's not the last book you read, it still has to "format" - but that time seems to be a tenth of what it used to be.
  • Free cookies when at a brick and mortar Barnes and Noble store. Don't under-estimate this. Between the lower price versus hard cover books and promises of regular free snacks and coffee at the store - your $259 investment will eventually be returned to you. Who doesn't like FREE COOKIES?
Versus Kindle:

I think there's one very obvious difference between the Kindle 2 and the nook - the nook's screen is easier to read. Part of this, I think is a better choice of fonts, but the screen is just easier on the eyes, and seems to require less ambient light for comfortable reading as well. This is a HUGE difference. I had heard that the Kindle 2 had a worse screen than the Kindle 1, and if true, that's a BIG selling point in Barnes and Noble's favor.

In addition, there are a few other pros:
  • Competition. In addition to the B&N store you can purchase any ePub file, even if it has DRM. This means that early next year when Borders opens their store - you'll have TWO major booksellers offering content. Plus there's a HUGE market of internet-based sellers that support ePub. Plus there's a little company called Sony that is converting all of their books to ePub. That will make for THREE large sellers and MANY indies. Also, Google is throwing their hat into the ring with a commercialized version of their Google Books going live early next year.
  • Better PDF support. The Kindle 2 magically gained PDF support after it became known that nook would support it. Prior to that announcement, the only method was their conversion service which operated via email, and had limited success in my examples. Having compared both - the nook does a tremendously better job displaying PDF content.
  • Graphics. Photos just look better, I don't know if it's a contrast thing, or a better resolution screen, but B&W photos look nicer on the nook than the Kindle 2.
  • Magazines and Newspapers. They are formatted better, include more graphics, and have a better flow. Download PC Magazine to see a good example - every article has a picture, and the layout is more browsable.
  • Dimensions. By being slightly smaller in width, the nook is easier to hold one handed. That's pretty big, actually, in my book.
The Kindle certainly has a few things going for it. For one, it has better battery life, especially with wireless on. There are two caveats to that. The first - is that a recent update has the wireless radio going off on its own, so there's a big lag now when going online in some cases. The second, is that as long as either device can go a couple of days between charges - who cares! I'm rarely away from an outlet for more than 72 hours, after all!

In addition, in the battle of features that some publishers are crippling, the Kindle wins. I'd prefer text-to-speech being available on most books (Kindle) then a book lending feature that only works once per book (nook). Then again, I rarely used text to speech on the Kindle - I used to do it quite a bit late at night via headphones but found I wasn't retaining as much information as when reading. Book lending sounds nice... but whatever - go buy your own books!

At the end of the day, the biggest issue I had with the Kindle was lock in. You were locked in to the Kindle and the Amazon Kindle store for books. Or non-DRMed books, which are going to be a rarity in the near future - and limited to non-major authors for sure.

Right now I can buy ePub books from any ePub seller and read them on nook. Or I can download them for free from Google Books (older books out of copyright, of course). Or I can check out a few from the library and read them for free. In the future, the form of encryption used by the nook will be compatible with other ePub readers, so I'll have an exit path if some company comes out with a better eReader. Tired of your Kindle - you're either stuck without your books or need to wade through the murky waters of removing DRM which I am fairly sure violates the DMCA law in the United States.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Nook Reviews & A Grain Of Salt

Initial Nook reviews were somewhat average. Many gave it high marks for innovative features, but almost everybody agreed the Kindle was more mature, and therefore perhaps more desirable. Only David Pogue lashed out against it (and his readers in turn lashed out against him).

So where did David Pogue go astray? Not every review I linked to was positive. Not every one declared it the winner in the Kindle wars. But Pogue especially hated it. On the basis of that review, I spent some time at the Barnes & Noble store playing with a Nook, and found at the very least, his claim of a three second page turn was not true.

Several other complaints were valid, and close to deal breakers. But now v1.1 has shipped as a free wireless update, which addresses the following:

  • Improved page turn and formatting of downloaded eBooks
  • Improved startup time for My Library, The Daily, and Settings
  • Immediate launch of the reader upon choosing Select from The Daily and My Library, for books and subscription issues that have already been downloaded; otherwise the book detail page is displayed, with Download as the first option.
  • Exclusive Barnes & Noble in-store content and promotions: when a customer enters a store, your nook will recognize the location and display the Barnes & Noble logo and welcome message, as well as special articles and offers.
  • Elimination of the page skipping that has occurred in certain PDB eBooks
  • Status bar (battery indicator, signal indicator, and clock) is displayed in reader
  • Overall system improvements
I don't know what "Overall system improvements" means, but the rest are all good for sure. It's also nice to see the updates coming voluntarily. The Kindle DX supported PDF natively - but the Kindle never did. That is, until the Nook was announced, and then suddenly and finally, PDF support came to Kindle 2/the International Kindle. It doesn't work very well, but one has to wonder what made them hurry up and deliver a new feature for the first time (previous updates were bug fixes).

If the pace of updates and improvements continues then the objections will drop, and the Nook will probably continue to be sold out for months at a time.

Nook's "Open" & DRMed

So can a product be open and saddled with DRM? I think the answer is... basically. You see, all book readers support DRM (this is not the same as requiring DRM). Without it, publisher's wouldn't allow their books onto it (very few book publishers support unencrypted books).

The segment is much like the iPod was in the early days of the iTunes Music Store. Yes, it supported MP3 and unprotected MP4 files. But to buy music online it came with DRM. In fact, the Kindle and the Nook are very similar, in that they support multiple devices sharing one purchased copy - each account can authorize many devices to share content. Apple pioneered this, and it really made the DRM tolerable. Now all my Macs, PCs, Apple TVs, iPods and iPhones plus my wife's PC, iPod and iPhone all could share the same 99 cent song. In fact, it was arguably more convenient than a CD. Sure I couldn't post it online and let everybody grab it, but that's illegal anyway. But I could copy it onto all those devices, no "ripping", no blank CDs to buy... within the realm of what was allowed, it was very easy to do. If the computers sat on the same network, you could even stream the music without copying or downloading - very handy indeed!

Kindle and Nook have nailed this too. Authorized devices under an account can read the same book, be it a PC or Mac (Amazon's Mac software is not quite released yet, however), an iPhone, or a eBook reader.

So why do I find the Nook superior? Support for non-proprietary formats. Amazon has latched onto the MobiPocket file format, which they added custom DRM to. Want to buy a book? It must be available without DRM ... or purchased from Amazon.

The Nook supports their own format as well, which I understand to be a modified version of ePub that is rumored to become available via SDK from Adobe to other manufacturers. That means, in theory, those books could be loaded onto another eBook reader that supported ePub, such as a Sony. But not a Kindle, since Amazon doesn't support ePub. In addition, the Nook supports the usual open, unencumbered formats, such as PDF, PDB, and non-DRMed ePub. But lastly, it supports Adobe's DRM engine for ePub. There are lots of independent stores using this, and their books can be loaded onto your Nook. In addition, it's becoming increasingly popular at libraries, which means you can go to your local library to get a card (because who has a library card these days), and then go home, go online, and check out an ePub version of a book and load it for a few weeks onto your device. That's right... FREE bestsellers! Finally, Uncle Sam is subsidizing something that ACTUALLY benefits ME!

Since supporting books without DRM is useless, (what books?!) this ePub support is actually very, very important. It allows for price competition (Borders is about to open a store which will be large enough to compete with B&N's prices, unlike some of the third party stores that either have lesser titles from lesser known authors, or high prices). It allows for portability. ePub is popular enough that it will last a few years for sure - so one can bring their ePub books with them to a new reader should you move on from the Nook. If the rumors of B&N book compatibility with other ePub readers becomes true, you can even move their own books to a new reader. In the meantime, Barnes and Noble, being a bookseller not a hardware manufacturer has already licensed their store technology to another eBook reader manufacturer, so there will soon be multiple choices from multiple vendors. Kindle? Amazon books only on an Amazon provided Kindle or Kindle DX.

So what do you do if you have a Kindle but want a Nook? You can carry both until you finish reading all your old books, and then have access only from your PC or iPhone. You can rebuy your books on a Nook, but that doesn't sound like a good idea. Or, you can logon to your Amazon account, download each book, understand that any Topaz books (they will download onto a PC with a .tpz extension) cannot be converted, and for the rest, use the questionably legal utility described here. The utility is pretty much only for techies. It's a Python script (you'll have to download and install Python on your PC - a Mac already has it). It's command line driven (no fancy GUI). It's ugly. But it works.

Once you've done that, you'll have a bunch of unprotected .mobi files. Take those files and load them into Calibre which can convert into any number of formats, including non-protected ePub. It's actually a great tool - it can even manage the synchronization process to your eReader, including Kindles, Nooks and Sony's (oh my).

When you are done, you'll have recuperated most (perhaps all) of your Kindle book investment, depending on how many Topaz files you had. You might even get $150 or so on eBay for your old Kindle, meaning you can do the conversion for $100 give or take a few books you have to rebuy.

You can also rejoice in the knowledge that you now have a slightly more open eReader, and one with slightly easier removal of protection.