Jon Thysell

Father. Engineer. Retro games. Ukuleles. Nerd.

Tag: ebook

What I use in 2012, Part 2: Software

I like to see how people work; especially for those whose work is mostly on the computer. In part 1 of this series, I listed all of the tech hardware I use at home; now I’ll list all of the software I use on a regular basis.

Note: I don’t endorse anything here beyond the implicit “this is what I actually use at home.”

The Basics

OS: Ubuntu w/ Gnome Shell

I played with Linux as far back as high-school, but despite multiple partitions and many early distributions, I always came back to Windows. In college I realized that if I was serious about learning Linux, I needed to use it exclusively. I liked Debian, but it was always just a bit out of date, and I hated that it installed a lot of redundant stuff (ten text editors, five desktop environments, etc).

Then I found Ubuntu.

I started with Ubuntu 5.10 “Breezy Badger” and Gnome with it; and despite some early dalliances with Ubuntu’s many derivations, I’ve been an Ubuntu user ever since. I was skeptical of the trends post-Gnome 2; Unity was slow, customization-poor and untested, while Gnome 3 was taking a risky move away from the Windows-clone icons, desktop and taskbar. I loved the abandoned pre-Unity “netbook launcher”, so I understood that a new UI paradigm might not be a bad thing- so I buckled down and tested both Unity and Gnome 3 extensively to see what fit.

I fell in love with Gnome 3 and the Gnome Shell. It lets me manage all of my personal work effortlessly, all from one laptop screen. Multiple virtual desktops, with previews exposed by the Super key, along with search and a preview of my open apps. I prefer it over every desktop UI that I’ve ever used. (Sounds like something worthy of discussing in its own post).

Browser: Firefox

I have jumped around from browser to browser over the years. In the early days I evangelized about Opera– but then everyone copied their feature set, and opened themselves in ways that Opera just couldn’t keep up with. I lived in the extension-heavy hell of Firefox for years, then leaned down with a focus on bookmarklets, then jumped to Chrome as the hot new thing.

I switched back to Firefox at the beginning of the year, wondering how far they’d come since I jumped to Chrome. I was very impressed. I have very few extensions; five in fact, and I sync all of my computers with the same settings. It’s not a memory hog anymore, and as far as I can tell, it’s no slower than Chrome. Chrome is extensible too- but Firefox has just the right set of tweaks that I want.

Productivity: LibreOffice

I started with OpenOffice.org even before I switched to Linux full-time; who didn’t want a free office suite with MS-compatibility and PDF export? I’m a big supporter of open formats, and OOo gave us the Open Document standard. One of my most popular software projects is my weight-tracking Open Document Spreadsheet, Weight Tracker ODS. When the majority of the development group moved to LibreOffice, I went with them. I use it for all of my regular Office needs.

Productivity: Microsoft Office Web Apps

I prefer open-source but I’m not evangelical; all I care is that I have the tools I need to get my work done. I use Microsoft Office often enough when I’m on Windows machines, but with the exception of OneNote (don’t get me started on how much I love OneNote for note organizing) there’s nothing about Office that really enables me beyond what LibreOffice offers.

However I have come to be blown away by the Microsoft Office Web Apps. I keep a few documents saved to SkyDrive (namely a couple OneNote notebooks), and it amazes me how much I can do with them in a browser. Plus I can access those docs on my phone. (Sounds like I need to write a post about how awesome OneNote can be).

Email: Gmail

I’ve used Gmail since college, primarily though the web interface, though occasionally I’ve used IMAP clients. I love its features, I love its hacks, and I couldn’t live without its spam filter. It maybe misses one or two emails a year- and I put my email address up everywhere, without obfuscation.

Chat: Google Talk

I don’t IM as much as I used to, but these days when I do, it’s on Google Talk. I think Jabber is a pretty sweet protocol- and having a Google account nabs this for free. I’ve also found that it has the absolute best AV stack I’ve ever used; it sacrifices clarity for faster frame-rates, which in real-life, low-bandwidth conversations, is a much better trade-off. I don’t need to see every pore to read someone’s facial expression: a smooth frame-rate without skipping or audio hiccups means I can follow all of the non-verbal communication and everything feels much more natural, even if it’s out of focus.

File Sync: Dropbox

I use Dropbox for syncing a select few files that I want on every machine, like my encrypted password database, or when I’m lazy for a quick transfer. I don’t trust them for anything else, as they don’t encrypt user’s files well enough. (They save space by not duplicating files that multiple people have, which they know because they keep a copy of the keys so they can decrypt your files.)

Password Management: KeePass

I’ve been using a password manager for a decade, and I use KeePass because it works well and has clients on a ton of platforms.

RSS: Google Reader

I read a lot of things via RSS, and I’ve used Google Reader for years. The web client is great on the PC, and pretty much every mobile ecosystem has a compatible client, so I don’t have to keep track of multiple subscription lists.

Finances: GnuCash

I have OCD when it comes to balancing my checkbook, and for years now have been using the free GnuCash to do so.

Social: HootSuite

I’m on Twitter and Facebook, and believe me, I’ve tried every possible app on every platform I have access to. Right now I live inside HootSuite. It lets me see only the columns I want, and most useful, it lets me space out my posts with AutoSchedule so I don’t flood my followers every time I hop on Google Reader and start sharing links.

Entertainment

Ebooks

Management: Calibre

Calibre is an amazing piece of software. It works with practically every e-reading device, lets you format back and forth between formats, pull down metadata, create new ebooks; the list goes on and on. I keep it running almost all the time, because then I can browse my library remotely with my phone, and pick and choose what books to download when I want to read them.

Really, once you have Calibre, you don’t need any other ebook software on your PC.

Store: Smashwords

I prefer to buy my books on Smashwords whenever possible. You can’t beat DRM-free with access to every format. It’s why I chose to sell my own ebooks through them too.

Store: Kobo Books

When I need to buy more “mainstream” books, I typically find them on Kobo for the same price as everyone else, but with the “benefit” that their DRM (though DRM is always a middle finger to paying customers) is the standard “every device can read it and it’s really easy to make go away” Adobe DRM. Nothing fancy.

Video

Playback: VLC

VLC has handled every media file I’ve thrown at it for a decade. No extra codecs to install, no hoops to jump through- it just works. If you’re new to computers, and the web, you have no idea what it means to have a video player that can, you know, actually play video files. It was the wild west a decade ago.

Encoding: Handbrake

I rip digital backups of my legally-owned DVDs for easy searching and playback on all of my devices, including my Xbox 360. Handbrake enables me to do that perfectly.

Streaming: uShare

I keep all of my video files on my Ubuntu-based home server, and with uShare, I can play those videos on my Xbox 360. It’s wonderful.

Music

Playback: Rhythmbox

Though my music lives on my home server, I do keep a full copy local to my laptop so that I can disconnect and still listen to my music. I’ve used Rhythmbox for years and love it for organizing and playing my music.

Encoding: abcde & lame

Yes, I’m one of those few guys that still buys CDs. And when I do, the very first thing I do is rip them to my hard drive and throw the disc into a box in the closet for safe-keeping. I use abcde because it’s set to the lame settings I like, and it’s one command from CD to MP3s.

Tags: EasyTAG

Everyone has their own rules about MP3 tags, even if the rule is “don’t care as long as they play and I know what they are”. I’m very meticulous about my collection (read: OCD), and EasyTAG rocks for getting those unruly music files under control.

Streaming: Subsonic

Subsonic runs on my home server, and the free version provides a web interface that lets me to browse and stream my music, create playlists, from any computer with a browser. Even from multiple computers at the same time, and with auto-transcoding for different file types and for different machines (if say you want to minimize bandwidth at work).

There are even a bunch of native clients on different platforms to let me access my Subsonic server, and even video support via flash (ala YouTube) if you pay for it. Sometimes, a paid program just really is worth it, and I’ve never regretted the purchase. I’ve tried all the open-source alternatives, but none come close.

Store: Amazon MP3

When I do buy digital music, I buy MP3, and I buy from Amazon. No special client, just give me my files. Like I said above, I usually buy CDs, but every now and then I see an album I’m on the fence about, and the MP3s are usually cheaper. It’s been a slow acclimation for me to buy digital files without the backup of a physical item, but Amazon does a good job.

Software Development

IDE: MonoDevelop

Working in the software industry means I have to use a certain set of technology for my job, and a certain list of programming languages. I also program way more at work than I do at home, so those languages tend to take precedence for me to know. And for a while now, the language to know has been C#.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining- in fact I love C# and the .Net stack. It just doesn’t seem very Linux.

The real problem is, despite all of its power tools, especially for developers, I have never been happy with any of the IDEs for developing in any language in Linux. It seems either you use some variant of Eclipse (which I hate), or a text editor plus a bunch of command-line tools.

Then they made MonoDevelop… and it is just glorious.

I live in Visual Studio at work, and in MonoDevelop I feel right at home. It makes compatible binaries, uses compatible project files, has Intellisense and nUnit and a real debugger- it’s basically everything I need in one place with nothing I don’t. It makes cross-platform development fun and not a game of “find the tool”.

Text Editor: Gedit

When I’m in the GUI and I need a quick edit, I use Gedit. It’s got just enough spunk for what I need.

Text Editor: Vim

When I’m working in the command-line, I use Vim to edit text files. Emacs users… to each his own.

Source Control: Bazaar

I plan on writing more in the future about Bazaar, but essentially it’s a cross-platform VCS that works in any workflow configuration, or several all at once. I use it for my little projects on my machine, then when I want it on my own server repository, and then again when I want to show off to the world on Launchpad. And every time all I have to do is copy the repository over, then pull down a new branch, a checkout branch, whatever makes the most sense for the project.

Writing

Note: I plan on writing about the open-source software I use for writing in greater detail at a later date.

Writing: FocusWriter

Once a year when I sit down to write a new manuscript, I send the developer of FocusWriter a donation. It’s customized to look exactly how I need it to, with progress bars and word sprints and timers and statistics- all of which melt away when I actually write, giving me a distraction free zone to get the words down.

Editing: Geany

Geany is technically an text-editor / lightweight IDE, but I can’t use it for that anymore, cause I’ve customized it so much to support my writing. I may spend a month in FocusWriter to get that first draft, but the next year is in Geany making it shine.

Notes: Zim

I mentioned OneNote above for note organizing, and while it’s true I do use it for some initial story brainstorming, any big writing project eventually makes its way into Zim. It’s cross-platform, uses plain text files, and even uses Bazaar for version control. Right now the entirety of my Guineawick Tales notes and plans are in one giant Zim wiki. I find it indispensable for keeping track of everything.

Web Services

Hosting: WordPress.com

I started using WordPress in the early days of blogging, installed by myself on hosting I paid for while I was in school. I’ve been in and out of its code, and customized the hell out of it for previous websites. Nowadays, I let WordPress.com handle all of the dirty work, pay for enough customization to make my site pretty, and let them take care of the rest. Which they do really, really, well.

Domain Registrar: Namecheap

I’ve been buying domains from Namecheap for years. They’re not always the absolute cheapest, but their dashboard gives me everything I want, with no funny business.

Phone

OS: Windows Phone 7.5

It surprised me that Windows Phone 7 really lived up to its “you don’t need apps, everything is built-in” mantra. In fact I have very few apps on my phone, nowhere as many as I did on Android or webOS. Email, Facebook, Twitter, photos, music, video, whatever- the base OS does pretty much every single thing I need it do, with just a couple of exceptions, which I list next.

Ebooks: Freda+

Freda is the new standard by which I hold all mobile ebook reader apps. It’s silky smooth to use, customized just how I like it, and lets me grab books over the net from my laptop running Calibre. I’ve read a dozen books on it this year, and I love it.

RSS: Nextgen Reader

I need my RSS fix, and Nextgen Reader gives it to me on the go. It syncs with my Google Reader account, so I don’t have separate lists of (un)read content to maintain. Fast and easy to use.

Twitter: Twitter

I’ve tried every single Twitter client on the Windows Phone platform, paid and free, and every single one was either slow, bloated, had a funky UI, or was way too power-user for what I need. I’m not a social media maven, I just want all of the Twitter functionality in a fast client that looks good. Surprisingly, the official Twitter client works really well for my needs.

Everything Else

Most pieces of software are specialized tools (especially in the Linux world), the use of which depends on the kind of work you do regularly. I could write a post ten times as long with every piece of software I’ve used at one point or another for specific, one-time tasks, but that would be tiresome and probably a waste of time. (Of course, who knows if anyone even read this far).

“Too Long, Didn’t Read” Summary

I run Ubuntu at home, and I prefer to use open-source, cross-platform software whenever I can. I don’t like paying for software or services unless the value they provide clearly outstrips any free or roll-your-own alternatives. I avoid vendor lock-in like a plague, preferring file formats that I can crack if the software stops working.

And just like in part 1, remember: this is just what I use at home, not necessarily what I use in my job at Microsoft.

/jon

P.S. So what do you use at home? Leave a comment below!

5 reasons the PocketBook 360 is a better ebook reader

My PocketBook360

I recently wrote an extended review of the PocketBook 360 ebook reader after having owned one for over a year. It wasn’t until after I posted it that I saw how long it was, so I’ve decided to summarize my love for the PB360.

Here’s the top 5 reasons the PocketBook 360 is a better ebook reader:

5. User replaceable battery

It’s a sad fact that having a user replaceable battery impresses me these days. It used to be a given that you could change a device’s batteries. Now at best you have to send stuff back, at worse you have a pretty brick. Not everyone belongs to the “replace your toys every 18 months” crowd.

4. Built-in cover

Ereaders have nice big glass screens that needs protecting. The PB360 has a hard cover that snaps on the back when in use, which means no ugly, bulky, heavy, “look it’s a book” covers.

3. It isn’t stuck in any one ecosystem

I don’t need a plate that only works at one restaurant. With my PB360 I can read a ton of formats, which means I can choose from a variety of retailers. There’s no special software either, I can plug my PB360 into any PC to copy books over. If Amazon’s prices get too absurd, what’re you gonna read on your Kindle? PDFs?

2. No superfluous hardware

I don’t want a keyboard that I need 0% of the time and takes up a third of the ereader. I don’t need it to play mp3s, or connect to a B&W slow internet. I want giant buttons that make it easy to turn pages, and I want something so light that when I drop it on my face I don’t get a concussion. Give me something elegant and functional that I actually can carry around everywhere. The PB360 delivers on all counts.

1. You own the experience

I can customize just about everything on the PB360. You can add whatever fonts you want. You can specify any size, and change it on the fly. You can set your margins, the aliasing, what stuff to put in the status bar, or if you don’t want a status bar at all.

You can reassign every button. You can set whatever screen savers images you want. You can organize your books as you see fit. Want to navigate by covers, fine. Lists? Fine too. Only want to refresh every 10 pages, making page turn wicked fast? You decide.

What it all comes down to is this: if you like others calling the shots, buy a Nook or Kindle. If you like to have everything just the way you want it, buy a PocketBook 360. You won’t regret it.

/jon

A year later with the PocketBook 360 (and why I still love it)

My PocketBook360

A year ago I purchased a PocketBook 360 e-reader, and after a month I wrote a review about the device on Amazon. It’s been my constant companion since then, and though I’ve tried most of the competiting devices, I still keep coming back to my good ol’ PB360.

The Hardware

Here are the specs, courtesy E-Readers Plaza:

Display
5″ E Ink® Vizplex

G-sensor/Accelerometer
built-in

CPU
Samsung® S3C2440 AL-40 400MHz

Operating system
Linux

E-Book formats
FB2, FB2.zip, TXT, PDF, RTF, HTML, PRC, CHM, DJVU, DOC, EPUB, TCR

Image formats
JPEG, BMP, PNG, TIFF

Additional Software
RSS-News, Calendar, Notes, Sudoku, Games

Connectivity
Mini USB

Memory
RAM 64 Mb
Internal 512Mb
User-accessible 466Mb

Memory slot
microSD, microSDHC card

Battery
Li-Polymer (1000 mAh)

 Size with cover
4.6” x 5.5” x 0.47”
118 x 140 x 12 mm

Size without cover
4.6” x 5.5” x 0.39”
118 x 140 x 10 mm

Weight
5.3 ounces /  g

Color
Ivory, Black

The Look

Over the years I’ve gotten kind of tired of black electronics, and the ivory PB360 looks great. I love the faux vine-engraving on the cover, and more than that, I love that it comes with a cover. Every other e-reader aficionado I’ve met has to buy a separate case, doubling or tripling their device’s weight, plus adding some useless flap you have to hold or fold back. The PB360’s included hard cover snaps effortlessly to the back when you’re reading, which is quite handy.

The screen is a comfortable 5in e-ink, and I regularly read in the sunlight, so no glare issues or eye strain. I can’t overstate how wonderful that is. Don’t let the smaller size dissuade you, you’ll never miss the extra inch from the the 6in. Kindle or Nook screen. Of course, if you’re reading large-format technical works (say a textbook), then e-ink probably isn’t your best choice anyways.

When it comes to page turns, forget other e-readers annoying flash to clear the screen after every page. The PB360 lets you specify how often you want to refresh (more on that in the software review below), which means the page-turn speed on this thing smokes other readers. Sure, eventually you need a full refresh, but I get by on every ten pages without the text getting ugly. I’ve read that the Kindle and Nook have finally added this feature, but they’re still slower and still refresh more often.

Finally, one of the biggest draws of the PB360 was its lack of keyboard. Call me crazy, but I want to read on my e-reader. A full physical keyboard looks dumb, and is completely unnecessary 99.9% of the time. Never in this past year have I regretted not having a keyboard. There’s an on-screen keyboard if you really need it, but it’s been more a curiosity to me than anything else.

The Feel

The PB360 is tiny, but even with my giant hands I’ve not had any problems. The buttons are large and exactly where they need to be, right under my thumb. I can use the device completely one-handed, without getting tired or having to leverage the device against anything.

I do most of my reading on the bus to and from work, or at night in bed. I can hold the device in one hand while the other holds the rail or defends my bags, or lay in bed and hold the device over my face without worrying about jeopardizing my beaut of a mug. I can slip it in my jacket pocket when I pay the fare, or while I’m paying for groceries. The thing weighs a measly 5.3 ounces, even with the cover! Even after year to catch up neither the latest Kindle (8.5oz) or Nook (7.43oz) beats that, and that’s sans cover.

Finally, I turned off the accelerometer almost immediately after purchase, because I don’t want the screen to turn when I’m laying down in bed. But since it’s just a menu click away to manually the change orientation, I can easily flip the reader for left-hand use, say while I’m eating lunch. Flip your Kindle upside down and try to stay looking hip.

The Battery

I’m not exaggerating when I say I can literally count the number of times I’ve plugged in my PB360 to charge in this past year. I’ve gotten by with the trickle-charge from copying over books via USB. This thing is a monster and I go months at a time without needing to plug it in to anything. I’ve never worried about its battery dying.

It’s also user replaceable, which is a big plus in my book. I’ll definitely get new batteries until my PB360 croaks.

The Memory

The PB360 has less internal memory than it’s competition. Doesn’t bother me. I’m carrying about 150 books on the internal memory, which takes up a grand total of 66MB. I still have 400MB to go. If in 10 years I finally fill her up, I’ll just pop in a microSD card. Done.

The Software

Here’s where the PB360 really shines, and at the same time highlights why it may not be the best e-reader for everyone.

General Feel

I’ve come to love the interface on the PB360, but I’ll admit that when I first starting using it I snickered at its “made in China” feel. At first I thought it lacked a little of the sophistication I expect from consumer devices, but I’m a software tester by day and it’s my job to look out for crappy user experiences.

But it’s been a year and my complaints are still minor, mostly that I read several books at once, and with only the two most recent on my home screen, I have to search through my collection more often. Using the Favorites list helps. And after trying the competition, I think it’s way more usable than the Kindle. There’s nothing really obtuse in the interface, it’s just not very flashy. Big deal.

Customize Everything

There are two broad extremes of software designs for consumer electronics:

  1. Manufacturer makes the decisions. The interface looks the way it looks, maybe you can change one or two things. You’re restricted to the service the manufacturer provides.
  2. Customer makes the decisions. You can customize practically everything. You can pick your own service.

The Kindle is closer to number one. You have a couple fonts and a half-dozen font sizes to choose from. You have to void the warranty just to put on custom images for your screen-saver. You’re heavily tied into Amazon for buying books. You can get books elsewhere, but it usually means jumping through hoops, and forget DRMed purchases from other stores.

The PB360 is closer to number two. You can customize almost everything. It comes with a few fonts, but you can add any regular True Type font you want and the PB360 can use it. Pick any font size. You can adjust the margins, the line spacing, every possible thing you could imagine about how the text looks, just like a word processor. I favor Gentium at 24pt, but you don’t have to, because the choice is yours.

You can pick a different style for the menus. You can set whatever you want to be the screensaver image. You decide how much info you want in the status bar at the bottom of the screen, or even if you want one at all.

You can even customize what every hardware button does, for both short and long presses. Saving bookmarks, adjusting the font size, skipping pages, every possible operation that you might want instant access to you can assign to a button.

Important Note: Most of the best customizations require a custom version of fbreader (the software it uses to actually display the books), which is a must-install to maximize the PB360’s power.

Reading Books

The PB360 gets reading books right, hands-down. I’ve already mentioned the fast page-turn and the ability to tweak the text to exactly what you want. With the fast page-turn mentioned above, a 10 second boot, and 5 seconds to open a book, I get in and reading right away.

Even better, and this feature is killer, but during those 10 seconds it takes to boot, you can set the PB360 to automatically show a still image of the last page you were on. That means I can continue reading the instant after I hit the power button. And by the time I’ve hit the bottom of the page, the device is booted up for real, and I can turn to the next page without skipping a beat.

I’m not putting the device to sleep, that’s on a cold boot. Which helps explain the monster battery life. I can afford to turn the device off completely every time, because of this feature alone.

Add the easy to use main context menu and the custom button assignments, and I have complete control over my reading experience.

Getting Books

Here’s where I think most people will have problems with the PB360, because there’s no obvious answer here, you have to decide yourself. With a Kindle or Nook you’re given a tightly integrated ecosystem where you’re never more than an on-device click away from getting new books. With an internet connection, you’ll be hard pressed to be left out in the cold with nothing to read.

The PB360 doesn’t have a dedicated store, and I find that to be a big plus. The device can read a staggering number of formats (see the table above), including the almost-standard EPUB, of which there are many online stores to choose from. Kobo, Barnes and Noble, etc. The PB360 does support Adobe Digital Editions (ie. DRM), which means you can also get ebooks from your local library if they subscribe to Overdrive.

You have only the USB port and the microSD to get books onto your PB360, which usually means you’ll need to be around a computer. The PB360 will show up like a regular mass storage device and you can copy files over without any special software. Since I live in a multi-platform world, this is perfect for me.

I do use the cross-platform Calibre to manage my ebook collection, and it works wonderfully with the PB360. When I get books in other formats, Calibre makes short work of converting them. I keep the books organized by author on the device, which makes navigating my large collection pretty easy.

In short, I love the freedom of choice the PB360 gives me, but I wouldn’t give one to my Grandmother unless I plan on always being on hand to add new books. If the idea of having to copy files over manually scares you, give Calibre a try, but it’s still not as easy as just going to the on-device store and clicking “Buy Now”.

PDF Support

Yes, the PB360 supports PDF. No, I don’t use it often. It kind of works for fiction, and can reflow text reasonably well (with of course plenty of options to tweak it), but it’ll always look uglier than other ebook formats. If you’re looking at reading textbooks or anything with lots of diagrams or complicated layouts, you’re looking at the wrong device.

Other Features (That I mostly don’t use anyway)

The PB360 has a dictionary and can clip notes, set bookmarks, and the other things most e-readers can do these days. I’ve not needed any of it. Each book keeps it’s own place, and I’ve not needed to look up any words or felt the need to save anything for later.

There’s also a tiny selection of other apps, games like Sudoku, and a way to have news feed like content (like an offline RSS reader), but that’s not why I bought the device. If anything it’s my only real complaint against the PB360, that I can’t hide that stuff on the home scene and add say, a larger list of recent books. But usually I’m too busy reading to care.

I should note for completeness that the Kindle and Nook may offer other features like mp3 support (for a large awkward audiobook player maybe?) and text to speech, which the PB360 has no answer for.

Conclusion

I loved the PocketBook 360 when I bought it a year ago, and I still love it now. I’ve read a bunch of books on it, and I expect to read many more over the years. The price is much better than it was a year ago (I paid close to $240 for mine) but I don’t regret it at all. I’ve since bought a Nook Color, but even after a single day I was back with my trusty PB360, and now the NC mostly collects dust.

/jon