Mac Lab Report

Adventures in eBook Reading

- 2002.10.03

Some time ago, my wife became enamored of the Handspring Visor. She purchased one on eBay and liked it so well she decided to upgrade to the color version, so I inherited the older grayscale Visor. (Which was okay by me, because it has 16 MB RAM and longer battery life due to the low-power grayscale screen.) She's become a sort of expert and chastises me when I say "my Palm" instead of "my Handspring."

I have found the Handsprings' USB interface to the Mac very handy, and the daily synchronizations I do have saved me on at least two occasions when the Handspring has freaked out and died. A quick restore from backup, and I'm back in business. (Those hard resets were my fault; long story, and you don't care.)

Anyway, I'm no expert on these things, but I find mine handy as a typical user would. I didn't really get "into" the PDA thing until my wife introduced me to ebooks - books published electronically specifically for use on a PDA or other small device. This is not an article about all the myriad options for hardware; suffice to say there are two major players, Palm and its licensees (such as Handspring) and the PocketPC (with an OS from our friends in Redmond.)

So far I've read perhaps a dozen books and a couple dozen short stories on the thing. I have to say that they're a lot more comfortable to deal with than even a small paperback. When reading a paperback, there's always tension on the spine trying to close the book, and you have to fight that with your hand. When you have carpal tunnel syndrome, like I do, that gets painful after a while.

The PDA is lighter than most paperbacks, is backlit for reading in darkened rooms, holds several books, and lets you do things like make annotations and set bookmarks. If you haven't tried it and like to read novels, I recommend it. And this is from a guy who, over the years, has accumulated perhaps 400-500 paperback science fiction novels from Asimov to Zelazny.

Of course, not all ebook formats are the same. Palm OS comes with a PalmReader application that reads books in the .pdb format. The PalmReader application is my favorite, because it defaults to opening up where you left off. It doesn't handle formatting well, though, and is best just for plain text ebooks.

Other readers, such as the Secure Mobipocket Reader, display books in a format not unlike a word processor or Web browser, including such niceties as the paperback book cover as an illustration, but the individual books are much larger - typically several hundred K - and this application has the annoying habit of opening the directory of books instead of the last book opened. Mobipocket files will only work on a specific, registered Palm device; this is set up at purchase.

Both applications remember the last page visited. PalmReader documents are not secure, meaning you can read them on any device you own, although you are ethically obligated to purchase copies for other folks' devices.

There's also a Microsoft Reader format, but since it's only for PCs, I will delightfully ignore it here. Here's a link from Fictionwise that describes the major formats: http://www.fictionwise.com/help/formats.htm. All the software is free and downloadable from any ebook publisher.

Sources of eBooks

Most of what I've been reading comes from the following sources...

Fictionwise carries a variety of formats, depending on publisher restrictions. They also have a great selection of individual short stories from collections, which can be purchased for just a few pennies each. I think this is a great idea; you can select exactly what you want to read and pay for it. Fictionwise also has a small collection of free books, including some books at the beginning of a series (the rest of which you must pay for), some books in the public domain (such as Jules Verne), and so on. They have other kinds of books as well, although they have a strong emphasis on science fiction and fantasy.

Baen Books has started an interesting project to release selected books - entire books - as free, unsecured downloads as an invitation to try their products. "First Librarian" Eric Flint says this is no different than providing sample copies of books for promotional purposes, and it's a lot cheaper as well. He's written an extensive critical essay on the topic of "security" in publishing at <http://www.baen.com/library/>. Among the other gems you will find there are the first three books in the Honor Harrington series. In October, Baen plans to release the next Honor Harrington hardcover with a CD containing over 20 books in the series, including story anthologies and other authors writing in the same "universe." I think it's a tremendous deal, and I plan to buy this hardcover just because I want to support the concept.

Project Gutenberg maintains and is building a huge library of public domain books (pre-Mouse) and providing them in a variety of formats. Many classic works are in the collection including the Oz series, the Tarzan books, H. G. Wells, and Jules Verne. Unfortuately, you can only read these directly on your Mac; to read them on the Palm requires that you convert the text file to a PalmReader format. The Project offers a page of conversion tips, but unfortunately it is quite PC-centric. On the other hand, reading on your iBook screen is not too bad either. If you know of a Mac-compatible ASCII to PalmDoc converter, please let me know.

There are many other ebook vendors; these three have supplied me with many hours of enjoyment at a minimal investment. If you haven't investigated this capability in either your Mac or your PDA, you should give it a try. It's a nice way to spend a few minutes when waiting in a doctor's office or sitting on a train platform.

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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