Thursday, April 08, 2010

Reading ebooks on a nokia 5800

Back in the latter half of the 1990s I got my first mobile phone, a Nokia 8110 and my first PDA soon after, a US Robotics Palm pro. Back then phones could do little more than be used to call people with and to send them a text message. The PDA was used to sync my mail and agenda and, soon after, to read ebooks using cspotrun as my reading application.

A second palm followed and then a series of Windows mobile devices. With windows mobile I soon discovered Microsoft's Reader. The first application designed by a big company with usability and a good user experience in mind. The, back then, pretty much closed lit format was a nuisance at times but by and large it all worked.

Present day
These days the PDA device, something running windows mobile but without a telephone option, is about as rare as an honest politician. HP has 2 models left in it's range and that is pretty much it.

Instead we now have companies like HTC turning out a constant flow of nifty devices running Windows Mobile and Google Android. Samsung tries to rival that and Nokia makes devices with or without touch screen running various versions of Symbian.

Nokia 5800
Last week my business phone a Motorola V8 died on me, I couldn't hear anyone on the phone any more but they could still hear me. Since it was two years old and quite battered and worn I decided to replace it with something else. But with what? I wanted to get something that could potentially replace not only that phone but also the Ipaq I am using. So it had to sync with outlook, had to be able to run navigation on, play a few casual games and it needed to have the option to read ebooks.

First I started looking at the HTC offerings but couldn't find anything I liked for less than 400 euros or so. Most of the cheaper models didn't have a scoll button and I did not like the 2.5-2.8 inch QVGA (320x240) screens much.

So I looked elsewhere. Samsung didn't have much and I still have this prejudice that this company is not able to build something that will last me for two years. Next supplier was Nokia. I've had good experiences with Nokia in the 1990s and the early parts of this decade but we lost touch around 2002. Last year I bought a 3720 classic which, despite a few design stupidities, still does a good job. This time I wanted something with a bit more power. In order to use navigation you really want Series 60 symbian. For reading you want a high resolution screen, preferably of a decent size and a touch screen is nice.

After looking at the E-series (E52, nice speedy processor and a friendly price tag, E75 with it's flip-out keyboard) I broadend my search and noticed the 5800. On paper it seemed to have everything GPS, Wifi, the latest version of Series 60 Symbian and a 3.2 inch 640x360 screen.

I won't bore you with all the other details about the phone, there's plenty of dedicated phone websites and blogs out there that can do that. Instead I want to continue this post on my attempts to make this into an ebook reading device or ereader.

An ebook is nothing more than a file containing the text of a book. It may contain layout and formatting or even DRM or none of these. There's an abundance of these things available on the internet from the latest best-sellers in shops to freely available classical works in the Gutenberg project.

Since this is still a relatively new technology and since there are many parties trying to capture a part of what they perceive to be a lucrative market there is also an abundance of file formats in the ebook community. Depending on what you want to read on what kind of device and in which language you may end up with a different file format.

Reading applications
To read a book you need an application that allows you to do so. On my Microsoft Mobile devices I mainly used Microsoft's reader which is free. Unfortunately it seems to be largely abandoned now by Microsoft. There has not been a new version for quite some time and support for the current versions of Windows Mobile is absent.
On Symbian I found for main reading applications.

Mobireader, once the market leader on palm and early Symbian. Bought two years ago by Amazon and since then development has halted in favour of the Kindle. Despite the warnings you get during installation is does work. Since it pre-dates the S60 5th edition on the Nokia 5800 it doesn't understand a touch screen. Scrolling is done via the volume buttons on the side of the phone and there are users that report the need to reset their phone to get it out of full screen mode.

eReader Pro
, an application brought to you by Fictionwise. They've been around for ages and it shows. The application is slick, the website is well thought out and they support S60 5th and explicitely name the 5800 as a compatible device.
I found the app sluggish to start and couldn't get anything out of my old collection to display on it. If you happen to have compatible files this may be the reader for you.

Qreader: The opposite of eReader. It looks and feels like a hobby product. It installs and starts up quickly. I could not get it to open any files. It might be me but I found file navigation horrible. The website seems to be "temporarily" down it just offers the file for download. Perhaps it will return with a revamped version but this didn't do anything for me.

ZXReader. An application made by a Russian. Website is also in Russian. Download link is here at the bottom of the page. Get the link under the header: v1.5.0 РЕЛИЗ
Скачать: Symbian 9.4

ZXReader supports fb2 format and plain txt. fb2 allows for more formatting but I've had some conversion issues, try it first if that doesn't work, try txt. The application has a somewhat uneven look, in parts it is very stylish, in parts it looks basic and unfinished. Despite that it starts up quickly, slows down slightly on displaying your cover image and then works fluently. Scrolling can be done by ticking the screen or making a swiping motion. It works well in automatic landscape mode as well.

For now ZXReader is my tool of choice.

Conversion and management
I mentioned earlier that there is still no single format for ebooks. ZXReader proves that. Everybody knows txt of course but I had never heard of the fb2 file format. There's a wiki entry on it here.
For file conversion I also did a lot of googling. I came across this blog post which had some tools. None of those worked well. After a lot more googling I found Calibre, a fine management and conversion tool for your ebook collection.

Calibre allows you to manage your collection, to keep the same book in various formats and, incredibly enough, to convert from and to almost all relevant file formats. It even has a build in previewer to see your new conversions.

First reading experiences
I tried to build a few fb2 books with limited success. Things like page breaks and especially special characters didn't seem to translate well or were not being shown properly. For some reason ZX Reader insisted on treating my fb2 conversions as though they are in the cp866 codepage which messes up a lot of special characters such as " or ó or ć and ň. I suspect this may be a bug in ZX Reader, after all it is a Russian application. Unfortunately I don't speak Russian so it will be difficult to submit a bug report.

In the end I decided to test a few text files and that works very nicely. It flows beautifully, it's rendered quickly and all the characters match.

Final thoughts
Symbian S60 Fifth Edition has a long way to go yet as a mature ebook reading platform. And which the rise of dedicated reader devices I wonder if it will complete that journey. What it desperatly need is a good application capable of reading the most common file formats. ZXReader has definite potential to be that reader.
Another alternative is that someone high in the Nokia corporate hierarchy accepts the fact that people do other things with a mobile besides listening to music or watching video clips of people hurting themselves. That seems unlikely since Nokia aims most of their products at people younger than 30 and they are notorious for having short attention spans. Even so, it may happen and if it does they could turn out a useable reader in a very short time. If they don't hurry and if ZXReader get it's act together, adds file types and translates it's website then they will corner the (niche) market of S60 5th edition reading applications.

Anyway, my compliments to Kovid Goyal for creating Calibre and the unknown Russian(s) that made ZXReader.

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