Posts Tagged ‘iPhone’


XO Laptop as PDF eBook Reader: A First Look

January 7, 2008

OLPC XO LaptopThe XO laptop from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project is a distinctive little machine. It invites children to come and play with its whimsical form: big rounded corners, bright colors, personality-laden rabbit ear (wi-fi) antennas and kid-luggable handle. With tools ranging from musical composition to writing, painting and programming, it’s intended to foster learning-by-doing and collaboration. But along with these active modes, it also is designed to be an effective ebook reader, promising inexpensive or free reading content for developing world areas where print books are often considered too expensive and rare to entrust to children’s hands.

XO with Mac and iPhone

XO with MacBook Pro, iPhone.

I recently took a first look at the XO in the book-reading realm, viewing several WOWIO non-DRM’d PDFs to get a general sense of its display quality, performance and usability. Along the way, I also compared the little green guy against some of the other ebook-capable devices, including laptops, the Sony Reader and the iPhone.

Happy Surprises on Display

The XO uses a specially-designed twist on the standard LCD technology found in laptops. This variation combines high resolution, very low power consumption (the laptop is designed to run on alternative energy sources, including a human-powered hand crank), full color and low cost. The laptop seamlessly transitions between two display modes — standard backlit color (like a laptop LCD) and unlit monochrome for use in bright ambient light (similar to the E-Ink used in the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader, but with an even higher pixel density).

XO vs. MacBook Pro: Displays Side by Side

The XO (in Tablet Mode, Portrait Orientation) and a MacBook Pro Display a PDF Ebook

As you can see from the photo above, the XO’s screen actually fares pretty well in comparison with a MacBook Pro and its designer-grade display (a machine which costs about 10x more than the XO). While the XO’s screen can’t match the Mac in brightness, crispness or color fidelity, it still does a very respectable job in rendering the PDF’s text and graphics. Typography is clear and well formed and images display with good detail. I’ve seen much more expensive laptops with far inferior displays. I suspect that the XO might actually outperform the Mac in bright light outdoors, thanks to its special screen — stay tuned for that test in a later post. From what I’ve seen so far, the OLPC team did a great job in hitting its multiple design objectives with this display.

PDF Performance

View of XO Screen in Tablet Mode

XO Display in Portrait Tablet Mode

Given its modest, power-sipping hardware specs and child-like form, I didn’t really expect blazing speed out of this cute little machine. It lived up to those expectations and exceeded them in some ways.

Launch of the various task-oriented apps generally took a bit of patience, with load times taking many long seconds. Once loaded though, performance of apps including the PDF reader were quite acceptable. Scrolling and screen update performance were reasonably peppy, even for a large 310-page document with many embedded photos (like Letters from St. Petersburg, pictured above).

The fully variable (and responsive) zoom and scrolling controls, selectable display orientation and Transformer-like adaptability (from standard laptop configuration to a tablet-like reader) together make a very functional package for reading a PDF ebook. As with the iPhone, the ability to zoom in on PDF pages is particularly useful, since it allows the book text to be enlarged to fill the screen. This is in sharp contrast to the limitations of the Sony Reader, which has a very limited zoom that leaves some books with uncomfortably small text by wasting valuable screen real estate on blank margins.

Interestingly, XO’s reader software actually seems to be more compatible with some PDFs than that in the Sony Reader and the iPhone. For example, the latter devices (as well as other third-party PDF readers on the Mac or Windows) choke on displaying certain embedded images while the XO renders them just fine (just as Adobe Reader does).

XO compatibility vs. iPhone

XO displays an embedded PDF image while iPhone and other non-Adobe apps cannot.

As I mentioned above, PDF paging and navigation are fairly snappy. Several options are available for navigating including physical buttons for scrolling and paging along with on-screen equivalents and a jump-to-page control. In keeping with the multi-purpose nature of the machine, the physical buttons aren’t specifically labeled. As with the rest of the interface and applications, these functions are best determined through learn-by-playing-with-it trial and error, and that’s a mostly straightforward process. Bookmark functionality is notably absent. Oddly, there appears to be no way to control the cursor when the machine is in tablet configuration, so many of the onscreen controls aren’t accessible without unsnapping the screen and fishing around on the trackpad. Perhaps more experimentation will glean a more usable approach to cursor control, but in the meantime, the hardware buttons accomplish the essentials.

Head-Scratching GUI

The XO GUII tried to view the XO’s interface in terms of its intended audience — young children unburdened by the baggage of established OS conventions. Perhaps it’s impossible for me to reach such a state of innocence, but even after many of the required trials and errors, I found that the seemingly simple act of opening a PDF file was still terribly obtuse and required too many steps to accomplish. I hope to find a more direct method, since this complexity is the single biggest bump in using the XO as an ebook reader. Once the file was actually open, the reader software was easy enough to use and seemed to work well.

Closing Bits

I haven’t yet had an opportunity to read full books on the XO. In my initial play, though, it’s clear that a tremendous amount of design and thought went into creating a machine that is physically well adapted for use by children in the developing world. The biggest weaknesses are in OS usability — the all-new paradigm for a simple, task-oriented system needs some rethinking and refinement. As an ebook reader, though, the XO shows enormous potential and I’m looking forward to future developments.


Travel and eBooks: A Jet-Lagged Perspective

December 11, 2007


Having just returned from a trans-Pacific journey involving 20+ hour flight times, I can now say that long, economy-class encapsulation has given me a new perspective on the relative qualities of ebook readers.

In preparation for the travel, I loaded up the iPhone, the Sony Reader and the MacBook Pro with titles. The choices I made among my reading devices are telling — notably missing is the X61T Tablet PC, since I didn’t want to haul a second laptop-sized machine in addition to my primary Mac. If you plan to travel with a laptop and you also want to use a tablet computer as an ebook reader, make sure those two machines are one in the same. iPhone world clockOtherwise, be prepared to consistently leave one of them behind (or risk a sore back). The iPhone came along by default, since I needed a phone and texting device. The laptop was optional, but I wanted to bring it along so I could process photographs on the road. The Sony almost stayed home, but its small footprint and low weight made it an easy last minute addition despite my already-overloaded messenger bag.

Even before getting on the plane, I knew I wouldn’t be using the Mac for reading purposes. With a battery life of just 2-4 hours (and aircraft power ports limited to Business Class), it had little chance of making it through even the short hops, much less the main ocean crossing. I saved it for computer-specific tasks.

The iPhone looked better on paper, given its multi-faceted functionality, long-ish battery life and its status as my current-favorite reader. Unfortunately, the iPhone’s current software shortcomings got in the way of using it for reading. The hack I use to access PDFs requires access to the Apache web server that I installed, but when the iPhone is in airplane mode, Mobile Safari is blocked from accessing the server. While I could still view the PDFs with either the Mobile Mail program or the third-party PDFViewer v0.3, neither method enables landscape viewing (necessary for readable text sizes without horizontal scrolling) and the latter is too immature to use reliably.

In the end, the Sony’s seemingly inexhaustible battery life made it the only useful device for reading on the long-duration flights. I easily fit my wife’s and my own reading choices on an SD card, with multiple titles for each of us (her primary read turned out to be Cat’s Cradle while I finished up Letters from St. Petersburg and started Some Sunny Day). Such an extended selection would have been impractical in print format. Unlike my last trip, however, I made no attempt to use an ebook travel guide, since the limited navigation and slow response on the Sony had previously proven useless for reference tasks. We lugged along an old-fashioned (and bulky) paper version of Lonely Planet Philippines instead.

The next time I need to cross an ocean, I’m looking forward to further advances in the state of the ebook reading art. While the Sony turned out to be a pretty workable solution, I’d ideally still prefer to carry a single device for all of my in-flight entertainment needs. With the iPhone software development kit promised for next February, its ebook software situation should be up to speed soon. Its fast and flexible interface would also enable Lonely Planet-style reference look-ups, which will allow me to leave that last heavy chunk of paper at home.


iPhone + Comics: (Not) Seeing the Big Picture

October 4, 2007
cover art

Cover art (above) displays beautifully, but text in the interior pages (below) is illegible without zooming.

interior page, portrait orientation

After some extended use, I’ve found that the iPhone has the potential to be a surprisingly good ebook reader. This is true for immersive text reading, such as fiction… but how about comics and graphic novels? The demo photos looked good, but how is it in real life?

To test this out, I loaded the comic A Bit of Madness (which, as an aside, has some of the most gorgeous comic art I’ve seen, and a richly-textured story to match) on my iPhone. Well… attempted to load would be more accurate, because Mobile Safari was unable to display the graphics-heavy 25MB PDF (the largest file I’ve been able to open is 7MB). The file was too large for email, so the backup plan of using Mail’s PDF viewer was out, as well.

Assuming that Apple or a third party will someday develop a true PDF reader that can handle the complete book, I decided to use a smaller 2MB excerpt just to test the display hardware and interface.

The results are beautiful to behold. When viewed in portrait orientation, the entire comic page can be shown and the iPhone’s sharp, rich-color display shows off the art beautifully… with one significant problem. The text is simply too small to read. The infinitely variable zooming allows it to be made legible, but actual reading requires a fair amount of scrolling. While the fingertip motion is very natural, it’s impossible to get a sense of the whole page and the integrated, flowing nature of the book’s layout is lost.

Switching to landscape orientation helps legibility, but again, the visual flow is definitely compromised.

landscape view

On the other hand, a more sequential, panel-oriented comic like retro superhero Pistolfist (below) is much more amenable to the iPhone display’s limitations.

Pistolfist page, landscape view

The iPhone’s limitations with storing and displaying documents continue to be a problem, but these are fixable in future software upgrades. However, the reader experience with page-oriented comics is hurt by the small physical size of the display, which can’t legibly display text in a full-page view. Unless your comic reading is limited to panel-oriented titles, you’ll definitely want to consider a larger-screened alternative or wait for Apple to release an iPhone-like device with a bigger screen.

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iPhone Reader: The Long Sessions


iSlate vs. iPhone: A Clear Reading Advantage

September 27, 2007
iSlate sketch

iSlate is said to be 1.5x larger than iPhone.

The long-dreamed-about iSlate is once again a hot topic, as fresh rumors claim that Apple has been working on such a device for 18 months and that it may hit the market sometime in 2008.

While some question the likelihood or even usefulness of such a device, the iSlate and its bigger display have at least one clear advantage over the iPhone — it would be ideally suited for reading documents like web pages or ebooks, while the iPhone is a compromise requiring changes in zoom or display orientation.

In the simulated displays below, a page from the pdf ebook Letters from St. Petersburg is rendered to fit on the current iPhone’s 480×320 pixel resolution (left). Even zoomed in to fit the full width of the display in portrait orientation, the text is small and difficult to read. The same page is rendered at right on the rumored iSlate‘s much larger 720×480 screen — the entire page fits comfortably with room for additional zooming, while the text is already rendered at a more readable size.

iSlate vs. iPhone screens compared

This display spec, if true, supports speculation that the iSlate would be the opening salvo of an Apple campaign to transform books and reading, just as it has already done for music.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps we’ll see in just a few months…

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iPhone and eBooks: an Early Flirtation
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iPhone Reader: The Long Sessions


iPhone Reader: The Long Sessions

September 25, 2007

I managed to hold out for almost three months. While I had done some testing on an iPhone, I didn’t buy one for myself — that is, not until my 5G iPod met an untimely death against unyielding hardwood and “necessity” provided the required excuse.

reading on the iPhone

In a fit of geekiness, I performed the required hacks on the newly-purchased machine to install third-party applications such as file transfer utilities and the Apache web server. This allowed me to directly move several PDF ebooks onto the phone and to read them from the Safari browser by pointing at its own web server (i.e., no Internet connection required). The one major limitation with this is file size: Mobile Safari refuses to load PDF files much larger than 8 megs or so.

Easy on the Eyes

iPhone text enlarged

Actual iPhone text, enlarged.

I’ve now had several multi-hour reading sessions on the iPhone, and I’m finding that it affirms my earlier impressions that its display and touch interface are quite well suited to the purpose of reading long, text-oriented PDFs. The ultra-sharp screen and flexible zooming — combined with easy rotation to landscape orientation — allow fixed-page (non-reflowable) PDFs to display at a comfortable reading size. While I’ve generally hated reading on small devices like PDAs in the past, the iPhone’s excellent display makes it not just viable but actually quite enjoyable. I read in a variety of lighting conditions, including bright outdoor sunlight, artificial light and total darkness, and in all cases, the display performed brilliantly.

Tactile Pleasures

scrolling a long ebook on the iPhone

Scrolling is pleasantly tactile.

Touching the slippery-smooth glass to scroll through the book made the experience pleasantly tactile, somehow better echoing the positive visceral experience of turning pages of a paper book than the mechanical, button-pushing motion used on most other reading devices. Since the touch interface permits for simultaneous scrolling in both horizontal and vertical directions, I expected to have some trouble with unintentionally moving diagonally instead of straight down, but the system seems to have built-in smarts to ignore such spurious motion off the main axis of movement.

Obstacles and Building Blocks

Lack of a bookmarking function for the book-length PDFs was a major problem. Each time I loaded the book into Safari, I had to manually scroll to the desired page — obviously not an ideal solution.

All in all, my longer-term experience with reading ebooks on the iPhone confirms my initial testing — its hardware and user interface show tremendous potential, but the lack of a readily-accessible file system and full-featured reader software will continue to hamper mainstream users. The building blocks are all in place. It’s now up to Apple — or the growing army of highly creative iPhone hackers — to put together all the pieces.

Related Posts

iPhone + Ebooks: Partial Solutions, July Dreams
iPhone and eBooks: an Early Flirtation
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iPhone and eBooks: the Video

August 1, 2007

Still photos can give some sense of the iPhone/ebook experience, but nothing can capture it quite so well as video.

As you watch the demo, note that the text on the iPhone is much sharper and clearer than it appears here because quality is lost in the translation to web video.

The most impressive thing for me (once I got past the iPhone’s glorious user interface) is the way it can display the book in its complete, uncompromised form. Cover art, interior illustrations, typography and layout are all preserved, creating a very different experience than ebooks displayed on other devices of this size. More typically on small handhelds, book content is stripped down to text with minimal formatting and no graphics. The aesthetics — and the readability-enhancing cues embedded in them — are lost. On the iPhone, surprisingly little is lost and no conversion of the PDF file is required.

One workaround required to get past the iPhone’s current file-handling limitations was to process the PDF file in Filemark Maker, a free app that allows you to store the PDF file as a Safari-viewable bookmarked file on the iPhone. This utility worked very well for the smaller PDFs that I tried (i.e., file sizes less than one meg). A larger 5 meg file caused Safari to crash.

These shortcomings — an inability to transfer and handle files, and the lack of a proper PDF reader with robust navigation and bookmarking capabilities — indicate that the iPhone isn’t quite ready for ebooks today. Yet the important pieces are all there. We’re only a software update or two away from having a uniquely competent new breed of ebook reader, one which will change the face of the book-reading world.

Related Posts

iPhone + Ebooks: Partial Solutions, July Dreams
iPhone Reader: The Long Sessions
iPhone and eBooks: an Early Flirtation
iPhone and iPod: Dense Pixels, Happy Eyes
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iPhone + Comics: (Not) Seeing the Big Picture