Erik's Engineering

something alliterative

Given the release of the new Kindles, I figured I'd talk about another aspect of ebooks. That is, doing a better job of getting the books you want onto your reader.

Swiss Army Knife

All of the ebook readers I've played with have had absolutely abysmal tools for searching and sorting your books. They're gradually getting better, but still fall down a lot when you have hundreds of books. Luckily, there's a swiss army knife for ebooks. It's called Calibre.

Calibre will import most any ebook format and can interface with pretty much all the different readers out there. It does a great job converting and transferring files to and from both Kindle and iTunes. You'll want to check out Apprentice Alf for some plugins that will remove the DRM from your ebooks so you can freely swap them back and forth between devices. This will also let you share books with your SO even if you have separate Amazon accounts.

Calibre will let you tag, rate and sort your ebooks pretty much however you'd like. I even go so far as to have separate libraries for fiction and non-fiction (things like ratings just don't translate well between the two). When books are first imported, they come in without any ratings. I let this be my flag for "haven't read this one yet" and make sure to rate them once I've either read the book or decided that it sucks and I won't finish it.

If you're like me, inconsistencies in your collection will drive you nuts. You can use Calibre to correct author names (sometimes they show up as Stross, Charles instead of Charles Stross) and cover art. Alternatively, you can strip out cover art all together if you really want to save space on your device. You can also group your books by series and specify an order for them, so you won't keep having to go back to Jim Butcher's website to figure out what book comes next while you re-read the series.

Comparison Shopping

Calibre has an ebook search feature that does double duty as a comparison shopping tool. Amazon pretty much always wins on price, but sometimes you'll find books that aren't available from Amazon (like most books from Baen).


Another tool in the cheap books utility belt is the kindle best seller list. Notice that it's got separate lists for free and paid. Amazon breaks their best seller list down into genres and sub-genres, so you can get pretty specific. This is usually done as a loss leader to get you interested in an author, so don't expect all their other books to be free. At least there's no monetary risk for trying out a new author this way.

Another cool tool for saving money on books is eReaderIQ. eReaderIQ mainly highlights books that have had their price drop, but you can also search Amazon by price (something not available in the normal Amazon UI). You can say "I want a sci-fi novel that costs $5 or less". Lots of indie publishers and self-published authors have begun publishing at $1, $3 and $5 price points. Don't let the low prices scare you away. There's some really good fiction at those prices.

In theory, ebooks are supposed to come out with a high price while the book is in hardcover, then get cheaper as paperbacks are released. eReaderIQ's Kindle Price Drop will notify you if an ebook's price drops by a specified amount, so you know when that drop happens.

Don't hold your breath waiting for it, though. In eight months I've only seen the price drop on 2 out of a bit more than a dozen books. One of those (Neal Stephenson's Reamde) has gone down, but not hit my alert limit. The Complaints by Ian Rankin actually dropped enough to hit my limit and I was duly notified. The system works - publishers just don't drop prices very quickly. That's why you so often see kindle versions priced higher than paperbacks.

I still use Kindle Price Drop, because it makes a great "to be read when the price is lower" list. I just keep adding books to it when they're released and then looking over my list when I'm hunting for something to read. Maybe the price will be lower, maybe not. Most importantly, I won't forget to check the price on something when I'm waiting for it to come out on paperback.

Time Release

Finally, there are the Kindle Owner's Lending Library and a program whereby you can check out kindle books from your local library. I haven't played with either of those yet, though the selection on the Kindle Owner's Lending Library seemed rather scant.

Published on 06/11/2011 at 16h06 under . Tags ,


I'm not sure why this didn't occur to me sooner.  Most folks customize their irbrc file with tools to add features.  Why not use it to add helpers for things you do all the time?  I find myself loading up an example user record all the time, so I ginned up the following and stuck it in my .irbrc

It's a bit more convoluted than you'd normally expect, but by dancing around the subject a bit I made it so that this will compile just fine even if User isn't defined or doesn't support find_by_email.  I don't want irb/console to refuse to start because something isn't defined.

I just thought of this, so I'm not sure where it's going yet.  I'm going to be looking out for other opportunities to do this and thinking about how I might make it easier.  Perhaps a gem that would recognize if you were doing a Rails console session and load an application-specific irb helper file?

Published on 20/08/2011 at 16h14 under , . Tags ,


iPad Reading Apps: Kindle vs iBooks

note:  In a way, this is a continuation of my previous post comparing Kindle 2 to iPad 2.  That post focuses on hardware aspects of the two.  This one is comparing iBooks to the Kindle app on the iPad 2.

iPad 2 Reading Software

Because the iPad is a multi-function device, the actual reading experience is mediated through your choice of reading app.  I tried Kindle for iPad and Apple's iBooks.  I know there are others, but those two seem to be the main options.

Both apps will keep track of a large number of books, maintaining your location within each one.  They also allow bookmarking and annotating, though I don't use those features.

Visual Design and Page Turning

iBooks shows faux pages and a fake crease down the middle of the screen, presumably to try to make it feel more like reading on dead trees.  Kindle goes for a much more minimalist interface with almost no decorations on the screen.  At first the fake pages (and attendant page turn animation) seemed hokey to me, but at this point I don't really care.  The Kindle app is definitely more attractive, though.  You don't expect Apple to lose that kind of competition, which makes me think they didn't take iBooks as seriously as you might expect.

It's a bit weird, but with all of these (Kindle, Kindle App and iBooks) I'll occasionally turn the page when I don't mean to.  This seems to happen a lot more often with Kindle App than with iBooks.

Progress, Location and Syncing

Kindle and iBooks both give you a handy little progress bar at the bottom that you can grab and scrub back and forth through the book.  iBooks wins big by popping up the chapter titles as you do it.  They both give you location in pages (Kindle originally only gave it in mysterious inexplicable numbers).  On iBooks you can resize the text and see the number of pages change.  On Kindle resizing the text doesn't change the number of pages - apparently they're using some kind of platonic ideal of pages.  iBooks is a bit friendlier, though if Kindle has failed to sync your location having stable page numbers across devices can make it a little easier to re-find your spot on a different device.

Speaking of syncing, both apps will fairly regularly fail to sync some reading between devices, even when you're online.  Most of the time everything works great - you pick up on your phone right where you left off on the iPad, but probably 10 or 20 percent of the time you'll wind up manually thumbing forward trying to find your spot.  That's much easier to do on the iPad than on the iPhone, but even then it's still mildly annoying.

Back in the days of dead trees I used to not bother with bookmarks and just try to remember my page number, so the occasional bobble on device change doesn't bother me too much.  Your mileage may vary.

Color Scheme, Brightness and Font

Kindle lets you select a dark background with white text in addition to black on white and sepia (brown on cream).  iBooks limits you to black on white and sepia.  Having a black background is a win for reading in a completely dark room.  It will also limit light-spill if you're worried about annoying someone else in the room. Advantage: Kindle.

iBooks wins on access to dim the screen, though.  Brightness is a separate "menu" option, whereas you have to go through the font/page color menu on Kindle.  Since I tend to do this frequently as the day gets brighter or darker, quicker access is a good thing.  One thing I did notice, though was that if I shut the app my adjusted brightness won't be applied right away when I restart the app.  I'm guessing this is to keep you from starting the app with it set so dim that you can't see where to change the brightness.

For both apps, if I'm using a light background I always go sepia.  It seems to be easier on my eyes.  I also try to match the background color to the surrounding light level, which helps with eye strain.

One really nice feature on iBooks is that I can change the font of the text I'm reading.  The same menu that lets you choose font sizes lets you switch between a handful of different fonts.  Lately I find myself fiddling with this as I start a new book, seeking the best font for it.  Strangely, I haven't ended up on the exact same font every time.

Buying Books

Each app has its own bookstore, and they both do a good job integrating with the iPad apps, but Amazon does a bit better job.  Downloading books after purchase is slicker and more automated in the Kindle app.  Further, the Amazon store has a better selection, prices and browsing experience.

Buying off of, you can buy something and send it straight to the Kindle app on your iPad.  This is amazingly convenient.  Shortly after you start the app up your new book will arrive.  If you want to buy from the iPad, you just use the browser to browse and make purchase.

You can access the iBookstore from the iPad and it will download straight to the device.  If you're buying books from the iBookstore on your computer, you have to buy them, download them to your iTunes, then sync them to the iPad.  I haven't spotted a way to send them direct the way you can with Kindle.

On the flip side, if you buy from a third party store (like Smashwords or PragPub) you'll have a little easier time loading your books into iBooks.  You can just drag epub files into iTunes and sync them.  The analogous operation for Kindle requires you to dig into the settings for the kindle app within iTunes.

One book I got for free from the iBookstore ("iPad at Work", from Apple) seems to have actually downloaded a PDF, instead of a real ebook.  I can't resize the text, and instead of giving a standard progress readout at the bottom it has a row of page thumbnails.  I didn't notice a warning that it wouldn't act like a normal book before I got it.  Caveat emptor.


Both apps will sync your location with apps on your iPhone, but Kindle wins big by providing a best of breed app for reading on your computer in addition to the Kindle itself.  Plus, Amazon's new Cloud Reader website lets you read ebooks you bought from Amazon on Chrome or Safari.  Amazon thus provides a full spectrum of solutions - smartphone, tablet, reader and computer.  iBooks is only available on iOS devices, so Android phones and even Mac OS X computers are left high and dry.  There's a rumor that the next version if iTunes will include an iBook reader

iBooks will sync your location in books that you didn't buy from Apple.  This works even for books purchased from Amazon that have been converted to epub format and loaded into iTunes.  It will not pick up reading you do in Calibre or Kindle on your computer, though.


All in all, I like the reading experience a little better on iBooks, but I wouldn't feel like I was suffering if I ended up with nothing but Amazon's apps.  Both iBooks and Kindle are on the my iPad's dock, and I use them both regularly.

Published on 20/08/2011 at 14h33 under .


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