Is it time for me to ditch Calibre?

I have been a long-time fan of the Calibre e-book library software. I use it often to organize and categorize my books. But many of the functions which first drew me to Calibre have become a tad obsolete as the Cloud-based infrastructure has developed. For example, I no longer plug any devices into the computer—I side-load books onto my Kindle-equipped devices via the Cloud. So, do I still need Calibre?
I was thinking about this again as the Beloved has been pondering a new computer purchase. He has been making do on my ancient Macbook since his needs are minimal. but it’s on its last legs. So he’s thinking of taking over the HP laptop I have, which is almost new, but has proved a bit too bulky and cumbersome for me. What he’d like to do is set it up as some sort of family media hub—he can do his

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Amazon Fire updates to Fire OS 5.1.4 – many changes?

While I was busy at the Brain Bar Budapest conference over the weekend, my Amazon Fire tablet quietly updated itself to Fire OS 5.1.4. But does the new OS bring many changes? And has it upset anything?
Full details of the new update are available at the Fire (5th Generation) Software Updates page. There’s only two major changes listed, On Deck. which “downloads Amazon Videos to your Fire tablet so you have something to watch even when you are offline,” and the new feature that allows you to “Download Books and Periodicals to Your SD Card.” I haven’t had a chance to try either yet, but reports in The eBook Reader and elsewhere indicate that they work just fine.
As TeleRead readers should know by now, I hacked my Fire way back to install the Google Play Store and the usual run of Google apps on the tablet. The Google Play Store itself and all

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Raspberry Pi 3 official Android support could bring cheap big-screen e-reading

raspberry-pi-3-640x427.jpgFans of the Raspberry Pi 3, that delightful little mini-computer that Chris Meadows has written up so affectionately, will be heartened to hear that Android is now making The Fruity Little Computy That Could into an officially supported Android device. The Android Open Source Project (AOSP) has now created a repository (so far empty) for the Raspberry Pi 3. As written up in Android Police and elsewhere, this could mean a full-blown Android OS iteration for the mini PC. Or it could simply mean support for linking Android devices. With no indication when any code will actually debut, so far we don’t know.

If we do get a full version of Android running on the Pi 3, though, that could be interesting. Right now I’m running a version of the Chromium OS on my Pi 2, which basically converts my Raspberry into a mini Chromebox. And now we have talk of Android/Chrome convergence with the Google Play Store opening up to support Chrome devices. It’s not hard to anticipate that all your favorite ebook reading apps for Android and Chrome might soon be running on a Raspberry for big-screen display in home or classroom alike.

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Might your next e-reader come from a Circuit City?

circuit-cityToday someone on my Facebook shared the homepage of the old Circuit City retail chain, with an announcement that it’s coming back to life under new ownership. Long-time readers may remember that Circuit City short-circuited in 2009 as an end result of making several terrible corporate decisions, not unlike Blockbuster and Borders a short while later—an ignominious end to 60 years in the electronic retail business.

A quick bit of research popped up a bunch of stories from January and February indicating that the iconic brand name has passed through several hands and is now being resurrected by a couple of retail-industry veterans. The chain will open a Dallas, Texas store in June, and  hopes to open 50 to 100 stores by next year. The plan is not to try to go big-box, like the old Circuit City, but to operate on a smaller boutique scale, selling tablets, headphones, drones, 3D printers, computer accessories, and other millennial geek fodder—not unlike Radio Shack, which has had problems of its own.

The store will reportedly feature touchscreen terminals to let shoppers browse through inventory, which is kind of interesting. In a way that, plus the boutique nature of it, puts me in mind of Amazon’s own bookstore experiments, which are effectively boutique bookstores that tie into the experience. It’s unclear exactly how these tablets will work. Will the new Circuit City simply store its inventory in a back room and bring it out when someone places a touchscreen order, using the space more efficiently than the usual stock-everything-on-the-floor retail mode?

It seems a bit odd that Circuit City would expect people to come to its store to shop on a touchscreen when they can already shop on the web from home or their tablets just fine. So maybe there’s some aspect of it I’m just not seeing yet. In any event, it’s amusing to consider the recursion and inversion of shopping for a tablet from a tablet—located in a retail store.

In any event, I bought my first Clié from a Circuit City, so I’m well acquainted with the idea of buying e-readers from such a location. But is there room in the current Amazon-dominated retail environment for a new boutique electronics store, even one with a recognizable and formerly-respected brand name—especially when the closest existing chain, Radio Shack, is on the ropes and soon expected to go the way of the original Circuit City? Well, maybe—if it can do things sufficiently differently from the way any of the current brick-and-mortar retail chains do it, and that different way works.

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Want to try Android N? You just need a recent Nexus

android nThe Verge has a couple of interesting pieces on the Android N beta. First of all, the Android N public beta is now available to anyone who wants to download it and can run it. Unlike past developer betas, this public beta comes as an over-the-air update, which should mean that your device can install it while still keeping all the apps and data it already has on board—though Google still recommends you back it up first. Opting in is as simple as going to the Android beta site and logging into your Google account. I just did, and now Google’s downloading the beta to my Nexus 6.

But another interesting bit of news has to do with exactly which devices are eligible to install that beta. As expected, it’s for Google devices only—but not even all of them. The Verge reports that you have to have a Nexus 5X, 6, 6P, or 9, or a Pixel C, or a “General Mobile 4G” Android One device to be eligible. Prominently absent from the list is the Nexus 7—which isn’t really much of a surprise, given that it was pretty much expected when Marshmallow came out that it would be the last version the 7 could run. Rest in peace, former flagship tablet, your day is nearly done.

The yet-to-be-named Android N offers a number of potentially interesting new features to its users, including a built-in VR system and split-screen capability. Given that this VR system will allow people to watch movies on a “virtual IMAX” screen, what could it do for reading e-books? By the same token, split-screen could be useful for reading e-books and looking things up from them at the same time.

In any event, an 850-megabyte download is crawling down the pipe to my phone, and I’ll let you know what I think after I’ve tried it out for a while.

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Google announces ebook, other Android apps on Chromebooks soon

Google Play store ChromebookAnother very interesting announcement out of Google I/0 2016 is definitive confirmation that Android apps will be “Coming to a Chromebook near you.” As quoted by 9to5 Google, the Google session statement says: “Today we announced that we’re adding the best mobile app experiences in the world, Android apps and the Google Play store, to the best browser in the world, Chrome! Come to this session and test your Android apps for Chrome OS. You will get hands on help from our friendly engineers on how to optimize your Android app for Chromebooks.”

This certainly isn’t the first time that this possibility has surfaced. Already a month ago rumors via Reddit were pointing towards full implementation of the Google Play Store on Chrome OS, with a pretty impressive screen grab (see above). But now apparently it’s official – well, as good as. And the many Chromebook users, both teachers and students, in the education sector, as well as those who just like a good cheap laptop, can look forward to expanding on the current pretty limited Chrome OS selection of ebook reading apps – including “Amazon’s Kindle Cloud Reader (the Chrome flavor) … Readium and dotEPUB and Cloud ePub Reader with Drive” or “the Google Books reader.” Bookari for Chrome, anyone? FBReader? Moon? All that could be just around the corner, to the delight of many.

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Glitches in Amazon’s Whispersync for personal documents: Calibre to the rescue

calibre.jpgWhispersync is one of my favourite Amazon features.

You can read a book across multiple devices and synchronize your place as you read. Amazon has enabled Whispersync even for ‘personal documents,’ aka books you didn’t buy from them. That’s handy! But it’s glitchy. Lately, I have found that some of my books are not synchronizing.

I tried a few quick solutions. I deleted the book and re-downloaded it. I forced a sync with the manual ‘sync’ button. Nope. I resigned myself to restricting certain books to only the device where I first started reading them. But I was frustrated. I wanted this feature to work!

A Reddit thread finally gave me the answer: Amazon doesn’t care if you bought their book. But they do care if you have their metadata. Your file needs to be encoded with Amazon’s book ID in order for the sync to work properly.

This was where I had made my mistake! For most of my books, I load them into Calibre and give them a quick check. If the cover art looks ok and a summary is already there, I don’t go any further. I convert the usually-ePub file to Mobi and use the send-to-Kindle app.

Conversely, if the cover art is missing or there is no summary, I use Calibre’s download metadata button to fix it. And, among other things, this feature downloads Amazon’s metadata while it’s doing its thing. These books all sync just fine.

The moral of the story? Frequent side-loaders should run their non-Amazon purchases through Calibre first. It’s not just that this fantastic—and free—app can help you track and catalogue your books. But it can also keep your side-loaded books synchronizing smoothly.

Ideally Amazon can fix the glitch making the Calibre-based fix necessary. Some people, of course, might say it isn’t a glitch at all. But I myself don’t think the metadata should need to be present in personal documents for Whispersync to work reliably.

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Capti Narrator brings free text-to-speech to nearly any DRM-free e-book or document

I just learned about a Capti-vating new development in text-to-speech. PRWeb is carrying a press release about Capti Narrator, a free cloud-based text-to-speech Windows 64 and iOS app (Android coming soon) that will effectively read aloud just about any DRM-free document.

The press release pitches it as useful with Project Gutenberg (“50,000+ eBooks by Project Gutenberg are Now Available as Free Audiobooks” reads the headline) but perhaps the greater use for it is reading aloud pretty much any DRM-free e-book or other document you have on hand (such as titles by Baen, O’Reilly, etc.), especially if you already have it in the cloud. It will also read aloud news stories or sites you’ve saved to Instapaper—a very useful feature that goes most e-readers one better.

Not only will this be great for people with visual or reading difficulties, the press release also touts it as a way to help learn English by hearing words spoken as they’re read.

Apparently this project has been in development for a while—at least since before the 2011 death of Project Gutenberg founder Michael Hart. The press release proclaims:

“I corresponded with Michael Hart when we were just starting with Capti; he told me that he saw a great purpose in our mission of enabling everyone to listen to all they want to read” – said Dr. Yevgen Borodin, the CEO of Charmtech Labs LLC. “And, today, I am thrilled to finally deliver on my promise and make Project Gutenberg eBooks available as free audiobooks to everyone!”

The app is currently available as a download for 64-bit Windows and a freemium app for iOS. (An Android version is promised soon.) The way it works is that you load your document into it and press play, and it starts reading it aloud to you using one of your system default speech-synthesizer voices. (I found two on Windows, and five on iOS.) If you want other voices, you can add them for prices ranging from $4.99 to $29.99 each. The Windows app launches in a web browser window (though it also runs in your system tray), and the iOS version is its own standalone app.

imageOn the Windows version, you can add files to your playlist from a local file, Dropbox, Google Drive, Instapaper, OneDrive, Bookshare, or Project Gutenberg. The iOS app includes this, as well as OneDrive, Pocket, the clipboard, and letting you choose particular pages with the web browser. File types can be PDF, WORD, EPUB, DAISY, HTML, and “many other digital text formats.” I tried it with my e-book Joe & Julius from my Dropbox account and it worked just fine. The ease of uploading titles from the cloud rather reminds me of the way the iOS e-reader apps Marvin and Gerty will read and parse your Dropbox for e-books.

064220F6-8FB4-4F31-8218-A86909A92D4EOnce you’ve added titles to your playlist, when you hit play, the app reads along with your book, while showing the text on the screen and highlighting it word-by-word. As expected, the result is somewhat mechanical and awkward with cadence and pronunciation of some words (contractions get short shrift: “we’re” gets pronounced as “we-ree”), but probably no better or worse than the text-to-speech functions of the Kindle or any other e-reader or app that supports read-aloud. If you’re used to using those functions, you’ll have no problems with this one either.

Furthermore, after I originally posted this story, Dr. Borodin contacted me and noted that Capti’s premium voices sound a lot better than the system default voices, as the Capti-narrated YouTube video above this article demonstrates. I didn’t actually watch through the whole video before writing this, but now that I do I have to admit that’s pretty impressive. It might actually be worth shelling out some money for one of those voices if you plan to use this system very often.

One other noteworthy aspect of the app is that it incorporates cloud playlist file and position sync. If you tell it to sync the playlist from your desktop, then sync from the mobile app (or vice versa), your Capti playlist has all the same titles in it, and it picks up right where you left off playing them.

The free version of the app will be extremely useful to the majority of readers, but there is also a premium plan available at a cost of $1.99 per month, or $9.99 for six months. It includes a number of extra features such as the ability to view any images that were incorporated in the original document as it is read aloud, the ability to translate words in your texts into any of 28 different languages, a full-text playlist search, and a linguistic game called “Word Challenge.” Though I don’t particularly need those features, I could see they would be very useful, especially to English-as-second-language students. The app strikes a pretty good balance between being useful enough for free and more useful for a slight extra cost—it’s not one of those apps where you have to pay something to get any use out of it at all.

The app could stand to be a little more user-friendly—it was a little tricky for me to find the functions to add titles to my playlist at first, and they’re in different places in the Windows and iOS versions. But once you start reading, it works surprisingly well. The voice is loud and clear, even if I don’t like the artificial way the system version sounds.

I can’t see using this program too often myself—I just can’t get past the artificiality of the computer voice. Though then again, if I buy one of the premium voices like the one that narrated that video I might change my mind. But I know that’s not a problem for many people who swear by it, and were disappointed the latest Kindles dropped the feature altogether. I predict that this free text-to-speech app will find a place on many, many computers and mobile devices.

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How I turned my Raspberry Pi into a Chromebox

IMG_20160430_181119TeleRead readers will recall that I posted details of a new hack for the Raspberry Pi 2 and Pi 3 for Chromebook-using teachers and students, turning the ultra-cheap minicomputer into a Chromebox. With my own Raspberry Pi 2 lying idle at home, I decided to try this myself: and here are the results.

Installation of the new OS was as easy as expected. l unpacked the downloaded file with 7-zip and wrote it onto the Raspberry’s micro SD card with Win32diskimager; with this done, I set up my Raspberry with mouse, keyboard, HDMI cable and Ethernet plugged in, then powered it up from the monitor’s USB port. It started up first time with no problems.

How well does it work though? Startup is slow, but no slower than many Linux OS versions running on the Raspberry Pi 2. The display looks fine across a big screen, and with a Bluetooth USB adapter plugged in, the device can work fine with wireless mouse and keyboard. For web browsing, document editing on Google Docs, audio playback on YouTube, email composition on Gmail, and even Facebook, it should be enough. However, video playback is clunky and often plain inadequate, and the thing often locks up on complex web pages like Twitter. The Raspberry Chromebox does record most account settings for restart, but wifi doesn’t work, at least with the USB adapters I have – a known issue that may get fixed later.

How useful is it? For general purpose computing on the Raspberry Pi 2, it’s faster and more user-friendly than the Linux versions I’ve run on this device. I plan to use it for text editing and browsing, and am already listening to audiobooks on it. It may not be good for much more, but you get what you pay for, and with the Raspberry Pi 2, you’re paying almost nothing.

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