Category Archives: Tech

Unleash Your Inner Librarian – LibraryThing? Meet Red Laser’s iPhone Barcode Scanner

I bet you have books all over the place: by your bed, in the kids’ rooms, in boxes, in the basement…So how are you ever supposed to remember which of the Captain Underpants books your kid already has, or which Patricia Cornwell you’re missing?

[Skip to the bit where I tell you how to use your iPhone as a barcode scanner for your books] screenshot is a wonderful solution. You can list all of your books here, with a mimumum of effort (enter the title or barcode number, even the author’s name, and up will pop a listing that you can click on. It lets you add as much or as little detail as you need: from tags and categories to the date you bought it to where you store it, to the dates you started and finished reading it!). You can add books as you go along and always have a record of every title in your house.

The problem with LibraryThing is that, unless your parents set up an account for you at birth and assiduously updated it, you’ve got a back-collection of books that needs to be added to your virtual library.

I have, periodically, lugged a pile of books to my computer and typed in their information but that takes a lot of time and gets a little dull. (Data entry is fine when someone’s paying me, but when it’s eating into my actual reading time, I get a little cranky).

LibraryThing sells a cuecat bacode reader for $15 but I’ve never managed to get around to getting one 1, and anyway, it needs to be hooked up to your computer, so no cat-like roaming around the house nosing into corners with this feline.

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to just stroll around your house, pulling books out of nooks and crannies and scanning them right there and then?

Well today I discovered that I can use my iPhone as a scanner to upload my titles to LibraryThing.

How? How? Tell Me How!

  1. Download the iPhone app Red Laser for $1.99 free [update: Now available for Android phones too. Thanks to Dennis for letting me know]. It uses the iPhone camera to take a picture of the barcode and stores the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) that is built into the barcode. [click here for detailed instructions]
  2. Email the list of stored ISBNs to yourself then copy and paste them into the “paste text” box on the import page at Library Thing. [click here for a tutorial]
  3. Sit back and watch as adds the books to your library (it puts them in a queue so there is some waiting, but hey. It also combs out duplicates as it goes through, and adds all the bibliographical data, so let’s not get too picky!)

Pros: Oh the time it saves! And it feeds my little techno-geek heart with glee to ‘bleep’ the barcodes and see them show up in my Library.

Cons: the barcode scanner can be a leeettle temperamental. I’m working on figuring out the best combination of lighting/distance/karma.

  1. actually, I did have a cuecat reader when they first came out. I think I got it free from Wired magazine, or something, but it wasn’t very good and I think Library Thing was just a glint in the postman’s eye at the time. I still picture, with regret, the box of Things To Give Away To Charity, with the cuecat nestled in the top. It went in and out a few times until I decided in a fit of ruthlessness, that I was never going to use it. D’oh!

Using The Red Laser Barcode Scanner to Add Batches of Books To

1. Buy the app, if you haven’t already. (It’s by Occipital, and it costs $1.99 is free in the app store.)

2. Run the app. Select the little lightning bolt in the bottom of the screen, to start the scanner.

3. Before you point the phone at anything, flip the little switch at the bottom of the screen that defaults to “multiple off” (this will make the process faster. If you do not do this, the phone will stop and try to look up every item as you scan it. What you really want to do is simply collect a list of barcode numbers. ‘Multiple on’ mode does that.)Red Laser Barcode Scanner app for iPhone

4. Now grab your book and flip it to find the barcode. Turn it so that there is no glare or shadow on the barcode and hold the phone a few inches away from it. Position the arrows so that they bracket the main part of the barcode. They should turn green. Now hold still and the phone should chirp or beep or buzz, to let you know it has scanned it. A series of numbers will appear under the picture, which should correspond with the numbers under the barcode. 1

5. Scan your next book. You’ll hear the beep/buzz (depending on whether or not your speaker is on) and the numbers under the picture will change.

6. Repeat this as often as you like (I would recommend doing a trial batch with four or five numbers the first time).

7. When you’re ready to stop, click “Done” on the bottom left of the screen. This takes you to a list of ‘scanned items’.

8. Click on the ‘arrow in a box’ logo that means ‘send me somewhere else’ on your iPhone. Then, email the list to yourself.  (this step is necessary becaus I could not find a way to simply copy and paste from this screen).

9. Open your email program, find the new email, and copy all the text from the body. Don’t worry, Library Thing is smart enough to realise that the list numbers before each barcode number can be ignored.'s Import Books Page10. Open’s upload page 2. Paste your list into the “paste text” box, press ‘grab’. Go and do something more interesting while looks up all thei nformation and adds your books to your library. It puts them in a queue, so it’s not instantaneous, but they will be added. (It also allows you to add a batch of tags at this stage, so its not a bad idea to scan all your mysteries together and all your kids’ books in a batch).

  1. Tips for getting the scan to ‘take’: I lay books down on a table and held the phone in two hands above them. This eliminated the crazy shake I seemed to develop every time I used the app. Also, if you are having trouble getting it to see the barcode, try angling the phone towards and/or away from the book slightly.
  2. This tutorial assumes you already have a LibraryThing account and have logged in

Red Laser Barcode Scanner for iPhone

You know when you’re walking around with a friend and you see a cool new toy? What do you do?

You point at it.

“What is that?” you say, quickly followed by, “And where can I get one?”

If your friend is the guru of all shopping gurus, she can probably tell you where to get it, who has the best price and exactly when it will go out of style.

If you friend is like me, she’ll go, “Umm, I do not know. Let’s look it up online.”

Until now the non-shopping-gurus among us have been limited to typing text into text boxes to do our online searching. But no longer.

If you have an iPhone and the Red Laser app, you can point your phone at the product’s barcode, scan it

Red Laser Barcode Scanner app for iPhone

and let the web tell you where you can get it and who has the best price.

Red Laser iPhone App Comparison Shopping So I Don't Have To!

(You may still need a fashion-forward friend to tell you if it’s trendy or lame, however.)

Is That All There Is?

Isn’t that enough?

But no, there are more applications than just comparison shopping.

My favorite way to use this is to scan barcodes from the back of all the books in my house and list them all at (no more wondering if I have this title or that, when I’m at the bookstore!)

The designers of Red Laser have provided developers with the tools to use their technology in any way that their dirty little minds can come up with, so I’m off to find out what else I could be doing with my new barcode obsession.


Why I Use Twitter

Why Twitter?

For me: mobility and cost and immediacy.

Most people seem to use computers to tweet but it was conceived as a way to share text messages with a bunch of friends easily.

My family are all in a different country and a different time zone. Posting little 140 character questions and updates that can be read by the whole family means that we can keep up-to-date even 3,000 miles away and 5 hours out of sync. And I don’t need to log on to my computer to do it.

My sister-in-law lived in yet another country for the first 8 years I was part of her family, and we spoke briefly at Christmas and maybe birthdays and it was always a little awkward because we knew so little about each other.

Since we’ve started tweeting, I know how she spends her day every day and now we chat about the things that matter to us. I’ve discovered she has a great sense of humour and, last month, when she had a car crash, I knew about it and was able to check that she was OK (and maybe offer a little support) while she was still waiting for the towtruck to arrive. My mother and sister-and-brother-in-law (not related except through my marriage) trade one-liners and discuss trends. My own sister, who went to the same University as my sister-in-law, has talked to her more through Twitter than they ever did at university (where they were aware of each other but never talked).

And sometimes it’s just fun. I was able to follow 2010 as it broke around the world.

And yes, if you’re a Facebook person, you can do something similar with status updates. But Facebook is designed to allow you to talk only to people you know or knew.

While you can protect your tweets, you can also allow anyone who wants to follow you. I’ve had conversations with business people and celebrities I would never have dreamed of emailing. I landed an interview with a corporate bigwig and Tweeter, simply by asking in 140 characters, and promising to be similarly brief in the interview. I bet you if I had emailed him, my email would have been lost, or ignored, or put aside until such time as he could compose a nice email reply. But tweets are immediate, brief and easily acted upon on a whim.

(I know, it seems crazy that email is now too formal, or too much work, but so we go)

What If I Don’t Want The World To Know When I’m Going To The Store, But I Do Want My Family To Know?

Why not keep separate accounts?

I have a personal account that only my family and friends can follow, where I tweet every day updates and comments. I also have a business profile that is open. Anyone can follow my tweets and I follow lots of celebrity business people as well as people in my own field and people I come across who are just plain entertaining or informative. I have a third profile that I use to follow celebrities and other people I don’t know. It’s my voyeuristic little guilty pleasure and I don’t check it all the time, nor do I want to, so I keep a separate account just for them.

Having all these different profiles allows me to be free with personal information in my protected account (“The house is empty: come on in, burglars!”), and professional when I want to be seen that way (in my business account) and goofy, with guilty pleasures (like the fact that I follow a bunch of sci-fi actors and occasionally send them gushy fan-girl comments that I’d rather keep my family and friends from mocking me about.)

As Simple or Complex As You Need It To Be

One of the great things about Twitter is its simplicity: 140 characters, delivered by phone or to a simply-designed webpage. But that’s also a downside: it’s not very powerful. You can’t filter the people you follow, or sort tweets, or hide tweets…but luckily there are lots of enterprising software boffins out there who can’t resist tweaking and making something more complex, to suit their own needs. As a result, there are tons of programs you can download (mostly free) that allow you to sort through your Tweets, or look up all mentions of a specific keyword, whatever you want to do. Tweetdeck is the acknowledged power-user program, I also like Tweetie for my iPhone and have used Twitterfox/Echofon as an add-on for my Firefox browser (although I had some problems with it forgetting my accounts). I’ve also used, and quite liked Seesmic on my computer, which is a lot like Tweetdeck, because it lets you see multiple accounts all at once.

There’s a lot more that you can do with Twitter (automated tweets, hashtags, link shorteners) but we’ll save that for another day and another post.

Why Not Buzz?

Well, I talked about Buzz on the day it came out and before it became clear how silly Google had been, compromising people’s privacy the way they did. I didn’t see the need for another social network (for me) but it may be that we all migrate to Buzz eventually. For now, I’ll keep Twittering.

Google Buzz, Huh?

Buzz sprang into the world recently, a new service from Google that kind of replicates the status update part of Facebook and kind of replicates Twitter. Everyone is, a-buzz about Buzz (good naming, Google) because it’s from Google, even if they’re not sure what it does, yet.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find Google does a very good job of explaining their new things and why I want them.

So What Is Buzz?

Harry McCracken over at PC World has a good analysis of what Buzz might be all about and what it might do.

Mashable has a good article about what Buzz actually is, and what all the bits of it do (their rating: “lots of potential, but not a ton of substance [yet]”).

Here is Google’s announcement

and here’s the video, which I didn’t find awfully helpful…

The ever-helpful Lifehacker has this hack for turning off the status updates Buzz pops into your mail interface without turning off Buzz altogether

The Buzz on “Buzz”

This punter(if you can get past all the advertising and find the article) thinks that Buzz is a ‘Real Twitter Killer’. Unlike me he thinks that Twitter has a lot of problems that need fixed (you can’t edit posts, you can’t post pictures, the 140 character limit). But…Those are some of the reasons I like Twitter so much!

This Self-Professed Google Fanboy compares Google’s auto-selecting-email-contacts-for-Buzz to being forced to socialise with his neighbours…in his apartment. Which kind of works…

@dblume says this will just lead to more fragmentation — something with which I cannot disagree. I can’t follow everyone everywhere. I’m going to choose my friends based on where they hang out. Which is sad. I’ve enjoyed the wider social contact with old friends and new that came from everyone being in one place.

And this guy sums up the whole thing nicely:

"Google Buzz: another way to get embarrassed"

WordPress Plug-ins I Shouldn’t Have Tried To Live Without

Genius At Work

Genius At Work by Ben McLeod

I use WordPress to host and run my websites.

(It started as blog-hosting software but works as a Content Management System too. The Wall Street Journal’s site is built on its software, for example).

Lots of people more technically-skilled than I have written lots of little programs, called plug-ins, that help me make my website do cool things without having to write the code myself1. Some of these things I could do myself, but plug-ins make it easier, quicker and automated. 2

Plug-ins let me do everything from put headlines in my sidebars, to helping me track how many people visit which article, to creating sign-up forms, and create those cute little ‘link to me’ buttons at the top of this article. Here are the ones that allow me to build websites that make my clients go “ooooh!”


Google XML SiteMaps

This makes it easier for Google to index your pages (i.e include you in their search results)

Google Analytics For WordPress

This inserts the “Google Analytics” code wherever it needs to be in your site (usually in the header or footer of the code, which you don’t necessarily want to go digging around in unless you know what you’re doing. Trust me. A misplaced semi colon can bring grown men to tears!)

Google Analytics is an amazing (free) tool that tracks how people get to your website, where they go, how long they stay, where in the world they are, what keywords they searched for to get to you (and therefore what you should be including on more of your pages)…and so much more. It presents the information in all kinds of cool ways: graphs, overlays, tables. Go. Sign up.

Being able to tell clients exactly what’s going on with traffic is really valuable. You can both see what impact the site is having on business, you can see which marketing strategies are working and which are a big waste of money, you can improve the site. Good for you, good for your client.

Social, Sharing and Visibility Plug-ins

Simple Modal Contact Form (SMCP)

I, and my clients, use mailing list services like MailChimp and Constant Contact. While both of these offer form-building options at their sites, sometimes you just want a little more control, but again, with out having to play HTML or CSS.Very easy to use and effective, and no-one has to know you didn’t hand-code the whole thing.

The only problem I have with this plug-in is that its acronym reminds me of that song “SIMP, Squirrels In My Pants” from te cartoon Phineas and Ferb…)


Thinking about offering a new product or service? Ask your customers/readers what they think. Super-easy single-question polls to pop in your sidebar. Minimalist style. Lovely.

Sexy Bookmarks

I tried gathering button graphics for all the social networking tools (Twitter, RSS, LinkedIn, Facebook) and building a sidebar “Link to me!” plea.

Then I discovered Sexy Bookmarks. You can see what this plug-in looks like at the bottom of this post (unless you’re reading the RSS feed. It didn’t show the graphics, just a huge text list, so I turned it off for you guys. Come visit the original post…)

Social Follow

Sign up at the Social Follow website, enter in your user name at all the social networking sites you use (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter etc) and they will generate a little button like the one in my sidebar, making it easy for people to follow you wherever you are (if you like that sort of thing). This plug-in builds a widget that you can drop into any widget area in your theme (again, no messing around with your theme’s code files).


You know how a lot of sites have those little square adverts off to the side? Well, some are powered by ad companies (or Google ads) but sometimes it makes sense to control your own ads.

This plug in lets you sell and manage advertising on your site. You control how big the ads are, where they go, how many show up, what images show up, and it also contains a management function, that allows you to set rates, and expiration dates. It’ll even email your advertisers when their contract is about to expire.

Nice, for getting things how want them to look

Query Post

This allows you to build sidebar widgets that contain just the posts you want them to contain. It has a zillion different ways to filter your posts and pages to allow you to control what appears. It is obviously very powerful and I’ve only figured out how to do rudimentary stuff so far, but it is simple enough for newbs and powerful enough for folks who know what they’re doing.

Category Page and Page2Cat

This is a lovely little plug in that lets you create a page that is automatically updated with all your posts from categoryX (which you define by typing a short code, i.e. a phrase in a square bracket). Simple and elegant. You may have to add some code to your site depending on your theme, but it’s only once and it is well-documented.

Make Things Easy For Your Readers

WPTouch iPhone Theme

Your three-column design might look great on a computer monitor, but it probably irritates people reading on a tiny mobile screen. Thisplug-in automatically converts your blog, when readers access it via a mobile device. It makes your site look like an iPhone app (which is cute if, like me, you love your iPhone).  It also has a ‘turn this off’ button at the bottom for people who want to see the original layout, or who hate all things iPhoney. Very, very nice plug-in

Make Posting Easier For You

Flickr Manager

Every time I go to Flickr, I curse the fact that I have to click so often to get to the size and code I want for my picture. Flickr Manager Plug-in works just like the little “insert picture’ button on you WP Dashboard, except that instead of prompting you to upload a picture, it goes straight to your Flickr Photostream. It allows you to choose sizes, alignment etc and add a caption (dependent on your theme). HUGE timesaver.

(update: this doesn’t seem to be finding all my pictures since I upgraded to WordPress 2.9.1)


This allows me to create footnotes 3 really simply, by using shortcodes (basically,putting something in a square bracket — in this case a number, a period and your note)

So, off you go and explore the wonderful world of plug-ins.

Update (2/22/10): Lucky 13 is:

WP-Table Reloaded

I’ve long been frustrated by having to hand-code tables in the wordpress window. No longer! This plug-in installs its control panel in the Tools section, from whence you can set up tables, add data and then embed the same table (or different ones) anywhere in your website simply by entering a short code. Love it!

  1. This only works on a self-hosted WordPress installation, not a blog hosted by
  2. I love automated
  3. Like this

iPad vs Kindle

So, iPad vs. Kindle. It was the first thing a lot of people mentioned and I’m not sure why.

It’s a bit like comparing a greetings card to a smart phone. Or my beloved blank notebook to my desktop computer.

One is designed to do one thing, and do it well, with all the limitations that implies (i.e. it can’t do anything other than the thing it was designed for, and must be used pretty much in the way the designer specified.) The other does lots and lots of things, with a few compromises that are usually made up for by the convenience factor.

My blank book is pretty much pants when it comes to helping me retrieve information or store photographs or connect with other people. But when I want to jot down an idea, or draw a diagram or entertain a cranky toddler on a train, or make an impromptu origami model, that notebook is my best friend.

Similarly, I LOVE my iPhone and I carry it with me everywhere (yes, everywhere. Don’t think too hard about that). I even read ebooks on it. It is good on the treadmill that lives in a dark and spidery corner of my basement. It’s great in bed, oh yes.

My iPhone ereader (and so, by extension, the iPad ereader) lets me look stuff up, dog-ear pages (not really) and make notes. The iPad will usher in the Apple eBook store.


I still love my Kindle.

When I want to settle down and read a book for hours (as if I get the chance!) I reach for my pencil-slim, un-backlit, black-on-grey eInk screened, phenomenally long-lived, free Internet access, zippy download, fingerprint-free screened, no-glare Kindle that looks better in daylight than the printed page with none of the ‘holding the book open’ inconvenience.

I love its little cotton socks. I really do.

Just as an email birthday greeting, while more convenient, lacks the appeal of a through-the-post physical card, and the Kindle itself lacks the paper-and-ink-smell tactile experience of reading a dead-tree edition, the iPad ebook reader will come with compromises. The convenience may outweigh those compromises for many people, but I really, really hope that Amazon and the publishers continue to support this device.

The Kindle was designed for people like me, who buy and read books voraciously. We are the ones who will read a book a week, or more. (I have two small children and last year I logged 40 books as ‘read’ in my WeRead profile. In one year! Most of them were bought and read on the Kindle. It’s the most I have read in years. Because it was always easy to find my book, find my place, and grab a new book. Only once did I pick up my Kindle and discover I had let the battery run down, and that was after a particularly busy couple of weeks when I had tossed it in the corner, wireless still connected.)

Dedicated readers appreciate a dedicated device. Casual readers would never have bought a Kindle anyway.

So I’m still not sure why everyone focused on the iPad as a Kindle killer. It might be, but there is so much more to the iPad than ebooks.

My hopes are that

a, the publishers realise that Amazon is trying to sell more books, and respond to their customers’ price sensitivities, not hurt publishers.

b, Amazon starts to support the ePub format so that books I buy from the Apple store will also be readable on my Kindle. I’m grateful to Amazon for the Kindle, but not so grateful that I’m going to forgo reading a book if it is published in the ‘wrong’ format.

And yeah, I still want an iPad…

Other People’s Opinions:
This one talks about iPad vs Kindle very differently

How To Hide Farmville or Mafia Wars or Others on Facebook News Feed

I appreciate that lots of my friends have fun with Farmville on Facebook.

I, however, am not interested and would love to not have to wade through that stuff. Since I try to spend as little time as possible on Facebook, it has taken me a ridiculously long time to figure out how to hide these things.

Here, for those of you who can’t be bothered investing the time, either, to find out how to hide Farmville or hide Mafia Wars, or hide “What Sex Position Are You” (?!), is a cheat sheet:

1, Find the offending Farmville update from one of your friends in your feed (I have removed the name of this one because it didn’t seem fair to single out one person from the many MANY people on my friends feed who bombard me with this stuff):

Die, Farmville, Die!

Die, Farmville, Die!

2, Hover your mouse over the update. A little “Hide” box will appear.

Hide, Farmville, Hide!

Hide, Farmville, Hide!

3, You will see this confirmation message. If you’re really ticked off, you can hide the friend altogether, but if your friendship can survive their addiction to Golden Eggs and Fluffy Chicks, then you can simply hide the application:

Hide Friend or Farmville? Hmmm...

Hide Friend or Farmville? Hmmm...

4, If you suddenly contract brain fever and are seized with an urge to rejoin the world Farmville or Mafia Wars or some other application’s spectators, you can click on the “Edit Options” button and adjust your settings.

Don't Look Back!

Don't Look Back!

There. I hope that helped.

Also, you might want to consider updating to Facebook Lite, which hides all this stuff.

And here’s a fun post, mainly aimed at business folks, on How To Lose Friends and Tick People Off on Facebook (thanks to Debbie for that link)

Kindle Software Update

[Updated 9/28/11: Want to read about the Kindle Fire and Kindle Touch? Click here.]

Now I’m sure that this is a coincidence, given that Barnes & Noble’s new ereader the Nook comes out today, but I just got an email from Amazon saying that my Kindle now supports PDFs. And you can rotate the screen, to give yourself more screen real estate, for those wider layouts.

(One of the glitzy selling points of Nook seems to be its color touch screen, for displaying book covers and controlling the machine, but another feature that people were excited about was the native support for PDFs. Up until now, with Kindle, you’ve had to email them to yourself and pay a fee, or convert them to Kindle format with third-party software, and lose the formatting.)

Amazon says that you can just wait and let your Kindle update over the wireless connection, but I was impatient. So I’ve downloaded the update, followed the instructions for manually installing it, and am about to play.Kindle Software Upgrade

OK, up and running.

I’ve dragged a PDF doc to my Kindle (via the USB cable) and am opening it.

First Impressions — and Hyperlinks

The first thing I notice is that it looks pretty good.

The second thing I notice is that there is a hyperlink right there on the first page. I wonder if it works… No. There five-way navigation button (that would usually pop a little hand onto the screen and allow me to annotate my document or click on things) does nothing. Since a PDF is essentially a photocopy of a page, I’m not entirely surprised. However, on my computer this document is a dynamic PDF, which does allow me to click on the hyperlinks, so it’s a bit of a shame that the Kindle, with its web access, doesn’t.

(To be fair, I put the same doc on my iPhone – with the GoodReads app – and couldn’t click on the hyperlink either. I suspect it may have something to do with how the hyperlink was originally created. Unless, at creation, you tell a PDF document to make your hyperlinks active, you’ll end up with a dumb document on your computer screen too.)

The third thing I notice? Oh, it’s still black and white. ;)

On To The Text

Native PDF as-isOK, so I scroll into the text. It’s pretty small, and this is a PDF, not a tagged text, so I can’t use the built-in font resizer (that’s a short-coming of PDFs, which were designed to preserve a set layout. Useful sometimes, but not so necessary for most books, I think).

However, I use the nifty new rotate function to turn the page.Kindle Rotate Function

Much better. 1

Rotated PDF on Kindle

Although now there’s three ‘next page’s to read one PDF page, which means three e-Ink flickers to read one PDF page. That might be a bit much.

However, when I go back to the menu, to open up a new document, the menu is in landscape mode too. And the five-way button automatically compensates (so “down” on the button, even in this orientation, is still “down” on the screen). That’s nice.

And you can read regular books in this format, which makes the largest font size more readable (you get more words to a line).

Oh, and there’s a new ‘words to a line’ function, where you can tell it to add fewer words to a line. it doesn’t seem to affect the kerning (spacing between characters) as much as make the margins bigger).

They also give you the option of which way you rotate the text. This means you can have the keypad on the left or on the right. It’s a little thing, but it might affect your comfort. (it’s also means you can now read upside down in portrait mode too, if that tickles your fancy!)

The PDF Problem

I think the PDF support will always be a little clunky, until PDFs go away, because the point of a PDF is to tie the text to one layout (and to stop the text from being scraped out of the document and changed or pirated). A large part of the point of an ereader is to allow you to customise the layout and play with the text to make it fit you. (If not, why aren’t they all just PDF-viewing machines?)

There is an existing problem with PDFs, and that is the way designers use them. Even reading a PDF on a computer screen annoys me, because they are almost always designed for a portrait, 8.5″x11″ printed page, which is absolutely wrong for every monitor I’ve ever met.

For documents with charts and graphs, and for poetry and art books, PDFs make sense (for now.

But for novels and informational plain non-fiction PDFs are a really dumb way to display information and I think they’ll go away in time. Or maybe evolve radically.

Until then, I’m willing to bet that Amazon is going to take the flack because designers are going to continue to design PDFs to fit on a 8.5×11″ piece of paper, and the Kindle is many things but it’s not that.

In short

It’s nice to be able to drag and drop PDFs to my Kindle, because sometimes PDFs are how the information comes. Designers, however, have not been designing their PDFs to be read on a monochrome, e-Ink page, and it shows. If the designer uses a font color other than black, or if they think in 8.5″x11″ pages (which, let’s face it, a lot of them do. That’s why they’re using PDFs: to make sure we plebeian readers don’t mess up their beautiful layout), then it’s never going to look great on a smaller e-Ink screen. But, for the most part, it’s workable.

  1. The book in these screenshots is Michael Stelzner’s excellent How To Write A White Paper.

Nook – Another New eReader Machine, This Time From Barnes & Noble

OK, I’ve had my grubby hands on the Kindle since it came out and I’m a fan. Which is not to say that a, I think it’s utterly perfect; or b, I think that competition is bad.

In the interests of cutting through the marketing hype, here are my thoughts on the comparison of (the so far unseen by the public) Nook and my Kindle.
What’s The Same | Nook Exclusives | Kindle Exclusives | Who ‘Wins’ | My Final Judgement |
What they have in common

  • You can read full texts of books on an eInk screen that mimics the printed page well: no backlighting, no glare, great in sunlight.
  • 6″ (diagonal) screen
  • Roughly the same size overall
  • Download ebooks for quickly, wirelessly and for free, wherever you are (mostly*). I’ve heard some confusion about this but there is NO fee and no need to have a contract with the cell phone companies. The bookseller does that part. Amazon and Barnes and Noble have deals with Sprint and AT&T respectively (in the US. In the UK it’s with a different company and I think there may be a download fee of just over a pound, but haven’t confirmed that).
  • Have lots of memory (2GB internal)
  • Have good battery life (esp when you turn the wireless off, if you remember)
  • Show grayscale pictures nicely
  • Synchronize your books between multiple devices
  • Highlight and bookmark sections of books
  • MP3 support — listen to mp3s even while you’re reading (if you like that sort of thing). Lord of the Rings book, Lord of the Rings soundtrack? Could be nice.
  • Multiple font sizes
  • “Keep Reading” function (lets you resume reading where you left off, even over multiple devices)

[*They both work on the 3G network so you have to be in range of 3G signal. BN’s Nook also has a wi-fi option, which could help if you’re out in the boondocks but near a wi-fi signal]

They both have some other features the other one doesn’t have, and here’s where it gets tricky to get to the truth if you haven’t used one or the other. So here goes.

What Nook Has That Kindle Doesn’t (and my thoughts)

(using their own Product Comparison page as a source)

  • Colour Touch Screen – This is a strip under the reading screen (where there is a keyboard on the Kindle). It shows five sections: Daily, My Library, Shop, Reading Now, Settings. and lets you navigate your content and the store. It seems like the store is a scrollable ‘shelf’ of book cover images. The online demo doesn’t show how you search for specific titles (if you can). I would get frustrated by not being able to type in a particular title that I’m looking for. Apparently, there is an on-screen keyboard.  Also, this colour screen is a, probably why the battery life is four days shorter than Kindle’s and b, The backlit screen below my reading page would annoy me — you can dim its brightness and perhaps you can turn it off.
  • Quick-View Library by Color Book Cover Image -This might be nice if you’re a visual sort of person (I am). But there still doesn’t seem to be any way to type in your book’s title and find it that way, which would be less annoying (to me) than scrolling through pages and pages of books, passing the one you want, scrolling back, missing it again…ask me and my iPod how I know about this!  Both a scrolling library of book titles AND the ability to type in a title would be the best combination, but it’s either or (Nook or Kindle) for now.
  • Wi-Fi connectivity — Good, I guess, if you get stuck out of a 3G zone and in range of wi-fi. Hasn’t happened to me yet. The books download very quickly over 3G.
  • Free Wi-Fi in Barnes & Noble Stores — OK, well, free Wi-fi everywhere there is free Wi-fi. Not applicable to the wi-fi-less Kindle.
  • Free daily content from Barnes & Noble — well, yes. You don’t get that on Kindle. But neither do you get the free Amazon content on the Nook. So a bit of a draw there.
  • SD card slot — Keep even more books on your Nook (to scroll through). With Kindle, you can archive your library at Amazon and access it again at any time. This one depends on what kind of person you are: do you like to have a hard copy of things that you can keep (on your SD card) because what if something happens to the online store; or are you thrilled to save things online only because you know you’d lose the physical thingy that stores them anyway?
  • Expandable storage — via the SD slot. I can’t imagine needing more room. I have to archive things as it is, because I hate having too many titles to search through. I forget what is current. But that’s just me.
  • More than a million titles available – B&N says they have them and Amazon says they have 350,000. I’m not sure this is a deciding factor for me just now as a, all the best-sellers are bound to be there and b, I’m sure Amazon will expand. However, if you like to look up older titles and if you find that B&N has more of them, it might sway you.
  • More than 500,000 free ebooks — Fine. Having sampled some of the free eBooks available for Kindle I’m going to hazard a guess that a lot of them are scanned out-of-copyright books, self-published books, technical books and not all of them are going to be worth your time. I don’t think a dumptruck of free ebooks is going to be anyone’s deciding factor, but OK.
  • Exclusive content when in B&N stores — this had better be world-class content or it’s going to seem like a ploy to get you into stores.
  • PDF support – this is potentially big. It’s not available on the small-size Kindles, and you have to use a separate piece of software to convert it (or email it to Amazon and have them convert it for a small fee and email it to your Kindle). On the other hand, PDFs are meant to display things in a fixed format, and that format is rarely in the 3.75″ x 5.75″ size of an eInk screen. (in other words, this could get messy. Or small). But people are going to like the idea.
  • EPUB and eReader formats supported — this means that if you’ve been downloading books in these formats to read on another device, you won’t have to buy them again if you want to read them on your Nook. This is nice, and not something the Kindle currently supports. Also, if you want to download a book that is ONLY available in these formats, you’re golden.
  • Read on more devices — you can read your Nook books on your desktop/laptop or a Blackberry as well as on an iPhone/iPod Touch. I confess I love being able to whip out my phone and catch up on a couple of pages wherever I am. Both eReaders are not pocket-sized so it’s nice to have the option to read a few pages on the device I DO have in my pocket. I suspect Amazon will add Blackberry support, but it’s not there just now. Desktop access might be nice for people who work outside the home and don’t want to carry their eReader around with them.
  • Android operating system — OK. I have nothing to say. I’m sure Android is cool and Kindle doesn’t run on it.
  • LendMe — You can lend books to other people. I haven’t seen the conditions on lending, but it’s an appealing feature. Of course, the publishers control whether or not this feature is available on their books, as they do with the Text-To-Speech feature on Kindle, so don’t expect all books to have this option. Publishers are very jealous of their intellectual property and are loathe to give it away even in spite of experiments that suggest it actually increases sales. I like the LendMe feature in principle.
  • Try in store before buying — I firmly believe Amazon needs to partner with someone to get working copies of their machine into stores so people can try them. Who’s going to pay $250 for an unseen product (except for us gadget/book freaks that is?). I’ve seen Sony eReaders in stores, but never in working mode.
  • Replaceable colourful back covers — some will scoff, but it’s kinda nice to be able to customize your gadgets.
  • Ergonomic Back Cover for Optimal Hand Fit — Hmm, can’t judge this from the spinning screen shot, but it looks pretty flat to me. I preferred the original Kindle’s shape, on this note. The current flat one is a bit less comfortable than I think it could be. They must hvae been going for slim-at-all-costs. Still preferable to holding a paper book of the same size in one hand.
  • Personalise your screensavers — nice option. Somebody discovered a hack for this in the original Kindle but I haven’t seen one for Kindle2.
  • Replaceable battery — Amazon doesn’t say much about the Kindle’s battery.

What Kindle Has That Nook Hasn’t (and my thoughts)

  • Keyboard – This is big for me. Simply start typing to search for text (reading a huge Russian tome and want to look up the first time “Anatoli” appeared so you can remember who he was? Just start typing and find every instance of his name). I’ve always wanted this feature, even before ebooks existed. “What was that line about…” update: not sure this is as big a deal, as long as the on-screen keyboard on the Nook is decent.
  • Annotation – –I don’t see a way in the keyboardless Nook, to make margin notes. I don’t use this very much myself but I imagine a lot of people do. update: unclear if you can annotate books, but imagine you can.
  • 5-Way Navigation Button — yes, it’s a little laggy , but you can move your little cursor around the screen and highlight text, select links, select a word for a dictionary definition (which pops up at the bottom fo the screen)and press to click. (I liked the scroll bar in the original Kindle, even though it didn’t do as much). I’m not sure how you navigate in the Nook to highlight text.
  • Text-To-Speech — it’s no audio-book level speech, and some publishers have turned it off for their books, but it still works for many. (I tend to use it to keep listening to a non-fiction book while I do dishes or something. It’s pretty laughable for novels, but still, if you want to keep reading while you take a short drive, it’s nice to have).
  • Word document support — The B&N site says “fee for wirelessly emailing” but that’s disingenuous: you can convert them for free yourself by using something like MobiPocket or Calibre
  • Basic Web access – you can check your email, access Wikipedia and IMDB, look stuff up on the web all over the free 3G service. It’s a bit clunky and slow, but before I had my (vastly expensive iPhone with its vastly expensive data service) this was great for answering all those nagging questions that pop up while you’re out and about. It’s not full web access, and it’s not as powerful as something like an iPhone but it’s a nice alternative if you have nothing or don’t want to pay data service and would just like to be able to pop online and check something.
  • Auto-page turn — this isn’t something that is in the manual, but there is documentation for it somewhere.  A combination of keystrokes will have the Kindle turn pages at 9 second intervals. If I boost the font size to the max and prop the book up, I can read my novel, hands-free while knitting or eating lunch alone (chance’d be a fine thing). Kind of nice. Nook may have it too, though.
  • Back button — This takes you back to the previous screen, not just to the previous page (I know, that’s confusing, but imagine you’re looking up a footnote. You don’t want to page back one page, you want to jump back to your previous section. The Back button does that. It also helps in the store, and in the web browser and in your ‘index’ or ‘bookshelf’)
  • Home and Menu Buttons — the touch screen on the Nook replaces some of these function. On the Kindle you use a combination of the Home/Menu buttons and the five-way-pointer to select where you want to be.

Who Wins?

  • Cost: The same ($259 — unless you want the International version of the Kindle, which is an extra $20)
  • International Wireless Coverage: I think the Kindle is the only one with this. B&N makes no mention of it.
  • Battery life: Kindle
  • Replaceable Battery: Nook
  • Connectivity: Nook (I think. Adding wi-fi seems like it must be a good thing, but I haven’t yet run into a situation where I could have used wi-fi and not 3G. Might be great, might be a red-herring). The Kindle has a basic web browser though, so it’s a close call.
  • Reading Features: Kindle  because of the note-making ability and ability to search text. This might be a draw, if the Nook has the same ability as Kindle.
  • Browsing Your Library: Hard to say. Nook’s colour covers are nice; Kindle’s text-based version is easy, plus you can input text to search.
  • Storage Capacity: Maybe Nook if you care about removable storage vs. online storage.
  • Look & Feel: Nook, by a nose. It looks like a Kindle but a little bit customizable. People will like the colour touch screen even if I think it’s a battery draining painted hussy that would be a complete fouter to use and have a distracting backlight.
  • Name: Nook. (Kindle has connotations of book-burning. Nook sounds like you curl up in a big armchair with a good reading light and a cup of hot chocolate…)

In Short…

  • Nook has some more features, some fewer. The reading experience and the shopping experience will be almost identical with a few exceptions:
  • No ability to search the text or the bookshelf (that I can see, I could be wrong).
  • No way to make ‘margin’ notes on the text.
  • Ability to lend books to friends (who have a compatible device) with some restrictions, at the publishers’ discretion.
  • Native PDF and other ebook format support.

The only compelling feature for me there is the lending one, and I think that’s going to be a bit of a light feature for some time to come (not many people have the devices, big publishers probably won’t enable it much … yet.

I would hate to give up the ability to input text.

It’s very close and may simply come down to whether you prefer to deal mostly with Amazon or B&N.

But, hopefully this rund0wn will help you make your own choice based on your preferences not the manufacturer’s gilded claims.

Let me know what you decide.