EReading on a PC

September 17, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Posted in Books, Computers, Internet, Software | 2 Comments

Digital paper formats like PDF (Portable Document Format) have been around since the rise of Desktop Publishing in the early 1990’s, prior to the WWW. But recent eBook formats are a different animal. The text is sharper and designed to adjust and reflow into the size of the viewing screen; from a cell phone to a 50″ TV. The text can be annotated, highlighted and bookmarked and the software typically automatically reopens the file where you left off last time. No remembering page numbers.

The recent proliferation of eBooks has meant cheaper, more accessible books requiring vastly less storage space. Files are typically compressed like music’s .MP3 format, making them smaller than PDF’s and easier to take with you. If you use books as a reference source, a quick search is a great bonus. They’re greener and quickly accessible at purchase too. No commute to the bookstore or wait for shipping. (though I still love to shop in bookstores) Recently, eBooks began to outsell paper books and vast repositories of free books are growing on-line. Some traditional libraries have begun offering eBook “loans” or on-line reading and some on-line stores have a selection of free eBooks too.

As with many new technologies, this one is coming with a large surge in special file formats. Each supplier has their favorite format and many devices only support a few of them. There are a few standards like .ePub but the market is still settling out.

Some eBooks you buy come with copy protection (DRM) that limits how many devices you can put it on. If you have a few devices (cell, reader, and the computer you downloaded it to, for example) and you upgrade your hardware periodically, you’ll have to rebuy your favorites when you copy them over a few times. Built-in obsolescence of knowledge?

On the other hand, devices like Amazon’s Kindle are tied to their store to make shopping easy and painless. eReader devices have been driving this vast expansion as people discover the ease and advantages of a library that fits in your purse or case and lasts a week between charges. They organize and back up your books for you. Like your cell phone is tied to your provider or the iPxx devices are to iTunes and Apple, easy technology sells. It also makes you a dedicated customer.

If you’d also like to read those eBooks on your laptop or desktop, suppliers handily offer special proprietary viewers. But do you want to be stuck shopping at only one store on your PC or have different programs for each outlet competing for your library? Do you want someone looking over your shoulder at what you read? And who wants to hassle with file conversion to read what you’d like?

Caliber is a recommended free PC (Win, Mac and Linux) eReader program that can view and convert a wide range of formats but it likes to organize your eBooks their way (a la iTunes). If you already have a library structure for your different kinds of eBooks, you don’t want a program to go rearranging your bookcases. But if you’d prefer a program that organizes for you and you like to sync your books to various devices, you may prefer Caliber. It depends on your style of computing and who you want managing your library.

At first, I used the free CoolReader (Win, Linux, Android) as an unobtrusive program. It requires manually opening files (not just a double-click) but supports a wide range of formats. It’s a good choice if your needs are simple. This worked well for me until the number of eBooks I received grew (exponentially it seems) and I started getting other formats like DjVu more often. I gradually needed a viewer that was more sophisticated.

My usual sources for recommended free software weren’t helping. And then I ran into something unexpected. Software designed for viewing the full range of science and technology document formats. The STDU or “Science and Technology Document Utility was just what I was looking for. It’s free for personal and non-commercial use. It includes a tabbed interface, text and image export, and some limited conversion features.
(see the web site for details)

A single viewer that easily handles all the formats I’m running into was just what the doctor ordered.
It handles:
eBook formats: EPub (most standard), FB2(Fiction book), TXT, CBR or CBZ(Comic Books), TCR(Psion), PDB(PalmDoc), MOBI(Open Ebook), AZW(older Kindles), and DCX(Fax)
Document Formats: PDF, DjVu, XPS, JBIG2, and WWF.
Image formats: TIFF, BMP, PCX, JPEG, GIF, PNG, WMF, EMF, and PSD files.

A few use .CHM for eBooks. It’s a Windows HTML Help format that will open natively in Windows (only). Add copy protection and you get the .LIT format that evidently requires the propriety Microsoft Reader. As the MS Reader has now been discontinued, it illustrates why it’s best to avoid such closed, non-standard formats. Similarly, the oft-recommended but ironically named MobiPocket Reader converts your Mobi and other files into a proprietary PRC format. Believe me, this invites headaches down the road. If you’ve been browsing the web for awhile, you know what a hassle it was until Web Standards became commonly supported.

More less common eBook formats are listed here.

When you’re installing STDU, review the file associations (checkboxes) you’re assigning. For example, even with full Acrobat, I prefer the fast Foxit Reader for quick and secure PDF viewing. And I have favorite Image viewing tools like XnView. But for all these eBook and less common Doc formats Like DjVu, STDU gets my defaults.

If your main interest is something to view all these formats and you like to organize your own library, I’d recommend STDU.

Happy reading!


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  1. I’m somewhat tempted to get a kindle but I’m still on the fence. Too bad I’m not crazy about reading on the PC!

    How common is DRM on ebooks?


  2. Yeah, I can’t say I’m a big fan of reading on a PC but I do a ton of it. The article arose because I needed to deal with it better. I’d already set up a library structure to store the files better, separate from general documents.

    eReader devices are much nicer for reading – partly as they’re designed for the purpose and you can sit more flexibly, etc. More like a book in that way. My sister and a few friends have a Kindle and love them. The Nook also gets high reviews. The Kindle oddly doesn’t support the ePub standard. (lots of free books are in ePub) The Nook does but doesn’t support some other common formats. (many readers offer no way to add apps to extend capabilities)

    It’s also worth looking to see if they have a memory card slot. (more common on Nooks) This allows you to switch data and not be limited by the internal memory. That to me was one of the big issues with many music players. Given the growing ability of many Readers to play music and video, this is significant.

    Here’s a review of recent models and some of the things to watch for.

    Some eReaders are near-tablets. Myself, I would consider getting a 7″ tablet if the screen is good enough. Then I can load apps like the Kindles plus web browse, etc. A far more open and flexible option but it also means slightly more effort to manage it.

    It’s also worth noting that the coming Windows 8 is touch oriented so we should see a further proliferation of touch devices and maybe some good prices later this fall. 😉

    DRM is somewhat common in eBooks from the big suppliers. I imagine if you bought a Kindle, only read on the Kindle and transferred your books to a newer Kindle, it wouldn’t be much of an issue, if ever. But given the way technology changes, it can be more of an issue if you move suppliers. Apples, for example will only read on Apple devices. Amazon has demonstrated they can delete books from your Kindle. Some disable any copying or printing. It can actually vary by individual book, much as one can set the security settings in a PDF.

    It’s discussed here, though the MS Reader, as mentioned in the article above, is toast.
    The article also lists a number of issues that have arisen over DRM obsolescence. They mention DRM may actually increase piracy. (laughs)

    OK – enough – this is turning into another post… 😉
    Thanks for commenting.


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