Friday, August 19, 2011

Turning a NetBook into an eBook Reader

I like reading books, the one that you hold in your hands and turn the pages manually :) I like all types of books - but my favorite (ever since I was a young boy) are science fiction (or sci-fi, for short) books. I used to read them all the time, much to my parent's despair. My dad thought I should have been reading my school-books and my mom thought I should apply the same zeal to the Koran. This avaricious appetite for sci-fi books continues to this day - and now that I have lots of free time on my hands, I find myself at a quandary, as far as book reading goes. Being retired means little or no steady income - which in turn, means that I simply cannot afford to purchase as many books as when I was working. Books are getting more and more expensive nowadays -so what is a compulsive reader to do?

In addition to the increasing book cost, there is one more issue concerning the existing books that I own. Books, especially paperback books, don't last and some of the ones that I have (especially my favorites, which kept being read over and over) are now so tattered that no amount of scotch tape (or rubber bands!) can keep them in one piece. There is a solution to this looming disaster - and that will be outlines in my next post.

In the meantime, I need to get more books, especially sci-fi books without spending too much money. Of course, free books are better - only I have to look for them. Armed with only my PC (and netbook, if I am on the road) and the World-Wide Web (or internet), I set forth to locate these gems, if indeed they are available. Using Google search, I was amazed to find a treasure trove of free sci-fi books available at several web sites - you can also find them easily as I did by typing 'free sci-fi ebooks' into your Google search field. My first visit was to the Free Library of Baen Books (Baen Books is no stranger to me as I own a lot of books that they publish) and they freely offer a number of sci-fi books in several ebook format - most of which I was not familiar with - except HTML and RTF format.

Being an old-fashioned geezer, I always like to hold a physical book while reading. Reading an HTML formatted ebook on a desktop computer always gives me a headache (plus I can't curl up on the sofa while reading a book on my computer!) . It is always a chore to re-size a web browser (normally Firefox) to decrease the number of words per line in order to make it easier to read, and sometimes having to increase the font size so it is more comfortable to my old eyes, before I can settle down to read the book. Even with all that adjustment, I still am not comfortable enough reading the book - primarily because it does not emulate the 'book-reading' experience to a great degree. Now I do realize that it is impossible to get a 100% emulation of the 'book-experience' but there got to be something I can do to improve the situation.

Of course, there are dedicated ebook readers like the Kindle and the Nook but they are priced way too high for me to afford - plus some of them have way too small a screen size. The larger screen sized one are even more expensive. This also rules out the new tablets like the iPad and their imitators - because of the type of LCD used in their display (as opposed to the eInk display of dedicated ebook readers), reading a book on the iPad gives me a bigger headache that on a desktop computer. Believe me, I tried it on my sister's iPad - it was not a good experience at all. So, for me, a dedicated ebook reader is out of the question. The question now remains - what can I use to read ebook and maximize the 'book-experience'?

Then it struck me! I have a netbook - a portable computer small enough (but with a 10 inch screen) to hold in my hands like a book. Can this device replace a book? Are there (free) ebook readers software available for both the Windows and Linux OS? Can the text of the reader software be rotated 90 degrees so that it emulates the 'portrait mode' of a book? These were the questions that ran through my mind - time to research the web for answers. After several days of research, I finally came up out a workable solution, which I now present to anyone that faces the same problem that I faced and wants a solution.

The netbook that I own is a Lenovo S10-2 Ideapad but the solution can apply to all netbooks. The advantage of using a netbook as an ebook reader is (a) it is small enough to hold in the hands like a book and (b) the netbook's battery can last long enough for usage as an ebook reader. It does not matter whether you are using the Windows or Linux OS because the ebook reader and converter software works on both OS, i.e., there are versions for both OS. Now let's get cracking and turn that netbook into an ebook reader :)

First, fire up your web browser and visit and read about the FBReader (not FBReaderJ) software. The FB in the name of the software is a bit misleading - it has nothing to do with FaceBook (or FB, for short). The FB in the name of the sofware refers to the FB2 format - a Russian ebook standard - the de facto format of this reader. However, it can also handle the EPUB, MOBI and PRC formats - the ebook formats most widely used. This software is the only ebook reader that I know of that can rotate the text of the book by 90 degrees so that the netbook's screen now emulates the page of a book. Take care though, this reader software cannot handle some EPUB-formatted book correctly; but MOBI or PRC-formatted ebook are handled correctly. Also, you need to be aware that it cannot handle HTM or PDF documents at the moment - a big pity but you can convert those with the converter which I will describe later. In the meantime, download the FBReader software - both Windows asd Linux versions are available so make sure you download the correct one for your netbook.

If you are wondering why there are so many formats for ebooks (wikipeedia lists 26 formats, with it likely to increase with time), then you are not alone. Visit for a read on the 'ebook formats war'.

Next, visit and watch the demo video and then download either the Windows or Linux version. Calibre is open source e-book library management application. It is also an excellent ebook format converter with the ability to convert over thirteen document formats into EPUB, PRC and MOBI formats - the 3 formats handled by the FBReader software. So if you find yourself in a situation (like me!) of having ebooks that cannot be read by FBReader, just use the Calibre converter to convert that ebook. The added benefit of using Calibre is that it also has a ebook reader built-in - so, at a pinch, you can also use Calibre to read ebooks. However, the reader cannot rotate text by by 90 degrees unlike FBReader. There are other features of Calibre that you can use if you like, but my main use is the converter.

Once the two software has been downloaded to your netbook, you need to install them - the process for both being very straightforward. Next, and before starting the programs, decide where to store your ebook file. I use 'My Documents\eBooks' folder for Windows and 'Documents/eBooks' folders for Linux. You can further create sub-folders for each author (like me) or leave all the ebook files under this folder. Next move the ebook files that you have downloaded in zipped or unzipped format (FBReader can handle both) into the folders that you have created. Then start FBReader and, since this is the first time that you have used this reader, you will be presented with a short 'manual' about FBReader - take the time to read it since it also gives you some idea how to start using it. Read the part about setting the book path and make sure that set it to point to your ebook folder. Next try pressing the 'Rotate Text' button (the second-last button on the right) or just press the 'R' key. The text will now be rotated 90 degrees but it will still be in a window - to make it full screen, just press the Enter key. Now your netbook looks more like a book! The 'Page Down' and 'Page Up (along with the Up Arrow and Down Arrow keys) allows you to navigate through the pages of the 'book'. To go back to 'windowed mode', press the Enter key again; to rotate the text to its original mode, just press the 'R' key again. To open a book for reading, click on the left-most button and the software will update itself with all the recognizable books in the book path (you did set the book path, didn't you?). Then click on the 'Show books' under the author of the book that you want to read and then the 'Read book' of the book that you want to read. The book will now open and you can now read it! That's all the keys you require to use FBReader - however, you are free to explore the software.

That's it - you now own a 'free' ebook reader - free in the sense that you did not have to go out and purchase either hardware or software that enables you to read ebooks.

In my next post, I will describe how to use Calibre to convert between ebook formats and also some idea of where to get free ebooks. Stay tuned!

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