Thursday, 21 March 2019

The Kindle Basic gets an update

Amazon updated its entry-level Kindle. The biggest hardware upgrade is the introduction of a front light. With the hardware improvement, like the Kindle Paperwhite, there is a £10 increase (the price is £69.99 but expect the device to be regularly put on sale, e.g. on Prime Day and Black Friday). The updated Kindle Basic is slightly heavier than the previous generation – the previous generation weighed 161 Grams and the current one weighs 174 Grams – but I prefer the new design with its rounded corners.

The front light is a welcome addition, but it is the pixel density that should’ve been upgraded (the new Kindle Basic keeps the 167 PPI of the previous generation). An upgrade to 221 PPI would’ve made a big difference to the reading experience. In terms of trade-off, the pixel density is more important than a front light. On a positive note, Amazon did upgrade the screen technology to E-Ink Carta. If you don’t care for the front light and E-Ink Carta, Amazon now sells the previous generation for £49.99.

Overall, this is a predictable Amazon refresh with small upgrades. Amazon no longer seeks to innovate with its tablets and e-readers. Alexa powered devices are the focus and future of Amazon hardware.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

HP UK release the N4000 Stream 11 & HP Stream 14

HP UK now sells the Celeron N4000 Stream 11. Oddly, HP UK decided to release the laptop with 2GB RAM. This isn't a Europe wide decision, as HP Germany sell the 4GB RAM version. The 4GB version was released in North America months ago.

HP UK also decided to price the laptop similar to the Lenovo S130 and ASUS VivoBook E203. The pricing makes no sense as both the Lenovo S130 and ASUS VivoBook E203 are devices with twice the RAM.

They've also released the N4000 HP Stream 14. It is a positive, in my view, that HP decided to give the latest iteration of the Stream 14 an anti-glare display. Pricing has also slightly increased as the storage has been doubled to 64GB.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Likebook Mars review: a versatile device for the right user

The Likebook Mars is a worthy update to the Likebook Plus. The device is powered by a Freescale RK3365 octa-core processor and has 2GB RAM and 16GB storage (there is also the option to expand storage via an SD Card slot). At first, I was sceptical if an octa-core processor was necessary but after prolonged use, the extra power makes a difference. If you view the Likebook Mars as an e-reader with some bonus add-ons, due to Android, then you will not be disappointed. On the other hand, as an E-Ink tablet, the Likebook Mars is a failure mainly due to the limitations of E-Ink. The user experience in even non-intensive applications, e.g., Kindle, Wikipedia and Kobo, is terrible.

Battery life 

Battery life is a weakness. If the device is used exclusively as an e-reader – utilising the native e-reading software – the battery life is close to the Kindle Oasis. This means an estimated use time between two to three days of regular usage. Two to three days of usage isn’t bad but after using non-Android e-readers it does feel like a downgrade. I’ve also noticed, sometimes, sudden drops in the battery after waking the device. The cause of erratic drops might be due to background tasks running (possibly another problem with Android as an operating system for e-readers). Turn on WiFi and do tablet tasks in third-party applications, e.g., browse the web, check emails, read articles in Pocket, and battery life isn’t even comparable to most tablets. Using third-party applications, with WiFi activated, I would estimate battery life to be between 5 – 6 hours.

Display 

The device has an E-Ink Carta screen with a resolution of 300 PPI. This might be subjective, but I found the Kobo Aura One’s screen, despite the identical resolution, to be better with text appearing clearer and less faded. It should be noted that the Likebook Mars allows the user to adjust the contrast level through the status bar settings. This not only affects text in e-books and PDF documents but also book covers and images. It is a useful feature, and this means text appears darker when reading and compensates for the relative lack of clarity. As I will explain in the software section below, it is also possible to enhance the contrast level in third-party applications too. Overall, the Likebook Mars’s display is good and preferable to the Kindle Paperwhite and Oasis (the Kindle Oasis, considering its premium pricing, has poor contrast).

The built-in light is on the colder side and isn’t bright and even as the Kobo Aura One. Also, there is no option to adjust the night light’s intensity level. The night light is either on or off and when on it produces a warm orange glow. Personally, to avoid light emission that causes eye strain, I usually don’t use an e-reader’s built-in light.

Software 

The Likebook Mars comes with no user manual. I didn’t find the lack of a manual to be a big issue, but it might be for other users less familiar with e-readers. Regardless of experience level there will be time spent to know the device and discover its features. Another problem is the poor translation of menus and settings from the Chinese. The translation is mainly understood but sometimes it is not clear, and you need to select the option to discover its purpose.

I recommend sticking to the native software if possible. Using the built-in software prolongs battery life and is neatly integrated into Boyue’s operating system through reading settings and navigation menus (third-party applications, as they are not specifically designed for E-Ink, can tax the battery). Performance is also generally zippier in the native software and more stable too.

The built-in software’s reading settings allow the user to choose the number of pages turned before a full refresh is activated and change the refresh mode. In the page refresh mode settings, it is possible to choose one of three modes: ordinary rapid and regal. Rapid mode speeds up page turning but results in a lower text rendering quality. Ordinary mode maintains text quality but slows down the page turning speed. Finally, I am not sure what the purpose of 'regal mode' is. The aim of regal technology, according to E-Ink, is to resolve the problem of ghosting that occurs when there is no full-page refresh; the goal is to create a clearer reading space. In the case of the Likebook Mars – if indeed the purpose is to resolve problems with ghosting – I didn’t notice any significant difference between ordinary and regal modes. Activating both modes doesn't resolve the issue of ghosting. The ghosting after effect is not bad but it is noticeable and sometimes, to solve the problem, I had to force a page refresh by powering off and then powering on the device.

Overall, the native software is functional and most expected features are supported. Below are some positives:
  • There are several type settings features available – this includes the option to change line, word and margin spacing. There is also the option to change the interval spacing between paragraphs. 
  • The user can sideload fonts. 
  • PDF text reflow works well. There is also the option, in text reflow, to change font size, row and word spacing. 
  • In PDF documents it is possible to adjust contrast, clip margins and zoom content to fit width or page. 
  • Exporting notes and highlights is supported. 
Below is a list of negatives:
  • In the e-book reader (this doesn’t apply to PDF documents) there are gradient scales to separately alter word and picture contrast. Unfortunately, it appears, both scales don’t work independently – the picture contrast scale alters the black levels of an image, but it also affects text too. 
  • The e-book reader forces indentation and there is no option to turn this off or choose when to apply the feature or remove it altogether. 
  • It is not possible to highlight text in PDF text reflow mode. 
  • There is no option to drag to scroll – you can only tap or swipe to scroll. Also, there is no way to pinch to zoom. The latter is an important missing feature and one that the device’s processor is more than capable of supporting. 
  • Oddly, while exporting notes and highlights is supported, it is only possible to export to Evernote. I also noticed that notes are organised chronologically and not by page number.
  • Highlighting text isn’t smooth. To highlight the user needs to long press on a word and then carefully drag where to end the highlight. 

Third-party applications 

As third-party applications are hit and miss, I will dedicate a further post on a selection of recommended applications. In this section, I will discuss some supported features that make Android applications more usable on Mars’s E-Ink screen. A lot of the features listed, again due to the absence of a manual, need to be discovered and then tested.

Long press on a third-party application and you get the option to turn-on full-screen mode, turn-on A2 mode, set the number of pages turned before a full refresh, adjust the DPI zoom level and select whether contrast adjustment is manually set or set to system contrast. Some of these features don’t function correctly, e.g. the contrast scale does not work, and it is best to just use the system contrast. There are two other features – ‘animation filtering delay’ and bleaching function’ – but it is not clear what they do.

It is particularly useful, due to applications being designed for tablets and smartphones, that you can adjust contrast levels in third-party applications. A2 mode is a feature that makes it possible, for example, to read websites without the slow refresh as you navigate downwards. I don’t think A2 mode is an adequate solution as you get a lot of ghosting due to the absence of a page refresh. It is also possible to turn the mode on or off via the top system bar. Finally, the user can multi-task between opened applications and close unneeded applications to clear memory.

Again, a lot of these extra features make third-party applications work better. Nevertheless, most Android applications are not suitable for E-Ink. Even e-reading applications – for example, Kindle and Kobo – are sluggish and with text, appearing faded.

Conclusion 

The Likebook Mars is an e-reader for the experienced user. The experienced user will appreciate the versatility of the device and with the right know-how will be able to, for example, install dictionaries and find appropriate Android applications. The powerful processor also makes navigating PDF documents frustration-free. For the user that wants greater control and more options then the Likebook Mars is preferable to the Kindle Oasis, Kobo Aura H20 Edition 2, Kobo Aura One and Kobo Forma. If Boyue polishes and simplifies the software, then the device’s user base could potentially expand. A better translation of features and a manual would also be helpful. In its current state, however, the device caters for a niche user base.

Pros 
  • Contrast level adjustment. 
  • Google Play Store is supported. 
  • Useful features designed for E-Ink enhances the usability of third-party applications. 
  • Zippy performance due to the Octa-core processor. 
  • SD Card supported. 
  • 2GB RAM means smooth multi-tasking. 
Cons 
  • Battery life is subpar for an e-reader. 
  • Due to the convoluted software, the device isn’t user-friendly. 
  • Poor translation of interface and menus can confuse the user. 
  • Some features are buggy and sometimes don’t work. 
  • Key features missing in the native e-reading software, e.g. no pinch to zoom for PDF documents, no text alignment options and no control over indentation in e-books.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Managing storage on a 32GB Windows 10 laptop

Many entry-level laptops are configured with 32GB storage. The limited storage is not ideal for Windows 10, but it is still possible to make it work. Below are some tips to manage the limited storage:
  1. Regularly do a disk clean-up and make sure system files are cleared too. After a system update, the update files remain and often take up space. 
  2. I previously posted that Windows 10 doesn’t support the syncing of OneDrive files to an external storage drive. I was wrong – it appears Windows OneDrive recently supported the feature. Read this Windows Central guide on how to change the default OneDrive folder location in Windows 10 (the default folder can be located on an external drive). I would use at least a 32GB SD Card to expand storage. It is also a good idea to use a class 10 SD Card, to ensure faster read/write speeds. 
  3. Manage storage in system settings: In storage settings, it is possible to choose where content is saved. It is also possible, by default, to set the saving of apps and documents to an SD Card.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Kobo's mobile application doesn't support key features

Kobo recently released a firmware update to its other e-readers that finally supports the option to enable/remove the header and or the footer (the Kobo Forma was the first device to support the feature). It is a positive update but should've been supported before.

There are other issues with Kobo's mobile applications. The addition of the following key features can resolve some of these issues:
  1. The ability to set text layout to two columns in landscape mode is not supported in iOS.
  2. The Android application has limited font options (there are three fonts available - Droid Sans Serif, Droid Serif and the publisher's default font).
  3. There is no way to change margins and line spacing settings.
  4. No option to export annotations and highlights.
  5. No option to upload personal documents to collections to then sync to a Kobo e-reader or another device.
  6. In Kobo's iOS application you can't access the Kobo store within the application.

Thursday, 27 December 2018

Two alternative open type fonts for e-readers

There is a good range of open type fonts that are alternatives to paid fonts. Bitter and Glacial Indifference are two alternative open type fonts to Caecilia and Gill Sans (two paid fonts that are available on Kobo e-readers). Bitter is a slab-serif font that is similar to Caecilia and is ideal for E-Ink screens due to its thickness. Glacial Indifference, on the other hand, is a sans-serif font similar to Gill Sans.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Likebook Mars Vs. Kobo Aura One: Which one is best?

I'll write a review of the Boyue Likebook Mars soon. In this post, due to the same screen size, I want to compare the Likebook Mars to the Kobo Aura One. Below is a brief bullet point comparison between both devices followed by an answer to the question on which e-reader is best:
  • Screen: Both the Aura One and Likebook Mars have a 300 PPI E-Ink Carta screen. However, the Kobo Aura One's screen colour is lighter, and the text has better clarity. This is not to say the Likebook Mars's screen is bad, but the Kobo Aura One has one of the best screens I've seen on an e-reader. In my view, the Likebook Mars's screen is comparable to the Kobo Aura H20 Edition 2. One Likebook feature that I particularly like is the ability to change text and image contrast. This feature enhances the reading experience as text and image black levels can be altered. Kindle e-readers, in comparison, only support font bolding for AZW3 e-books.
  • Battery Life: It is too early to give an opinion on the Likebook Mars's battery life. However, it is clear that the Likebook Mars should not be primarily used as an E-Ink tablet. For example, keeping the WiFi on, running Android applications and browsing the internet taxes the battery. The Likebook Mars doesn't even reach average tablet level longevity when used as something other than an e-reader. So far, based on initial impressions that can change, when used as an e-reader the battery lasts roughly two days of heavy usage. The Kobo Aura One, relative to other e-readers, has a small battery capacity but it still outlasts the Likebook Mars. 
  • Versatility: The Likebook Mars, running Android 6, is a more versatile device. The native e-reading software is not bad after you get used to its idiosyncrasies. If the native software doesn't render a PDF document to meet your needs, then there are other applications. You can install KOReader and Cool Reader on a Kobo e-reader, but you need to exit Nickel (Kobo's operating system) to access these applications.  
  • Performance: The Likebook Mars's performance is better than the Kobo Aura One. The Aura One also performs worse in comparison to the Kindle e-readers. The Likebook Mars's 2GB RAM and octa-core processor makes the device the most powerful e-reader I've used - the performance boost makes a big difference when reading and navigating PDF documents.  
  • Software: Boyue's firmware is underdeveloped and buggy. In comparison, Kobo's software is more polished, intuitive and stable. However, there are features in Boyue's native e-book reading software that Kobo neglects, e.g. the ability to export annotations, the option to change both text and image contrast in e-books and more font size options. Needless to say, Mars's PDF support is far superior to Kobo's basic PDF viewer.  
  • Front light: The Aura One's front light is better. It is warmer, more even and brighter. The Aura One's comfort light also changes colour intensity (at the maximum intensity it is an orange/red mix). The Likebook Mars night light, in comparison, has no gradation. The light is either on or off but with a similar colour tone to the Aura One's orange tint at 70% intensity. It should be noted that front lights can vary between units. Front light comparison pictures can be seen below.
  • Expandable storage: The Likebook Mars has 16GB internal storage but, unlike the Aura One, storage is also expandable via an SD Card slot. The Aura One only supports 8GB internal storage (there is a 32GB Aura One limited edition that is not widely available).
  • E-book formats: The Aura One native e-book format is KEPUB - a variation of the EPUB format. On paper, the Aura One supports EPUB and MOBI e-books, but I found it renders both poorly. The Likebook Mars supports both formats with no issues.
Which one is best?

The answer depends on the user's needs. If the intention is to read e-books only on a user-friendly device, then the Kobo Aura One is the better option. The software is more polished and the battery life lasts longer due to tight integration between hardware and software. If, on the other hand, the user wants an e-reader that supports e-books and also handle all sorts of PDF documents then the Likebook Mars is the better option. The Likebook Mars can handle large PDF documents easily and with no slow down. If you don't like Boyue's native PDF software, then there is the option to install KOReader and EBookDroid. Similarly, if you don't like the native e-book reading software there is the option to install, for example, Moon+ Reader, KOReader, Bookari Reader and AIReader. KOReader supports Kobo devices but you need to relatively proficient to install the software and then exit Nickel to access the application. Further, KOReader, due to Aura One's hardware, struggles to handle large PDF documents.

Front light comparison between Likebook Mars and Kobo Aura One. The Aura One's front light is warmer and evener. (click on the image to enlarge).

Kobo Aura One's comfort light at maximum intensity. The Likebook Mars, in comparison, doesn't support the altering of light intensity (click onthe image to enlarge).