Thursday, 14 December 2017

Oasis PDF support mistake

In a previous post regarding the Oasis's PDF support, I stated the following:
I found it useful that the Oasis’s buttons only turn to the next page of a PDF document, rather than scroll down a page; this is a good implementation as it removes any confusion between page scrolling and page turning.
I mainly read PDF files in landscape mode, due to the restricted seven inch screen estate, and, consequently, didn't notice the mistake made in the above observation (also, recently, I've predominately been reading e-books). To clarify, tap to scroll or using the buttons perform the exact same function in a zoomed-in PDF document: i.e., both enable the user to scroll down a page and turn to the next one when a page is completed. Unfortunately, the implementation of this function is buggy and the device, sometimes, for no reason, zooms-in further. In addition, when scrolling to the next page, the Oasis does not jump to the top of the page. As a result, depending on the PDF file, some lines could be accidentally missed. To ensure a page-turn starts at the top of a page it then becomes necessary to drag manually upwards.

To resolve these issues with tap/button-click to scroll, the best option, in my view, is to scroll a page by dragging downwards when zoomed-in. After completing a page, again to avoid the tap to scroll function, first zoom-out with a double tap and then follow this by a tap/button-click to turn the page. In the next page, repeat the double-tap to zoom-in and drag to scroll downwards. This option might be cumbersome but it is workable and makes PDF portrait reading more stable.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Kindle Oasis Review: The Oasis sets the new benchmark for an e-reader

Without doubt, the latest iteration of Kindle Oasis is the best e-reader from Amazon. Yet, this is expected considering the pricing and premium tag. The question is if the device offers that much extra to justify the price differential in comparison to other e-readers. Overall, while Amazon should have done more to distinguish the Oasis, the device sets the benchmark for a feature rich and immersive e-reading experience.

An a-symmetric design that doesn’t work 

I am not a fan of the device’s design. The metallic back, without a case, is cold to the hand and the device’s lopsided design makes it uneven to hold. Amazon designed their official case to attach magnetically to the thicker end to provide a flat reading surface. Unfortunately, this leaves part of the metallic back exposed when the case is closed (Amazon withdrew the official case due to design flaws).

The buttons are a real plus. They are located at the thicker end and make page turning so much easier with one-handed reading. The buttons can be used left and right-handed, as the Oasis supports automatic rotation.

Extra-size makes a difference

The extra inch makes a significant difference. The device is seven inch across and this means a thirty percent increase in reading estate. There is also extra width; the device’s width is closer to the Aura One than the Paperwhite. I find the extra space helps with text immersion and the extra width makes PDF text more legible in landscape mode.

Nice screen but nothing special

If you are coming from the Kindle Paperwhite then you will notice little difference in screen quality (both devices come with an E-Ink Carta screen and 300 DPI). I found the Oasis’s contrast slightly lacking but the text sharp.

The adaptive front-light has twelve LEDs that produce uniform lighting with little shadowing. The front-light is the best I’ve seen on an e-reader and significantly better than the Kobo Aura One. The Kindle Oasis, unlike the Aura One, does not support front-light colour shifting for night-time reading.

Kobo Aura One vs. Kindle Oasis front-light comparison 

Solid and stable software

As stated in a review of the Kindle Basic, Amazon’s Kindle software is feature rich and stable (I have provided an overview of the Kindle’s operating system in the Kindle Basic review. Also, I have previously posted on the Kindle’s good PDF support here). Amazon runs the near same software on all its e-readers. Software differences that do exist cater for device specific hardware features e.g. Bluetooth support and adaptive display lighting.

One software issue that continues to frustrate is the limited control over text display. Font size options are set in absolute size and the difference between, for example, size two and three is too disproportionate (the issue is accentuated with a relatively high 300 DPI screen). A possible solution, to get something between size three and four, is to increase font-weight to two. Unfortunately, this option only works with AZW3 e-books. Hopefully, in the future, there will be a software update that extends font weight options to MOBI e-books.

The Oasis comes with in-built Bluetooth support and Audible integration. I would recommend going for the 32GB Oasis if Audio books are something important (audio books take a lot of storage). Personally, I find something like a smart-phone, laptop or tablet better suited for audio books.

Battery life & waterproofing

This is Amazon’s first e-reader with waterproofing. I haven’t tested the feature but Amazon advertise the device with an IPX8 rating that can withstand immersion in up to 2 metres of fresh water for one hour.

I expected better battery-life, considering the pricing. Based on personal estimation, I found the Oasis’s battery life to be behind the Paperwhite but still last longer than the Aura One. This is not surprising as the Paperwhite has a larger battery capacity (the Paperwhite has a 1320 mAh battery capacity. In comparion, the Kindle Oasis 2 has a 1000 mAh battery capacity). Of course, battery life depends on, for example, front-light intensity, indexing and WiFi.

Too expensive for an e-reader?

Is the Oasis too expensive for an e-reader? Many technology websites answer in the affirmative. I think the device is dedicated to the e-reading community and for this segment of users, the Oasis might be worth-it.

The better question to ask, directed at dedicated e-readers, is if the Oasis is worth-it considering the existence of, for example, the cheaper Kobo H20 and Aura One? In my view, if it is merely a question of hardware then the Aura One would be the better choice. Even so, Amazon’s superior and polished software experience makes the Oasis the better overall e-reader.

Verdict

Initially, when the Oasis was released, I judged the Oasis to be priced too high for what it offers. After using the device, I have change my mind. Yes, the bigger screen finally distinguishes the Oasis compared to the Paperwhite and Voyage. However, more than just hardware, the software is what makes the Oasis standout. Most things just work better, compared to other e-readers e.g. smoother highlighting, syncing of personal documents across Amazon devices/apps, consideration of PDF support and the ability to export annotations in different formats etc.

The downside with the Oasis is that it is not innovative enough. I expect more from a high-end Kindle e-reader. For example, stylus support, a larger screen, better contrast and improved battery life. I think the broader issue is not just cost but also Amazon’s conservative strategy in the development of its e-readers.

To conclude, before the Oasis, the Aura One was the benchmark for a larger e-reader. Yet, if you are willing to go one inch smaller, the Oasis is the one to go for.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

PDF support Comparison: Kindle Oasis vs. Kobo Aura One

I’ll be dedicating a longer post to review the Kindle Oasis. In this post I’ll compare the PDF capabilities of the Kindle Oasis and the Kobo Aura One. This isn’t a real contest, the Kindle’s PDF software is vastly superior.

The biggest issue is that Kobo doesn’t allow the user to interact with a PDF document’s text. Instead, what we have is a PDF viewer with some basic tools to fit text to width, fit text to page and to switch either to landscape or portrait mode. It is possible to Navigate table of contents if the PDF supports the feature. Pinch to zoom is a mess but there is the option to incrementally zoom-in via a size scaling bar. There is no option to tap to scroll down a page; to scroll down the user needs to drag downwards. The method is frustrating and slow, as you need to wait for the e-ink display to catch-up with your movements. Again, the biggest issue, other than the slow and frustrating navigation of PDF documents, is that you can’t highlight text, write notes or look-up definitions.

Double tap to zoom, tap to scroll & turning document page (Kindle Oasis)

The Kindle's PDF software allows the user to view a page in portrait or landscape mode, similar to the Kobo Aura One. The user also has the option to change margin size (there are three options). Pinch to zoom is not the best but still better than Kobo’s version of the feature. The best way to zoom-in, in portrait mode, is to double tap on a page. Double tapping removes the margins and, depending on the page size of the PDF, renders text legible in portrait mode. Further, tap to scroll is supported, whether the document is zoomed-in or not. I found it useful that the Oasis’s buttons only turn to the next page of a PDF document, rather than scroll down a page; this is a good implementation as it removes any confusion between page scrolling and page turning. I’ve created an animated GIF (see above) that demonstrates how to zoom-in to remove excessive margins, scroll down a page and then turn a page using the buttons.

One issue that is bothersome is the Kindle's activation of a full page refresh when scrolling or turning a page (with e-books, it is possible to turn-off a full page refresh with every page turn). Finally, all Kindle e-readers allow the user to highlight text, take notes, look-up words in the dictionary, Wikipedia (if on-line) and translate words (of course, this depends on the nature of the PDF document. For example, none of these features are supported with a scanned PDF document).

Monday, 27 November 2017

Kindle Oasis first impressions

Hardware-wise, using the latest generation of the Kindle Oasis feels different to other Kindle e-readers. The larger screen size contributes to this sense of difference, but the biggest issue, in my opinion, is the quirky design. I understand the bump in the first generation served a purpose: to provide a connection point for the battery case. This generation doesn't come with a similar case and I find the bump makes the device uneven and awkward to hold (more so with a case on the device).  The buttons are great, and they make turning pages so much easier with one-handed reading. Hopefully, a full review will come soon. 

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Fire HD 8 or Fire HD 10?

First, the Fire 7 is not a viable option. The Fire 7 works well as a secondary tablet, something to take on a commute/travel or a child's tablet. For a primary tablet it is just too slow and its paltry 1 GB RAM makes multi-tasking frustrating. This means, as a primary tablet, choice is restricted to either the HD 8 or HD 10.

In my view, while the Fire HD 10 is clearly the better overall tablet and the one to choose, the answer also depends on the needs and preference of the end-user. If the preference is for a compact and lighter tablet then the HD 8 is the better option. The Fire HD 10 is a large and relatively heavy tablet (the issue isn’t just the screen size – large top and bottom bezels make the device awkward to hold). The HD8’s screen is a downgrade, in comparison to the HD 10, but that doesn’t mean it is a poor one. Also, the tablet is zippy and the 1.5GB RAM manages multi-tasking well.

If size/cost is a non-issue then the Fire HD 10 is the tablet to choose (it is faster, comes with more RAM and the screen is far better). The Fire HD 10, for its size, is not the heaviest large tablet (the device weighs 500G). In comparison, the Samsung Tab A 10.1 weighs 565G and the 9.7 inch Apple iPad weighs 469G. In other words, if the end-user prefers a larger tablet or doesn’t need something more compact then the Fire HD 10’s weight shouldn’t be a major issue – its weight falls within the category average of larger tablets. Yes, its form-factor makes it awkward to hold but this is a minor issue.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Fire HD 10 review: A tablet defined by its screen

Overall, the Fire HD 10 is the best tablet Amazon released since taking the budget route. Take away the cameras, many vendors match Amazon's specifications, at a similar price, but few, if any, offer similar screen quality and 32GB storage in its base configuration.

Display & Storage

Based on the 6th generation Fire HD 8 update (late 2016), I was expecting a lacklustre screen with the Fire HD 10 2017, to keep the cost low, and still offer a full HD resolution (the 6th generation Fire HD 8 came with a downgraded screen and cameras). Instead, I was surprised with the Fire HD 10's display - the colours are vibrant and contrast is very good. However, similar to the 6th generation Fire HD 8 update, there is a downgrade in build quality, drastic downgrade in camera quality and added weight to the device. The downgrades are worthwhile, as you get a better screen, better battery life, more RAM, faster processor and twice the entry level storage. To compare, the 16 GB 5th generation Fire HD 10 (released late 2015) cost £170 and this generation's 32 GB costs £150. 

The extra storage options is part of Amazon's Fire tablet strategy: a family-centric medium to access Amazon's services and Prime content. As these tablets are targeted as family devices then the extra storage is meant for offline content for multiple users. For example, the 7th generation Fire HD 8 is near identical to the previous generation but offers extra expandable SD Card storage (the tablet supports up to 256GB expandable storage).

Build Quality, Performance & Battery Life

The device's design and build quality, keeping with the general ethos of Fire tablets, is utilitarian. The plastic back-casing feels solid in the hand and the tablet does not feel flimsy. Unfortunately, similar to the Fire HD 8, the Fire HD 10 is no light tablet. The weight is close to 500 Grams and the heft is clearly felt. Further, added to the weight, this is no compact device with large bezels at the top and bottom. 

Performance is good: the Fire HD 10 opens applications instantly, there is hardly any lag and multi-tasking is handled comfortably. Battery life is advertised as 'up to 10 hours' and from consistent use that seems to be the best-case scenario (low brightness and non-intensive tasks e.g. e-reading); in reality, with mixed use, expect closer to eight hours. The Fire HD 10 is the fastest performing Fire tablet but the Fire HD 8's battery life lasts longer. 

Fire OS

I like Fire OS 5.6; it is a heavily modified version of Android 5 Lollipop that doesn't come with Android's large footprint. Thus, more storage space is available 'out-of-the-box' with less bloat and space taken with built-in system applications that push Google services. The down-side is that the Fire OS doesn't come with Google Play. Amazon's app store does offer a good range of applications but is inferior to Google Play's catalogue. Further, many key applications are missing, including Google's suite of applications. However, it is possible, even for the novice user, to install Google Play on the tablet (the process doesn't take more than ten minutes).

At the moment, the Fire HD 10 is the only Amazon tablet that supports Alexa hands free. This means Alexa can be activated by voice alone. Pair the tablet to a Bluetooh speaker and the device offers the functionality of an Echo device. 

The Negatives

As is the case with Amazon's tablets there are corners cut to keep the cost low. The Fire HD 10 is no different and the biggest downgrade in this iteration, other than build materials and weight, is the Fire HD 10's cameras. There is a back 2MP camera and front-facing VGA camera; the VGA camera is just about serviceable for Skype calls and the back camera is better not used at all. I tried to photo scan a printed document, in good conditions, and the result is barely legible.

Despite the negatives, I think Amazon, once again, cut the right corners and produced a very good value tablet. Sacrificing camera quality in a tablet makes sense and this meant Amazon were able to release a tablet with a screen that is above its price category.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Increasing the font weight of side-loaded fonts without patching Nickel

Nickel - Kobo's e-reader operating system - only allows the user to increase the font weight of native fonts. It is possible to change the software to activate unsupported features, including the option to change font weight of side-loaded fonts, but this requires patching (see here for further details).

I personally prefer to avoid altering the software unless there is a necessity e.g. installing KOReader for better PDF support. However, similar to activating full screen reading and exporting annotations it is possible to change font weight without patching (the code does not activate the font weight scale). To set the font weight the following code needs to be added to eReader.conf (the file is located in .kobo\Kobo) in the [Reading] section:

readingFontWeight\Bookerly=0.20

The code above changes the weight of 'Bookerly' to 0.20 but the code can be changed to work with any side-loaded font. The weight can also be changed and it might be a good idea to test different weights before identifying what works best. It is also recommended to open and edit the file with Notepad++ to locate the right section to add the code.