Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Recommended third-party applications for Android e-readers

I've recently started using the Onyx Boox Nova. Before using the Onyx Boox Nova I've used the Likebook Mars and Boyue T80 (rebranded as Icarus Illumina XL). Overall, I prefer Android e-readers to mainstream e-readers. One of the positives of Android e-readers is the possibility to install third-party applications. Below is a list of applications that work well on E-Ink Android devices:

Simplenote: Simplenote is a note-taking application developed by Automattic (the company behind WordPress). It is a no frill scaled-down application to write text-only notes. It is possible to connect a Bluetooth keyboard to an Android e-reader to write quick notes in Simplenote and then access these notes on other devices.

Moon+ Reader Pro: Moon+ Reader is, in my view, the best Android e-reading application. The application isn't optimised for E-Ink but works relatively well with the right changes, e.g. side loading fonts with added weight, choosing the bold option for thinner fonts and turning the background white and text black. Another positive is that Moon+ Reader mainly uses a grey palette for its menus that are legible on E-Ink devices. Also, many Android e-reader vendors now support extra features to optimise third-party applications for E-Ink. One useful feature is the contrast enhancement of menus that make user interface menus clearer.

KOReader: This one is a no brainer. KOReader is designed and optimised specifically for E-Ink. It is a stand-alone application that can be used to read e-books and PDF documents. I found the application is more stable on Kobo devices due to hardware uniformity. Android e-readers, on the other hand, vary a lot and use different processors. For example, KOReader is stable on the Likebook Mars but the screen flickers on the Onyx Boox Nova when selecting menus and highlighting text (the only way to stop this flickering is to turn on A2 mode).

Librera Pro: Librera Pro is designed to work on both tablets and Android e-readers. For example, the application includes a PDF scroll mode that makes navigating pages smoother on an e-reader. Other options include contrast and brightness enhancement to make text appear bolder and darker. The monochrome menus are also designed to work on E-Ink.

Writer+: Writer+ is a stripped-down writer application. Writer+ supports text markdown – a useful feature as there is no need for animated user menus. One negative is that there is no option to manually change orientation to landscape. This is a problem as most Android e-readers don't support auto-rotation and, so far, Boyue and Onyx don't allow the user to manually rotate the display in third-party applications. 

There are other applications that work on E-Ink Android devices. Other applications that are functional include Wikipedia, Kobo, Google Keep, Gmail and Amazon Kindle. However, many of these applications are designed with animated menus and colours that make text appear faded and navigation frustrating and slow. There are also very little options to manipulate text appearance in these applications. Both Boyue and Onyx support A2 mode to make downwards scrolling and internet browsing smoother, but the downside is a lot of ghosting. It is a definite positive that it is possible, for example, to read Wikipedia articles on an e-reader but it is more convenient to access these articles on a tablet, laptop or smartphone. The same applies to most Android applications.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

KOReader improvements

Recent nightly updates of KOReader have added useful features. First, the software is zippier than before - previously changing reading settings meant a lag as the user waits for their changes to take effect. I've also noticed that the recent Kobo build performs better than the Android version (I tested the Android version on a Likebook Mars). While KOReader's performance optimization has improved significantly it is still behind Kindle and Kobo's e-reading software. Hopefully, future updates will gradually improve performance. Other improvements include smoother highlighting of text and a gradient scale, similar to Kobo e-readers, to control margin and line spacing. To download nightly builds, visit this website.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

An instructional manual for the Likebook Mars

Boyue recently sent an update for the Likebook Mars. After the update, I noticed a new instruction application icon that opens a user manual for the Likebook Mars. The manual isn't extensive - it guides the user, for example, how to manage bookshelf settings, how to upload books via Wi-Fi, where to place dictionaries, how to access the third-party applications features menu and how to upgrade the software etc. However, it doesn't tell the user what the purpose of many of these features is.

Anyway, it is a positive Boyue are now working on providing instructional content. One of the weaknesses of the Likebook Mars is its confusing software and this manual does help guide the user where to find key features. 

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Amazon Fire HD 10 shortcomings

I like the Fire HD 10 a lot. The screen quality is very good, and you don't get big compromises with performance as you do with the Fire 7 and to a lesser extent the Fire HD 8. However, there are shortcomings that Amazon needs to rectify in future hardware updates if it wants to keep up with budget tablets offered by Huawei and Lenovo (some battery issues and the special offers problem stated below can be resolved with software updates). First, is the problem of battery drainage in standby mode. The battery discharges alarmingly in standby - I would estimate the Fire HD 10 loses 10% battery every eight hours. To remedy this problem, I permanently disabled Alexa and turned-off WiFi when not using the tablet.

Second, are the animated special offers advertisements. Many of these advertisements slow down the tablet when turned on and some freeze the tablet; to get the tablet working again you often need to force a restart. The problem of animated special offers is a bigger problem with the slower Fire 7 and Fire HD 8. Most of the animated advertisements are for games.

The biggest problem is battery life in general. Amazon overestimates the Fire HD 10's battery life to be "up to 10 hours". With more lighter tasks like reading, don't expect more than eight hours of mixed usage. On average battery life is 6 - 7 hours and that is not good enough. To improve battery life, it is a good idea to disable Alexa. I also noticed, sometimes, the top back of the Fire HD 10 can get very warm. The extra warmth means something is taxing the processor and draining the battery. For example, in one case, an animated advertisement froze my tablet for a short period and when it finally unlocked the back got warm.

There are other minor quibbles too. Of course, this personal preference, but I think the iPad's 4:3 aspect ratio is easier to hold and is better at displaying content. Amazon is more focused on Prime video content, so you get the 16:9 aspect ratio. The 16:9 aspect ratio is made worse with big bezels that makes the device cumbersome to hold. Huawei and Lenovo both use the same aspect ratio, but their tablets are designed with less footprint.

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.