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.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Barnes & Noble updates the Nook GlowLight

Barnes & Noble updated their Nook GlowLight e-reader and I really like the throw-back design and return to physical page turning buttons (the design is a refined version of the Nook Simple Touch and Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight). The specifications, however, are disappointing: again we have another six inch e-reader and the water-proofing has been removed. The main updates are in storage (8 GB) and Night Mode (Night Mode is similar to Kobo's 'Comfort Light' that allows the user to shift to a warmer front-light for bedtime reading). The updated Nook e-reader is a US only device (Barnes & Noble ceased selling digital devices and content in the UK in 2016).

I predict Barnes & Noble will continue to maintain their digital division (Nook) in the long-term. This means the Nook e-reader will continue to be B&N's flagship device for its digital content. B&N does offer tablets but these are Android devices sold in partnership with Samsung that are pre-loaded with Nook apps and widgets. The $50 Nook tablet is the first Nook branded tablet released since the Nook HD and HD+ but, similar to the Samsung tablets, is another Android device. Previous Nook branded tablets, in contrast, were released with a tailor made version of Android that integrated an app store, video store and reading content (similar to Amazon's strategy with Fire tablets). Barnes & Noble has since down-sized, scrapping their app and video store, and focused exclusively on reading content. Len Riggio, Barnes & Noble's executive chairman, admitted that "B&N didn't have the culture or financing to compete with the likes of Amazon and Google".