Tag Archives: iPad

Ebook reader basics: file transfer via USB

We covered some of the basics of these devices in an earlier series of posts, but it might be worth taking a few minutes to focus on the most basic behaviour of the lot: getting data onto the devices from a laptop. One might expect that all of these devices would operate as USB mass storage devices (plug it in and copy files on). As anybody who’s ever tried to copy data off an iPod knows, nothing could be further from the truth.

Assumptions used here: the task is to copy non-DRM’d ebook files onto an ebook reader.

Sony PRS-600, Hanvon n510, etc.

Like most of your basic e-Ink devices the Sony and its type are ridiculously straightforward to use, if a little slow, as long as you are familiar with copying files using a file manager. These devices function as USB mass storage devices. Plug it in, copy files, unplug it and (in the case of the Sony) wait for it to reindex pretty much the entire filesystem, including files that have been on the ebook reader for months. Don’t keep too many files on the Sony, or you’ll run out of battery life before you ever read a page – the indexing is the most power-hungry step it takes. The Hanvon doesn’t bother with exhaustive indexing, which saves time and battery life here but means that it doesn’t offer the same search functionality.

Filesystem speed stats were generated using:

rsync -auvh --progress --stats --no-o --no-g --no-p /some/files .

We ran this on Linux in each case, in order to ensure that there weren’t any confounding factors such as Spotlight indexing.

Results:  Hanvon N510: 2.34M bytes/sec


The Mac recognises the Kindle as a USB drive, and allows you to copy items directly onto it (.pdf or .mobi – convert using Calibre if required). It’s not all plain sailing, though; the Kindle tends to place items imported in this way into a menu section entitled ‘items not yet indexed’. When this happens, it seems that you may need to reset the Kindle (hold the sleep button for 20 seconds), at which point it will reindex on startup.

File transfer rates: 1.87M bytes/sec
We found the Kindle’s file transfer rates to be unusually slow.


The Xoom is a somewhat frustrating device. It’s using a driver called MPT (Motorola Phone Tools). Seems this is standard to Android devices, instead of SCSI-like hard drive/mass storage, so we’ll all have to get used to it… Google’s explanation for this decision may be found on this blog post: in short, MPT is seen as an improvement on USB mass storage because

‘for devices with lots of internal memory, a manufacturer no longer needs to come up with some hard partition between the USB mass storage and internal storage. Instead, they are all in one partition, with MTP providing access to the directory of media files that would normally be available through USB mass storage. This means there is no longer a need for apps on SD card for such devices, because what used to be the ‘internal SD card’ is in the same partition as where applications are stored. The storage on your device can be used for either applications or media, depending on what you want to put on it. You aren’t stuck with how much space the manufacturer decided to leave for the two areas. Also, this means that the media storage doesn’t need to be unmounted from Android when it is being access[ed] through the PC.’

On Windows, once the appropriate drivers are installed, it can be treated like a standard storage device – you can simply drag and drop files. On the Mac you’ll need to download the Android File Transfer software, which will allow you to drag and drop files in either direction, plus or minus the occasional bug.  On Linux, you can mount it through MPT using mptfs, a fusion driver for MPT drives. GNOME users will probably find that this happens automatically. The rest of us just do mptfs -o allow_other mountpoint. Android File Transfer on a Mac feels rather slow, but our test on Linux (see data below) suggests that mptfs is not unreasonably slow.

File transfer rates:
mptfs on Linux (calculated as above): 4.59M bytes/sec
Compare this to a similar test of an HP USB2 16GB USB drive: 7.66M bytes/sec


The iPad was clear winner of the ‘least cooperative’ award in this category. iDevices don’t show up in the filesystem by default. The traditional mechanism used to get files onto the device involves iTunes. This music software has been adapted after the fact for use as an ebook organiser, and its origins are still clearly visible. The results are indifferent: the right-click context menu in the ‘Books’ pane, for example, invites you to ‘download album artwork’. Using this approach, getting files onto your iPad is a multi-step process; download files, import them into iTunes, sync with iPad.

Right-click context menu for ebooks (iTunes screenshot)

Right-click context menu for ebooks (iTunes)

iTunes is the Vegemite of the tablet user; you either love it or hate it. Unless iTunes is a big part of your ebook-reading life already, it becomes an irritant, dragging out the file copy process unnecessarily. The OPDS approach is simpler, if all you want to do is get your files onto the iPad: just download them directly onto the iPad itself.

File transfer rates:
cannot be compared directly.

OPDS: building an ebook catalogue

This is part of a series wrapping up (belatedly, alas) the findings from Project Sunflower. As the protagonists of the Project have moved on to pastures new, leaving their notes behind, editorial duty has fallen to yours truly.

In this post, we look at OPDS, otherwise known as ‘Open Publication Distribution System’, and why it’s worth a look for anybody intending to integrate ebook platforms into the student experience. For anybody who’d rather skip ahead, version 1.1 of the standard can be found right here.

OPDS is, according to the specification, designed as

a syndication format for electronic publications based on Atom and HTTP

and can

enable the aggregation, distribution, discovery, and acquisition of electronic publications


existing or emergent open standards and conventions, with a priority on simplicity.

Now, as we will see from reviewing the performance of typical embedded ebook search/indexing functions and interfaces, most ebook readers aren’t designed to contain huge numbers of ebooks. At 7.99 an ebook, most readers will be cautious in their acquisitions, so perhaps the perception from some manufacturers is that it is pointless to create readers that specialise in navigating across hundreds of thousands of files. Many portable media devices suffer from similar difficulties – the classic ‘clickwheel’ interface on iPods, as applied to a large number of files, became the subject of a 2009 satirical report by The Onion.

The relevance of OPDS is the following: OPDS allows you to search and browse across extensive collections of documents. They don’t need to be books; an OPDS frontend on an institutional repository is perfectly achievable, format conversion notwithstanding. The obvious use case is searching or browsing for a single file, but part of the relevance of OPDS is the fact that it also allows for batch mode: a student downloading the full reading list for the semester, for example. Wouldn’t that be convenient?

An OPDS catalogue is fairly straightforward to set up. For prototyping purposes, the well-known ebook software Calibre can be used to experiment with the concept; it can be found in the Calibre software under Preferences->Network->Sharing over the net, and is referred to as a ‘Content Server’. If you’d rather experiment with a static OPDS catalogue — providing no search function, but with browse functions that make full use of your metadata — consider trying calibre2opds, a Java application that renders your Calibre catalogue as a set of static HTML pages and, being simpler and more secure (by dint of having very few moving parts), may be considered a relatively secure way of deploying a prototype. A comparison of these alternatives may be found here.

Cross-platform compatibility: Limited.

Android and the iPad approach this on a per-application basis, and a good implementation is available for both. iBooks won’t handle the catalogue functionality, but you can manually type the address into Safari; then, when you click on an ePub file, iBooks can handle the download. Alternatively, you can use Stanza, which works well – but when iOS 5 came out, we discovered that Stanza ceased to work until we updated the iPad to the latest version, so be prepared for sudden failures around the time of iOS upgrades.

The Kindle is able to use OPDS catalogues, but requires them to run on port 80 (the usual port for a web server, admittedly, but not Calibre’s preferred choice for practical reasons). Simpler e-Ink devices mostly still do not have any mechanism for connecting to the Web, and therefore this sort of functionality is not available on the platform itself, so desktop software must be used instead.

Ease of setup: Moderate.

Getting a Calibre content-server running on a home network is relatively easy provided that the user is familiar with terms like ‘IP address’. However, practical implementation on a larger scale requires significantly more thought; not only are there security and sustainability issues around the software, but the usability of the resulting catalogue is very dependent on good metadata.


Standard, relatively simple to set up, and extremely liberating – a convenient distribution channel, bypassing the need to centralise via a commercial vendor, what’s not to like?


Support for OPDS is patchy and the standard is still relatively recent. Many popular ebook reader applications do not support it explicitly. Fortunately, it’s so near to popular standards that all you really need is a web browser and an ebook reader to get some benefit from an OPDS.

Sample screenshots

Browse by tag screenshot

Browsing the Calibre content server by tag


Browse by author screenshot

Browse by author

AI-Class with tablet devices

Quote from Sebastian Thrun

@SebastianThrun: Who’s up for a $2000 Stanford degree?

You might have seen the intense publicity received by Stanford’s current experiment: Ai-Class, not to mention the sibling efforts ML-Class and DB-Class. These were described to the public as beta-releases of a new kind of education, and have been made available for free, possibly a once-in-a-lifetime offer, possibly never to be repeated. Class began in mid-October, and it’s not clear whether these will run again in their current form.

I joined two classes; AI-Class (artificial intelligence, taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig) and ML-Class (machine learning, taught by Andrew Ng). Given that the midterm exam happens next week, I won’t be sharing my grades, but I would like to write a little about accessing these courses on various platforms.

First, a confession: despite the fact that the AI-class draws extensively on material from Russell & Norvig’s ‘Artificial Intelligence: a modern approach’, and the fact that I would’ve liked to use this to check out some ebook reader platforms, I haven’t been able to do so. There are various reasons for that, but the most compelling is :

Content Unavailable in the United Kingdom

Oh well.

There were other problems, anyway; the price of Norvig’s other books suggest that I would not have been happy to pay the price for a Kindle copy. Keep in mind that the office wouldn’t be paying; this is something I’m doing in what I laughably refer to as ‘spare time’. Norvig’s cheapest available Kindle download, Case Studies in Common Lisp, costs £41.89. If AI:AMA cost anything like that, I’d have ended up checking out the second-hand market anyway – you can pick up a second-hand copy for between a fiver and a tenner. Even if I’d bought a paper copy new it may have been cheaper; e-books attract VAT.
This got the Kindle out of the running very quickly. The primary use it can be put to during the course is revision of notes from the ML-class, which conveniently includes revision slides/PDFs.

That left the Apple iPad and Motorola Xoom, which could not only view the PDFs, but also access the videos offered by each site. In the case of ML-Class, a download link was even provided for each video – perfect, I thought, I’ll download them and watch the videos in transit. One difficulty: the iPad seems to disapprove of the concept of downloading files. Safari will consent to send pdfs to iBooks, but as for storing videos for later review, the obvious solutions involve a laptop and iTunes. If you are not always online, the need for advance planning – the faff factor, if you like – increases rapidly. The determined can mitigate the problem via applications for the iPad such as the MyMedia download manager, but the app-centric viewpoint is frustrating. Stanford could solve this through iTunes U – but how many channels must a provider support?

The Xoom did not go to the same finishing school as the iPad, if it went to one at all. Unaware that saving files from the browser and displaying them in anything available is an uncouth habit, it simply does it. It also seems to have passed through its formative years without learning that arbitrary soft-resetting is rude, so it occasionally does that as well.

ML-Class makes extensive use of Octave, a free and fairly Matlab-compatible language and interpreter, giving weekly assignments. The idea of Octave on a mobile device is not as far-fetched as it sounds – Nokia N800/810 owners were able to use both Octave and Gnuplot. Similar software packages, such as Addi and Mathmatiz, are available for Android. In general these are works in progress. iPad owners with a desktop copy of Matlab can try connecting to it remotely via Matlab Mobile, a function that is available through unofficial apps on Android. The interface is not, however, optimised for the iPad, and as with the problem of watching videos in transit, those with limited network connectivity will find this an imperfect solution. Why no Octave clone on iOs? The App Store, the GPL, and extensible interpreters apparently don’t mix, although since Apple changed the language in their SDK, some of the issues mentioned have been resolved.

To conclude: the iPad is polished, but I found myself reaching for the (heavier, clunkier) Android device instead. The Xoom is indeed something of a brick, but the iPad seems to be designed for a world with uniformly excellent 3G coverage, in which nobody ever spends much time offline.

Project Sunflower: iPad Usability Study

The iPad since its launch has been promoted primarily as a web-surfing device. Its eBook reading capabilities came with applications that rendered eBooks on the iPad. Our usability study tested the iPad from an eBook reading point of view. More so, from the point of view of academic texts. We tested the eBook reading experience the iPad has to offer, the user interface of iBooks, the settings it allows the users to alter, and the device in general.


Most users were very happy with the design of the device, and particularly liked how thin it was. That being said, the flip side is that they were not very happy with the weight of the device (despite being 15% lighter than its predecessor), and complained that their hands would hurt after a certain amount of time when using the device to read. When reading from the device for a significantly long time, one starts to feel the edges, especially when held in one hand.

The most common concern that all participants raised was that they all wanted the iBooks app installed by default instead of having to install it separately to be able to read eBooks. I admit this isn’t a lot of work, but isn’t the whole point of eBook readers allowing the user to get access to books as fast as possible? Inexperienced users did not know much about applications and their installation.

The screen feels good to read, however exposing your eyes to an LED-backlit display for a really long time isn’t a good idea. Especially in low-lighting conditions.

User Interface

The users were particularly impressed with the responsiveness of the touchscreen. They liked the way the device registered the tap exactly where they intended, and did exactly what they wanted it to do.

Users that had previous experience using iOS devices were more comfortable operating the device than others that had never used iOS devices before.

iBooks renders the book in a very graphical way to make it look not like plain text, but more like an actual book. This feature, however, costs almost an inch of space from each side. Space that could be utilized to fit more content on a single page, allowing the user to read more on a single page, saving some time from the reduced page flips.


From a purely objective viewpoint, I’ll go ahead and say the iPad has a supercool UI and great responsiveness, however, when it comes to eBook reading, these features don’t really count. Its backlit LED display and weight make it a ‘not so ideal’ eBook reader when it comes to academic text. The device is useful for leisure reading, but it may take some more time before we see students using the iPads as textbooks leaving their 2000 page hardback textbooks at home. One of the main uses of a textbook is to refer to a particular formula, diagram or search a particular concept as soon as possible. The ePub format’s limited Math rendering capabilities coupled with the inability to write all over the book and flip through chunks of pages at a time does not affect leisure reading, but makes it not so suitable for academic use.

Project Sunflower: Usability Study

As part of our eBook usability study, this part deals with studying the devices from the eBook reader point of view. All three devices,  Apple iPad 2, Amazon Kindle DX and Motorola XOOM have eBook reading capabilities, with Kindle being a dedicated eBook reader.  The aim of the study was to analyse the ease with which a user can perform a particular task on each device, the user-friendliness of the UI and the eBook reading experience the device has to offer. Two studies were devised for the purpose of our research. One study aims at understanding the user experience the devices have to offer in general, and the second study aims at understanding the eBook reading experience.

Internet access was enabled for all devices for the purpose of the study, as connecting to the internet is not part of the eBook reading activity.

Study 1

The study was implemented in two phases, the difference being the instructions given to the user.

Phase 1

In this phase, the devices were connected to the internet, and the users were asked to download and open an eBook on the respective device. They were not told about specific apps that were needed to render eBooks, and were given no specifics whatsoever. The users were not given any instructions so as to get a firsthand view of where they try to get the eBooks from, whether they even know about the requirement of specific apps to render eBooks on the devices and of any other OS specific functions.

This study helped evaluate whether prior experience with the OS played a significant role in understanding OS specific requirements such as apps, the app stores the devices used, and the place to get eBooks from.

Phase 2

In this phase, the users were given more specific instructions about the applications that they would have to download to be able to read eBooks in the ePub format. This test helped answer questions such as, did the user know where to get the application, which application to get, did they have trouble installing the application, how to download eBooks on the device, and so on.

This study gave a very clear understanding about the intuitiveness of the UI, the difficulty or ease in performing tasks, and whether previous experience with either similar devices or the operating system played a part in performing the given task.

Study 2

This study was devised to evaluate the eBook reading experience each of the devices had to offer. The participants of the study gave feedback on the overall device design from point of view of an eBook reader, the user-friendliness of the user interface from the eBook reading point of view, and inputs on the in-book settings the devices allowed the users to change.

In this study, the users were asked to inspect two areas of the eBook reader or eBook reading app. First, the overall readability of eBooks was tested by asking the users to read a book for ten minutes on the device. The eBooks were rendered at default settings. This part of the test was to get feedback on the eBook reading experience the device offers. For the next part of the test, the users were asked to find and change the settings they wished to change when reading, and also inspect the settings the device offered. For this part of the study, each user was given five minutes. This dedicated time to change settings allowed the users to find all or most settings the software offered, and identify settings the software lacks or are unnecessary.

Cc image by Astragony

Project Sunflower: Time to Launch Application, Open a Book and Flip Page

Well, we now have results regarding the time taken for the Apple iPad 2, Amazon Kindle DX and Motorola XOOM to render eBooks. We installed iBooks on iPad and the Kindle App for Android on XOOM. The Google Books app can’t be installed (yet) in UK due to copyright issues. We recorded the time taken by the devices to open the app, open a book, and flip a page.

Since there is no emulator that performs exactly like the physical device, we chose to take a practical approach to measure the times. The render times were measured in two ways. One, manually, and the other using a video camera.

Manual Method

Take a stopwatch in one hand, and have the other hand tap on the device. For example, when using an iPad, what we did was to hold the stopwatch in the left hand, and tap the iPad with the right hand. Start the stopwatch precisely when the iPad is tapped, and stop when the desired action is done. This method depends a lot on the user’s reflexes and you may have your doubts about the level of precision when it comes to results. Let me tell you, the results were surprisingly accurate. Read the figures to see for yourself.

Camera Method

This is a slightly more sophisticated way of measuring, though just as simple. All you need to know is the fps (frames per second) at which the video is recorded, and a video player that can replay the video frame-per-frame. Record the desired action on-camera, and then replay the video frame-per-frame. The number of frames traversed from the start to end of the task gives a more precise time taken to complete the task than the manual method.


We measured the times for six free eBooks per device. Six readings were taken per task, and the average time for each task was calculated.

iPad (Average from six readings)

Kindle DX (Average from six readings)

There is no application load time as all the books are displayed directly on the Homescreen.

XOOM (Average from six readings)

Both the methods gave fairly similar results. The differences in the times on an average are:

The standard deviations for each method are shown below:

iPad (Standard Deviation)

Kindle DX (Standard Deviation)

XOOM (Standard Deviation)

The standard deviation tables show that the camera method showed less variation from the average as compared to the manual method in all but two cases, where the difference is only 1/100th of a second. These two cases may be safely ignored.

Although both methods gave fairly similar results, it must be noted that the manual method would give varied results for every test. It is completely dependent upon user reflexes, and slow reflexes could have seriously bad results. The camera method does take up more time, however the results are more accurate and dependable  So, I’d recommend the camera method.

All the recorded times are an average, and the times may change with the length of the books proportionally. These results give us a fair idea about the various devices when it comes to render speed and page flipping. The iPad and XOOM clearly render faster than Kindle DX. However, these results are only pertaining to the device capabilities and say nothing about the user experience. What makes an eBook reader good or bad does not depend only on the render speeds, but more so on the user experience the device has to offer. A detailed usability study of the devices will be undertaken soon which will shed light on the varied user experience, and help us better understand what the user expects from an eBook reader.

Project Sunflower: The Unboxing Experience

The devices (Amazon Kindle DX, Apple iPad and Motorola XOOM) we ordered a few weeks back finally arrived yesterday. Here’s how it went.

Kindle DX

Amazon has made great use of the Kindle’s E Ink display, with instructions displayed on the screen, waiting to be read once the Kindle is unboxed. The display showed where the power button was, asking to slide and release, and also to plug in the Kindle to a power source. On starting, the Kindle was already setup to the Amazon account it was registered with and displayed a user’s guide. Very simple.


Setting up the iPad was a bit tedious. On switching on the device, it immediately showed the iTunes USB screen that indicated connecting the iPad to a PC/Mac for setup. The iPad does not start unless connected to a PC/Mac that has iTunes installed. Since I did not have a desktop with iTunes installed, it took some time to install iTunes just to setup the iPad and get the iPad to work. Once this was done, the on-screen instructions took care of the rest. This issue will be solved in the next iOS update allowing wireless setup of iOS devices, but presently its not supported.


The XOOM looked different from the other two devices, as its primary orientation is landscape and not portrait. The iPad and Kindle have the Power/Sleep button on the edge of the device. Expecting the same, I checked its edges for the power button. To my surprise, it was not to be found. After checking all sides and mistaking the SIM card slot for the power button, I decided to resort to the documentation. This was the first time I had to check documentation given with the device to find the power button. Its a concave button, placed very close to the camera, which is hardly visible in low lighting conditions. However, it was only a first time thing, after which it made sense as to why the button is placed where it is. Its very convenient and easy to reach when holding the device in landscape mode, as your finger naturally rests very close to the button.

Now, since the wait is done and the devices are finally here, we can start working with them.

Project Sunflower: Devices for Research

There are a large number of eReaders currently available in the market. We have chosen three devices, one with an E Ink display and the other two with LED displays, each running on a different operating system. Amazon Kindle DX, Apple iPad 2 and Motorola Xoom are three devices we will be using. The Kindle DX runs on Linux, iPad on iOS and the Motorola Xoom on Android 3.0.


Amazon Kindle being a dedicated eBook reader has capability to read eBooks by default, without requiring the installation of an eBook application. iPad and Xoom being tablet PCs primarily, require an additional application to be installed that allows the device to render eBooks. We will be considering the native applications that are developed specifically for the device.

Apple iPad

iBooks is the default application for reading eBooks on the iPad. It is free to download from the Apple App Store, and allows in-app purchases. The iBookstore has over 200,000 eBooks available for purchase, with some free ones. There are other eBook apps too, such as the Kindle app and many more.

Motorola Xoom

Google Books is the default application for reading eBooks on Android devices. However, due to publisher restrictions, Google Books is not available to users in UK (yet). The Kindle app for Android works just fine, though you need to have an Amazon account. The other eBook apps rated highly in the Android Market (Android’s App Store) are mostly paid.

Amazon Kindle DX

The Kindle is a dedicated eBook reader. Books are directly displayed on the homescreen, where you can start reading immediately. You can purchase books from the Kindle Store. Most of the books also have a free sample that Amazon wirelessly transfers to the device, allowing you to read the beginning of the book and then decide whether to buy it or not.