Is the XO Really the Ultimate E-Book Reader?

   
   
   
   
   

I am Hilaire Fernandes, I am both an educator -- mathematics teacher -- and a computer sciences person. I am involved in the Ofset organisaton and I initiated several projects as freeduc-cd, DrGeo, iStoa.net, some of these projects are ported to the XO machine.

But I will not discuss about these projects but about the eBook use in the OLPC XO machine which I think is fundamental.

Since the beginning of its design, the OLPC XO was design to be both a laptop and an eBook reader. Indeed it fills some criteria to be such a dual machine. The OLPC solution for eBook comes in the sole form of a PDF reader, it is the 'Reader' activity. It is a small and nice activity, particularly simple to use and to operate but sadly it still misses a few important features to be a prefect eBook reader.

le petit prince
The Little Prince

To evaluate the quality of the XO as an eBook reader we need to analyse how it fills a few requirements.

SCREEN

This is the strongest point. The display has two modes: a colour mode with a back light and a black&white mode. The bw mode show up when the display light is turn off or when it is under the direct exposure of sun light. When in bw mode, the resolution is of 200dpi, it really improves the readability of the characters, the shapes are very clear and it is very comfortable to read. The down side is you really need good luminosity. So I am not even sure the kids while in the classroom could benefit of it. It really needs serious usability test.

To illustrate my words, bellow are two screen shots of the same picture in colour and black and white
This illustration comes from the "Le Petit Prince" Antoine de Saint-Exup├ęry book. It is the school book my son was reading. Sadly, he can not bring it at home. Fortunately, it is now in the public domain and it is available in the great "eBooks libres et gratuits" repository.

le petit prince-2
The Little Prince - In color

These two screen shots show the great gain in resolution when switching to the bw mode. In the last shot, the pixels are not visible any more. These shots were taken in the same conditions of distance and zoom. Keep in mind the sharpness of these pictures is constrained by the sharpness of the camera used for the shot.

To read a book, turning the display in portrait mode is really a bonus. In that mode, the page rendering of the eBook is very close to the one you get with a real book on paper. Moreover, the XO notebook screen can be completely turned and folded on the keyboard, then the electronic book can be carried with its white handle.This video shows the manipulation to completely switch the XO from the notebook to the eBook configuration.

le petit prince-3
The Little Prince - In B & W

(The video is on the Ogg/Theora format. In case of doubt you can install the excellent VideoLan free media player to read it)

NAVIGATION IN THE BOOK

To navigate in a page book there is a big four-positions button, at the left of the display. To navigate from one page to another one, there are fours small buttons at the right of the display. Here there are two serious usability problems:

  1. There is no obvious way to switch full screen the page view
  2. Navigating from one page to the previous or next one is far to be perfect. Indeed, when asking for the next page of the book with the appropriate button, it is sort of buggy as the user found itself in the middle of two pages, and not at the next one as expected.
I reported this usability problem several months ago on the OLPC Developer's Mailing list

There are other concern regarding eBook as power saving, user annotations, page bookmarks. But XO does not come any close to these ones.

I hope OLPC will set the appropriate attention to the eBook function of the XO machine. After all, last week Mr Negroponte himself recalled it is one of the most important dimensions of the XO. Until now I do not see it happening.

Mr Negroponte, do you know the XO machine is not up to the task regarding eBook mode?

Other eBook Links on OLPC News

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10 Comments

Opened a new page in the wiki to report usability kudos as well as issues.

Please edit and add as needed.

http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Usability

I bought my XO through G1G1 in ebook reading in mind (I wanted to replace my 7 year-old Gemstar REB-1200 ebook reader). My experiences:

- The b&w mode of the XO screen is excellent in ambient light. Perfectly readable. It is not e-Ink quality but absolutely comfortable for the eyes. However, it is not as good with point light sources (at night when you want to read at a lamp). The point-source light reflects strongly from the XO screen and that makes reading uncomfortable in b&w mode. One can read with backlight (without a lamp) but the resolution drops to 800*600 and the backlight is too bright (the REB backlight can be turned down to half as bright as the XO).
So, the REB's display is mostly unusable outdoor while the XO excels there. The REB is better for night reading.

- The REB's power management is light-years ahead to the current XO. You can read ~13 hours (with a 7 year old battery) on the lowest backlight setting. The REB does a perfect hibernation-resume when you close-open the lid. No battery charge is lost during sleep. The XO currently has to be kept on the charger continuously in order to use the suspend-resume feature (it discharges the battery very quickly even is suspended mode).

- The REB has an excellent reading software but limited to its internal format so I have to convert books from HTML and TXT before I can copy them onto the reader. PDF is mostly not possible to convert or too much work. The XO can read PDF with Read (a modified version of Evince) but has NO reading feature (NONE, NADA...etc). Page turns are inacurate (as the author of the post says), it cannot zoom automatically to the text (includes empty borders...etc). In theory, the XO can run FBReader which would make reading HTML and TXT fairly comfortable on the XO but no solution for decent PDF reading. No support for LIT either.

- The REB has dedicated navigator buttons but they are loud to use at night (when your wife wants to sleep next to you). Fortunately, it has a touchscreen and turning pages can be done through the touch interface. The XO also has dedicated buttons but they are also very loud, even worse than the REBs. The XO has no touch capability which makes silent use very hard. I currently use the mouse buttons because those can be pushed almost silently at the edges. (For this you have to raise the screen away from the keyboard so the XO will not be in real tablet mode.

All in all:
- Power management is better in the REB, it gives much better cordless runtime than the XO
- The XO has much better multi-format support (Evince + FBReader)
- The reading software for TXT and HTML can be made similarly good (REB software vs FBReader). The base reading software of the XO sucks.
- Reading at night is better with the REB.
- Reading in ambient light is better with the XO.
- Reading silently, without button noise is better with the REB.

Interestingly (considering that the reader activity is based on Evince) I have had much better luck on my XO with straight Evince than with the sugar-wrapped reader activity. This is due to a few contributing factors: 1. Easy full-screen capabilities. 2. Can launch the evince reader before deciding what to read (no icon for the reader by default). 3. Memory of position in document. 4. Ease of command-line access to documents on removable storage. 5. Easier to kill unresponsive process this way. # 4 (command-line invocation) is the most important to me, because as far as I am concerned the Journal activity is the least usable part of the XO, and any way of avoiding Journal constitutes a leap in usefulness of the machine. I think Journal should either be removed or there should be a more full-functional directory navigation activity. I'm sure most kids will get into the UNIX shell fairly quickly, but having a decent graphical navigation tool will give them the power they need to explore right from the start.

I looked at the other options. EEEpc comes closest, but doesn't have the amazing screen or the flip conversion to reader style (or any of the cool innovative features created by OLPC like Mesh, the power/environmental factors, the Python factor, the Bitfrost factor. Granted, those features are not related to the use as a reader but they figure in to my choice.) The standalone readers all have problems with formats and don't render properly, or are committed to proprietariness and DRM or selling subscriptions. None of that makes it possible to have freedom to read whatever I want and not be bothered by some corporation's Procrustean bed. Further, these stand-alones are not computers yet cost more than XO (which could be alright if they excelled in other ways but they do not even measure up as document readers). Their advantages are longer battery life, fast boot time, smaller in size, but if I can't read what I want to read what is the point?

All things considered, PDFs launched from a terminal window in straight Evince full screen, (or web documents in Opera full screen) on the XO is a perfect Ebook experience for me at least, and I have yet to see anything else that can fulfill the same purpose, or even near the same for near the price.

Here in Nepal, we really, really need an EBook Reader that with the capabilities described in this post and in the comments. I love flipbooks like those on the International children's Digital Library http://www.icdlbooks.org/

But it is difficult to view them off-line and they lack many features. We need e-book reader software w/ the following features:

1) Easy to convert pdfs to the ebook format
2) can read online and off-line
3) flipbook-like usability

I have scoured the Internet for open-source tools w/ these features w/out success.
There is the sophie project, which is promising but still needs a lot of work.

Any open-source developers want to step up to the plate? Give emacs and the linux kernel a rest. Help us develop a great open-source EBook reader. There has to be more to reading than pdf's

@Robert Levy
Yes, pure Evince is better than its dumb cousin (Read) but it still lacks a lot of important reading features notably: paging without overlaps, cropping empty borders and markups.

Some e-Ink standalones are getting better and not that expensive. The Hanlin v9 seems promising.

Most of the existing standalone ebook readers beat the hell out of the current XO at power management. We have yet to see 20-30 hours reading runtimes on the XO (the original promise).

Yes, the battery life is the one area in which these reader devices are better than XO. I didn't know about that promise though (4-5 hours seemed alright to me). The promise where I was most let down was the lack of a hand crank, though I hear these are being separately provided. Their power requirements are quite low even as is making them good devices to run on solar or pedal power. 30 hours would be unheard of, because that would mean you could run a server (I suppose including router and all too) off of one daily workout with one of the tried and true pedaled power devices.

As far as the formatting issues for PDF is concerned (cropping borders etc), it is my understanding that this is still better than what the standalone devices are capable of (they mangle even worse). Does the Hanlin h9 do better? Also curious about the price.

I'm also impressed that XO was built with the hardiness and lifespan of the device in mind. It's a major flaw in capitalism as normally practiced that devices are built with planned obsolescence in mind, or at least with little concern for how long they will last (mostly because of the demand and the consumer culture around pseudo-disposable electronics has drifted into this state I suppose).

> 30 hours would be unheard of, because that would mean you could run a server
> (I suppose including router and all too)

No, the magic is in aggressive suspend2ram-switching, with the DCON showing a stable frozen image.

Yesterday, I patched xautolock to go s2ram after 7 seconds idle. The resume-delay is somewhere at 200-500ms, but you barely notice that in ebook-mode. I think the battery holds quite a bit longer this way but i didn't really benchmark it(the book was quite good)
Even more aggressive saving should be possible when in ebook mode, possibly via hal daemon, disabling wireless and such.

It's nice to hear somebody really take OLPC to task for this. I specifically bought the damn thing to use as an ebook/blog reader and it just doesn't do the job. I'm fine with the donation portion of my purchase and think the company's mission is terrific. But I would have told them to give both computers away - make it Give 2, Get 0 - if I'd known how poor the implementation of this particular feature was.
Back when I first got my OLPC I posted a question in their official forum about the button orientation. The reply was that I should learn Sugar and reprogram it so it could do what I want. Um, screw you.
Hopefully they'll fix this at some point.

FYI: There is an OpenUsability project underway that specifically deals with the handheld-mode interface of the XO (http://season.openusability.org/index.php/projects/2008/olpc). So I expect some interesting ideas and progress in terms of functionality over the coming weeks and months.

An education device has to support PDFs, but to describe these as "ebooks" is simply wrong. PDFs are not ebooks, which need the property that PDF lacks to reflow to different sized screens. Web pages are a good example of reflowable documents. The sad part is that there is a world-class ebook reader for Linux optimized for resource-poor devices (namely FBReader), but OLPC does not seem to have seriously considered anything but PDFs. FBReader reads about a dozen different reflowable ebook formats, and it already runs on the XO if you install it yourself and ignore the Sugar straitjacket.

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