Tag: sync

Review of the Onyx Boox M96 eReader, one year on!

Introduction

Last July (nearly a year ago) I bought a larger format eReader that is manufactured by a chinese company named Onyx under the branding “Onyx Boox”. The model, the M96, was an upgrade to their previous one, the M92, and I had been waiting patiently for a while, desperate to have a larger eReader for textbooks.

The screen is 9.7 inches diagonally. This doesn’t sound much of an increase on a 6 inch screen, but consider that this gives 2.56 times the surface area (see comparison below).

screensizes

That’s pretty good, but what I really wanted was a 13.1 inch eReader – full A4 size – but the only ones available were, well, not really available or prohibitively expensive. So I bit the bullet and went with the M96 as a next best option.

A year on, and I am mostly happy with the device. It has been really useful for reading academic journal articles and textbooks, so I now find myself less frequently printing out documents that I want to read. I was even able to set up BitTorrent Sync to automatically synchronize a directory on multiple computer so that I could wirelessly transfer documents over with ease. Great!

BTSync on eInk!

BitTorrent sync in the Play store on an Onyx Boox M96 eReader.

Here is a quick overview of my experiences with the M96. In it I highlight my criticisms and wishes for a future device.

Hardware

Build quality

The M96 feels well built and since I had it. The official case protects it well (apart from the power button – see below). I am a careful owner and have not dropped it, but it is often in my backpack being carried around and seems to have held up well.

Battery life

Like most eReaders, the battery life on the M96 is pretty long. But the juice quickly runs out when the WiFi is turned on. A few times I have been caught out before making a long journey. Luckily, it is possible to toggle the WiFi on and off with one touch of the stylus, using the WiFi status icon. Cool!  Only problem is that the power button is unprotected by the case and the device often turns itself on in my bag. If the WiFi is on too, then, say bye-bye to your battery!

Old screen tech

A major disappointment with the device is the outdated screen technology. At a time (2014) when we were being teased with the eInk Mobius tech, and the newer Kindles and Kobos have nice high-resolution eInk screens, the M96 uses the 9.7 inch eInk Pearl display; the exact same screen component that was used in the Kindle DX four long years earlier. The main disadvantages over the newer eInk screens are apparent when reading PDF and DJVU documents. The resolution is not enough to read some smaller text like figure captions or make out smaller features in the figures themselves.

The other significant implication of using Pearl is the weight; Pearl has a glass substrate for the active eInk layer while Mobius has a plastic substrate. Considering it’s size, the M96 is quite hefty to hold, especially one-handed.

I am sure Onyx have a good reason for sticking with Pearl; cost, availability. I am not sure what the agreement between Sony and eInk is regarding Mobius, considering Sony invested money in its development. But I hope the next generation devices will use it (or whatever comes afterwards).

SD card issues

Perhaps this is a problem that I could fix if I had the time, but I never got the SD card working. The idea is that the SD card gives extra storage capacity for more books, but on boot up I always had a problem with scanning of the SD card hanging forever.  I gave up on the SD card a long ago since eBooks are mostly small anyway and the internal storage is sufficient.

Operating system

The OS is Android, which makes the device feel a bit too much like a phone or tablet for my liking, but the upside is that you can install Android apps, such as BTSync, that give the device added functionality. You can also choose alternative reading apps, use Google Calendar, Gmail etc. The Kindle Android app from Amazon also works, although I don’t use it. The main problem for apps is that pretty much none of them are designed for eInk. Fancy animations and other advanced graphic features don’t work well with eInk, where the screen refresh rate and greyscale often cause problems. Many apps use colour coding, for example, which is less recognizable on a greyscale display.

I bought my M96 from a European supplier so I have the “Booxtor edition” with a slightly customized OS. Booxtor has been providing updates now and then, which have fixed most of the major issues that were at first apparent (I nearly sent my M96 back in the beginning). I am not sure of the exact relationship between this and the original OS from Onyx.

Reading

Generally, reading on the M96 is good. The extra screen real estate really makes a difference when compared to my old 3rd Gen Kindle Keyboard. I still believe that it would be even better to have a larger yet screen, allowing textbooks to be shown at their intended size. A newer screen tech would improve contrast and resolution, making reading more enjoyable.

Navigating books

Navigating through books is not so bad when you are reading through linearly, but when you are reading a text book it is often necessary to jump around, for example to the index or the problem answers section at the back. This is one of the major weaknesses of digital reading devices over printed books. We need new interface designs to overcome this, and faster processors would probably help. However, the M96 does OK; one can use the stylus to control a slider that can choose any page number, it is just a little tricky to select precise page numbers in this way and you still need the full page to load fully before you know that you have landed on the correct one.

Zooming

Zooming into text on the screen is somewhere that is always improved by having a touch interface. With the M96, touch is only possible through the stylus, which can be a little annoying, but at least the stylus allows some accuracy. Due to the slow speed of eInk this can be a slow process but it is much better than with, say, the old Kindle Keyboard.

Annotation

Onyx_Boox_M96_annotation

The stylus input of the M96 makes notation relatively easy. Unfortunately it always requires navigating through a series of menus to do anything. It would be great if the stylus had a button assigned to always scribble, and another to erase. Perhaps another to zoom to selection? Well, I am not a seasoned Wacom user so I don’t know how many buttons would be practical on any stylus. Update: the M96 is now being shipped with a newer, bigger stylus that has an “erase” button.

The main problem with annotation is that for many books where the text is small it is hard to write small enough. I end up zooming in first to the target annotation area. This is slooooooooow, because the stylus function has to be reset between each step, and this means going through menus on screen. In a typical scenario I counted a minimum of 8 stylus “prods” before I was actually annotating. And that was with default notation settings. It shouldn’t be this hard. It should be like using a real book!

Conclusion

The Onyx Boox M96 is helped greatly by the fact that no (viable) better alternative exists. The screen is still not big enough for some books, it is heavy and the display is low resolution. The user experience for someone who is reading and annotating at the same time is still far from the ease of using a real paper book. However, it is a great tool to have and makes reading from a digital library possible.

What’s coming next?

The future of large-format eReaders depends more than anything on the manufacturers’ perceptions of public demand. Most people are served well by the 6 inch Kindle and other similarly sized devices; I myself find the Kindle perfect for reading novels and other books that are pure text and do not have fixed pagesetting, and that are intended to be read in a linear fashion, cover to cover.

The possibility for making 13.1 inch eReaders has existed for some time. eInk developed the Mobius technology with Sony over a year ago and their “ePaper” device has been on limited sale in Japan and the USA for a while. The problem is the price. It also only reads PDF files, with no possibility for EPUB, MOBI, DJVU etc.

Pocketbook are marketing a 13.3 inch eReader to certain industry sectors, but it is not viable for or targeted at general consumers. Netronix recently announced they will produce one too, and it looks very similar to Sony’s. Only without the silly limitations. Onyx stated last year that they, too, were planning a 13.1 inch eReader but it seems to have been out on the backburner while they try to finish other devices first.

So things are happening, but slowly. Fingers crossed we will see some progress before the end of this year!




ZotFile for syncing PDF articles from Zotero to my eReader

I use Zotero to manage my literature collection, including all the associated PDF attachments. It really made my life easier when I set up the WebDAV file sync on Box. However, until now the only way to sync files to my Onyx Boox M96 eReader (image) was by connecting a USB cable and copying them manually to the device. Since Zotero stores the files in cryptically-named individual folders it is hard to do this manually in an organised manner and involves lots of clicking. Today I am going to find a better way.

This is what we want! Our technical documents on a large-screen  eInk device that allows annotation. Great for proofreading!

This is what we want! Our technical documents on a large-screen eInk device that allows annotation. Great for proofreading!

I searched for an Android version of Zotero, hoping that I could just sync to the extra device. Aside from the fact that the article files would take up too much of my internal flash storage space there is actually no official Zotero for Android; only some discontinued third-party project called Zotero Reader and a paid-option called Zandy, which had mixed reviews on the Play Store.

But then there is ZotFile, which can be installed on your PC as a Firefox add-on or as an extension to the stand-alone Zotero, and gives additional functionality. Zotfile is able to copy the article attachment (PDF) to a location on your PC or Mac, for example a Dropbox folder, that is set up to sync with an external device. It can also extract any annotationsto the PDF that you create on the device. My eReader runs Android so I have a number of options for the software that does the syncing, including DropBox, Google Drive or even BitTorrent Sync. I am jumping between Windows and Ubuntu on my main PC and I had issues doing this with BTSync in a single shared folder before, but as long as the collection of files does not grow too big I can keep separate sync folders in Win7 and Ubuntu to avoid any issues. Using BTSync means that you have a collection of devices syncing to each other but your files are not stored in the cloud on someone else’s servers. All transfers are encrypted so in principle it is secure.

OK, here are the steps I took.

1. Install ZotFile as a Firefox Add-on (to work with the Zotero Firefox Add-on).

2. Create a new folder somewhere on the PC that will be the sync folder. In Ubuntu I chose “/home/username/Documents/ZotFileSync” and in Windows I chose “C:/Users/Documents/ZotFileSync” (or whatever). The important thing is that it is not the same folder on a shared drive, something that caused problems for me in the past.

3. In Firefox, find the ZotFile preferences. In the second tab, check the box to “Use Zotfile to send and get files form tablet”. Give it the sync “Base” folder path. I also chose to create subfolders and save a copy of annotated files with the suffix “_annotated”.

Setting up ZotFile

The ZotFile preferences can be found inside Zotero by going to Tools > Add-ons > ZotFile > Options.

4. Use BTSync or dropbox or whatever you like to sync this folder to the cloud.

5. Set up BTSync or dropbox or whatever on your tablet/eReader to sync the files to/from the cloud. You might need to install a file manager app in order to create a new sync folder on your device. I used ES File Explorer, which incidentally seems to work quite well on an eInk screen.

BTSync on eInk!

BitTorrent sync in the Play store on my Onyx Boox M96 eReader.

Now, in Zotero (on your PC) you can right-click an item, Manage Attachments and Send to Tablet (see image below). It should shortly appear on your device, as long as it is connected to the internet and syncing with the cloud. Just like magic!

Sending an article to your sync folder.

Sending an article to your handheld device from Zotero is easy with ZotFile, even though it is simply copying it to a folder that is synced by separate software.

UPDATE:

There are a few (device-specific) issues with this solution.

1) BitTorrent Sync is not running when I boot the eReader. I have to manually start it. It also forgets to sync my shared folder automatically so I have to remind it every time I run the app. I hope that the option to run apps on startup will be included on a later firmware update.

2) The Onyx Boox M96 (Booxtor edition) only scans the internal storage for new books when you boot the device, with no option to manually scan from inside the OS. That means that once the synced files appear in the btsync shared folder the device library doesn’t show them until the next reboot. Again, I hope a manual “scan for new books” will be added to the library app on a later OS update. You could alternatively use a 3rd party reading app that manages its own database of books on the device.

These two issues combined make the process of transferring documents to the eReader a little less automatic than I would like. However, I have eliminated the need to attach the eReader to my PC via USB cables. Let’s see if the arbiters of the device will tweak the software for us in the future.

At the moment I don’t seem to be able to export my annotated PDF files, so I have not tested the annotation extraction feature of ZotFile yet.




Syncing Zotero files with WebDAV from Box

It’s hard to stay organized when you work on multiple computers, with multiple operating systems. My main notebook is a dual boot Ubuntu/Win7 machine where I have a shared partition for work files. I sync my work folder with my Ubuntu tower PC via BitTorrent Sync. This has now been working well for some time (the syncing happens under Ubuntu only, which is a drawback, but if BTSync under Windows also tries to sync the same shared folder it causes problems, thus I avoided doing so) although if you start with two identical copies of the folder on the two PCs it still wants to sync all of the files one way over the network. Not good when the folder is 100 GB large! (Update: this may have been solved in the latest version of the software).

Anyway, for the last half year I have been back using Zotero for my bibliography manager. It makes importing citations and the associated fulltext PDFs from a journal website relatively easy although there are some difficulties with importing PDFs from a local drive, particularly when an old file has no OCR layer. Then I sometimes have to input the metadata manually.

So my Zotero folder (data and files) went over the 300 MB free size limit for the online Zotero storage. That means that my library on Windows and my library on Ubuntu (I cannot share it locally, it seems, due to formatting and access rights issues – need two copies for now!) are no longer synced. I managed to get access to some papers under Windows and now I want to use them in Ubuntu and they are not there. It could easily turn into a big mess of files and folders and I want to keep it somehow automagically synced using Zotero.

So finally I turned to the WebDAV option in Zotero. This lets you keep the data (i.e. library metadata and collections) synced on the Zotero server and the files (i.e. PDF and other attachments) on a separate server. So, how can you get a WebDAV server?

I got a free personal storage account with Box (10 GB) and in the Zotero preferences I am able to setup a server, that is, https://dav.box.com/dav/zotero/

Don’t forget to create a folder named “zotero” in your Box account first! Also, you can now purge your files from storage using the Zotero web interface under storage preferences. This frees up all of that space that was previously clogged up with attachments.

There you go, you now have 10GB of free storage for your Zotero library!