Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Man I've had a lot of computers

I remember when I got my first computer, a Texas Instrument 99/4A. My dad got it for me for Christmas (I was a poor student then) for about $125 when TI was getting out of the computer business. It must have been in 1982 or 1983. Here’s a picture:

As you can see, it’s just a CPU with an attached-keyboard. I hooked it up to a 10-inch black and white TV and a standard tape recorder, so I could save stuff, and bought an Advanced C programing cartridge that plugged into the port on the upper right of the computer.
Learning to program on that little computer became my hobby. I wrote a program that simulated a basketball game. I bought a book that listed basketball statistics for the prior year, plugged the data into the program, and played ball. I had a blast but my wife didn't like it because I spent so much time on it.
But, that wasnt my first experience with computers. While attending junior college in 1976 I took a computer programming” class. All I can remember is lining up punch cards that got fed into a "computer." Ancient of days.

Then, in professional school, around 1984, I bought a PC with a twenty megabyte hard. Yes, you read that right. Megabyte, not gigabyte. I paid for it with student loan money and as I recall it cost about $1,200. I might be wrong. I remember debating getting the PC or a Mac. The Mac was cool looking but cost too much for my student budget and had only like an eight-inch screen. I bought the PC from a guy who put them together in a storage locker. Here’s what the IBM PCs looked like back then (mine was nowhere as fancy):

It had a 5¼-inch floppy disc drive and an amber monitor, which sat atop the gray metal box that held the computer’s guts. I had to have a printer, of course, so I picked up a Panasonic dot matrix printer with a box of pin-feed paper. It might have looked a little like this one, except I don’t remember it having so many buttons on the front:

The computer ran on DOS but I remember when my brother-in-law gave me a copy of Windows, I think version 1.2, on a floppy disc. I was fascinated by the graphical OS but it ran so slow it was useless to me. 
I used that computer until I went into practice for myself. When I started making a little money, I updated my own computer as well as the billing computer. The next computer I got was a Packard Bell, from Costco, which had just opened up in town. That was about 1991. I used the PB until it broke.
Next up was an all-in-one computer from a local store, in 1998. I needed something portable but didnt want to shell out for the still-high price of a decent laptop. It had an LCD screen and ran Windows 95, and was one of the most reliable computers Ive ever owned. It was fast, for those days, portable enough to take on the road when I did out-of-town treatments, and even had a USB port. I just barely threw that computer away.
The company I bought it from offered lifetime free labor. And they came through. They actually replaced my hard drive two years after I had bought the computer, a year out of warranty, for free. The guy who owned the store ran a bang-up business. He sold out to a guy who looted the business’s assets before fleeing to China.
Next was a Dell desktop I still own, running Windows XP. The fan has gotten loud but it’s served me well. I love the Dell keyboard from that time, about 2004. It has a nice click feeling.
After the Dell was an Acer laptop. I wrote most of my second book, THE MIGHTY T, on that computer. I still have it but havent turned it on for a few months. The WiFi hardly works and I somehow damaged the V key. 
I purchased a Dell laptop running Windows 7 from Costco last October because the Acer doesnt have enough horsepower to run my new testing software. And, there was the broken V key. I liked Windows 7, though I thought XP is easier to use. Probably because I used it for years. I sold that laptop with my testing hardware and software to an acupuncturist this month.
And now I have a 27" iMac. Yes, Im now a Mac guy. And Im loving it.

Its been fun, this trip down memory lane, but it has to come to a close now. On my next post Ill write about my current computer and writing setup.

Monday, March 18, 2013

eReader Review: Marvin for iPad

Marvin for iPad

This is the third in my series of eReader reviews. I first reviewed Amazon’s Kindle app, then the Bluefire app. Both are good apps, with strengths and weaknesses. The Kindle app is necessary if you want to read MOBI books on your mobile device and the Bluefire app will read eBooks locked with DRM (provided you open a free account with Adobe).

The last eReader app I’ll review is my newest: Marvin. Marvin reads ePub 2.0 eBooks like no other eReader can.

Marvin has too many features to list so I’’ll mention a few of my favorites.

Important Features of Marvin

1) Marvin is fully customizable. Especially important to me are font size, typeface, margin size, line spacing, indentation, hyphenation, and justification controls.

- I like to read paragraphs with a little more space between lines, and Marvin lets me do that.

- I also don’t care for huge paragraph indents; they’re so ugly and interfere with reading.

- There are many typefaces to choose from and you can display titles in different faces than the
text. My favorite text face is Lora while I leave the titles displayed in Open Dyslexic. Although I use Open Dyslexic because I like how it looks, it turns out it helps assist users with dyslexia.

2) There are three fully-customizable themes. I only use two: night and normal. Night mode has a black background, of course, with white letters. In normal mode I like a beige background so I have it set for Old Lace.

3) Marvin lets you export your notes, highlights, name lists, and summaries to formats compatible with most word processors. This is a boon for members of book clubs who discuss what they read in depth and to authors with beta readers. Authors can format their manuscripts in ePub and send them to beta readers. Beta readers can make extensive notes, if they like, which they can email to the author.

4) eBooks can be emailed to friends from within the program. Now authors, before you jump up and down and risk straining a muscle in your buttocks, this is no different than lending a print book to a neighbor, or that woman at work you’’ve been trying to impress.

5) Marvin not only has up-and-down swiping for screen brightness, it also lets you control the warmth of the screen. There are smart-snapping gestures I’ve yet to explore, DropBox linking, a reading timer, multi-colored bookmarks, and it’ll correct incomplete or missing table of contents. Not real important for fiction, in my opinion, but would be useful for non-fiction.

There are many, many more features to Marvin. Check out their website for complete details.

Not Quite Perfect

I have a couple of gripes with Marvin. It lacks a mono-spaced typeface like Courier for those times when I want to read in Courier. I especially like to do this when editing one of my drafts.

When I turn my iPad sideways and two-column reading is initiating, there’’s far too much space between the columns of text. Very visually unappealing. I have to go into the menu to adjust the margins. Kindle handles this much better, leaving just the right amount of space between columns.

Both Marvin and Bluefire read ePubs but only Bluefire will read DRM-encoded eBooks. When I have the choice, I choose Marvin over Bluefire every time.

Marvin is a midget in a land of giants. Most readers buy books from companies with dedicated reading devices or eReader apps. Books purchased from these sites pretty much have to be read on their dedicated devices or apps. You can get around this by connecting your device to your computer and dragging and dropping books here and there, but most people don’t bother.

It’s a shame because Marvin gives a more satisfying reading experience. At least it does to me.

Being in the business of converting manuscripts to ebooks, I like having different apps I can check my work out on. I use them all, even the reading apps on my phone. Gotta be sure my products look good on whatever device my customers’’ readers choose to view their books.

Which reading device or eReader app do you use?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Review of eReaders App: Bluefire

On my last post, I reviewed the Kindle app for iPad. Whether you’re a fan of Amazon or not, and many aren’t, I feel it’s a good app for reading.

However, it’s not a good app for sharing notes and marks you make in a book. Check this post out here if that’s your goal. You can get your notes and marks to sync across your own Kindle devices, but you can’t share them with others. However, if someone reads a MOBI file on Kindle for PC they can share their notes and marks. See the linked post on how to do that.

On to Bluefire.

Last year, or maybe the year before, I received a “perk” from Klout: Stephen King’s short story Mile 81, which is protected with Digital Rights Management (DRM). I needed an eReader app that would handle DRM, so I found Bluefire. I had to create a free Adobe account to crack open Mile 81. When I upgraded my iPad I had to download Bluefire again and so had to log in to Adobe again.

Let me tell you what I like best about Bluefire: if you leave it in its native mode, it displays text in the Adobe Minion typeface, one of my all-time favorite typefaces, and it automatically and correctly inserts ligatures. People complain Bluefire loads eBooks too slow. This is why, it’s applying sophisticated typesetting to your eBook.

Ligatures make text easier to read and more visually appealing. Allow me to explain how.

I had a sister-in-law (she’s no longer my sister-in-law) who couldn’t tolerate food touching on her plate. The mashed potatoes, including the gravy, couldn’t touch the roast beef or the green beans. I always thought that was dumb since it all ended up as a ball of chyme in the stomach anyway, but I kept that opinion to myself. Which is probably why I got along so well with my ex’s side of the family.

Typefaces with serifs, those little extenders at the tops, feet, and cross bars of letters, often touch in set text. Particularly, the dot of an ‘i’ will touch the downward stroke of an ‘f’ set to its left. As my former SIL would say, yuck. A ligature fixes this by combining the ‘f’ and ‘i’ into one character. The crossbar of the ‘f’ joins the top of the ‘i’ and the ‘i’ is not dotted.

All basic ligatures involve the letter ‘f’. Two ‘fs’ are joined, an ‘f’ and an ‘l’, two ‘fs’ and an ‘i’, as in “office” are joined, and two ‘fs’ and an ‘l’ are joined. Here’s an example:

(Image from I Love Typeography.)

Bluefire does this for you whether you want it or not because they know it’s for your own good. Joking aside, you likely don’t consciously notice when text is set with ligatures. But your eye appreciates the aesthetics and you likely will read a little faster and better.

Bluefire has many other options: five margins, pages numbers in the margin, many different typefaces, orientation lock (a useful feature when reading while laying on one’s side), a night mode that works, and options for different effects while flipping pages. Two of my favorite features are, you can adjust the screen brightness by swiping up or down on the screen and you can turn justified lines off and read with ragged-right lines. Refer to my post on the Kindle app for details.

A glaring missing feature is, no two-column reading when in landscape mode. For me, unless I’m sure I won’t need to read a book in landscape mode, I will load the book into Marvin.

Stay tuned for my review of Marvin, the best eReader for the iPad.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Review of eReader Apps: Kindle App

I’ve blogged before that I read a lot of eBooks on my iPad. I had an iPad 1 for almost two years, and it served me well. However, since Apple decided it would no longer support the iPad 1, meaning there would be no more software updates for it, I decided to upgrade.

I sold my 32GB iPad 1 for $250 to a local guy and bought a refurbished 16GB iPad 3 from Apple for $400, with tax. I didn’t come close to using 16GB on my iPad 1 so I opted for the 16GB model. No sense spending money for unused storage.

I’m nearsighted so I don’t need glasses to read, unless what I’m trying to read is farther than about a foot from my face. The iPad 3 has retina screen, the iPad 1 didn’t. I could read fine in day-mode but when I switched to night-mode the text became fuzzy and I had to switch to a sans-serif typeface, which are not designed for reading large amounts of text.

The retina screen makes reading easy for me. The characters are sharp and clear, even when reading in night mode—no typeface change needed.

Over the years I’ve used four eReader apps: Stanza, Kindle, Bluefire, and lately, Marvin.

I downloaded Stanza because I first published to Smashwords, which supports Stanza. Thing I liked best about Stanza was, I could read in Courier, which I like to do when I’m writing a draft or editing a manuscript set in Courier. Only one other eReader app I know of does this. Unfortunately, the Stanza app has been abandoned by its developers and has become somewhat unstable.

Kindle App

The second app I downloaded was the Kindle app. Kindle is, well, Kindle. I’ve read people complaining about the MOBI format but as an eReader, it’s always worked fine for me. And I’ve done a lot of reading on the Kindle app as most of the books I download are from Amazon.

As an eBook creator, I know Amazon’s proprietary MOBI format isn’t as flexible as ePub, but I can still make great looking MOBI books. This is a necessity for an eBook creator.

What I like about the Kindle app

It’s customizable. The Kindle app gives you three margin sizes to choose from, several good typefaces to display text in, a night mode, a screen brightness slider-bar, and the choice of displaying text in two-columns when in landscape mode. That last feature alone makes it a good app for reading. I read a lot in landscape mode and shorter lines of text are easier to read than longer lines.

It’s stable. At least it has been for me.

I can email documents to my Kindle app. This increases the app’s usefulness. You have to set this up online in your account by telling Amazon what email addresses to accept files from, but once that’s done sending Word files, PDFs, and MOBI files to your Kindle app is a breeze.

What I don’t like about the Kindle app

It displays text with lines fully justified, meaning the right side of paragraphs align. This is how print books are set, and how this paragraph is set. Having the page be a nice rectangle is pleasing to the eye and it’s fine for a screen the size of an iPad, about 10 inches diagonal. It doesn’t work so great on a screen the size of an iPhone.

Here’s the problem with justified text on smaller screens: it creates awkward line lengths and breaks. Since the Kindle app doesn’t hyphenate books, long words are often shoved onto the next line, leaving the first line too short to be stretched across the length of the screen. This creates ugly gaps in the text.

I’m not a fan of eReader-hyphenated text because the hyphens more than likely show up at incorrect locations, like between a ‘t’ and an ‘h’. But that would be preferable, to me at least, than having one line with two three words, and not justified, adjacent to lines that are fully justified and are filled with words.

The Kindle app does not allow the user to view the text in ragged-right mode. It should. Ragged-right text is easier to read because the spaces between words are equal, which helps us read faster. Ragged-right text isn’t as pretty as fully-justified text is, though.

As I wrote, I read a lot in the Kindle app and it’s a pleasant enough experience. And to my knowledge it’s your only choice if you want to read MOBI books.

In my next post I’ll review the Bluefire eReader app.