Joining the Dark Side

Fact is that media are taking up too much space at my place. My living room looks like a CD shop and the rest of the apartment like the Royal Library of Alexandria. Things have to go. That isn’t an easy thing to do because I am attached to the stuff. I know that more and more people are becoming the “minimal” types, the ones who are able to stuff all of their belongings into a single mid-sized suitcase, whereas I would need a separate U-Haul truck for each and every one of my rooms.

For more than 30 years, I have invested a substantial amount of money into books, most of which are a sizable collection of dark fantasy, horror, … or whatever people might call it at the moment. The rest are mostly an assorted mix of music and rather lavish art books. Before the financial crisis hit, someone offered me a comparatively outrageous sum for my entire horror collection (all of my books are in English, by the way) and I declined. Since then the market value of those books that aren’t extremely rare collector’s editions has decreased so drastically that burning what I have might be the best solution when compared to selling the collection off.

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So, I got myself an eBook reader after having decided that my book collection has got to go (*groan*). This decision was aided by the fact that roughly 70% of my collection (also the totally obscure stuff) is readily available today with many authors, often by themselves, having switched to republishing their older material in various eBook formats across the many different retail sites.

Now that I have joined the dark side with my Tolino Vision 3HD (check the specs on the UK site, if you like), a simple reader that I bought after extensively reading reviews and deciding on a device that just works, some observations:

We need an eBook standards movement: Web design and web programming only got better when the so-called “Web Standards movement” started to get on people’s nerves by forcing them to adapt, well, standards. Studying the structure and layout of eBooks that I have, it immediately becomes clear that at the moment, everyone is doing things the way he or she likes. Fonts are either forced on the device or not, eBooks are made to look exactly like the print copy, which is a real dumb thing to do because they aren’t, etc. I even have eBooks that divide sections up with a series of blank pages. Duh.

Format compatibility: When I decided on my eBook reader, I also consciously decided not to get locked into the Amazon empire. The people behind my Tolino are a consortium of various German, Austrian and Swiss publishers and retailers trying to combat Amazon’s dominance. The eBook market is highly fragmented with each one of the players pushing either their own format(s) and/or excluding that of others. A ridiculously stupid move because they effectively limit their own audience who are then also forced into a legal grey area (in Germany) by having to remove copy protection and utilize software like Calibre to transcode formats.

The hardware is almost there: From what I can see, the hardware seems to be sufficient to carry around at least several hundred books, if you like (I can get about 2000 hefty books onto my reader although I intend to only carry my current reading list around with me). The screen technology works, besides the flicker problem that is more or less prominent across the various reader models. The e-ink display needs to be protected from burn-in by regularly refreshing the screen, but my player only really needs to do that after having displayed cover or inline images, the latter of which I try to avoid like the plague. You can even turn pages on my reader by lightly tapping the back of the device, a nifty idea.

The software needs more work: Before I bought my Tolino Vision 3HD, I think I tried every other available device on the market, including the Kobo models, which came in second place on my list. Based on Android, they all work differently and they all offer more or fewer functions depending on the model. The software on mine is a bit sluggish and rather limited in functionality, but I knew that before I bought it. 98% of the time I read on my device, so rudimentary administrative functions are all I need. But even those seem to be far removed from any prior usability testing. I have no idea why the sort order of books cannot be set to be different for authors, titles and collections. Once set, it is applied to all three screens. Mass moving of titles into different collections is a drag and a restore function for how you had it set up isn’t available. Populating your device with reading material and then (again) sorting it into collections, something you really have to do once or twice before you get the hang of things, is a drag. On my device, the start screen wastes just about half of the screen estate on offering me books I won’t buy from the store I was locked into but won’t visit often and it’s the first thing I would get rid of if I could. One of the detrimental effects of the fragmented eBook market.

User intervention: Because the software across all the models I have tried is flawed, something I would call “user intervention” is a must. In order to get things to work the way I want them to, I needed to both read up on the various eBook formats (epub, mobi, etc.) and find ways of going into the eBooks to remove and or change aspects of the content layout and content structure. Luckily, there is some really nifty software around to help you with that and, in the end, eBooks are really comparable to webpage layouts which are easy to tweak once you understand the underlying rules.

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Right now, I am quite happy. Besides the odd device crash that I will probably get a handle on once I tweaked my eBooks into submission, I find myself reading a lot more than I have these past many years. Just as music streaming has allowed me to rediscover a lot of the music that had been lying dormant in my extensive collection, my Tolino 3HD has allowed me to easily and quickly dive into my book collection again.

It’s been a fun ride so far.

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P.S.: And, yes, because I’m anal like that, I made my own separate quick’n’dirty covers for the books on my Tolino.

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

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