Scott Hanselman

Hands On - Sony e-ink Reader PRS-500 Reviewed

February 11, '07 Comments [16] Posted in Reviews
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A friend who has 10 Sony Readers (don't ask) finally relented and loaned me one for the month so I could finally get some serious hands-on time. I'd spent minutes with it before, but this time I'm using it in all the places I ordinarily use books...reading in bed, etc, as well as trying it in places where I wish I had a book, but the stack I'd want to carry would be too unwieldy.

Since I'm a techie, I've got a folder on my desktop called "Stuff to Read" where I put all the PDFs that I always mean to get to. I usually read them on long plane flights, except reading on the laptop on a plane is so unsatisfying and lasts only a few hours until the laptop battery dies.

I almost thought I was screwed when I started installing the Sony Connect software because halfway through the installation on Vista it starts rolling back. I looked in the Sony Support site and it said "Vista support for the Sony Reader is planned." However, I noticed in the forums at MobileRead that the software had updated itself yesterday. Kind of a bummer for me as I couldn't update software I couldn't install. Some digging however got me to this other support page in a totally different section of the Sony Site that has the download links for the Sony Reader Connect Software and Firmware.

This firmware update brings the Reader up to 1.0.02.01300 and adds these fixes:

  • Longer Battery life during audio playback
  • Faster transfer speeds when using 4GB or larger Memory Stick® media
  • Improved handling of white bands on the audio playback screen

Here's my original 15 minute impressions in italics, along side my update impressions after living with and using the device.

  • It's very light and very comfortable. It has a nice flip around case and reminds me of a larger Palm V - to this day still Palm's most elegant PDA, IMHO.
    • Still true. It's very comfortable to hold. The size is really perfect. It could be a smidge thinner, but any more and it'd feel flimsy. I do wish the screen was larger - meaning I'd make the bezel smaller...make the screen go closer to the edge.
  • There's too many buttons. There's ten 0-9 buttons that are multi-purpose (multi-purpose buttons are mistake cop-out number one in good design, IMHO). They are used to access the internal menus by numbered item, but their primary function is to quick jump a percentage of the way into the book. So pressing 5 gets you 50% of the way into the book. There's no way to go directly to a page that I could see.
    • Yes, the 10 numbered buttons are ridiculous. A touch sensitive slider would have been a much better metaphor.
  • There's multiple ways to turn the page, and they are both on the left side of the reader. The two buttons on the left bezel while oriented up/down, are actually left/right page turning buttons. I think it'd have been more thoughtful and innovative to just touch a long line on the far left or far right bezel to turn the page.
    • This is my #1 on going irritant with the device. Now, in fairness, you'll just pick a page turning technique - one of the three - and use it, but for me, the very existence of the other techniques shows a shotgun approach to industrial design. This is not Sony's best design. At all.
  • The memory card slot supports both Memory Sticks and SD Cards - choice is good.
    • Yes, this rocks, as I have both cards lying around the house.
  • The lower right corner features a joystick-like, sigh, multifunction, nubbin. It's a little confusing because I assumed that the page-turning interface would double as the main interaction element for the utility UI.
    • I could see where a joystick/nubbin would be a good idea for a multi-function devices, but even though this thing plays MP3's, it's called the Sony Reader. It's a reader. Adding a multi-functional interface metaphor like a joystick is a User Experience cop-out. The interface should be minimal - like a book, natch - and specific.
  • The screen, the screen. It's all about the screen. It's eInk. It's not an LED - that's important to note. It's 170 DPI with four levels of gray, versus 96 DPI (or possibly 120 DPI) on a laptop or PDA screen. The battery is used only to change the configuration of the screen i.e. you only use power when turning the page.
    • The screen has a refresh of about 1000ms, and rarely, but it happens, you'll see a ghost of the previous screen because the "turn" didn't completely "take." However, when it's not turning, it's amazing. It really is. It's TOTALLY comfortable to read. I have read a 600 page book on it and it didn't hurt my eyes.
  • You can apparently read RSS feeds on it as well, downloadable via USB. Interestingly, RSS might be the killer app for this Reader, rather than books.
    • Yep, it was too good to be true. Instead of being able to subscribe to any RSS feed, you're only allowed to subscribe to the 12 blogs they've got partnerships with, so basically Slate, Engadget, the usual suspect. Wow. That's so lame it's really hard to express.
  • It also has volume buttons and headphones so you can use it as an audiobook reader or MP3 Player. This also allows you to read while listening to background music.
    • This seems like a good idea, and the audio on this thing is garbage. It doesn't support Audible (which Rocks by itself, by the way) and playing MP3's has a hiss in the background. Why bother I say.
  • The guy at Borders said they haven't had to change the batteries on the demo model ever. They say 7500 page turns on a single battery.
    • If you're not playing music the battery life is obscene. I'm going to take it on a week-long trip and see if it'll last the whole time. I suspect it will.
  • There's 3 font sizes...each is comfortable, even the smallest, but I'm a big font guy so I think I'd have trouble committing to a size.
    • I'm still having trouble committing to a font size. I feel like I'm reading a children's book when the font size is so big, but when the font is big, it's very comfortable. I'm mostly using the small size which is comparable to a regular paperback's font.

Here's the saddest part. The Desktop Connect Reader software is so profoundly bad, so poorly designed, so truly evil that there are not word to full express the breadth and depths of its unspeakable lameness.

  • It tries to be iTunes. I know iTunes. Connect Reader is no iTunes.
  • It kind of looks like Windows Executive. Remember that?
  • The "browser" area doesn't use a known Browser Renderer (IE, Gecko) but rather some internal Sony Voodoo. What do you care? It's not accessible via the keyboard. That means while you can Tab between Text Fields, you can't access drop downs without the mouse. Yikes. Not only is that jarring as you try to fill a field out, but it makes the process nigh-impossible for non-mouse using folks.
  • Drag and drop is partially implemented. Partially meaning I could only get one scenario to work, and that was dragging files from the Library node to the Sony Reader node in the tree. You get a helpful international NO symbol if you try to drag files from your hard drive to the Sony Reader or from the file system to the Pictures or Books nodes. 
    • Purchased content isn't automatically copied to your Sony Reader, you have to manually drag it, and again, only to a single node in the tree.
  • One thing that isn't that bad is the PDF support. You just drag a PDF into the Library node, then AGAIN to the Reader from the Library, and you're set. At least that works. There is rumor that PDFs over 1000 pages have problems, but I personally haven't any to test. Most A4 or 8.5x11" PDFs, however, have very small text on the 6" screen, so you need to either resize the text with a PDF editor, or rotate the Reader's screen and view the pages one-half at a time. It's not ideal, but it's passable. I would expect I'd have to come up with a better resizing strategy...however it's largely dependant on the way the publisher created the eBook.
    • For example, I tried to read 37Signals "Getting Real" PDF, a fine book to be sure. However, they encoded it as a paperback sized book living in an 8x11 PDF shell. The book is in bordered areas on the pages. This unfortunate choice in formatting made the book totally unreadable in portrait mode, and kind of small in landscape mode.
    • Therefore, since the quality of PDFs out there is also dodgy, I'd have to say that this device and its associated software isn't even clever enough to be a good PDF reader.

Is it worth $300? If you're constantly traveling, always moving and like to bring books with you, possibly. I always want to have 4-5 books with me, and often don't bring them because of space. I ran out of books while in Tanzania recently after only two weeks.

Other than that specific problem - that of space - and the cool factor, are books really that much of a hassle? Maybe large technical books and college textbooks, but I suspect that while University-level books are the right problem to solve, that industry would never give up on their lucrative dead-tree process without a hearty push. If this reader would $150, it'd be a no-brainer, but it's not.

Now, forgetting about this specific product for a second, let's talk about eInk.

This screen must be wicked expensive because I don't understand why we don't see eInk in more devices.

The simplified idea is that you've got a layer of tiny "beads" filled with liquid. In these beads are little color chips of pigment, white and black. The white chips are positively charged, the black ones, negative.

They are inside these capsules that are sandwiched in between two charged transparent plates. The plates are addressable such that each microcapsule can act as a "pixel" or "subpixel" (in two passes) for high resolution display.

It's amazing. The best description of an eInk screen I can give without you actually seeing it is this:

Have you ever been to a furniture store where they have fake plastic computers and TVs on the desks? From far away you think it's real, but by the time you get close, it's clear that the fake image of Word or Excel is printed on the fake computer monitor. It's too crisp, it's got a flat sheen, rather than the gloss of a CRT or the backlight of an LCD. The Sony Reader eInk screen is like that, it's so clear, it looks printed, static, fake.

There's no backlight, it's super-high resolution (you can barely see the pixels, and you REALLY have to want to see them) and it's totally flat. Additionally, the viewing angle is virtually 180 degrees. It's damn-near paper. The only think that's "off" about it is the full second it takes to "turn" the page. Otherwise, eInk is brilliant.

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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How to rotate an AVI or MPEG file taken in Portrait

February 11, '07 Comments [7] Posted in Musings | Tools
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I've got a little Casio Exilim that I use to make little videos to post on this blog. Sometimes, though, I rotate the camera and end up creating a video that's, well, rotated in portrait, not landscape, and I want to rotate the Video to a vertical orientation.

There's an open source tool called MPlayer out of Hungary that you can download. Get the MPlayer 1.0rc1 Windows package, NOT the Windows GUI package. We're not looking for a Video Player here  but rather a utility called MEncoder that comes with the MPlayer package.

This command-line tool is rather obscure, as it seems is the whole culture of video wonks, but I just want to do my work and move on. If you like, however, there's a whole world of Unofficial Packages that sit in front of this obscure tool and do the hard work for you.

Here's the magic I used to rotate my video 90 degrees to the right:

C:\Users\Scott\Desktop\mplayer>
mencoder -vf rotate=1 -o OUTPUT.AVI -oac copy -ovc lavc INPUT.AVI

The -vf is for "Video Filter" and you can chain them, like -vf rotate=1,flip,scale=640:480 if you like. The -oac and -ovc are the audio and video outputs. In this case, I "copy" the audio over, and use the "libavcodecs" for the output. You can do mencoder -ovc help to get a list of choices or read the massive docs.

At this point, I have a really tall 480x640 video, since it used to be at 640x480. Certainly I can leave it there, or I can expand it to a more regular 4:3 ratio. As it's now 640 tall, it'll need to be 853x640 to be 4:3.

C:\Users\Scott\Desktop\mplayer>
mencoder -vop expand=853:640 -oac copy ovc lavc -lavcopts vcodec=mjpeg  OUTPUT.AVI -o BIGOUTPUT.AVI

Notice that the portrait is now centered between black bars like a vertical DVD. The aspect ratio is correctish now and we have a vertically oriented video inside a horizontally oriented "container."

I probably (and you as well) should use "raw" as your output format as you move through these steps, as we're making copies of copies here and the quality is getting worse and worse. You'll end up with gigabyte-size temp files, for a bit, but your output will be much better.

Next I'll just scale the video back to 640x480 for posting on the web.

C:\Users\Scott\Desktop\mplayer>
mencoder -ovc lavc -lavcopts vcodec=mjpeg -vop scale=640:480 -oac copy BIGOUTPUT.AVI -o FINAL.AVI

Again, pick the codec that is right for you in order to tune your output size and quality.

UPDATE: Someone emailed saying that the AVI format made by mencoder doesn't always work on Windows Media. (I use VLC Player, works fine) and they suggested the final encoding pass be done by FFMPEG, rather than mencoder:

C:\Users\Scott\Desktop\mplayer>
c:\utils\ffmpeg_mp2.exe" -i finaltest.avi -sameq -acodec pcm_u8 -vcodec mjpeg FFMPEGOUTPUT.AVI

Worked for me.

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Yahoo Pipes - Simultaneously Brilliant and Dumb

February 10, '07 Comments [1] Posted in Javascript | Musings | Web Services | XML
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Folks continue to blow me away with what can be done with JavaScript and Ajax. Seriously. Yahoo Pipes is amazing. Truly.

I always look at things like this with my non-technical family in mind. Things like DabbleDB are easy enough to use that my Dad or Wife - to be clear, experts in their fields of FireFighting and International Business respectively - could be very productive, very quickly. The same is true with anything that 37Signals does, and other very UX (User Experience) focused Ajax apps. It took a bit to convince my wife that Gmail was the Second Coming of email, but now she's convinced. Anyway.

I saw Yahoo Pipes and immediately had these thoughts (this is the one-sided conversation I had in my head):

Here's Technical Me:

"This is the beginning of that Semantic Web we've heard so much about. All I have to do is teach folks that URLs point to stuff that has some structure - like a database in the sky via hackable URLs - and they can go from there."

Here's Not-Technical Me, pretending to be a Web Enthusiast, like my Dad or Wife. This person knows that Feeds exist at URLs.

"Hm, so it looks like Yahoo Pipes likes to consume Feeds so I'll make a unified Feed for both my blog and my podcast."

"Ok, drag a Fetch here, and paste in the URL http://feeds.feedburner.com/ScottHanselman. Nice. Now another with http://feeds.feedburner.com/Hanselminutes, Cool."

"Now, how do I combine them?"

"Ah, Union, ok, under Operators. I had to look for that one. Not combine, but OK, drag a Union over here, how do I connect...Oh, wow. That's cool, just drag a line."

"Now I need to sort them by the date they were published, so new stuff is first."

"Drag a Sort over. Cool, so now click the drop-down...I figure pubDate must be Publication Date. I wish there was a Data Dictionary that would have made that easier to guess."

"So now I drag a line to Output. Cool, I see the output at the bottom."

"Wait. The order is all wrong. Hm...did I Sort wrong?"

I'll save you the carnage, but at this point the Non-Technical User of Yahoo Pipes is what we call in the Technical world "Screwed" because the Technical User realizes by looking at the source of the pipes resulting RSS here that the Sort widget sorted the Dates in alphabetical order.

This is lame, dear reader, for two reasons, in my opinion.

One, it reminds me how frustrated I was, and still am, when I realized that the <pubDate> element in RSS is based in the 1982 RFC822 Date Format (Sat, 07 Sep 2002 00:00:01 GMT) rather than the ISO 8601 Date Format the most XML formats conform too. Can't do much about that.

Two, while Dave Winer thinks that Yahoo Pipes are something that only a technical user would care about, I personally think that it's time to make the web more accessible. That means I shouldn't have to know JavaScript to make a Mashup. The idea behind Pipes is wonderful. That enthusiastic and creative folks who know that a URL can point to a Feed and that Feeds have Good Stuff™ can make Better Stuff™ that is greater than the sum of its parts.

So, Number Two is basically that it's pretty amazing that, even in Beta, an application that speaks RSS and intends to produce RSS at its core doesn't understand one of the most fundamental data types - a date and a time.

That said, I'd still say Yahoo Pipes is going places. This is a silly stumble out of the dates, I mean, gates, but seriously, go check it out. Their developers know this is icky and say it's on their ToDo List.

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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How to force all cookies to Secure under ASP.NET 1.1

February 10, '07 Comments [0] Posted in ASP.NET
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Just a quick tip here. Thanks to John Batdorf for bringing it up. In order to prevent Session Hijacking, when you've got a secure site, it's a good idea to mark your cookies as "secure," meaning that they can't be accessed over HTTP. This prevents folks from being issued cookies over HTTPS then switching to HTTP in order to access the cookie with sniffers or other evil.

There's a few ways to do this in ASP.NET 1.1, here's an easy one. Under 2.0 you can say requireSSL="true" as well and avoid this code altogether (see below). For 1.1, add a handler for End_Request to your Global.asax.

This chunk of code is multipurpose, so don't blindly copy-paste. Note that it code also sets the Forms Auth cookie and Session cookie to HttpOnly, but that's not required.  If you have JavaScript DOM code that accesses cookies, you won't want those marked HttpOnly.

protected override void Application_EndRequest(Object sender, EventArgs e) 
{
      string authCookie = System.Web.Security.FormsAuthentication.FormsCookieName;
      foreach (string sCookie in Response.Cookies) 
      {
            if (sCookie == authCookie || sCookie == "ASP.NET_SessionId")
            { 
                  if(System.Environment.Version.Major<2)
                  {
                        // Force HttpOnly to be added to the cookie header under 1.x
                        Response.Cookies[sCookie].Path += ";HttpOnly";
                  }
            }
            //Force all cookies to SSL regardless of web.config settings!
            Response.Cookies[sCookie].Secure = true;
      }
}

The check if we're running under 2.0 is to prevent doubling up on the HttpOnly attribute if code compiled under 1.1 is run under 2.0 and you've set  httpOnlyCookies to true.

<httpCookies httpOnlyCookies="true" requireSSL="true" domain="" />

If you're using older versions of IIS, make sure you have this hotfix (274149) to ensure that IIS respects your secure cookies, or better yet, don't serve traffic on port 80.

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Hanselminutes Podcast 50 - OpenID/Microsoft Announcement

February 9, '07 Comments [1] Posted in Identity | Podcast
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My fiftieth podcast is up. This one was about the OpenID/Microsoft Annoucement and how OpenID will affect Identity 2.0 possibly more than CardSpace - certainly in the short term.

ACTION: Please vote for us on Podcast Alley!

Links from the Show

My OpenID (lu2)
ZDNET on the Announcement (lu7)
OpenID Screencast (lu3)
Historical Background (lu8)
Notes on Bill Gates’ Identity Keynote (luc)
OpenID Explained (lu4)
CardSpace / OpenID Collaboration Announcement (lu9)
TailRank on OpenID (lud)
Identity 1.0 (lu5)
Scott Kveton on CardSpace and OpenID (lua)
Integrating OpenID and Infocard - Part 1 (lue)
OpenID Commentary (lu6)

Subscribe: Feed-icon-16x16 Subscribe to my Podcast in iTunes

Do also remember the archives are always up and they have PDF Transcripts, a little known feature that show up a few weeks after each show.

Our sponsors are /n software and the .NET Dev Journal.

As I've said before this show comes to you with the audio expertise and stewardship of Carl Franklin. The name comes from Travis Illig, but the goal of the show is simple. Avoid wasting the listener's time. (and make the commute less boring)

  • The basic MP3 feed is here, and the iPod friendly one is here. There's a number of other ways you can get it (streaming, straight download, etc) that are all up on the site just below the fold. I use iTunes, myself, to listen to most podcasts, but I also use FeedDemon and it's built in support.
  • Note that for now, because of bandwidth constraints, the feeds always have just the current show. If you want to get an old show (and because many Podcasting Clients aren't smart enough to not download the file more than once) you can always find them at http://www.hanselminutes.com.
  • I have, and will, also include the enclosures to this feed you're reading, so if you're already subscribed to ComputerZen and you're not interested in cluttering your life with another feed, you have the choice to get the 'cast as well.
  • If there's a topic you'd like to hear, perhaps one that is better spoken than presented on a blog, or a great tool you can't live without, contact me and I'll get it in the queue!

Enjoy. Who knows what'll happen in the next show?

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.