Firmware news

Yesterday, on my way home, I saw a long awaited bit of news; CyanogenMod 7.1 has been released. This prompted a round of firmware updating for both the HTC and PocketBook (I know, that’s not an Android device – but I was looking up firmware news), and here are my notes about the experience at this very early stage.

Android update – CyanogenMod 7.1

Most of this went well. I found it very hard to look up what’s new in the newer ClockworkMod (5.0.2.0), and as it’s recovery level stuff, I was hesitant to install it. In the end, I did install it, and it works fine. The new ROM manager (4.5.0.1) doesn’t seem to manage passing commands to the recovery mode, so I now do backups and upgrades from the recovery menu itself. In fact, I had to, as the initial upgrade attempt led to a complete hang; recovery mode installing of 7.1 fixed that, at least.

As for the new update, the changelog is rather exhaustive but some details only show up in testing:

Bluetooth tethering

It’s supposed to be there – sdptool browse on a laptop shows PAN service. The downside here is that what I used to have was Bluetooth DUN, and that’s what my ebook reader supports. Obviously the issue here is more with pocketbook’s lockdowns (or I’d just add PAN into the pocketbook), but it’s just not doing the job for me.

Touch to focus

Works just fine, actually; I just had to switch focus mode to touch. Unfortunately, that disables the half-press autofocus. I would have preferred to have touch do touch to focus and half-press do center or maybe last point focus; perhaps also long touch to snap a picture once focusing finishes. Trying this feature out inadvertently led me to discover that doubletap zooms the preview, which is helpful.

Calendar

I initially forgot to reinstall the Google apps. I’m not sure if it’s because of this, or because of installing them from the original zip, but it ended up wiping my calendar. If I had it backed up to Google this would not be an issue, but apparently this is Google’s way of punishing offline users, because even restoring a full backup doesn’t get it back. As the calendar is as critical to me as the phone book, I’m very disappointed.

PocketBook update – D903.2.1.2 20110916_194508

This update was a little smoother. Dump the update file in the internal flash, choose update, and there it goes. Although this is not the first 2.1 firmware, it’s still a beta and introduces major new features; think of it as another prerelease. But it’s a bit of a milestone, and I’ll show why.

Multitasking

You read that right. It runs Linux, so of course it has been multitasking all this time, but now you can officially jump between programs. We’ve done this with some hackery before, such as review’s hack to scribble on screenshots, but not to this level. The quick menu (formerly last open books) now shows active programs, holding Back shows not only which are open but what program (so we can tell pdfviewer and adobeviewer apart). This really makes the 256MB RAM of the 903 work for us, as we can have multiple books open (I personally keep jumping between datasheets, protocol specifications and such).

One detail here is that long Back no longer defaults to force quit (but it is configurable). The Task list (also referred to as Express-menu and Task manager) has a new context menu to kill tasks, although they’ve forgotten to add translations for the choices; they show as @task_goto and @task_kill. I’ve also had issues with slowdowns and even the system becoming unresponsive, but it doesn’t happen easily; one might want to do simple housekeeping like closing books with Back instead of jumping out with Home.

New library browser

One of my major reasons to choose the PocketBook was that you could browse the filesystem, and therefore arrange your books any way you like with directories. It didn’t have very good metadata handling. The new library browser is sharp, slick, and fast! It can filter on books we’re reading or favorites; group by folder, author, series, genre or format; sort by file name, title, last open, creation, series or author, in either order; and search instantly. The popup menu to select viewer, handle files and such is now shown with a long press of the center button, because the menu button toggles the library view options menu.

I find two weaknesses with the new browser: Jumping to specific pages in a long list is gone, but this is mitigated by the list updating near instantly with the paging buttons. Also, returning to the list after launching something doesn’t necessarily get you to the same item you were on before.

Note taking and text to speech

The new note taking we saw in the previous release, which has optimized scribbling on top of pages, is now available in pdfviewer and fbreader, not only adobeviewer. This means it works for most supported formats (djviewer is still lagging). This actually brings us a note taking feature that can compete with any other brand, very good going!

The text to speech engine, likewise, is now in pdfviewer, adobeviewer and fbreader.

On-screen keyboard finally usable

Oh, we could enter things. But it was incredibly sluggish, because every time you entered a letter it would slowly flash that key¬†before¬†moving on to what you typed next. Now those animations are allowed to overlap, which means we can type about as fast as it goes, rather than type then wait an eternity for it to finish drawing. It’s not flawless however, as moving around with the buttons sometimes leaves a key highlit; but this is a minor cosmetic flaw.

New web browser

Yes, again. This time around it looks to be Arora. It properly supports stylus calibration, paging with the page buttons, and saving settings and bookmarks. There’s even a file selector to open local files, should you wish to get html files rendered accurately instead of the reading oriented view of fbreader.

It’s not all good, however; it’s impossible to navigate without the stylus (menu causes it to exit), it also plays animated GIFs (seriously, just give us the last frame and stop wasting energy), and it does not get the mobile or printer friendly layouts of pages. It also does not allow editing URLs, only entering new ones. Offline usage is seriously crippled by it attempting to go online repeatedly even when it does not need to, but at least it doesn’t simply close like the old one did.

It seems like the old browsers are gone (I’ll have to investigate this closer), including breaking PocketNews.

FBreader update

FBreader has received some proper attention this time around; along with text to speech and note taking, it got what looks like an upgrade to a more recent upstream release. This means it supports images and formatting (at least to some degree), making it much more reasonable for viewing epub and html material.

Conclusion

This is not the update that brings the PocketBook to a level I recommend. It is the update that brings its featyre set out of a level I’m embarrassed to own. I only wish the same could be said about the company and restrictions (why do these companies demand we respect their sabotage while they do not respect the developers’ licensing?). If you have a 603 or 903, I’d say the update is well worth it, but for other models I haven’t an inkling. I’d say the next things to work on are: Zoom and pan controls, button controls for a web browser, perhaps text to speech and new notes in djviewer, and bluetooth PAN. But we already know PocketBook do not take advice. It’s not quite risk free, as I’ve had to hit reset once (and we don’t have a tool for that in the stylus like Palm did), but it’s a considerable step up.

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