Hand powered electrical generators

When I was younger, the dynamo flashlight was a fairly common product. Usually it would consist of an electromagnetic generator, a lightbulb, a flywheel for energy storage and a lever with some sort of clutching mechanism. One would squeeze the lever into the body of the device to add power, then allow it to extend again. This could easily be operated with one hand, even wearing mittens, as one simply closes and opens the gripping hand.

Nowadays, I’d be vaguely annoyed at any generator that didn’t provide an outlet. I’ve been on the lookout for a handheld generator, and while lots are available, most are simply hand cranked. Those require much finer manipulations, and tend to end up with obvious inefficiency as our arms just aren’t unlimited rotary joints. Besides that, frequently the device itself it downright fragile, which doesn’t mesh well with the concept of applying force to get it to work at all. I’d like something different. Continue reading

E-book reader

My gadget mania has struck again. As is my habit, I again selected basically the most expensive device on the market of some particular type. It started, pretty much, with finding a version 2 Kindle in a friend’s sofa. Neat device, I thought, and fiddled about with it for a while. It was tempting, but there are a few things I don’t like about the Kindle.

  1. Amazon control the device, not I. Sure, they have less control if I never go online with it, but half the point of a Kindle is their free data service.
  2. The resolution is too low. I read many technical documents, where 600×800 is just slightly too small to be practical.
  3. The contrast was just slightly disappointing. Not a showstopper, but annoying.

Still, I just couldn’t get the idea out of my mind – so I started looking about for alternatives. MobileRead hosts a wiki with a rather helpful overview. Turns out, there were a whole slew of promising demonstrations. Kindle DX exists, but has the same control issues and notably higher cost. Irex has closed. Nemoptic apparently went bankrupt. Brother SV-70 is apparently only for the Japanese market and only their own proprietary format. The Skiff reader had a clear advantage in resolution, but the whole company was swallowed by News Corporation (as yet not to be seen again) before release.

Somewhere along the line, the old idea that a stylus for handwriting would be nice resurfaced. The trigger this time was reading about the Onyx Boox, but for a measure of how far back the concept has interested me, I have an RS-232 connected inductive digitizer from Genius. It’s old, and not very flashy, but does work – although the last time I used it I had to patch the driver to work with recent Xorg. I’ve tried a few touchscreen devices since, such as the TuxScreen, Palm III, and Agenda VR3. There’s an important side effect of the most popular technologies (capacitive and resistive) – glare and reduced contrast, the very things the e-ink needs to avoid. The Boox 60 didn’t have a particular problem with this, because the inductive digitizers can be placed behind the screen. The downside is that a specific stylus is required, so these aren’t touch screens (apparently that’s what you have to call it nowadays to sell), but it makes up for it with higher precision and, again, no extra layer in front of the screen.

There’s one concern I haven’t yet mentioned. I’m a programmer, and like tinkering with all my gadgets to some degree. I absolutely loathe it when the manufacturer takes effort to destroy this option (hello, Sony), but if they elect to be helpful, that matters to me. One brand stuck out in this regard, a Ukrainian developer called Pocketbook. They have released SDKs and sources, and significantly, showed active efforts to maintain and enhance the firmware for existing models. The developer site, hosted at sourceforge, was filled with Russian discussion, but they are currently expanding – with offices all over the place, and a multilingual bookstore. They’re about to launch a few new models, and the top of the line – Pocketbook Pro 903 – is what I’ve ordered. The deal closer, really, was seeing no less than three active and helpful representatives on the mobileread forums.

So how well did this model stack up to my feature wishes?

  • Active updates from Pocketbook, flexibly overridable firmware, and an active developer community – they do have a DRM thingy, but they point out themselves that’s only because publishers demanded it. Control: Good enough.
  • Resolution: Turns out the nicer options (1600×1200) aren’t anywhere to be found. The 903 has the top E-ink model, at 825×1200 – same size as Kindle DX.
  • Contrast is, rumours have it, slightly worse than the new Kindles (“Pearl” is apparently the cream of the crop) but better than earlier generations, as the one I tried. It will suffice.
  • Inductive digitizer makes navigation easier and scribbles possible, without sacrificing legibility.
  • Connectivity is just overkill – Bluetooth, 3G+GPRS, WLAN. This thing can connect through my cellphone if its own SIM won’t do.
  • Memory is not shabby – 256MiB RAM, 2GB built-in flash, and a micro-SD slot for expansion, upgrades or experiments.

There are other details, such as a frankly impressive PDF reflow feature, but thus far it’s enough to excite me. Certainly there’s silliness about too, such as the “Pro” moniker present on all the new Pocketbook E-ink readers. By the way, the 603 model has the exact same features with a smaller screen, and the 902/602 differ by dropping 3G and the digitizer. All of them should run the same software, including all the add-ons.

SmartConnect and the wonders of DRM

When I updated to firmware 210, I found I needed to reinstall a lot of software. BirdStep SmartConnect was one of them.
SC provides a function that is standard with many other phones, that of automatically selecting a useful Internet connection from those currently available. This is missing in S60 3fp1 which the E71 (but not the E71x, with the same hardware) uses. This was quite the drawback for an ambitious E series device, so Nokia found a workaround. They licensed BirdStep SmartConnect.
It still required the user to find the program, though. You do so using the Download! service, where it is one of a myriad items marked as costing 0. Or was – now it’s marked “try for free”. The first time I installed it, it worked fine. The downside of installing this way is that I got no SIS file, so when I needed to reinstall after a firmware upgrade, I had to find it all over again.
So I did. It was marked “try”, and after installation, considered itself unlicensed and refused to work.
I looked the issue up on the ‘net and found two plausible culprits – an online license check during installation and stale data files from the previous install. It turns out that enabling online license checks merely causes the download to fail. The other fix, which was listed on BirdStep’s FAQ, actually worked.
After three reboots, two manual erasures, and a bunch of reinstall attempts, I had managed to wipe the botched licensing data, and the newly installed program automatically reported a licensed E series device, for a feature that should have been included from the start (and could – remember, this was with a firmware update). How astoundingly convenient and helpful for the customer, wouldn’t you agree?

Update: The Download! service is no longer available. Nokia now expect you to use Ovi Shop, which requires a huge download, apparently does invasive stuff to your system as it demands you reboot the phone, and yet leaves the now useless Download! app in place. It also forces updates, which mean downloading and rebooting all over again. I haven’t searched through that to find SC again, but it certainly complicated the process further.

Firmware 210.21.006 for Nokia E71

I found out that Nokia had put out another firmware update, 210.21.006. As per usual, installing it required me to use NSS to switch product codes.
The update is a stability patch. It’s said it finally does something about the camera’s purple haze, although it seems to me this is merely a fix to the white balancing. It’s still very noisy, but each improvement is appreciated.
The simple bugs are left alone: Contacts still uses a custom pure white background instead of the theme and Messages still shows names backwards. What I’m hoping they did fix is internal bugs, that have previously caused graphics corruption, program crashes and even phone reboots. Since I had no known way to trigger those bugs, I can’t confirm it.
The rumour mill also says hacking the phone to remove the signature requirements for installing programs has become harder. Personally I’ve used the tedious symbian open signed online process, so it makes no difference as yet.
This time around I chose to restore my settings from the PC Suite backup. This led to some confusion as apps largely, but not completely, disappeared from the menus. Reinstalling them fixed most of it, though the Maps 3 beta required an extra procedure – manually erasing the maps, running Maps 2, then reinstalling Maps 3 with the updater. Had they provided a SIS for Maps 3 it would have been a simple reinstall.
In conclusion, I would recommend this update; it should contain bug fixes that matter, even if they’re not the visible ones.