One book, nine e-reader apps – Part 9
Calibre is a Windows desktop application, not an iPad app, and its prime use is not as an e-reader, but as an e-book library manager and converter. It’s a great and very useful application, written by Kovid Goyal, and regularly updated by him. I urge you to consider donating something to him if you use this application.
One of Calibre’s great strengths is its ability to open a very wide variety of (non-DRM-protected) e-book formats, ranging from simple text, through formats like Microsoft Reader, Mobi, Palm, Sony, Kindle, and of course ePub, which is becoming the e-book standard. And it can convert back and forth between those formats, though that is not relevant to this post about its e-reader functions.
Although not its prime use, Calibre does include a fairly comprehensive e-book viewer, and that is all that I will focus on in this post.
In a section of this post titled ‘Reading Comfort’ it’s probably worth me declaring at the outset that I find reading anything lengthy on a desktop computer an extremely uncomfortable experience. However, you could imagine using Calibre on a small laptop or netbook computer, though I still don’t think this would be as comfortable as using an iPad. But then, I admit that I am biased.
The e-reader view of Calibre is fairly basic, but functional:
The reading window is readily re-sizable on the desktop, either horizontally or vertically, but I have adjusted this view to be roughly similar to the view you get in e-readers on the iPad. Certainly the reading view is far too wide if this window is maximized to fill a typical computer screen.
You can see immediately that there are no margins. I find this quite off-putting while I am reading. Without margins, I feel kind of claustrophic, crammed in. There doesn’t seem to be a way in the settings to provide or adjust margins.
There are confusingly several ways to move on to new material while you are reading. You can use the scroll bar at the right to scroll through the book as though it were one long document. But this is awkward at best, requiring careful control of the mouse. You can alternatively use a scroll wheel on your mouse to scroll through the text, but again this requires careful control so you don’t skip too far too quickly. The up and down arrow keys also work to scroll through the text a line at a time.
The Page Up and Page Down keys, however, do move a ‘page’ at a time, with a swift page-sliding animation (though with the default settings this is far too slow for my taste, and I reduced the animation time to the minimum in the settings). You can also do a ‘proper’ page change by using the purple arrow keys on the left-hand control bar. I really don’t understand why these buttons aren’t somewhere more sensible, like at the top left, or at left and right top or bottom of the window. The greyed-out arrows at the top left do something else, but I’m not quite sure what (their tool-tips say ‘Back’ and ‘Forward’).
It does seem to me that this is a very weak area of Calibre when you think about reader comfort, and given where users place their hands while reading. I would have thought that left and right arrow keys would be the most sensible page-turn controls on the keyboard, or else a mouse-click on the right or left margin of the page would work well, simulating the touch-controls on tablet devices. Admittedly you can change keyboard shortcuts in the Settings, but I would have expected these to be set by default along the lines I have suggested.
Controls and Settings
All of Calibre’s e-book viewer controls are visible along the top and left of the window during normal reading mode.
At the top, we have a location indicator (the ‘location’ figure isn’t tied to actual page numbers). Changing this figure and hitting the ‘Enter’ key takes you to that location. The ‘Go to’ field is related to what Calibre calls ‘Reference Mode’, which turns on a display of section and paragraph numbers as you mouse over text. Even in this mode, I couldn’t get the ‘Go to’ field to work. Then we have the Search field, and the two green arrows move through found instances of your search text. More on search later.
As mentioned above, I can’t quite figure out the top two arrows, but perhaps I’m just missing something. Beneath those we have an ‘Open File’ control. Confusingly, this doesn’t let you pick from Calibre’s library, but is a standard Windows file open dialog.
Then we have a ‘Copy to Clipboard’ function, then ‘Increase Font Size’ and ‘Decrease Font Size’.
Next is a button to take you to the Table of Contents, of which more later.
Next is the ‘Full Screen Mode’, which is fairly useless, as the line lengths are way too long for reading in that mode unless you set a maximum text width in the settings.
Now we have (finally!) the ‘Previous Page’ and ‘Next Page’ controls.
Then a control to place a bookmark at the current location. You are able to name the bookmark, which is useful. This is then placed on a drop down list beneath the ‘Bookmarks’ control. I would have preferred to see the Bookmarks list as part of the Table of Contents view.
The colorful paint-pot control next is actually a toggle for Calibre’s Reference Mode.
Finally, we have ‘Preferences’, ‘Information’ and ‘Print’.
Navigation is very basic. You either just keep scrolling through the text, or you can try adjusting numbers in the top-left location control. This is very hit or miss, because there is no relation to anything like actual book pages.
Searching is fairly simple: type in your search term in the search field at the top of the window and hit the ‘Enter’ key. Calibre scrolls to the first found instance and highlights the text. You can move through found instances by using the green down and up arrows.
Table of Contents
Again, the Table of Contents view is very basic. The control just slides out a separate panel with the chapter headings on it. Clicking on these takes you to the appropriate location. The Table of Contents panel steals room from the reading panel, squeezing it up.
Not surprisingly, in many ways the Library View is where Calibre excels, since one of its prime functions is to act as an e-book Library manager. There’s a nice Cover Flow view (though it doesn’t animate anywhere as neatly as iTunes’ equivalent), and a table view giving you plenty of information about particular books.
You can search through your library by title, author, or other fields. Part of Calibre’s other functions allow you to change or add metadata to books, including your own tags. It really excels at these Library features.
Double-clicking on a word in the text highlights it, and then a right-click on your mouse brings up a small context menu including a dictionary lookup. This comes from the web site dict.org, and uses 1913 Webster’s Dictionary, which presumably is used because it is out of copyright (only reasonable given that Calibre is free software).
Other choices in the context menu are ‘Copy’ and ‘Inspect’. The latter would be only of interest to developers creating formatted e-books, as it brings up a ‘Web Inspector’ view showing CSS styles and so on.
While I personally can’t imagine feeling comfortable using Calibre for reading a long e-book such as a novel, perhaps that’s because I have been spoiled by my iPad. But I do find that it is extremely useful for quick looks at the contents of e-books in my library.
If you don’t own a dedicated e-reader device like an iPad or a Kindle, and are using Calibre on some kind of semi-mobile device such as a small laptop or a netbook, you might well find it a very good way to read e-books. And Calibre’s other great features for managing my e-book library, and converting e-books into different formats, mean that it is a must-have application for me.