On my work commutes I used to take a small Ubuntu powered netbook with me (until the battery died on it) which I used mostly for writing. Though I had a number of books in digital format, I just couldn’t enjoy books on the monitor orientation. It didn’t feel natural, so most of my reading continued to be paperback, unless it was an essential read for work reasons. I just couldn’t see myself getting used to digital books, so I’d never actually bought myself a dedicated ebook reader like a Kindle.
More recently I discovered an ebook reader called FBReader. It supported a wide range of formats, was available on multiple platforms, and most importantly, I could change the orientation of the interface so that I could hold the netbook like a (hardback) book. I was able to re-assign keys like the cursor keys so that I could swap the scrolling direction around to match the orientation of the netbook. It worked, it wasn’t too heavy, and, after getting over the self consciousness of holding a netbook oddly on a train, I was able to read my digital collection. Ultimately this solution didn’t last long due to the battery issues, and I was eventually forced stopped using it.
Archos 70b eReader – The Packaging
For my birthday recently my fiancée bought me a new gadget: An actual, dedicated digital ebook reader, the Archos 70b eReader. That in itself was enough for me to smile, but I quickly noticed from the packaging it was more than just an eReader. The first giveaway is the “Portable Multimedia Player”, but even that doesn’t tell the full story. I then noticed it had 4gb of memory and a 7″ colour touchscreen, which suggested I could happily watch ripped and converted TV shows while on the move. but the really cool features came lower down. “Internet – Wifi – Applications” read the text, followed by the Android symbol, and “Android user interface” at the bottom of the box. I had in my hands, an Android powered device capable of internet access (via WIFI). AWESOME!
Or so I thought. When I booted it up, I expected to see the usual Android interface, one I’m familiar with due to having Android on my phone. Instead, you’re presented with a screen that looks a little like the one below.
It turns out that Archos have put their own custom version, based on Android, which provides you with a new home screen aimed at ebooks and multimedia, along with some standard apps for doing what they expect you to do with the device. “No matter” I assumed, “I’ll just download the apps I want from the Google App Market.”
So this is where I began to realise this thing was really annoying. It turns out Archos have their own market place. Not only that, the web interface for this market is rubbish. No easy way to navigate and find obscure apps on the market like you can with Google’s App Market, or indeed any other App Market that exists out there, like AppBrain. The point of it was that Archos could act as a kind of quality control, and making available only apps that worked on their devices. They added incentives to developers to release apps through their marketplace, but really, what they were doing is forcing users to use only approved apps, to stop you installing anything they didn’t want you installing.
This meant, for example, that I couldn’t install FBReader, to use digital books in other formats rather than PDF and ePub. Actually this might be a lie, I think I assumed I couldn’t, I don’t remember actually checking to see if it existed in their AppsLib market. Also, I noticed that in some cases, official apps did not appear in the market – instead a third party version was there in its place, which I didn’t really like the idea of.
So, having discovered that the default operating system was more locked down than an Apple device, I decided enough was enough, and started researching the possibility of flashing the device with a different ROM. This actually proved to be more difficult than it seemed. Archos originates in France, so a lot of the forum posts tended to be by Europeans talking in French or German. So, after a lot of translating of discussions and instructions, I eventually found a set of instructions that claimed would allow me to install Android 2.2 on it. So I started following the guide, did what was required, and finally rebooted.
Unfortunately I made a rookie mistake. I had failed to scroll down through all of the comments on the post, which were mainly full of people complaining their device no longer worked. Lo and behold, I was also the latest person to have been caught out, and left with a “bricked” device. I couldn’t even get the PC to recognise the USB device any more. This was before the day was even out!
I began formulating plans to purchase a new working device and swap it for the broken one before my fiancée found out, but thankfully one of the comments explained how to get it working, which saved the day. As it turns out, this Archos 70b eReader is based on hardware which is exactly the same as the BQ Voltaire, another European/South American brand. The comment and forum post explained first how to salvage the device and gain access to the device via USB, and get the working alternative BQ Voltaire ROM installed, which offered a more standard Android system with Google Apps and no restrictions. After much holding of breath, I finally managed to get my device working again, albeit in Spanish.
Thankfully this just needed switching to English from the appropriate Settings, and I was finally able to go to bed, at 2.30am, thankful that I wouldn’t have to spend any money replacing the device.
The next day I started investigating what I could do with it. The first thing I tried was installing FBReader, which worked, and meant I could now read books in other formats. The downside, is that I’ve not yet been able to configure the keys to get the “left” and “right” scroll buttons working with FBReader.
What I didn’t want to find myself doing is duplicating apps that I already had on my Android phone. I wanted to install Apps that would benefit from the larger screen. But as it has turned out, this appears to only be ebook reading and watching videos. The rest has basically just been the usual apps like twitter and wunderlist. But at least now I have the choice to put what I want on there. Most evenings it just sits in the corner of the room acting as an audio notification system alerting me to new emails. It seems a waste of its capabilities, like its saying “Hello! I’m over here! Look what I can do! Use me!” but really the only time I’m likely to use it is when I’m commuting or travelling somewhere.
A quick roundup or what I like and dislike about the Archos 70b eReader, original and BQ Voltaire based:
- It’s Android – I like Android, it makes sharing stuff between my PC, Phone and eReader easy.
- It’s lightweight.
- With CyanogenMod7 on my Phone, I can easily enable WIFI tethering when I’m out and use my phone’s unlimited internet access to extend internet access to the eReader.
- With FBReader installed (thanks to the ROM flashing), I can read books of any format.
- Comes with mini USB connection, standard 3.5mm headphone jack, and SD card support for memory expansion.
- The screen is resistive rather than capacitive, which means it requires a firm touch to perform scrolling or typing. Because of this it is less responsive and leads to sometimes selecting an icon when you were trying to swipe. This is probably also the reason why prolonged typing on the device is a bit painful at times. It’s defnitely easier with a stylus. Supposedly the resistive screen also makes it more difficult to read due to higher contrast and reading in bright light, but so far I’ve not had any problems with this.
- The lack of hardware buttons – I’d love this device more if it had a volume rocker. The original OS had a volume control in the status bar, but since flashing it to BQ Voltaire, I’ve lost that functionality. Instead I downloaded a volume control widget from the App Market and placed it on my home screen.
- FBReader buttons don’t seem to be re-assignable – I tried following the instructions for assigning FBReader keys on Android, but alas I could not the left/right hardware scroll buttons to work in FBReader. I’ve found forum posts from others complaining of the same issue, but apparently no answer has been found yet. I can get by with scrolling the screen for now, so no big deal.
All in all, for the price, it’s a handy little thing to have in my bag – it lets me do what I initially wanted to do with it, which was to read books, so I can’t complain. It has made me realise that it was only the orientation that really prevented me from enjoying digital books, now that I’m holding something in portrait rather than landscape mode. Now I’m just trying to decide whether I should flash it with CyanogenMod7 which comes with quite a few useful additional tweaks, and I think comes with a more recent version of Adobe Flash which would let me use the Android TVCatchup site. I could also overclock it to get a little more juice out of it. I’d love to be able to use it as a digital notepad for writing novels or screenplays while on the move, but I don’t think it’ll be an enjoyable experience. I can see me requiring a little mini USB Keyboard, or perhaps a word processor that lets me use a stylus to write with, but that’s another thing I’ve never been totally comfortable with!