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April 4, 2009

Tech, G.P.:You can read a book wherever you go


When I was a kid, I used to read a lot.

A new Hardy Boys mystery book would have been the focus of my attention until it was finished. If you know what I'm talking about, then I know how old you are. If you've never heard of the Hardy Boys, well, suffice it to say that it's a book series that was popular reading for young boys back in the '50s.

I still do like to read for enjoyment, occasionally, but most of my reading now is of the technical, how-to variety, or news.

Just keep this in mind. We'll come back to it later.

A few weeks ago I visited my doctor for my annual checkup.

My doc is a real nice guy. Intelligent, personable, well-informed and truly interested in helping his patients. You get a feeling about this stuff over the years. He's also well-read. I know this because he says he reads my columns.

Naturally, once in a while we talk about tech-related things, and he made the remark that he recently bought one of the new Kindle book readers that Amazon sells. If you don't know what a Kindle is, it's a little device that lets you read electronic books or e-books, for short. An e-book is really just a file. No physical paper is involved.

Now, my wife is an avid reader, buying a lot of dead-tree books, and I've often thought she might like one of these devices, so I immediately picked up on it when my doctor mentioned he had one.

We discussed it quite a bit, or as much as quite a bit can dare to be when you're in a medical facility and other people may be waiting.

In short, he loves it. I think he said he read about five books on it in a week.

So now my curiosity was getting the better of me, and I decided to look at the issue more in-depth. The first thing to do, of course, was Google "book reader."

Up came a number of references to the Kindle, of course, and other similar devices. But there were also some other things that appeared, which piqued my interest. Among them were some software programs that would run on a smart phone and do much the same function.

Now, it just so happens that a few months ago I gave up my old flip-phone for a new touchscreen cell phone. Verizon's "New Every Two" plan made it almost a no-brainer to me. I think it cost me like $50 to get it. That, in itself, could be the subject of another story, but it'll have to wait.

This phone, generically a smart phone, is as much computer as it is telephone. It actually runs a version of the Windows operating system, Windows Mobile, and you can get loads of programs to run on it, to do things other than just to use it as a phone and talk to someone.

Among the Google search results were several book-reading programs that would work on my phone. And the price was right: Free.

I figured I had nothing to lose, so I downloaded a couple to try them out.

I have to admit, I had my doubts. The viewable screen on the phone is only slightly over two inches tall, and I've been wearing glasses since the fifth-grade, and bifocals for more than 20 years now. This was going to be a longshot, I figured.

I downloaded two programs and tried both of them out. I decided I liked the one named Mobipocket better, so I went with that one. When you download the file, you install it on your computer, then you connect your phone to the computer and it installs itself on your phone, too. Then you can read your selection on either your computer screen or your phone.

If you read for a while on your computer screen, you can set a bookmark. Then you can synchronize the computer and the phone, and if you resume reading on the phone, the bookmark will be there on the phone, too, and vice versa. Handy.

Of course, after you get the program installed, the next thing to do is to find things to read.

There are plenty of places on the Web to buy and download e-book files, including from the Mobipocket website. But I, being a bit challenged regarding disposable income, chose to go the free route again. There is a wonderful website, Project Gutenberg at www.gutenberg.org, which has more than 28,000 public-domain book files you can download for free.

Of course you're not going to find the latest releases there, but if it's a classic you're looking for, it probably has it.

Included are works of authors from Aesop to Zola, including my favorite, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote all the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Anyway, you can get a lot of stuff to read.

My biggest concern, though, was if I was going to be able to read it at all, being that the screen on the phone is so small.

I was pleasantly surprised. It really wasn't bad. I'm sure it's not as nice as reading a Kindle, or one of the other special-purpose devices, but I was fairly impressed. You can actually change the size of the font on the phone (or on the computer screen) to your liking, and after playing with that a little bit, I found it easy enough to read on either.

Now, when I get caught somewhere with a few minutes to spare, I can just take out my phone (I always have it with me) and do a little reading. It's really rather cool. Now my Sherlock Holmes mysteries are everywhere. It's almost like being a kid again.

Bruce Endries is former systems manager at The Daily Star. He can be reached by e-mail at techgp@dailystarmail.com.