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Was surprised to hear many people were asking for e-book readers as presents. Personally, I find a small laptop (or netbook) much more flexible and useful than an e-book reader. If you're looking for gift ideas, here are some tips on turning a laptop into a portable e-book reader or a portable multimedia player. I've also added a few tips for barcode decoding with a laptop.
First, let me mention that there are lots of old laptops out there that people are trying to get rid of because the specifications aren't as good as the newer models. You could pick up an old laptop inexpensively or possibly free if you look around. You can check my article on Open Source operating systems on a laptop if you want some suggestions as to which operating systems will make the most of older systems with low resources. You might also want to consider what you plan on using the laptop for before purchasing. If you want it mainly for e-book reading, you'll wants something small and lightweight. If you're using it for multimedia, such as viewing videos, you'll want a decent sized screen. You may also want portable external speakers to improve the sound quality.
Whether you're running Windows, FreeBSD, Linux or Mac, you may want to try out FBReader for your e-book viewing needs. It handles several e-book formats. It also lets you rotate pages on the screen if your computer's graphics card doesn't easily support that. If materials are in PDF, you can try out several good PDF readers and pick your favorite. Evince works on a variety of platforms and will even embed in a browser. On Windows, check out mupdf and Sumatra for more lightweight option. Both programs can also rotate pages on screen. You can also download a plug-in for Firefox so that mupdf will embed PDFs in a browser. The plug-in offers minimal functionality for viewing an embedded PDF, but if you need to do more, you can choose File and Save from the Firefox menu. That will save the PDF locally so you can access it with other tools. If you don't mind running a freeware program instead of an Open Source option, I recommend Foxit. It has an option for embedding PDFs in Internet Explorer or Firefox. On Linux, if you can get framebuffer support for the SDL library, check into Green PDF. With framebuffer support, it can run outside of X Windows in console mode. Other viewers I like for FreeBSD and Linux are gv and epdfview. Also, check out xpdf which works on most systems and of course, ghostscript. With some batch commands, you can use ghostscript to view PDF and Postscript files on most systems. You can also use it to convert between the two formats.
One benefit of running a reader program on your laptop is that most applications let you change fonts and font sizes to pick more readable ones. There are even fonts available on some systems that make it easier for people with dyslexia to make out the characters.
Some programs and operating systems have accessibility features such as text to speech so you can have your e-book read out loud. Adobe Reader includes this functionality. Windows also includes accessibility tools. For free software alternatives, it may be worth investigating espeak and festival lite.
If a document isn't in a format that your programs can easily read, there are many conversion tools available to help. To convert from text to Postscript, try enscript or a2ps. To convert from HTML to PDF, try wkhtmltopdf or html2ps. To convert from a Word document, try antiword. To convert from PDF to JPEG, try imagemagick or graphicsmagick. The xpdf tools provide pdftotext for converting PDF files to text format. xpdf also has the tool pdftops to convert PDF to Postscript files. There are several other Open Source conversion programs that will do things like convert WordPerfect to text. Just run a search for the particular conversion you need.
If you want to view graphics files instead of text documents, you can try a comic book reader such as comical. It works on several platforms. It can display graphics files compressed and archived in zip or rar formats. It can rotate each page if you need it to. There are some comic book archive files available freely over the Internet. You can also make your own using the technique I describe on my portable players page.
If you want to work with multimedia as well as books on your machine, here are some suggestions to get you started. For audio, such as radio plays, audio books or audio podcasts, try a player like Audacity. If you want something a little lighter weight for an old laptop running FreeBSD or Linux, check out mhwaveedit, sweep and snd. For DOS and Windows, look at mpxplay. Gramofile works on multiple platforms. It also offers some pop filtering if you want to convert your records or other recordings to digital format. There's also sox, which runs on several platforms and can convert formats easily.
If you're looking for Karaoke options on your PC, check out my Recipes for Music on your PC page. For other music entertainment, you might want to look into Frets on Fire.
For audio video players, two great cross-platform programs are mplayer and vlc. On FreeBSD and Linux, I also like flxine based on the xine library. On Windows, I also like media player classic and some of its forks. For some Windows systems, vlc has a Direct3d to Desktop option that will let you display the video directly on your Desktop. There's also the cross-platform all-in-one multimedia viewer xbmc. It takes up a lot of disk space, but it's supposed to be lighter on memory resources than other all-in-one options.
RSS feeds can offer great audio or video content. You can use a stand-alone RSS reader. However, many browsers have RSS reader options built in or available as add ons. Later versions of Internet Explorer support RSS. Firefox has add on solutions such as Sage. Search for RSS options on the web or use an RSS search engine. Scientific American had some interesting podcasts on the Human Spark. Jack Horkheimer: Star Gazer has some great videos for astronomy buffs. Nutrition fans may want to check out the Nutrition Diva podcasts. Want to share your own favorite podcast suggestions or find some new ones? Feel free to join any of my related mailing lists to discuss the topic further.
If you're tried of typing or clicking the same commands all the type, you should try Autohotkey on Windows. One of the reasons I mention it as a good tool for an e-book system is that there's an ahk file someone wrote to display text. It works as a simple e-book reader. There are also several other scripts available for Autohotkey that can do everything from autocorrection when you're typing to displaying a sample piano that plays notes. There's even a portable window manager converted from C code on Linux to an Autohotkey script. With the bug.n script, you can have several virtual desktops on your machine and simulate the Linux dwm window manager.
A couple of useful and portable freeware alternatives are xmplay and and xnview. Xnview is very helpful as a graphics viewer and works on several platforms. Xmplay plays a large variety of sound formats. It can even support midi using soundfonts similar to Timidity++.
It's great to have resources to view or listen to files, but it's useless without some decent multimedia material to peruse. So, where do you look for multimedia with user friendly licensing? A good first stop is the Creative Commons. They also have tips on how to search for Creative Commons licensed material with various search engines. The Internet Archive at archive.org is another good option. For e-books, be sure to check out Project Gutenberg, Eldritch Press, Google Books (with advanced search parameters to find books before 1923). For new books (not necessarily in the public domain), check out the Baen Free Library. There are some good science fiction selections there too. For audio books, check out LibriVox. There are also several sites that offer old radio plays. You can find an interesting selection of amateur press publications if you search for fan fiction too. It can range from stories and artwork to podcasts and videos.
QR barcodes seem to be the in thing in social media marketing circles. QR barcodes can hold large strings of text, so you can use a QR code to record a URL, e-mail address or other information. Mobile devices with scanners or cameras can read in these barcodes and the information can be converted to action by an application. So for instance, if a company wants to share their web site with customers, all someone has to do is scan the QR code for the web site and a specialized application can decode it, open the mobile device's browser and take you right there. There's no memorizing of URLs and no typing on small devices that may not have an easy way to input text.
The main thing I don't like about QR codes is how they're being used. They've become a popularity contest and another boundary between those who have and the have nots. You either have a device that can handle decoding the barcode or the advertiser or person creating the barcode isn't interested in communicating with you. Personally, I feel that if advertisers want to jump on this bandwagon, they should make alternatives available right next to the barcodes. For instance, if there's a brochure with a QR barcode, it could say right next to the code, that the barcode takes you to a URL and give that URL for anyone to use. Good web development standards recommend use of alt tags be added to images to help those who are visually handicapped. There should be a similar procedure for QR barcodes. If you're going to use one, use a caption to tell a reader what that barcode means. Don't make people have to guess or own the appropriate device to decipher it.
Just as a laptop or netbook can make a great general purpose replacement for a single purpose device like an e-book reader, it can also make a good replacement for a mobile device used as a barcode reader. Most laptops and netbooks have built in cameras. If not, there are inexpensive USB connectible cameras and scanners available. Once a barcode is in graphics format on your laptop's drive, there are Open Source programs available to decode for you exactly what that barcode means. You don't need a mobile phone with a special app; you can do it right on your computer. Check out Open Source programs like zbar which is a cross-platform bar code reader program. If you want to create your own barcodes, there are Open Source barcode generator programs like zint. Both of these programs are available from Sourceforge.
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