Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother and the Sony PSP as an E-Book Reader
Here’s a roundabout story about I’ve reinvigorated my Sony Playstation Portable, which would not have been possible without Cory Doctorow’s excellent novel, Little Brother.
I’ve been flirting with the Amazon Kindle for months ever since it went on sale. It’s a cool device for a book lover. Imagine being able to carry around tons of books everywhere you go. Being able to download a book after reading a review in the Sunday newspaper. It’s fantastic…except for the limitations. DRM on the books that you download isn’t very cool. I think what really galls me is that Amazon charges for downloading blogs (via RSS) when you can easily get them for free online. Charging to email/convert documents to the Kindle device is another thing I cannot understand. Combine all of these things with the high price of the Kindle and I just cannot make that purchase.
Which made me turn to my Sony Playstation Portable. I’ve let this device languish for the past two years after I stopped commuting to San Francisco on BART. In the back of my mind, I’ve had this idea that the PSP, with it’s brilliant screen display and brightness controls, could be a great e-book reader. After visiting Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother download page, where he provides the novel in a variety of formats (under Creative Commons license), I finally decided to give it a try and see if one of those would work on the PSP.
The result is that none of them worked that well. It’s amazing that after being first sold in 2005 in North America, the Sony PSP still does not have an Adobe PDF Reader. I found one that used to work, but apparently not on firmware 4.05. I suppose I could have gotten that to work if I flashed the PSP with a hacked set of firmware, but I want to keep up with the official builds from Sony, as I have a Playstation 3 and want to use my PSP in conjunction with that.
Next, I tried the HTML version of Little Brother, which I copied over to the PSP/COMMON folder and pointed the PSP’s browser at that location. The HTML version looked superb, the text was very readable, and you can increase/decrease the text size very easily.
However, there were some problems with reading books in HTML format on the PSP. Paging/scrolling to see the next page is a pain, when you must use the arrow keys on the left hand side of the device. If the entire book is in one HTML file, you cannot jump between chapters that easily. When I stopped near Chapter 3, then the next time I started the PSP, I spent a long time scrolling down (using square button + down) to get to that section. I read that some Sony ebook fans will break up novels into several HTML chunks and link the whole thing together in an index file. Too much work for me!
A friend of mine suggested converting the document into a series of JPG files and using the Sony PSP Photo/Image viewer. I was really dubious about this until I found the PSP EBook Creator on download.com. What the heck, I decided to give it a shot. The PSP E-book Creator takes a text file file as the input/source, parses it and creates a series of JPG images. It gives you a number of options for formatting the text: you can choose the font that you want, the font color, the background color, etc. It may take a while to determine the best font to read on the PSP screen, I’ve found that either Arial or Verdana works best for me.
The e-book creator parsed and split the Little Brother source text into 897 jpg files, which I copied over to the PSP’s PHOTO folder, under a subfolder called LB. When I turn on the PSP, I simply navigated to the Photo slot, select Memory Stick, select the LB folder, select page 1 and pressed X. Voila, the first page appears and it’s easily readable. To go to the next page, you just press the right shoulder button on top of the PSP. The PSP can easily be held in one hand with a finger resting on the next button to advance pages. The left shoulder button allows you to go to the previous page.
Several things are great about this. Little Brother took up about 40 mb on my Sony Memory stick, which is pretty small. Having the book split up into X number of jpgs allows you to quickly find the last page you were on: just press the down arrow to scroll down quickly to page 222 or whatever. The Sony PSP has a brightness control on the front that allows you to see the screen during the daytime or at night. This is really convenient if you’re reading in bed and don’t want to disturb your partner with a bright screen–the lowest brightness level works perfectly in total darkness. You have no idea how long I’ve searched for a solution to this problem!
What are the disadvantages of this method? There are two big ones. You can’t customize the text size dynamically, and the glassy Sony PSP screen is not readable outdoors in the sunlight, due to the glare bouncing off the screen. I usually read indoors, so this is not a problem for me.
Unlike the Kindle, where finding/downloading books is a breeze, finding content to download and convert is a challenge, as not every author is as generous as Cory Doctorow. But if you’re used to downloading other media, you can find content to use with the PSP E-Book Creator, although usually the content will need to be converted to text. You can look for books that are in RTF or HTML format and convert to text using a number of programs (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Microsoft Word, etc). Books in PDF file format can also be converted to text. You can also find books in the Microsoft Reader format (.LIT files), and use the free ABC Amber LIT Converter program to convert them.
I’ve got about a dozen books, many of them recent books that I purchased in hardback (plus all of Doctorow’s other novels), on my Sony PSP. I bought a SanDisk 4 GB memory stick for about on Amazon to hold this content, along with 12 episodes of LOST and a number of comic books that I want to read on my next vacation. With all this content available, playing games on the PSP seems like a bonus feature.
Little Brother is a very engaging book, I devoured it in a couple of days after getting on my PSP. Little Brother is a young adult novel (although just as good for adults) about a high school kid named Marcus Yallow (aka w1n5t0n) in San Francisco. San Francisco is attacked by terrorists and the Department of Homeland Security swoops in and starts heavily monitoring all citizens. Marcus fights back against the DHS by hacking his Xbox with an operating system called "Paranoid Linux" and inspiring a group of young techno-geeks to help him out. I highly recommend it.
Link: PSP E-Book Creator
Link: ABC Amber Lit Converter
Link: Little Brother site