High-calibre ebook management

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Aug 12, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

One of the delights of free software are the applications that do everything I can ever imagine in their general category. Sometimes I may long for leaner or simpler apps, but I know, for example, that K3B will give me everything I need for burning DVDs, or digiKam for managing and editing photos. Now, as I start getting into ebooks, I'm looking at calibre as potentially another of these ultimate apps, destined to be to ebooks what Amarok is to digital music.

Currently at version 0.8.14, calibre is in rapid development, with new versions frequently coming every few days. For this reason, you are better off downloading directly from the project page, rather than from your distribution's repositories. Fortunately, the project places a priority on documentation, so installing or upgrading shouldn't keep anyone from enjoying the latest version.

The first time calibre opens, it starts with a wizard to set the ebook reader you are using. It opens on an interface that drastically needs fine-tuning. In particular, the top center pane that displays the cover is redundant and takes up too much space by default.

Similarly, the over-sized icons in the toolbar/menu can't be displayed at the same time at most standard resolutions -- which means that you might miss some functionality (including Preferences) until you notice the arrow at the far right of the window.

Other interface problems include the haphazard order of the icons, and far too much metadata in the default view -- I doubt, for example, that anyone is regularly going to want the date that an item was added to the application. No doubt the development team is more worried about functionality at this point, but it really does need to think more about usability before the general release.

Full functionality

Meanwhile, I am willing to overlook the interface (now that I am aware of its limitations, thanks mainly to the comprehensive help and mouseovers) for the sake of the rapidly-expanding functionality.

The most basic function, of course, is to download content. You can let calibre comparison shop for you, or go directly to the store of your choice. Either way, you get a full set of informaertion, including available formats and whether an edition is locked by DRM -- a matter of more than casual concern to many free software users. When you make your selection, it's downloaded automatically, with a notification to show the progress. Alternatively, you can add books to your system by clicking Add books, or by dragging and dropping them.

Adding newspapers and magazines is slightly more complicated, because they are organized by language and the quickest way to find them is to search on the name. You can also schedule calibre to download each paper at a particular time to get the editions you want, although that means keeping both your computer and caliber running at all times. As I write, 349 English papers are available, which is probably far from all-inclusive, but more than enough that most people in North America and England should be able to find a paper from the major city nearest them.

Once material is downloaded, you can use calibre to arrange it in separate libraries, edit its metadata (you will almost certainly want to add to the tags to make them more specific), or share with others.

If you choose, you can use calibre to read your downloads -- a decision that may not be as comfortable as lounging on the futon with an ebook reader, but that has the advantage of allowing you more leeway in the page size. The viewer in caliber has most of the usual controls found in an actual reader, such as the ability to change fonts and font size, bookmark and hyphenate.

Rather wisely, the caliber viewer displays text with a ragged right margin instead of full justification. This choice avoids either a complicated coding job or irregular spacing between words and letters, but may look odd to those not used it, the typographers' preference for ragged right having never reached the general public.

However, perhaps the most elaborate part of calibre is its conversion tools. By default, calibre supports over a dozen standard ebook and text formats, and from the Preferences you can add plugins to support even more. Conversions can be done on single books, or in a batch, and you can either accept caliber's defaults or tweak the settings to alter front matter, layout and even the heuristic process used in the conversion to improve the results. However, while I can't claim to have tried all possible combinations of input and output formats -- or even most of them -- in the few experiments I have tried, I had no need of going beyond the conversion defaults.

The biggest obstacle to conversion, of course, is material locked by DRM. The caliber project wisely steers clear of openly helping users break DRM, even for legitimate purposes such as backup, but there is an unofficial plugin that is supposed to break at least some DRM schemes. The calibre project also maintains a small but growing portal site for DRM-free books that are for sale.

Soon-to-be-essential

Should all this functionality not be enough for you -- or if a tool doesn't work smoothly -- spend some time browsing calibre's Preferences window.

In particular, check for new plugins, which just now are being added at a rate of one or two a week. For such a specialized project, calibre is obviously receiving widespread support -- and no wonder, because it not only is it the lone free software ebook manager available, but its usefulness and universality far surpasses any software currently bundled with ebook readers. In fact, calibre is so useful as a document viewer and a converter that you don't even need a reader to find it worth installing.

Admittedly, calibre is still a few versions from its 1.0 release. However, what is already implemented is impressive, and fills a major gap in free software. I can easily see the day coming when calibre is packaged with readers the way that Audacity is bundled with music hardware. The interface weaknesses aside, calibre is quickly shaping up to be an example of how powerful free software can be at its best.

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