Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Calibre

I heard about the Calibre ebook management software before and decided this would be a good time to examine it. My main reason for reviewing this now is that I want a simple, easy to use piece of software to manage ebooks (mostly free ones I downloaded from Project Gutenberg). But now it's not just about managing my collection on Windows, Linux, and Mac, but also on my brother's Samsung NF210 netbook.

I feel compelled to start this review with a caveat -- I primarily use Linux. Even though Calibre is an open source, cross-platform program, things on Linux are inevitably going to work and look differently than on Windows. The Windows version of this program looks a lot different (and nicer) on Cindy's netbook. My experiences with this program are far different than hers because it appears the Linux version of Calibre is not very well maintained (at least not in Fedora or Ubuntu repos).


Features and Metadata

If nothing else, I figured this would be a good program to manage metadata about my book collection. Simply put, this program has a lot of features. What I like the most is that it supports every ebook format that I know of -- I can add PDF files, epub files, mobi files, and even CBZ (comic book) files all in the same database, and have all my metadata stored in one place.

For those new to this concept, "metadata" is all the information about the media. In the case of books, this means author, subject, title, ISBN, cover art, publisher, etc. Once you've indexed all that information, you can do fancy things like searching for author name - and not only get books that person wrote, but books they collaborated on as well. You can search for all titles in your collection from the same publisher, or all books in a series (very helpful when you have a series by multiple authors).

Once all of your books have been added to your Calibre collection, the default library view they present to you is a spreadsheet list. This interface is adequate, but I think some sort of panel view would be a better, more intuitive choice (I'm thinking about the faux bookshelf look in the iBook app).

Many of the fields are what you would expect: Title, Author, Publisher, and Series (so you can easily find all those Harry Potter books). Other fields on this spreadsheet view are just strange. The size of the ebook on disk is useless because many users don't have a clue what this means, and even if they do, Word Count would be a better metric to reflect the novel's length (since page count doesn't apply to most ebooks). Date - is this the publication date or the date I added it to the database? Because it actually appears to be the date of the file on disk (maybe... it might be another date, it's not very clear).

Another odd choice is the "rating" field that all media managers inevitably include. I've seen this in the XBMC / Plex / Boxee world as well, where they pull the average user rating from IMDB. In this case, I assume it's trying to pull the value from some book rating site. I'm as confused about this as I am in my movie collection software (XBMC). I mean, the file is in my collection because I like it. Why should I care if the average rating is a 10 or a 2? I bought it because I like it and I couldn't care less if the rest of the world hates it.

One choice that felt strange at first was "Tags" -- this appears to be where they store the genre information. I think this terminology is something that is growing on me. I never did like having to pigeon-hole things into preset genres. Being able to create and add my own tags to books feels like it will be a much better solution in the long run.

Calibre has a feature that allows you to build your database on one computer and then have that computer act as a server for others. Using this feature supposedly lets you access your ebooks from anywhere in the world. But there's a caveat - the computer with your collection has to be on all the time, and has to have Calibre running. I personally have a few computers that are on all the time anyway, so it's not a big deal for me. But most people don't leave their computers on 24/7, especially when they are going away on a trip.

There are a few other features in this program that I won't use, but that's not to say they are bad. This program supports a lot of e-reader devices and can apparently handle batch conversions to each format they need. So if you downloaded a hundred epub ebooks from Project Gutenberg and needed to convert them to mobi for your Kindle, this program can do it. Having built-in support for syncing books to your device is a very cool feature, and they support quite a few devices. But I don't have an e-reader device, so I can't really review how well this sync works.

Calibre also provides a feature for automatically pulling news from the Internet, compiling an ebook out of the articles, and syncing that to your device of choice.


The Reading Experience

All the library and metadata organizing features in the world won't save an ebook reader with a poor reading interface. The first book I tried to read was an epub file, which is the format everyone is trying to standardize on. This program just does not render them properly. Reading text is impossible when lines overlap each other. Clicking the preferences button on the sidebar results in a crash (but one that thankfully does not kill the whole program). So much for that. I know the file is fine because FBReader displays it without any issues. Mobi (Kindle format) files work fine. Some files (like PDF format) open with external programs, so those all worked as well.

One button click puts you into full screen mode, which is especially nice on smaller screens (like netbooks). Re-opening a book you started to read automatically forwards you to the last place you were. This is a nice feature, but would be even nicer if it worked. The problem is that the program does not remember the size and location of the reader window it opens. So while it does scroll to the place you left off, the actual line placement is wrong because you end up having to move and resize the window.


The Netbook Reading Experience

I'll re-state my caveat: I was using the Linux version.

The actual reading experience on the netbook is similar to the desktop, but smaller. I really don't foresee any problems with reading ebooks on this device. Text is clear and you can adjust the font size as needed (assuming the properties options work when you install it - they worked on my netbook but not on my desktop).

My biggest gripe so far with this program has been with some of the choices in the library screen. And that same library view is the deal-killing problem on the netbook's screen. You have the file list in the center, a sidebar with information about the currently selected file on the right, and another sidebar on the left for showing the tree of sorting options (for doing things like filtering by author or genre tag). And that doesn't leave much room in the center for that file list. In fact, I got so frustrated just trying to see what was there that I didn't have the patience to add any files to my collection on the netbook. I previewed the default "how to use Calibre" ebook that the program ships with and then I quit.

Having a netbook spin of this program that is made for smaller screens would be a very good move. As it is now, every screen has icons that are so huge on the little screen that every button toolbar spills over into a popup section. And because they don't have a traditional text title bar (File, View, etc), this becomes a major issue when trying to navigate the program on a small screen.


Problems

My original draft of this article was quite scathing. There were a lot of things about this program that I didn't like and I spent way too much time focused on them. I'll try to discuss those issues here without going into too much depth on them.

I personally don't like how this program copies books I add to the library into another folder on my hard drive. I've already established an organization system for my ebooks and would rather just have a program that links to the files without trying to reorganize them. In addition to that, adding an option to store those links and the metadata in a real SQL server would be a huge plus in my book. Most users won't care about either of these issues though. Not everyone has eight machines to synchronize and share files with.

But one thing every user should care about is that this program is set up to handle multiple formats of each book -- so you can download an epub, convert it for use on your Kindle or Nook, and keep all versions in your library. This is another feature that would be nice if it worked. I have four copies of my brother's book, Purgatory Beckons - PDF, epub, mobi, and Palm PDB format. Instead of grouping them all under one entry, Calibre imported four different entries, one for each format. And there does not appear to be a way to merge them into one entry, even though it did correctly scrape the title and author name for each entry. That means I have to delete all but one and then manually add the other formats to the remaining entry. This is a minor annoyance if it happens once, but anyone who has a huge collection of books in multiple formats should be aware that the import process may generate more work for you.

I had another problem adding files to my library -- Calibre attempts to automatically pull metadata information from the Internet. Normally, this is seen as a great time-saving feature. The problem with pulling metadata information from the Internet is that, regardless of the media you are getting information on, the quality of the metadata is inconsistent. Random people from all over the world build the databases you are pulling info from. So you get all sorts of interesting choices - like Albert Camus' novel "The Stranger" being listed as an "Adventure". Getting info on Bram Stoker's "Dracula" sets the title of the novel to "Dracula by Stoker 345" and the author to "Dracula". In short, the problem is that the metadata servers are being populated with bogus, misformatted information. Don't even get me started on the plot summaries - they often consist of major spoilers sprinkled with sentence structure that requires a decoder ring.

The metadata editor in Calibre is not bad, but it's missing one important feature: it does not display the filename of the book you are updating. This is a huge problem when Calibre grabs the wrong metadata. How are you supposed to know what a file labeled as "Title" by "Unknown" is? How are you supposed to figure out what went wrong and what files are missing from your database? You have to actually open the book to see what it is, which can take a while when you have a lot that are wrong. Just adding one tooltip or the filename somewhere in this dialog would make this experience a lot better.


In Summary

The fact that Calibre is not even at a 1.0 version is promising. As happens with most open source software, this program has faults. But in time most (and hopefully all) of those faults will be fixed. If you don't have a program you already use to manage your ebook collection, download this and try it out. If you have an actual e-reading device, then this program could make managing and syncing your collection a lot easier. This is a program to keep an eye on as it brings new meaning to the term cross-platform -- with support for multiple operating systems as well as multiple ebook readers.

Calibre is free software, so if it sounds interesting you can get a copy at http://calibre-ebook.com/