E-book readers are popular for reading digital books, but they've got their limitations. If you have a netbook, you already have a powerful and virtually unrestricted portable e-book reader on your hands. You just need to know how to set it up.
Dedicated e-book readers do have certain things going for them; they're very lightweight, have long-lasting batteries, and their digital, e-ink screens are easy-on-the-eyes. A big negative mark against them — in the minds of most geeks at least — is how dreadfully locked down they are. You can't tweak them, modify them, or use them as you see fit. Netbooks, by default of being an unrestricted personal computer capable of running any applications or reading any formats you care to throw at them, suffer from no such shortcoming. The following guide will help you turn your netbook into a comfortable e-book reader that — while it may not be as ultra lightweight and battery-friendly as a Kindle — will be infinitely more flexible.
Physical Tweaks and Tricks
The tiny widescreen format of the netbook is, in the traditional orientation, terrible for reading e-books. It's squatty and doesn't do a very good job displaying large amounts of text at one time. Holding the netbook sideways in your hands like a book is the ideal way to maximise the screen real estate and read it comfortably.
Depending on your graphics chip and drivers, you may be able to rotate the screen orientation without any additional software by simply pressing CTRL+ALT+Left Arrow or CTRL+ALT+Right Arrow. While it's great to have a built-in solution without installing any additional software, it's a less than ideal solution. The build in screen-rotation trick works great for desktop computers where you might be rotating a widescreen monitor into a portrait position, but it's not so handy on a netbook or laptop where the orientation of the keyboard and trackpad changes with the orientation of the physical screen.
Fortunately a lightweight solution exists. EeeRotate is a tiny application that combines the rotation of your screen and the rotation of the touchpad at the same time using a single shortcut. Once EeeRotate is installed pressing CTRL+ALT+Right Arrow rotates the screen and touchpad 270 degrees and CTRL+ALT+Up Arrow returns it to normal.
EeeRotate is a must have application for setting up your netbook as an e-book reader and we'd advise downloading it before proceeding.
While you're tweaking and tinkering, it's worth it to adjust the screen brightness. You should decrease the screen brightness to the lowest setting you can comfortably read it at. Not only will you extend your battery life but you'll be decrease the strain on you eyes. One of the strong selling points of stand-alone e-book readers is that their digital ink screens aren't back-lit and can be read under the same conditions that you would read a regular book. If your netbook has the ability to turn off the back light altogether you can try it out. Your experience with the back light off on a netbook can vary wildly though. With my Asus netbook I can read it comfortably in direct sunlight just like I would read a Kindle but anything less than full and direct sunshine makes the back-light-off setting completely useless.
It's also not a bad idea to set up a special power saver mode just for reading e-books: dimmed screen but without a power-saving shut-off timer and hard drive spun down.
Setting Up E-Book Software
What e-book software you end up using is entirely a matter of personal preference, and the dealbreaker might be as tiny as what key is closest to your thumb when holding the netbook in a comfortable position and what that key does — turns the page, pages down, etc — in a particular e-book application. With that in mind, we'd urge you give each of the following free applications a test drive to see which one is the most comfortable option for your netbook, how you hold it, and your reading style.
Kindle for PC (Windows, Free): I'm highlighting the Kindle for PC software first for only one reason. If you want to semi-recreate the experience of having a Kindle without actually buying a dedicated Kindle, you can install Kindle for PC on your netbook. Unless you absolutely want that experience we can see no reason at all to install Kindle for PC. You cannot manage your personal library of e-books and documents with Kindle for PC, so you're essentially importing the experience of having a DRM-locked down Kindle onto your netbook. If you have a lot of e-books already and don't have a relationship with Amazon as your e-book provider, Kindle for PC was a no-go right out of the gate for me.
Calibre (Windows/Mac/Linux, Free): Calibre is an open-source solution for not just reading e-books and other portable document formats but also organising them in a meticulous fashion. Calibre isn't just a great option for viewing e-books in a vertical orientation on your netbook; it's a great option for organising your collection, downloading news to read on your netbook-turned-e-book reader, and even syncing your collection to actual e-book readers if decide to invest in one later on. Calibre supports nearly every portable document format out there, although less common formats like the CBR comic book container format require conversion — Calibre handles all the conversion in-program.
Mobipocket Reader Desktop (Windows, Free): Mobipocket Reader has a similar layout to iTunes and gives you a more Kindle-like experience on the Netbook than the actual Kindle for PC software can provide. Where the Kindle for PC software falls flat and Calibre shines with organisation, Mobipocket Reader stands out for having all the neat annotation, bookmarking and interface tweaking aspects you find in the Kindle Reader but brought to Windows without all the DRM-hassle. If you've been pining for a Kindle but find the Kindle of PC experience to be lacking, it's worth checking out Mobipocket Reader for a bells-and-whistles portable reader. If you fall in love with Mobipocket Reader Desktop on your netbook you'll be pleased to know you can get versions for your Blackberry, Windows Mobile phone, Symbian phones, Palm and several dedicated e-book devices.
You can, of course, use just about any software you want as long as it can run on your OS and works when the orientation of the screen is rotated — good luck with Adobe Reader! We couldn't get most e-books to display correctly once rotated — which is the beauty of using a netbook over a hardware and firmware-locked dedicated e-book reader.
The above tools will get you started with enjoying e-books on your netbook in a more pleasing orientation and format. If you have a favourite reader or tool for making e-book consumption on your netbook comfortable, we'd love to hear about it in the comments.