Creating an Affordable E-Book Reader

March 11, 2008
Palm IIIe

Palm IIIe

Sometimes you have to do it yourself. What with the Sony Reader being very expensive, proprietary and well, a little too Sony. The Amazon Kindle being mildly expensive, unavailable and blisteringly ugly, and all the others requiring substantial loans. The only real solution is to somehow create a more ‘down to earth’ E-Book reader.

Now don’t panic yet, as if you don’t there won’t be any need for screwdrivers or hammers, but you will need to find about 15 Pounds/25 Euros (Dollars, who knows?) . If you use an online recycling service like Freecycle you can often find the kit for free. or

For the E-Book reader I chose the venerable Palm Series, there is a lot of choice ranging from the hopeless to the amazing however look specifically for the Palm III Range. Any model is suitable, except for the Palm IIIc (It has a near unusable colour screen while the gray-scale palm screens make excellent E-Book readers).

I use a Palm IIIe, that although quite functional, lacks the upgradable memory of the rest of the Palm III range. I can fit about 8-10 E-Books on it.

Palm electroluminescent back-light

Palm electroluminescent back-light

The earlier palms, although excellent in their own right lack a feature introduced in the Palm III range, an electroluminescent back-light. The back-light is very easy on the eyes in low light conditions, as it highlights the text rather than lighting up the screen itself. Modern PDA’s have full colour TFT screens, very nice for movies but awful for reading text. Another great feature about these Palms is that, as they are up to 8 years old now and can be picked up online for around 10 pounds or 15 euros, you won’t worry so much about losing it as it actually costs the same as a new hardback book!

Install the Palm software, for Windows or Mac. If you use Linux or some other thrilling operating system there’s plenty of options too. If you are like me and have been a happy Mac user for the past few years you will discover a problem, that there is a serious lack of serial ports on most modern Macs. That problem is easily solved with a USB Dongle from Keyspan. I got mine free from a nice lady who didn’t need it anymore, you might find one too (The nice lady and the dongle). Note the word dongle, I will probably try and sneak it in later as I like it so much.

Once you are now sitting with a Palm and with the software all set up, Read the manual and the instructions on how to transfer files to the Palm, because you will want to download Weasel Reader. You will find that like most Palm software it has been in constant development since the Palm first reared its pocket sized head on the scene, so now it is extremely stable and the best E-Book reader on the Palm by a long shot. Its also free thanks to Open Source and the GPL.

You now have a Palm here sitting, naked, its potential untapped. It may be feeling a mild sense of Ennui. You will need to put a book on it.

You can download books, free in the PalmDoc format that Weasel Reader uses from many excellent Websites (I recommend ManyBooks, They list the compatible files as ‘Doc’ Format). However creating E-Books from raw text files gives you the ability to make compatible E-Books from sites such as the Gutenberg Project as well as any documents on your computer you create. Try to remember that if you do save files from programs such as Word or Mac Write save them as .rtf (Rich Text Format) files or simple .txt files as it makes future conversion a whole lot simpler.

The program I use for conversion is the Mac application PorDiBle which is another piece of Open Source magic, however if you still nod your hat towards that Gates fellow, I believe that txt2palm will work just fine although its not as elegant a solution as PorDiBle. I ‘normally’ would recommend you buy a Mac but that may be somewhat outside your budget. Please do try read the manuals as even though they are very simple programs because they often have a lot of hidden extras (For instance PorDiBle converts a file to the Palm format by merely dragging the document onto the icon. Magic!). Again if you are using Linux or some aged UNIX operating system I suggest you consult your beard for the answers to file conversion.

Now sit back and consider, you have a perfectly functional E-Book reader in front of you, for a fraction of the cost of the more modern solutions. It may not play mp3s and browse the web but I hear that there are many solutions that do that Much Better. It will however function not just as an excellent E-Book reader but I have also heard (although don’t quote me on this) is is a passably decent PDA too. It keeps your contacts and schedule from your chosen scheduling application on your computer up to date and even beeps at you when you should be somewhere. It also has a battery life of up to a week of normal use, although heavy back-light use can cut into that somewhat.

I hope you, the reader find my digital musing useful and I would be very pleased to see the global demand for Palms skyrocket, however not just yet as I want to find a Palm IIIxe cheap. Here is a recommended reading list for those who like that sort of thing.

City at Worlds End by Edmond Hamilton

Overclocked by Cory Doctrow (in fact anything by him)

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court by Mark Twain

Full Revelations of a Professional Rat-Catcher by Ike Matthews (Not for the Squeamish but very entertaining)

Good Luck, and Happy Reading. Oh and before I forget, dongle.

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5 Responses to “Creating an Affordable E-Book Reader”

  1. Casey Says:

    Thanks for posting this – I appreciate the links to other useful programs, like txt2palm.

    Nice little tutorial.

    • lennyb Says:

      thanks for the great info.
      i picked up a palm m125 for 2 dollars at a yard sale. it has an SD card slot and works real well as an ebook reader . unfortunatley i already spent a bunch of money on a sony reader.
      oh well it certainly more portable.

  2. Laru650 Says:

    In your resume I see you understand german, but i decided to to write in english for all your other readers too.
    Sorry about my rare English knowledge, please correct my mistakes before you make my long long text public.

    I learnt my in English in self-study and by playing cards with native speakers in a bar in Germany.
    I never had english in school in east Germany.

    How did you become a librarian?


    • Hi Laru650

      I studied to become a Librarian at Aberystwyth University in Wales. And I learnt German the same way you did, a bit of education, some self study and a some hanging around in a Kniepe in Berlin.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. Awesome Says:

    Great article. I used to install Apps and read eBooks on my US Robotics Palm Pilot in early 1996. Today, 16 (!) years later people believe iPads to be the first device to do this.

    Why? Because DRM on a Palm was easy to break and publishers did not want their stuff to be copied for free. The only reason for the success of iPods & Kindle is the closed-shop-principle. Publishers pay up to 50% to Apple and pretend to be happy. Customers are unable to sell or share books which was the basic advantage of printed speech in comparison to oral speech. The stupidity of publishers and customers is awesome …


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