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Reading ebooks on an iPod

The iPod does not have an ebook-specific reader, or just a text format good for reading ebooks. It's unfortunate, because the style and capabilities of iPods make them perfect for such functions. Sure, you can use the iPod as a portable hard drive to read ebooks on any PC. But if you want to use the iPod itself as an ebook reader, it's certainly possible. Reading ebooks on an iPod consists of just copying the contents of an ebook into iPod Notes, and scrolling through multiple notes in order to read the ebook. But there are limitations.

Each Note can hold no more than 4,012 characters. If an iPod Note contains more, it will still load, but only the first 4012 characters will be displayed. You may see other references mentioning a 4,096 character limit. Looking at the results from an actual cut-and-paste experiment, the limit is actually 4,012.

The iPod can hold no more than 1000 notes.

Assuming each Note is packed to capacity, that's 4,012,000 characters. So any given iPod can hold roughly 2,467 pages of printed text, or enough for eight medium sized books.

To summarize these issues with reading ebooks on an iPod:

Problem 1: To read ebooks on an iPod screen, the best place is to copy plain text information into iPod Notes. Each Note on the iPod can hold no more than 4,012 characters.

Solution 1: Each ebook much be broken up into a multi-Note format. iPod Notes use a very simple HTML-derived markup language. For short stories, it's easy to create the Note-to-Note links yourself. For longer stories, save yourself the pain by automating this process.

Problem 2: iPods can only hold a few books before running out of available Notes spaces.

Solution 2: Keep your ebook collection on your PC, and just copy books to and from the iPod as needed. This is a good solution anyway, as iPod Notes aren't backed up anywhere (even from the new backup feature in iTunes 7).

With all that said, here's how to place and read an ebook on your iPod:

1) Get an ebook. Make sure it's in "plain text" format.

Don't spend money unless you have to. There are plenty of free ebook libraries all over the Internet. Here's a list of ebooks and books.

2) Enable Notes access on your iPod by checking "Enable disk use" in iTunes.

This feature (turned off by default), allows you to use your PC to browse to your iPod, allowing you to copy files directly to the device. Click for more instructions and detail on enabling Notes access on your iPod.

3) Convert your ebook to a format supported by iPod Notes.

Use this iPod ebook creator service to upload your plain text ebook, and convert it into an iPod readable format.

Take the files contained within the resulting ZIP file and place them into a new folder within your iPod's Notes folder. (To do this, make sure you've completed step number two, above. Then browse to your iPod using your PC. You should see a Notes folder. Placing all the Zip files within a newly-created subfolder isn't required, but makes navigation much easier and faster.

4) Read it.

After disconnecting your iPod from your PC, open Extras -> Notes on your iPod. You should see the folder you created in the previous step. Click to view the folder and you should see the documents you moved there, all numbered like "mydocument001", "mydocument002", etc. Start with the first document. You'll see backward and forward arrows at the top and bottom of the Notes. Selecting with the center button allows you to page back and forth between Notes.

The actual iPod ebook reading process consists of scrolling slowly through the Note as you read it, then clicking on the "next Note page" arrow at the end of the document. Be aware that hitting the "Menu" button acts like a "previous page" function. So if you read, for example, ten Notes worth of linked text, you'll have to hit the Menu button ten times in order to get back to the Extras -> Notes section. Depending on how much you've read, it may be easier and faster just to reboot your iPod when you're done. (There is a way to programmatically clear this stored Notes history, but the converter mentioned above doesn't use it.)

The iPod ebook creator mentioned above will do the trick. If you want a more extensive management system, or want something installed locally, here are some options. Each program will allow you to keep track on many ebooks on your PC, giving you the option to "activate" just the ones you want for iPod reading. The "eBook Hood" link is an online ebook conversion service - no need to download anything, except for your converted ebook file.

Mac OS :


eBook Hood

Windows OS :


eBook Hood

Using this process, we can read text and ebooks on any iPod with a display screen. The process, unfortunately, requires a bit more hassle than it should. Until Apple decides to remedy this with proper ebook support and features like font adjustment and auto-scrolling, we can make do.

For more information

Learn more about the iPod Notes markup language. Also see user comments at the bottom of the second page for code on compiling your own iPod ebook extractor.

Learn about "Building Interactive iPod Experiences". While the article briefly mentions ebooks, it talks in more detail about the iPod's markup language to run interactive presentations incorporating pictures, sounds and videos.

Mac users may be interested in Text2iPod X, a Mac-only application that copies entire ebooks into iPod contacts, apparently without size limitations. While this is great, I didn't include it in the main article because 1) I wasn't able to test it, and 2) I'd like my "ebooks on iPod" solution to work on all systems.