Friday, June 25, 2010

Installing Adobe Flash Player on Firefox

Or: forty years of wandering in a desert of unhelpful Adobe links

After one tooth-gnashing hour of frustration, I have managed to install the Adobe Flash Player 10.1 plug-in on my Firefox 3.6.4. Why it was so difficult, I don't know. I'm pretty sure I performed the same installation at work without a hitch. That discrepancy may have something to do with the fact that my work computer is running Windows 7 Enterprise and this computer is running Windows XP Professional. I don't know.

One thing I do know is that if I'm having problems with Adobe, I'm probably not the only one, so I feel it is my duty as a citizen of the human race to provide the solution I eventually uncovered.

But first, a detailed description of my travails. It will be like Passover in summer. (You can go straight to the solution if you want. I won't be offended.)

Why is This Installation Different From All Other Installations?

Firefox usually takes charge of installing its own plug-ins. But Adobe Flash Player 10.1 doesn't want to let Firefox install it. It wants to install itself, via its own installation manager plug-in, GetPlusPlus. It's like a boy who doesn't want Mommy to dress him anymore, because he's a Big Boy now, only he winds up putting his underpants on backward and his shoes on the wrong feet.

How Did It All Start?

I downloaded the latest Firefox upgrade. Everytime you download a new version of Firefox, it takes you to a web page detailing what's new with this release. This time, the page included a scary yellow message telling me I must install the latest Adobe Flash Player for security reasons.

I followed the link provided to the download page. By the way, as long as I'm kvetching about Adobe (which didn't used to suck), may I remark on how annoying it is when a download page includes another piece of software without asking you, with the checkbox already checked, so that if you don't notice and uncheck it, you can end up installing something you don't want or need? In the case of Adobe Flash Player, McAfee Security Scan Plus is the piece of stealth software. However, I'd already had that experience at work, so I was prepared, and unchecked the checkbox.

Then I hit the installation button, and it took me to the Thank You page. These pages usually say, "If the download does not start automatically, click here." This one had a twist on the old theme: "If it does not start, click here for troubleshooting information [italics added]." It was my first moment of annoyance, and there were many more to come.

What Went Wrong?

The download didn't start automatically, of course. Firefox helpfully popped up its little top frame letting me know I was missing a plug-in: the aforementioned download manager. Since there didn't seem to be any way to download one plug-in without first installing another, I clicked on the button on the frame. A window opened asking me if I wanted to manually install the plug-in, which was in a file called gp.xpi. So I agreed to that, Firefox downloaded the file, and a window asked me what application I wanted to use to open the file. Surprisingly, it suggested an application, but that didn't matter because it didn't work.

After a few futile tries, I thought I might have to look at Adobe's troubleshooting page. It was no help, but the thank you page did also say, "For Firefox users, please see the Installation Instructions." So I did, and that's when my blood pressure really started going up, because the instructions, and screen shots, seemed to have no relationship to Firefox whatsoever. "LOOK FOR A YELLOW BAR AT THE TOP," the instructions advised (in all caps). The screen shot showed a button marked "Edit Options."

If I ever found that button, I certainly would have clicked it. At the top of WHAT? (I was starting to think in all caps myself.) Not at the top of the browser, since that bar didn't have any button marked "Edit Options," only the button that led me on the merry dance with gp.xpi. I looked all over the place. I opened the Add-ons window: not there. I went into Options. There, under Security, I found something that looked hopeful. Not anything mentioned in Adobe's instructions--no, those appear to have been written by space aliens. But I did find a checkbox marked "Warn me when sites try to install add-ons" next to a button marked "Exceptions." I clicked that button and it did indeed open a box that looked just like the one in Adobe's second screen shot ("ADD THE WEB SITE TO THE SITES WHICH ARE ALLOWED TO INSTALL ADD-ONS").

So I got there in the end, even if not by the non-existent button Adobe recommended. I added Adobe to the list of sites, and hit the Refresh button as advised in the next step. Unfortunately, it didn't work. None of the things that Adobe said would happen as a result of that action actually happened. I remained unable to install the plug-in that would let me install the plug-in.

Did You Eventually Get GetPlusPlus Installed?

Yes I did, and I highly recommend you not bother. Once I was finished letting Adobe's useless instructions work me into a lather, I turned to Oracle Google and found this handy page: Install a Firefox Add-on Manually. Manually installing a plug-in turned out to be very easy once you knew how, and soon GetPlusPlus was safely ensconced. Thinking all would be well, I went back to the Adobe download page and refreshed it. GetPlusPlus launched, it showed me a progress bar, it filled the bar up with a pretty green colour, and then it choked. "Installation failed," it said. And that was all. No more meaningful error message, no useful information. Nothing. I tried three times, with identical results.

So How Did You Finally Get Adobe Flash Player?

I got creative. As much as Adobe wanted to download and install its own plug-ins, it didn't seem equal to the task. So here's what I did. I went to YouTube. I selected a random video. Firefox opened its top frame letting me know I was missing a plug-in. I clicked the Install button. And it installed. Firefox was doing the installing, so it worked. This is the route I would recommend to any Firefox user who is having trouble getting the plug-in at the Adobe page. Until they get their act together, don't even waste your time trying to do it their way. Save yourself an hour or two of aggravation.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you already have an older version of the Adobe Flash Plug-in in your Firefox, remove or disable it before trying this trick. I didn't have to because Adobe's abortive installation attempts had already done it for me (I think). If you already have an older plug-in, going to a video will only make the video play.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Kobo eReader: a Long-term Review

The Kobo eReader, a lower-priced alternative to devices such as the Kindle, has launched in Chapters and Indigo bookstores across Canada on May 1, and will launch in Borders bookstores in the United States on June 17. Having rejected the Kindle as too expensive and proprietary and the Sony as too slow in its page-turning, I awaited the Kobo eagerly and pounced on it as soon as it became available. Had I reviewed it during those first two weeks, the result would have been about ninety percent gush. Now that I've had a month to live with the Kobo and learn its little quirks--now that the honeymoon glow has faded, I am in a position to dispassionately discuss its strong points and shortcomings, and even those bugs that reveal themselves only upon extensive use.



Indeed, the $149 price tag is what first attracted me to the Kobo. The first e-reader I ever heard of was the Kindle, which at that time cost over $300. My initial question was, how many e-books would you have to buy to make back your money? Thirty? It would take years. I didn't see the point of bothering with e-books when such an extraordinary initial investment was involved. (Let's not even get into the iRex iLiad, with its US$859 price tag.)

Pre-Kobo, I'd looked into the possibility of getting my hands on a Sony e-reader that is no longer made, the PRS-505. For reasons known only to themselves, Sony chose to discontinue this e-reader, cutting their line down to only two, one that is too expensive (the PRS-600) and one that is too small (the PRS-300). If you don't want to shell out for the touch-screen, your other option is the piddling 5-inch screen. I don't care if my e-reader has a touch screen or not, and in my experience, they don't respond very well, in addition to getting covered in finger grease. Neither do I require all the other bells and whistles, such as 3G wireless access and the whiz-bang rotating display, to say nothing of Internet surfing. I want an e-reader in order to read books on it; isn't that really the point? Kobo, it seems, is the first company to clue into this. I might not have bought the Kobo e-reader if I'd found a reasonably-priced PRS-505 before it came out, but owners of PRS-505s charge high prices for their used e-readers. They seem to believe they are collector's items.

Page-turning Speed

I am glad that I didn't get a PRS-505, though, because it probably wouldn't have turned pages fast enough to suit me. I have tried out both the current Sony e-readers and the page-turning is uncomfortably slow, taking as long as 4 seconds. This is the Sony e-readers' primary weakness. I'm a fast reader, and I want to be able to turn pages on an e-reader at least as fast as I turn them on a real book. Kobo pages turn in about 2 seconds, which is just about right. New chapters are slower to load, but as that's an event of much less frequent occurrence, it's not a concern.


I like the uncluttered design of the Kobo. Why does the Kindle have an entire keyboard? What is the need for that? It's space that they could have given over to a larger screen. Despite its smaller overall dimensions, the Kobo's screen is 6 inches across, same as the Kindle. It has a matte finish that emits minimal glare, providing a comfortable reading experience.

100 Free eBooks

The Kobo comes with 100 free public domain classics, more than any other e-reader. This is a nice perk. While it's true that all those books and more can be downloaded for free from sites like Project Gutenberg and ePubBooks, it would take some time to download all one hundred of them. Plus the Kobo versions come with prettier covers. It feels as if you're getting your money's worth immediately. After all, if you wanted to, you could read your Kobo for years without having to buy any new e-books, and fill in all those gaps in your classical literature education.

Prompt, Respectful and Helpful Customer Service

In response to a discrepancy between my experience and what was stated in the user manual--which I will describe in more detail later on--I wrote an email to Kobo customer service. I got a better response than I have received from any other customer service agent I've ever dealt with via email. This may say more about the dismal quality of online customer service in general than it does about Kobo's, but I had never before had the experience of having my issue fully understood and appropriately addressed on first contact. I'm more accustomed to the agent not reading my email carefully and so telling me things that I already know and that have no bearing on the problem. Or worse, copy/pasting a section of their help file into an email and sending it to me. Obviously I read all available documentation before contacting customer service. I don't need to have customer service waste my time in this way, nor am I an idiot, but the average customer service agent appears to assume that all the emails they receive come from idiots, and treats them accordingly. It is insulting and ultimately does not solve the problem.

I didn't get this from Kobo customer service. I got an email that carefully addressed every issue I'd brought up and told me exactly what I needed to know. It was most refreshing.

Kobo's shortcomings

User Settings Not Retained

When I'd just brought the Kobo home and was still working out what I could do with it, such was my enthusiasm that I read the user manual all the way through. I know, I know--I'll have to turn in my Techno Geek membership badge. Anyway, I discovered I could change the display of the book list, to make it look like books sitting on shelves--cute! I could also change the sort order from title to author. I preferred that. I liked seeing how many books by a particular author I had--Jane Austen is especially well-represented.

I was perfectly happy with these features until I turned the e-reader on the next day and discovered that everything I'd changed had reverted back to the defaults.

The Kobo e-reader will remember what books you are reading, displaying them in a separate list, and will bounce you straight to your current page when you select them. Why on earth can't it also remember and retain your display settings? This seems like quite the careless oversight.

Missing Features

Another thing I learned by reading the manual is that you can remove books from your "I'm Reading" list--that's the list of books you have started to read but not finished--by plugging the e-reader into your computer, logging into your Kobo account and clicking on "I'm Reading." I tried that, but could not locate "I'm Reading."

When I contacted customer service, (a positive experience, as mentioned above,) I was told is that there is no "I'm Reading" section in Kobo Online, and no way to remove books from your "I'm Reading" list. This feature hasn't been implemented yet.

I daresay it might have been wiser to hold off on adding its description to the manual until the feature itself was safely functional in the Kobo. After all, it's not as if the manual is a print publication. Appropriately enough, it's an e-book. Reprinting it and sending it to the customers when appropriate should be no very difficult or expensive thing. Furthermore, it's not a great idea to draw your customer's attention to handy little features that your product doesn't have.

Minimal Formats

Kobo supports only two formats, ePub and PDF. This is not very many, and is the one thing that made me hesitate before buying one. I bought it anyway because I knew I could convert other formats, such as HTML and word processing documents, into PDF. When I did so, I discovered quite the colourful bug. More on that later. Kobo promises to add more formats later. Readers who feel it important to have good format support might want to wait until then before purchasing.

Room for Improvement in the Big Blue Button

In his review of the Kobo Reader in the National Post, Mark Medley memorably declared about its famous big blue button, "a pox on whoever designed this thing." I have not found it as troublesome as he has, but it doesn't need to click so emphatically. One day, I was sitting on the couch reading one of my freebie Jane Austen novels. James sat at the other end, using his computer. Several pages later, James turned to me and said, "Reading e-books is a lot noisier than reading regular books." My clicking was disturbing him.

We also wonder why the choice was made to place the big blue button (Kobo calls it the directional pad or D-pad, but that's never going to stick) in the right corner. It would have been more convenient to have it in the middle, where it would be equally accessible to both hands. I suppose they might have been imitating true books, whose pages you turn by grasping the right corner, but there was no need for that and no advantage in doing it. No button is going to feel like turning pages anyway, and they may as well have put it where it would have worked best.

eBook Formatting and Proofreading (or Lack Thereof)

About those free e-books... they're not that nicely formatted. There is no indenting, and italics are represented with underscores. Sub-chapters have not been properly rendered. James is reading Madame Bovary on the e-reader, and was puzzled when he finished chapter 13 and turned the page, only to find himself apparently back at chapter 1. It turns out that Madame Bovary is in multiple parts. There are 13 chapters in Part 1, and when you finish that part, you come to Chapter 1 of Part 2. But the parts are not shown in the table of contents; only the individual chapters. James also found multiple misspelled words, as though the novel had been scanned in and then not proofread.

Kobo is using the 100 free books as a selling point. It would have been a better one if they'd gone to more effort to format the books.

Unnecessary Lights That Don't Work Properly

Besides reduced eyestrain, the greatest advantage of the non-backlit E Ink screens found on true e-readers like the Kobo (as opposed to multipurpose devices like the iPad) is the low power usage. Eco-friendly E Ink screens only draw power when the image onscreen is changing, for example, when you're turning a page. So it seems a shame that the Kobo company chose to put two indicator lights into their e-reader. I don't know how much this ups the power consumption, but I would imagine the percentage must be sizable.

The red light is meant to go on when your e-reader is fully charged. This is useful and arguably necessary, or at least it would be if it worked. In actual fact, this untrustworthy light often goes on well before the e-reader is fully charged, and pointlessly stays on even after the e-reader has been unplugged.

The blue light, on the other hand, is useless and silly. It goes on when the e-reader is processing: when you're turning a page or bringing up a new book or chapter. Or rather, that's what it does some of the time. It seems to operate fairly randomly. But in any case, you don't need a light to tell you that a page is turning; you know when a page is turning, because the screen flashes a negative image of itself. All the E Ink screens I've seen do this; it seems to be an unalterable part of their functioning. The e-reader also displays a little sunburst shape in the upper right corner when loading a new book or chapter, and in contrast to the light, it does so consistently, rendering the light even more redundant and pointless.

The only positive aspect I've noted about these lights is that they both come on at the same time when you turn the e-reader on, resulting in an attractive purple colour. Other than that, their primary impact is to force you to charge your e-reader more frequently.

Bug Report

After converting a Word document to PDF and loading it into the e-reader, I decided I wanted to make a change to its table of contents. I regenerated the PDF and reloaded the document into the reader.

To add a new document to the Kobo, you plug the e-reader into your computer's USB port, where it is treated just like a memory stick, and copy the new file onto it. But when I copied the new version of my file onto the Kobo and booted it up, the document turned out to be unchanged. My alterations to the table of contents were missing. It looked as if the Kobo did not recognize and implement the file change when a file with the same name was copied over the old version. What I had to do was delete the original version, unplug the reader and let it recognize the change, then plug it back in and copy the new file. I had to go through that whole tedious process every time I changed the file. That's bug number one.

After deleting the old file and copying the new one, I discovered that each chapter title now appeared twice in the table of contents! Neither of the two pointed to the right page either.

Thinking something must have gone wrong with the generation of the table of contents, I went back to the Word document, regenerated the TOC, and generated and loaded a third PDF. It looked fine in Acrobat Reader, but once loaded into Kobo, it now had three of everything in its table of contents.

After much frustrating deleting, unplugging, plugging back in, copying, regenerating and so on, my table of contents getting ever longer, I began to wonder if the file deletion was in fact complete. Perhaps the file was only removed from the document list, its table of contents remaining intact? Then, when a new version was introduced, perhaps its new table of contents entries were being appended to the old.

Acting on this hunch, I renamed the file and copied it into the reader. This time, its table of contents was fine.

Apparently, Kobo accumulates ghostly tables of contents that can never be eliminated, never sent to their rest. Whooooo...


Although the Kobo eReader has its shortcomings, they are minor (except for the lights; as an eco-worrier, that really bugs me), outweighed by the device's advantages, and many of them can probably be repaired in later software releases. If money is no object for you, you'll probably want to go with something more high-end--the iRex iLiad looks quite nice. But if reluctance to drop a few hundred dinero is the only thing preventing you from shelling out for an e-reader, then the Kobo may be the one for you.