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Thursday, November 25, 2010


kindleAnother in an occasional series of gadget reviews, and more general thoughts on books. This time I look at the Amazon Kindle, my latest gadgety purchase – I have the WiFi only version with added leather carry case. The Kindle is an electronic device onto which books can be downloaded from a range of sources. In a sense the device is a side issue, Kindle software is available for smartphones (I have it on my HTC Desire), and computers. The main action for the Kindle is in the ecosystem: it makes it very easy to spend money on Amazon!

There are quite a few books available in the Kindle Store on Amazon, both free and paid. The paid offerings are a little cheaper than their paper equivalents but not hugely so. In addition PDF files can be read using the device, it will also play MP3 audio files. The Kindle Store also has links out to places where free content can be downloaded. For example, Project Gutenberg holds a wide variety of out of copyright material in a variety of e-book formats.

As long as you’re prepared to compromise a little you’ll not run short of things to read –  I’d like to read the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey-Maturin series but they are not yet available for download. Only three of the top ten Amazon bestsellers are available in Kindle format at the moment. So far I’ve bought “Trilobite!” by Richard Fortey and “22 days in May” by David Laws. I also have “Sustainable Energy - without the hot air” by David Mackay which I got as a free download, and converted to an appropriate format using Calibre e-book Management, this is available as a community conversion of the original HTML files. Books can be transferred to the Kindle by WiFi, or direct cable connection. Buying books is magically easy – press button, wait a minute and you’re done!

Compared to an HTC Desire the Kindle interface feels rather clunky, I kept wanting to change pages by touch! Having said this moving from page to page is ergonomically easy: there are a couple of handy page forward / page backward buttons suited to either handedness. Page changes feel ever so slightly ponderous with a bit of a flash as the page changes. The battery life is very good, the display is e-ink based and so static display takes no power, only switching pages requires power. The display size is about right and it is very nice to read from, when I first opened the device I assumed the picture on the screen was a piece of paper for display purposes. There are a range of options for adjusting text size, spacing and so forth, although I found some glitches with text size control.

The Kindle is ideal for plain text, however for text with diagrams it is a bit hit-and-miss, although the quality of the display is good enough to show quite detailed greyscale images in the case of the Fortey book these have simply not been included by the publisher. The Mackay book includes figures but the placement of the figures in the text has largely been done automatically and is a bit wobbly. I’d really like to try a book with illustrations which have been done properly – any recommendations then please comment.

The benefit of the Kindle with non-fiction is that searching, bookmarking, and highlighting are all relatively straightforward. I have religious objections against making marks in paper books – I think as a result of using the library as a child. It’s also possible to add notes to a book and to see the “favourite” notes of others.

The problem is the Kindle misses the display aspects of book owning and reading; my house is full of books collected over 20 years. They are my extended phenotype; they tell you something about me. If you visit my house you can see my books – you might want to borrow one. The Kindle cuts this away, you can’t see what is on my Kindle, and if even if you could, you couldn’t borrow it. I’ve tried to replicate the bookshelf aspect in my Shelfari account, where you can see what I am reading and what I have read. I’m also missing the pile of books beside my bed. I’m an old-fashioned animal that misses physical objects.

Overall: not at all bad, reading raw text is comfortable, the whole buying new text is frighteningly easy, and a range of formats can be read. I’m looking forward to using the Kindle to avoid my mortal holiday fear – that I might run out of things to read!


The Gentleman Administrator said...

thanks for the review, very timely before X-mas. The Kindle, possibly the 3G version, is currently at the top of my Christmas list (please Santa, please). I need to look into the provision of Academic history books in e-book format, as that is relevant to me (natch), but the pdf viewing would be essential. Have you used the web browsing facilities? Not what I want one for but curious if usable.

I also love books, as the bibliophilia posts on the blog attest too, but I have basically run out of space for them, so Kindle seems like the way to go for practical reasons. I also imagine they would be easier to read one handed whilst holding little Charlie, attempted to read a paperback the other day, it was not successful.

SomeBeans said...

Web browsing looked really clunky to me - much easier on the HTC Desire. I have WiFi in the house and there seemed to be no point in getting 3G under those circumstances. If I was really stuck I think I can setup my phone as a WiFi hotspot...

Ergonomically it is easier than a book - there's no spine to it so it isn't always trying to close itself. Not sure about compatibility with baby fluids though!

Phil Ruse said...

Thank you for the review. The WiFi version is what I have bought Mrs R for Christmas so it's good to read a 1st-hand account.

twaza (@wassabeee on twitter) said...

Thanks for the review.

I tested the Kindle for PC and was not impressed.

The software had to be reinstalled and my registration with Amazon annulled about 6 times before it was stable.

I bought an academic article for about £3.50 and was further irritated because:

(i) you can't see how many pages it has (it only shows what percentage you are at).

(ii) you can't print anything out.

(iii) you can't copy and paste a chunk of text, as I wanted to do when I reviewed the article.

(iv) you can't lend the paper to anyone, unless you lend them your laptop --- you can hold content on three devices, but that won't work for sharing in our house!

(v) in my review of the paper I mentioned, firmly but politely, my software problems and Amazon's poor support, and had my review silently deleted. Then, when I re-posted a self-censored review, it looked as if I had been blacklisted, because I got a message that my review was being held for moderation --- which reminds me that I should check to see if it was allowed through.

The Kindle looks great for reading throw-away books and ephemeral newspapers. But for anything that you would want to keep on your bookshelf, paper is still the best technology.

SomeBeans said...

@twaza thanks for the comments on the PC application. It is difficult to beat paper and I think I'd agree with your final summary. I can see it being a useful supplement for more academic reading but not a replacement - it's much nicer to read on the Kindle than a laptop screen. The PC app is a good guide to the functionality of the Kindle device.

@martinsmac (from the twitter) yes, I've tried a few things in PDF. Bottom line is that if what you're looking at is nice and readable full page then it's lovely: I tried it on the manuals for my phone and smoke detector, and Maskelyne's 1775 paper on measuring G at Schiehallion (which is single column per smallish page). For traditional academic format papers (i.e. two column) the text is too small to read when a whole page is in view: zooming and scrolling are a pain - it doesn't do anything clever with the text. If you had control of how the PDF was generated then it would be rather nice if you optimised to the form factor.

SomeBeans said...

@Phil lets hope Mrs R doesn't read my blog!

Wynken de Worde said...

We have an earlier generation Kindle and like it a great deal; I use my iPad's Kindle app primarily now, though, so haven't tried the newest Kindle. Gent asked about using the browser--Tim Carmody's review for Wired's Gadget Lab suggests browsing is pretty easy on it. Tim's got lots of other good points about getting pdfs and ePubs on it:

VP said...

Veg Plotting is available on Kindle.

I did it as an experiment to see if it would work. I'm expecting to make 0 sales - why would anyone pay to see a blog in black and white when they can see it for free and in glorious technicolour?

It's kinda fun to go and look it up in the Kindle shop from time to time too.

You can get newspapers as well, plus there's an option for Kindle to read to you, though I suspect this will be in an Americanised voice. However, it could be a boon for people with difficulty seeing.

SomeBeans said...

@WynkendeWorde thanks for the article - that's really useful. Maybe I should give the web-browser another go. I think the cause of my frustration was navigation rather than page rendering.

@VP I'm afraid I haven't spent 99p on subscribing to your blog on Kindle! Presumably you can't offer it for free via Amazon. There is a read-aloud function, I tried it briefly but didn't see the point for me.

Anne Wareham said...

I love my Kindle, but, strangely, I haven't thrown my house load of books away, just started adding to them a lot less. (relief)

So still have pile of books by the bed, in the bathroom, on the floor....


SomeBeans said...

@Stephen_Curry (on twitter) book sizes vary. 500Kb is about standard for a book with no pictures. The Sustainable energy book, with many illustrations is 10MB.
MP3 playback quality is OK. The external speakers are a little better than a mobile phone and there is a headphone socket too.But the player is absolutely basic - 2 controls: pause, skip track!
The text to speech functionality is OK too, sounds better than Hawking!

dan rogy said...

Not All E Ink is the Same - Kindle Uses "Pearl", the Latest Generation E Ink for 50% Better Contrast
When considering an ereader, you should ensure that you are getting a device with the latest generation E Ink technology, referred to as "Pearl". Our all-new Kindle uses Pearl, resulting in the best reading experience possible with 50% better contrast and the sharpest text. named our Pearl display a "Best of What's New 2010" winner stating, "The newest Kindle's most impressive achievement (among others, including a reduced size and a slashed price) is its E Ink Pearl screen, which is just an absolute pleasure to behold."
How Electronic Ink Works
Electronic ink screens work using ink, just like books and newspapers, but display the ink particles electronically. People who see the display for the first time do a double take because the screen looks like real paper.
No Eye Strain - Reads Like Real Paper, Not a Computer Screen
Kindle's electronic ink display is ideal for reading because it does not create the same eyestrain as reading on traditional backlit LCD tablets or laptops.
Clearer Text and the Sharpest Display
Electronic ink uses actual ink to create crisp, print-like text similar to what you see in a physical book. Kindle's proprietary, hand-built fonts take advantage of the special characteristics of the ink to make letters clear and sharp.
No Glare, Even in Bright Sunlight
Kindle's screen reflects light like ordinary paper, eliminating the glare created by backlit LCD displays on tablets or smart phones. Kindle can be read as easily in bright sunlight as in your living room.
Longer Battery Life
Electronic ink screens require no power to maintain a page of text, allowing you to read for up to a month on a single charge versus hours on a tablet or smart phone. This low power consumption also means that Kindle, unlike a laptop, never gets warm so you can comfortably read as long as you like.