Nicolas314

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In bed with Amazon’s Kindle

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Amazon Kindle

Amazon Kindle

Electronic books are the future of reading. Or so it would seem if you read any news on the topic since about a year. Everybody is expecting electronic reading devices to take over dead-tree books any day now, slowly pushing ink and paper into the attic.

Your e-book reader for now will come into one of these flavours:

  • A dedicated e-ink reader like Amazon’s Kindle
  • A tablet like Apple’s iPad or Samsung’s Galaxy Tab
  • Another device running an e-reader, like an iPod, a Palm, or any recent smartphone with enough software for the task

Backlit screens are usually not recommended for long reading tasks and could cause insomnia according to recent research on the topic. Which gives even more arguments to look into e-ink readers and see if they are really worth it.

I recently got my hands on an Amazon Kindle (thanks Ben!) for a bit less than a week and spent some time playing with it extensively. The version I had claimed to be a version 3, purchased in October 2010 directly from Amazon. Here are some of my feelings about it.

The object itself

The Kindle is a fairly light device, about the same weight as a 300-p paperback, which means you can decently hold it in one hand for an hour and not feel fatigue building up. Apple’s iPad by comparison weighs a ton.

This version sports a complete US keyboard at the bottom, which sounds like a nice idea but turns out to be more cumbersome than useful. When holding the Kindle for a reading session I constantly find myself clicking on keys and bringing up a search or annotation menu. The navigation keys are two large buttons on each side of the device and they are easily reached and clicked, which means I spent a lot of time navigating by mistake until I found a correct way to hold the device. Between the integrated keyboard at the bottom and these bars, finding the right position took some time to train muscle memory.

Looks like paper

Electronic ink really looks like paper. The screen resolution is so good you do not see any aliasing: letters are round, serif is just perfect, big titles are smooth and clearly legible with no efforts. The lack of backlight is really a bonus as it forces you to use indirect lighting which is much easier on the eyes. Changing from one page to another refreshes the whole screen by flashing it all but this is not really disturbing while you read. I read the equivalent of a 1000-page book over 3 days and did not destroy my eyes, which is a sign that this is a true replacement for paper and ink.

PDF reader

I have thrown all kinds of PDF documents at the Kindle and the outcome is not really good. Whether text-based or image-based, PDF files tend to be rendered with smallish, aliased or partially erased fonts, making it hard to read for extended periods of time. This is definitely a deal-breaker for me as I have a huge amount of PDF docs that could really use a portable reader. Not a complete surprise though: most PDFs I have are meant to be printed as A4 documents and the Kindle is smaller than A5. Viewing a full page means half-sized letters, quickly demanding for the eyes.

Text-based books (txt, mobi formats) offer the only real alternative there, which means you should plan to dedicate a Kindle to reading fiction rather than working on PDF documents.

Technical books

Technical books are really specific products that require a bit more than just visualization. If you read a book about Web design or CSS gardening you want to have an easily reachable table of contents, an index, and hyperlinks all over to jump from one topic to another. You rarely read a technical book from first to last page in that order, and the Kindle is not really suited to jumping around text. Granted: table of contents, index and hyperlinks are there but in order to access them you need to juggle with the keyboard arrow keys and menus, taking you off your thread of thought for long enough that you end up avoiding using them altogether. What you really want for that kind of content is clickable stuff: hover your finger above a word and see its definition, popup a quick help for example, offer to switch to a hyperlinked page. You also want a table of contents that can be loaded at any point and a Back button to return to your initial reading once you are finished with footnotes. This will not happen until the Kindle gets a touchscreen.

I have been pretty harsh with the device though: the first technical book I tried was a thick volume about Unicode (originally in CHM format) containing all possible Unicode characters in reference, weird glyphs everywhere and sentences where the flow is suddenly reversed like quoting Hebrew in an English sentence, among other text-displaying hurdles. The poor Kindle just crashed after a few pages. Hint: when the thing is borked beyond any hope of recovery you need to hold the power button in the ON position for 15 seconds, then release it and wait a couple of minutes for it to reboot.

Next thing I tried was a C/C++ book containing lots of source code and the font used for rendering on these was quite poor. Ok: source code in technical books is mostly aimed for copy/paste from a computer screen but still, it would have been nice to have more comfort in case I really wanted to dig into source from an e-book reader.

Supported formats

Loading books on the Kindle could not be easier: use the microUSB cable to connect it to your computer and you will see it as regular mass-storage containing book files, which means you can manage it from any OS. I used both OSX and Ubuntu without any issue. Excellent!

There is about a gazillion e-book formats out there and the Kindle best supports plain text and mobi. Converting between formats requires the odd software and the best I could find for now is calibre.

Converting between similar formats mostly works, though it can take some time for the conversion software to perform its job. The infamous Microsoft CHM format used by many technical books seems to remain a really hard task for converters though. Calibre took once more than 15 minutes to convert a 3 Mb document on a recent PC and the output was really awful. If you stick to fiction and similar books you should be fine, but if you want to start from more exotic formats, expect to loose some information (and hair) in the process.

What would the ideal e-book look like?

An ideal e-book reader should integrate text and images and support all kinds of formats, especially complicated PDF documents. It should have a touchscreen to allow better user interaction and avoid having too many keys and buttons to avoid unwanted interactions. And having been spoiled by my iPod, I could not imagine an e-book reader without multi-touch for zooming in and out.

In my humble opinion, the Kindle fits the bill to replace paperback fiction but is still a long way away from establishing itself as a PDF or technical document reader. Overall a very good impression, though I will definitely wait for future touchscreen-enabled versions before I purchase one.

Is it worth purchasing one? Not sure. The price tag for the device is pretty high (about 150 euros including taxes and shipping) for something that seems bound to replace 5-euro paperbacks by $15 electronic books. I have no idea how the publishing industry can come up with electronic books priced just as much as hardbacks but this is absolute nonsense. I am ready to shell out a little bit less than a paperback: expect from me 3-4 euros per electronic book, or you will just get nothing at all from me. Finding DRM-less e-books is about as difficult as typing the title on Google and appending +download.

 

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Written by nicolas314

Monday 15 November 2010 at 11:28 pm

Posted in e-books, hardware, kindle

Tagged with , , ,