22 May 2012

A book by any other name…

I hope my poor Shakespearian reference may be excused, but I feel it’s appropriate given the subject at hand: the Kindle. It’s been more than a year since I bought one and in the mean time Amazon has already launched a new generation and there’s even talk about future models with color (no, not the Fire!) or backlit screens. I also had some experience before with a Sony e-book reader. Ever since I wanted to share a couple of thoughts about it on the blog, so now I finally got around to it.

I heard a lot of people talking about ‘the special feel of printed books’ and how they can’t get used to reading on a screen, even on e-paper. I never had that impression, maybe because I consider the physical support less important than the content, the message of the book. And let’s face it: printed books have many disadvantages over the electronic version: they’re heavier, bulkier, you can’t annotate or set bookmarks without leaving lasting marks, you can’t do full text search or look up words you don’t know in the built-in dictionary. The only advantages of classical books that come to mind are the fact that you can easily skim trough and that you don’t need any power to read one – although the Kindle can handle about a month of reading without a recharge. In fact the last couple of times I forgot to check the battery level and had to apply an emergency solution: I recharged it at work with a Samsung changer borrowed from a colleague – hooray for standard USB connectors!

The switch to e-books didn’t change my reading habits much; for one I do more reading than before because it’s easier to carry a Kindle around than a paperback – the bigger the book, the more advantageous the Kindle becomes. I am also becoming more critical about the books I read, abandoning some after a mere dozen pages. It’s easy to account for this, because with a physical book you wouldn’t have an alternative around if you didn’t liked what you picked up; instead with the Kindle you practically have a whole library of untouched books at your fingertips, ready to supply you with another title if the current one doesn’t feel interesting.

Kindle photo session in full sunlight (John Steinbeck screensaver)The Kindle emphasizes the library concept with some subtle hints in the interface: if you noticed the string of dots underneath book titles they actually act as a progress bar, indicating how much of the book you read. This way you can distinguish at a glance between read (bold dots) and unread books (lighter dots). Also, the length of this bar is directly related to the length of the book. There’s also the Collections feature allowing you to group similar books and unclutter the main screen – curiously it only works after you connect the device to an Amazon account. There are other subtle ways to make the experience better: the software remembers the reading progress per document, so you can navigate to other books or documents and return to the same page without manually placing a bookmark. There is also an indication of progress in the current reading session, marked by a small arrow above the progress line at the bottom of the page. And speaking of bookmarks, there is a shortcut to add one: click an arrow button to start a selection and then double-click the 5-way selector in the center – no need to go through the menu for that!

Another thing that comes up a lot in relation to the Kindle is the comparison to the iPad. While I don’t own one (I don’t plan to either), I can get a rough idea from my iPhone. The Kindle clearly has better dimensions for mobile use; I saw a couple of iPads and other tablets in the subway on my way to work and they looked positively awkward compared to my smaller Kindle. I actually don’t see the two products competing, they are simply designed for different purposes. The iPad/iPhone can have multiple uses, limited only by the apps and the availability of a data connection, and so are much closer to a traditional PC. The Kindle instead is focused on the reading experience. Sure, you can also browse and shop in the Kindle store or share quotes on or , but the core remains the digital book. Just notice how the interface fades away when you start reading to remove all distractions for the reader. If I check the iPhone multiple times a day for short bursts of information, I fire up the Kindle when I have enough time for a longer, uninterrupted, session – and consequently I probably use the Kindle more in the course of a day.

With the Kindle, you’re becoming absorbed in a story for an hour or more at a time. You can read in bed, right before you go to sleep, without worrying that it will rile you up. To the contrary, the Kindle relaxes you. You might even take it outside to the pool or to the hammock. Flight attendants will chastise the iPhone-using passenger next to you as the plane descends for landing; but you, the gentle Kindle user, she’ll merely touch on the shoulder and tell you with a smile to make sure your seatbelt is securely fastened. Mark Jaquith

My only complaint regarding the Kindle is, naturally, the small number of file formats it supports – basically only their own proprietary e-book format. They also theoretically render PDF files, but I found that support half-baked; PDF documents aren’t reflowed on the smaller screen, so if you have A4-sized pages you need to scroll many times left to right to read the text – changing the screen orientation to landscape doesn’t help much. If you have the document in another format, it’s better in my experience to generate a PDF-file myself using a paper size close to the physical dimensions of the Kindle screen (about 9 by 12.5cm or paper size A6). Or you can use their free conversion service by email, which requires an Amazon account, or third-party software like Calibre. Other services – like klip.me – allow you to send pages from the Internet wirelessly to the Kindle, especially useful for long articles I don’t have the patience to read in a single session on the web.

E-ink feels peaceful to me. The Kindle doesn’t feel like a computer. It feels — not to the touch but to the eyes and mind — like a crudely-typeset and slightly smudgily-printed paper book. That’s a good thing. Battery life is un-computer-like as well: Amazon measures e-ink Kindle battery life in months, and they’re not joking. It’s a surprise when the Kindle actually needs a charge. I was a doubter until I owned one, but now I’m convinced that e-ink readers have tremendous value even in the post-iPad world. John Gruber

The most intriguing thing about the Kindle (and the Sony reader I used for a couple of months in Germany) was the reaction of people who saw me using it. I was approached by many to ask me about the device and the experience, people interested in purchasing e-book readers themselves, or who offered to sell me a cover – it was actually a good deal and I took it! But the reflex I encountered the most was to touch the screen and the slight disappointment that it didn’t react. I wonder where did they get that idea…

Another navigation trick I discovered recently is that you can jump to the previous or next chapter by moving the five-way-controller to the left or right; this is only available in some books and you can spot the ones by the small black markers in the progress bar, which also indicate the position of the chapters inside the book.

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