Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Kindle Review

Posted this on Facebook but figured I would add it here as well.

So, as anyone on my friends list knows, I'm going to Wales this weekend. I'm very excited about getting there, getting on a bike and cycling the Los Lan Cymru for 8 days. What I'm not excited about is the journey from the US to the UK. My flight leaves Pittsburgh at Noon, arrives in Detroit around 1 and then my second leg takes off at something like 7. On the way back its worse... in addition to a multi-hour layover in Detroit, I have an overnight layover in Amsterdam. (I'll be getting in too late to go out and see the sights unfortunately, otherwise this would be an awesome layover!)

Anyway, back in May when I started figuring out what books I'd bring along I realized that with all the layovers I would need to bring a small trunk's worth of books.... or just keep popping into airport book shops and picking up something from the best sellers list. When June rolled around, I found that I had a little extra money in my vacation fund, so I started thinking about getting an e-book reader. And eventually settled on the Kindle, largely due to the periodical delivery service they rolled out this year. I've always wanted to the get the Times delivered, but didn't want to haul pounds and pounds of paper down to the recycling every week.

To give you an idea of how this review will go, let me state up front that my original plan was to get the Kindle, use it on my trip and then sell it on ebay when I got home. That plan has changed.

So, let's start the review proper:

The order process was the standard Amazon order process, nothing fancy and since I'm a Amazon Prime member it arrived in 2 days. All that was great. What was not so great was the packaging. I don't know, maybe I've been ruined by the packaging on Apple products lately, but what I got was a greyish black box made out of what to appeared to be recylced egg cartons with a a matte black label. All the printing was in glossy black, it was readable but didn't really give a good impression. The good thing is that the packaging was clearly made from recycled materials. HURRAY! The down side was that it was clearly done on the cheap, so it gave a poor first impression.


The day it arrived I had to drive my nephew from Pittsburgh to Erie after I got done with work, so I didn't get much of a chance to look at it. I played with it a bit, downloaded a few books from http://www.manybooks.net and put them on, and read one or two pages of "Alice In Wonderland." But I didn't get a long look at it since I was, as they say, at work.

That initial drive through did give me some basics of controlling it, and helped me get over my tendency (after being an ipod touch and iphone user) to try and move around by moving my fingers across the screen. Yup, even though I *knew* it was not a touchscreen, my first instinct was to try and use it that way. Guess I've just been well trained. :)

What I came away from on that initial drive through was a sense of disappointment. "I paid $300 for this? It looks like my old Palm III!" The display was kind of nice, but there was a flash each time I turned a "page", and the layout of the buttons was odd. On the right hand side is "Next Page" and on the left is a small "Prev Page" and a big "Next Page." Still after 20 some days of use, I still make the mistake of hitting "Next Page" on the left when what I mean is "Prev Page."

There is also a little joystick that you can user for navigating on the page. Pushing up or down on the joystick will pop up a cursor on the page. You can then either move to a word to get a definition (really cool!), move to a footnote, or move anywhere on the page and start typing on the chintzy keyboard and leave a note. (Just like writing in the margin.)

Finally, when the screen refreshes (like when you turn a page) there is a flash as the entire screen becomes a negative of the current page, then turns black, then grey and finally shows the new page. Its very jarring when you first experience it, and worse yet the display is a light grey color, kind of like cheap grey recycled construction paper. Not the brilliant white that I'd expect from an LCD screen in this price range.

So yeah, first impression was bleh, but I went ahead and ordered my 14 day trial subscription to the Times and then headed off to drive my nephew to Erie.

The next day, I woke up, made breakfast and sat down to the Times. The layout of the delivered paper is kind of cool. When you first enter it, you are given the story on the top left of the front page. You can then either continue to page through the rest of the paper using Next/Prev or you can go to the "Section List" From there you can pick the various sections (National, International, Sports, Arts, etc) and either flip through summaries of the articles by selecting the number of articles in the section, or page through them by selecting the name of the section. The joystick can also be used to jump from article to article. So if you have some time on your hands you can leisurely peruse the paper, or if your running late you can zoom through only hitting the articles of interest.

Granted, you can get all this content on line these days... but there are no ads in the Kindle edition, and the layout makes it very easy to navigate. Worth $13.99/month? For me yeah, < 50 cents a day for an easy to read, no advertisement paper is well worth it.

So that was cool, I decided to press on and try reading an actual book. It was a Saturday and I had no plans so I purchased a collection of Charles Dickens books and started reading "Great Expectations." I started at some point in the morning, perhaps 10ish... the next thing I knew I had to turn on a light because it was starting to get dark. (For those who don't know, there is no back light on a kindle for technical reasons which I'll explain later.) Yup, I had read for something like 8-10 hours solid and no eyestrain or headache. Also, at some point, I stopped noticing the page refreshes. If I thought about them as I went from page to page I would notice them... but if I was just reading along they just didn't register anymore.

Clearly, if I can sit and read a novel that demands attention like this for 8-10 hours with 1) no eyestrain or headache and 2) not noticing that the time is flying by then there is something to this device!

Since then I've finished reading "Great Expectations" and moved on to "Death From The Skies!" by the Bad Astronomer, selected because 1) the Bad Astronomer rocks and 2) I knew it would have lots of pictures, figures and footnotes.

Pictures are rendered in greyscale, and are pretty high resolution. If you want to see a better view of it, you can maneuver down to the image with your joystick and see it full screen. Overall, the quality is very satisfying although color would be preferred. :) The only down side is that the viewing software won't show you half an image. So if you are reading a page that has a few sentences and the rest is a picture, you may end up with an almost completely blank page followed by the image. I'm sure that makes the most sense, but takes getting use to.

Footnotes work, you move the joystick down to the number then select it and you are taken to the footnote. Its nice, however it would be nice if the navigation cycled you through the footnotes first, and then let you navigate around the page. If a footnote is half way down the page, on the left hand side, it takes a while to get to, so either changing the navigation or enabling some form of touchscreen on the next model would be preferred.

And I think that gets to one of the core issues with the Kindle. It is in the uncanny valley of user friendliness. On the one hand, it is very easy to use. On the other, for most tasks it is so easy to use that when you are faced with doing something more difficult it seems like a bigger hassle then it really is.

Take emailing an article to someone. I recently found an article in the Times that I wanted to send to a friend. Now, you think with a device that is connected to a 3G network, this would be simple, right? Perhaps pop up a menu and select "Email To..." Nope, I had to find the article online *using my computer* and then email a link. WTF? I have the article here on my internet enabled device, and I can't even send a link to article to a friend. That is just silly.

In the same arena, while it is great that you can annotate the text of a book or article at anytime, and retrieve that annotation later, it would be much more useful if you could share your annotations with other people reading the same book. If I'm reading War And Peace, you can bet that there are at least some readers out there who would have interesting things to say. So why not wiki-fy these annotations?

Neither of these are technically difficult tasks, for both I could probably whip up a prototype in a week or so. But again we see unrealized potential, Amazon isn't pushing an SDK for the Kindle... so I can't through something together and let other users download and install it.

Ok, back to the good stuff. Lets talk about this display.

Amazon and other ebook manufacturers like to talk about their displays. The truth is that most of them are using some variation of electronic paper. In fact the Sony e-readers and the Kindle use the exact same display. There are several variations on the basic technology, which can be read about at wikipedia.

At the simplest level, electronic paper works just like regular paper and ink, only the ink is able to reform itself into to new shapes (say moving from one page to another) fairly easily. It sounds kinda Harry Potter-ish, doesn't it? For most forms of EP (or maybe all, I'm no expert), the ink can hold its shape when the display is turned off. So, for example, when you put your Kindle to sleep it displays a picture of a famous author, scientist or piece of art.

The result of this is that rather than have an image that is lit from behind and is refreshing every 1/60th - 1/120th of a second, when you are reading an EP display you see a constant image that relies completely on reflected light. In other words, when using an e-book reader you *are* looking at a printed page. So there is no eyestrain (unless it is too dark to be reading) when you sit a read for hours on end. And for perhaps the same reason, there is no urge to skim the material. (I don't know about you, but when I come across a 10 page long email or blog post, I tend to skim... often without realizing that I'm doing it.)

Once you get use to the fact that the background is light grey and the flashing as it changes pages, the display is truly amazing. Images and text appear crisp and clean, the only time I've noticed any pixelation is when I've looked *very* closely at the display... with my nose a centimeter or two from the screen.

Battery Life

There isn't much to say here, the battery life is adequate. If you leave the 3G network on, the battery will last between 3 days and a week (depending on how much you read). If you turn it off, I've heard other users say that they charge their Kindle once a month.

The Network

The Kindle comes with 3G service provided by Sprint, and is primarily used for the delivery of books. You can also email documents to your kindle, but depending on the format of the email you may get charged for it. (I have not tried this feature.) So far, in the Pittsburgh area I've gotten good reception.

For international travelers, the wireless network will not work outside of the US and Canada. So for me, on my trip to Wales I will be without wireless for the entire trip. (Not entirely true, there is a way to share your computers network with your Kindle.)

The Browser

Buried in the menus there is an option for browsing the web. If you want to relive 1996, this would be the way to do it. The browser in its default mode is little better than Netscape 2.0. It has an advanced mode that makes things a little better... but not much. For techies, the default mode ignores CSS and javascript. The "advanced mode" seems to apply CSS 1.0, but still no javascript. Its functional, and interesting in its own way... but not very useful if you have any kind of laptop or smartphone in a 10 mile radius. I can only hope that it will improve as time goes on.

Text To Speech

One of the big additions with the Kindle 2 was the addition of Text To Speech, meaning that you can have your Kindle read to you. Some people seem very excited by this, but I'm not sure I see it. Yeah, as one reviewer pointed out it could be useful if you are reading on your porch and the light is getting dim but you still want to finish the chapter you are on... or if you are riding on the train, arrive at your station and want to continue hearing the story while you walk to your final destination.

However, like pretty much all Text to Speech it doesn't capture the inflections that someone actually reading the text would imbue into their reading. While the voice sounds pretty good, it is still fairly mono-toned. While it might be useful for short bits (like the scenarios above), it is hardly a substitute for a good voice actor or just reading the book yourself.

The Store

Amazon makes many boasts about the number of titles in its store, and its wireless delivery. Basically, if you've shopped at amazon with 1-Click on, you know what happens. You find your book, click a button and within a few minutes the book is on your Kindle (or ipod touch/iphone). You can also download samples of books and then purchase them after you've read 10-30 pages. This part of the experience is very nice, you can shop from your computer or your Kindle, and it all just seamlessly works.

Digital Rights Management

Here is my biggest complaint with Amazon and the Kindle, the DRM or Digital Rights Management. When you buy a book pretty much anywhere in the world, you can lend it out, re-sell it, tear it up to tiny bits and jump up and down on them... whatever. You have what is called "The Right Of First Sale" (I think I got that right.) It is through this right, which as a fine and long legal history, that we can have used bookstores, libraries and all kinds of other cool things. The Kindle and other e-book readers put additional restrictions through the use of software to prevent me from, say, going down to my library and loading up on books for my trip. Nope, can't do that, have to actually *buy* each book. (Or get public domain books for free through Amazon or ManyBooks.net.)

I have many issues with DRM both technical and political. I don't appreciate being told what I can and can't do with an item I purchased, as long as what I want to do is legal. DRM puts a straitjacket on the content I've purchased, and many free/open source, consumer rights and other organizations are working to try and prevent the spread of DRM. They should be supported, however ultimately DRM is a losing battle for the companies that provide it. They spend a good deal of money creating these software based solutions, and numerous hackers around the world spend their time trying to crack the same solutions. It ends up being a very costly arms race, and one that the hackers are almost sure to win.

So while I am concerned about DRM, I think ultimately it will be phased out for movies and books much like it is currently being phased out for music. The rewards for cracking these technologies is great enough that hackers will crack them, so then a new version must be developed which will be cracked, and so on. Eventually, the ebook producers will have no choice but to give up and find other solutions to the problem.

(Yes, I know many people disagree with that point of view. I'm not saying not to worry about it, in fact I urge you to give to any organization that is fighting it.... various open source/free software coalition such as the Free Software Foundation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation or your local library. I'm just saying that I don't see DRM as a reason to not buy the Kindle per se.)

Conclusion

As I said, I'm going to be keeping my Kindle when I get back from Wales. Why, you might ask, would I do that if I have a long list of issues with the machine?

When it comes down to it, I have been reading more since I got my Kindle than I did before. I've always been a reader, but now rather than watching cable news in the morning, I read the New York Times... rather than watching 2 hours of television a night, I'm watching 1 and then reading the rest of the evening. For all of its faults, it is serving its purpose... I enjoy reading with it.

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