Friday, November 28, 2008

2008 Gift Guide: The Kindle -- An Uncle John Review

Uncle John bought a Kindle a few months ago, and has rarely been without it since. He offered to write a review of it for this fine blog, and I now suspect that he made the offer because even Amazon wasn't willing to let him go on for 2,498 words about the damn thing. But, as with all John Cusey Joints, it's worth it. I would ask him to give a simple thumbs up/ thumbs down summary, but he's too busy thumb-fucking his Kindle. So let's take that as a "yea."

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Back in the mid ‘90s, my friend Ben got himself a Palm Pilot. Shortly afterwards, he proudly told me that he had been reading some book or other on said Palm Pilot. I thought that he was nuts. Well, okay, I would have thought that he was nuts regardless; but reading a book on a postage stamp didn’t sound like my idea of fun. From then up until a couple of months ago, that continued to be my opinion of e-books and e-book readers: what’s the point? I don’t want to read books on a desktop or laptop, and all available dedicated e-book readers seemed like glorified PDAs with too much crammed onto them or crippled laptops that didn’t have enough functionality. I remember hearing something about Amazon coming out with an e-book reader about a year ago, but paper books worked perfectly fine for me, thank you very much.

A few months ago, I was wandering through my friendly neighborhood Borders when I noticed a display with this little brushed aluminum gadget that measured perhaps seven inches by five inches. Upon closer examination, I discovered that it was a Sony PRS-505 e-book reader. It was immediately obvious that this device was different from my preconceived notions of e-book readers. The screen was large enough so that you could actually read a reasonable amount at a time. Furthermore, it wasn’t LCD, and it wasn’t back-lit. It looked more like black type on a paper-like pale gray background. And you could change the size of the font at the touch of a button. I played around with it for a few minutes and was very impressed. Here was something lightweight and very portable that could haul a vast amount of reading material and present it on a reasonably sized screen that didn’t have the drawbacks of LCD. This was something that I could get behind.

These are cute, no?

Further research showed that the PRS-505’s display was something called E Ink (made, surprisingly enough, by the E Ink Corporation; and originally developed at MIT), “a paper-like high contrast appearance, ultra-low power consumption, and a thin, light form. It gives the viewer the experience of reading from paper, while having the power of updatable information,” as the E Ink website has it. What does that mean? As a practical matter, it means two things. First, where LCD displays are hell on batteries, E Ink displays are very, very gentle. Second, where LCD displays are inherently rough on the eyes because they are high-glare and backlit, E Ink displays are not. There are a couple of downsides to E Ink, of course: for right now, it’s black-and-white only – color is currently in the laboratory, but it’s not economically feasible just yet; and it takes an E Ink display much longer to change what is being shown than it would an LCD display. Therefore, it’s not viable for use as, say, a PDA screen. But as an e-book screen, those two deficiencies don’t matter that much.

There are currently three families of e-book readers that use E Ink displays: Sony (in addition to the PRS-505, there is also a PRS-500, which is very similar to the PRS-505 but with an older-generation display, and the PRS-700, which was introduced within the last couple of months), the iRex iLiad readers, and the Amazon Kindle. The iLiad readers are several hundred dollars more expensive than the Sony or Amazon readers, so it was immediately out of the running. That left the Sony reader and the Amazon Kindle.

I chose the Kindle. It’s undeniably true that the Kindle doesn’t look as cool as the Sony reader, but it wins just about every other feature comparison. Both readers can display a variety of different formats, from text and HTML to proprietary Sony (for the Sony reader) and Amazon (for the Kindle) DRM formats, but there is a lot more content available from Amazon for the Kindle than from Sony for their reader. And it’s cheaper, too. The vast majority of new-release books are $9.99 for the Kindle and at least two or three dollars more for the Sony.

The method of delivery is superior for the Kindle, too. With the Sony, you have to use a USB cable to transfer the e-books from a laptop or desktop PC to the reader. You can do that with the Kindle, too, but you can also have the books delivered wirelessly – the Kindle connects to Sprint’s wireless network (for no additional charge or monthly rate), and books you buy from Amazon are downloaded instantly to your Kindle. And suppose that you want to get some Gibbon that you picked up from Project Gutenberg onto the Kindle, too. Well, you just e-mail it to @kindle.com, and it will appear within a minute or so. (That, unlike the transfer when you buy from Amazon, isn’t free – it’s $0.10 per e-mail, and e-mails can only come from previously-registered e-mail addresses so you don’t have to worry about having to pay for spam. Note that transferring via USB cable is always an option.)

Look kids, Big Ben!

With that Sprint wireless connection, you can shop on Amazon for books, too; and if you want to see if you’ll like a book before shelling out the money for it, Amazon has free samples of a chapter or two available for most titles. With e-book readers, content is king, and Amazon has more and cheaper content than does Sony. Furthermore, due to Amazon’s place in the bookselling industry, I would think that they have significantly more clout with publishers and a better chance of making a successful go of their reader and their proprietary DRM format than Sony. That’s important – these things are expensive, and it would be unfortunate if new books were not available for them at some point in the future because publishers didn’t think that it was worth their while to produce them.

So Amazon wins on content. The Sony reader is cheaper than the Kindle ($299 vs. $359), but that’s a bit misleading – you have to pay extra for the charger and the cover for the Sony reader, where they are included with the Kindle. Ergonomically, I thought that the big Next and Previous buttons on the Kindle would be superior to the tiny comparable buttons on the Sony. The Sony looks better than the Kindle, but so what? I was considering an e-book reader, not a fashion accessory. And so, after a few weeks of dithering because of the price, I ended up buying the Kindle.

I am very glad that I did. Reading on a Kindle is not like reading on a computer screen. It’s very much like reading a physical book, albeit a physical book with small pages. The E Ink display is perfectly readable both inside and outside, even in bright sunlight. The reading experience is very good. A lot of new users complain that the E Ink display takes too long to switch pages (the time is dependent on the font size and whether the new page has any graphics on it, but I typically get switch times of about 1 second) and that there is a “black flash” – basically, the display reversing the polarity of the type so that the background is black and the letters are light gray as it clears the screen to display the new page – but I have found that neither one of these are particularly noticeable after you have used the device for a while. I have gotten used to pressing the Next button as I reach the last line, and the overall interruption in reading is probably about the same or less than it would be in turning the page of a physical book.

Amazon likes to boast that they have almost 200,000 titles available for the Kindle. That’s dramatically fewer than are available for hard-copy books, and it is a drawback. What I have found is that there are usually Kindle versions of new releases from major publishers, as well as the two or three most recent books from the authors of those new releases. Just about any classic, out-of-copyright work in English that your heart could desire can be found either from Amazon or from sites like Project Gutenberg. The big hole is for works still in copyright from smaller publishing houses or that were published more than 7 or 10 years ago. I would imagine that we will see the same sort of thing that we saw with DVDs, where studios worked backwards over the years until their DVD catalogues were reasonably complete; but for right now, it can be annoying. If you like David Hackett Fischer, for example, you can easily find his new book Champlain’s Dream or Washington’s Crossing or Paul Revere’s Ride, but you’re out of luck if you want to read Albion’s Seed, which was originally published in 1989 and is probably the reason that most of us have ever heard of the guy.

And you can forget about graphics-heavy books on the Kindle. As I have written above, E Ink doesn’t do color yet. In addition, the size of the screen can make pictures and maps hard to read. The Kindle won’t allow you to zoom in or pan on the graphics, either. (You can save the graphics as GIF files, download them to your PC, and zoom or pan using PC-based graphics software. But that’s more effort than I am willing to expend in virtually every case.) So graphical novels, coffee table books, and children’s books are out.

But most fiction and narrative non-fiction works very well with the Kindle. Even books heavy on footnotes do very well, provided that the publisher has properly formatted the footnotes. They can be hyperlinked, allowing the reader simply to click on them to view the citation or explanation, then to press the Back button to resume reading the text. And because it’s possible to carry so much reading material on the Kindle (186 MB onboard memory available for books, which Amazon says is enough to hold around 200 books; there is a slot for an SD card, too, so you can spend $10 and have space for enough reading material for the next few years), frequent context switches are not a problem.

Why don't I have a fur bra?

One of the first e-books that I purchased for my Kindle was David Hackett Fischer’s aforementioned Champlain’s Dream, and my experience with it illustrates the promise and the problems with the Kindle. It’s a fairly large book in hard-copy form – 848 pages. That means that taking it with you to restaurants or on the airplane or to the doctor’s office is not the easiest thing in the world. That’s not a problem with the Kindle version. The Kindle version is substantially cheaper than the hard-copy version, too -- $9.99 vs. $26.40. But Fischer likes pictures and maps, and there are a lot of them in Champlain’s Dream. Most of the pictures are vignette-sized in the hard-copy book, and they come out pretty well in the Kindle version. Not so much the maps. The maps are very difficult to read, and this is unfortunate. I would hope that Amazon adds the ability to zoom and pan on graphics in later versions of either the hardware or the firmware that runs it. This didn’t ruin my ability to enjoy the book, though, and I don’t regret the purchase. (The book itself is very good – perhaps not exactly Albion’s Seed, but still an excellent and very enjoyable book about the foundation of New France.)

Amazon has a handful of newspapers and magazines available as Kindle editions. When I first read about that, I thought that it was useless – most of these publications are available online for free, I reasoned. Nevertheless, I decided to give the Wall Street Journal a try because Amazon offers a free 14-day trial for all newspapers and magazines. Well, let me tell you that a Kindle newspaper beats the pants off an online newspaper or a physical newspaper, at least for the kind of newspaper reading that I do. Unlike a physical newspaper, you don’t get newsprint on your fingers, you don’t have to fold or unfold the pages, and you don’t have to go to page A13 for the continuation of the article. Unlike an online paper, it’s easy to find all that’s present in a particular day’s edition. I let my subscription to the physical Wall Street Journal lapse earlier this year because I didn’t want to pay the money anymore, and I figured that I could get most of the information online. But I didn’t. I read the Kindle version of the paper now where I wasn’t reading the online version before. So yes, it’s easier to search the archives online. But I’ll take the Kindle for daily reading.

One of the standard complaints about the Kindle is that the Next and Previous buttons are too large and are too easy to push accidentally. And so they are, if you don’t put the Kindle into its cover while you’re using it. It’s not really a problem if you use the cover. As I mentioned, the Kindle comes with a cover, and an ugly thing it is, too. It’s black pleather, and it doesn’t really hold the device securely. I quickly bought an aftermarket leather M-Edge Kindle cover (in tan Scotch grain), and I’m much happier with that. Another common complaint is that the Kindle’s design is a tribute to brutalism. “I wish that they had hired Apple’s designers, “ I commonly read in comments and reviews. I could snark here that if Amazon had hired Apple’s designers, the Kindle would have an LCD touch screen, no buttons, and a battery that can only be replaced by Apple at great expense; but that would be unkind. I do think that complaints about the design are overblown, however, and that function is much more important than form. And the Kindle has function.

So is the Kindle worth $359? Well, as with all such questions, it depends. If you don’t read very much, it probably isn’t. Nor is it if most of the books you read come from the library, your friends, or the used bookstore. And if you’re not reading books that are heavy on the prose and light on the graphics, you’re likely to be disappointed. But I like reading prosy books, and I don’t frequently get them second-hand. For me, it has been well worth it. The amount that I’m reading since I bought the Kindle has increased significantly, and I’m not exactly reading crap. For me, it has been worth it, and I don’t regret the purchase at all. The Kindle isn’t cheap, and it’s not perfect. But it is a very good device; and with the marketing muscle of Amazon and Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement behind it, I get the feeling that it’s here to stay.

5 comments:

  1. Mamacita, you are a trip. Love that fur bra! I can't stop laughing.

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  2. Great review!
    We spoke at length about the general spiffyness of electronic paper while holed up for Ike.
    Apparently it is being used now in cell phones for developing countries (FONE F3) and, once the they master full color digital paper, it will even replace those (pointless) power draining LCD picture frames that are popping up in houses.
    I'm not sure what all this has to do with a fur bra though...

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  3. That's my husband -- wants to know all about digital nonsense, but no interest whatsoever in f*ck-me pumps or kinky bras.

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  4. That was a great review and I especially loved the photos that went with it. I have to admit I really do want a Kindle, I was happy to hear he liked it.

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  5. I stumbled on your blog from Decorno, and I have to say, you are hilarious!

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