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Monday, November 8, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Just over three weeks ago, I had a storytelling performance at a Halloween festival (my third year in a row at the festival). I generally use the money earned from such performances for our monthly bills. Just four days after the performance, though, I found myself in need of something to keep me from dwelling on my wife's extended hospital stay. Being a guy, I used my storytelling earnings to buy a new gadget. Specifically, I bought a Kindle e-reader at a local Target. This is my review of the Kindle.

I bought the least expensive of the Kindle models. It connects to WiFi but doesn't have the 3G connectivity which allows owners to access amazon.com at any time. That's more connectivity than I need, especially with all the WiFi hot spots to be found here in Raleigh, including the one in my own house. All of the reviews I've read concerning the Kindle recommended buying some kind of cover as protection in case the unit is dropped. I went ahead and bought a leather cover also distributed by amazon.com. The cover is simple but does what it's designed to do. All told, I put about $170 into the purchase.

The unit leads you through basic setup the first time you turn it on. It's incredibly easy to do and not worth spending any time discussing. Instead, let me tell you why I chose the Kindle over the Barnes & Noble Nook.

Both readers have similar sized screens but differ in how those screens are navigated, with the Nook having a color touch screen for the user interface. The Kindle does everything on the e-ink screen, using a simple four-direction control with an activation button in the center. I tried the Nook at Barnes & Noble and found the interface to be less than intuitive. It wasn't impossible to figure out, but it certainly could have been easier. Conversely, I was easily able to figure out the basic user interface for the Kindle without instructions. I'm sure the Nook would have become second nature to me had I gotten one, but it definitely has a higher learning curve.

Both devices use e-ink displays that are supposed to simulate the look of a page printed on paper. It works very well. The Kindle uses newer e-ink technology and has darker, better looking display. This wasn't a huge telling point, either, as the Nook's screen is easy to read. I just found the Kindle's screen even easier to read.

What was the real deciding point for me was the speed with which the two devices displayed a new page. On both devices, you simply press a button to display the next page. The buttons on both devices are well positioned and the motion to push the button quickly becomes as natural as the motion to turn an actual page in a book. The button scores an advantage over paper since e-ink pages never stick together, causing you to turn more than one page at a time. Conversely, it's entirely possible to accidentally hit the button to turn the page on either device. I've never accidentally turned a paper page in my entire reading life. The Kindle scores over the Nook because the new page displays much more quickly on the Kindle. The Kindle displays the new page about twice as fast as the Nook. It doesn't seem like much, but the extra bit of time waiting for the Nook can take you right out of the story you're reading. The Kindle changes the page at least as fast as I could turning a page in a printed book.

One advantage touted for the Nook over the Kindle is the number of book formats it supports, including the epub format. It's true, the Kindle doesn't support epub. Despite that, I've got several books on my Kindle that originally came in epub format. With only a little bit of looking online, I discovered Calibre, an open-source ebook management application which includes functionality to convert ebook files from one format to another. The software is also designed to help manage the books on whatever ereader you own. It's free, incredibly easy to use, and the first thing you should get after getting any of the popular ereaders.

Truth to tell, I had over 200 ebooks on my Kindle without paying a dime for any of them. Between the Baen Free Library and the Project Guttenberg, I had no trouble finding lots of material to put on the device. (Baen also has a large selection of ebooks you can purchase, including books by authors whose work isn't so easy to find in print these days.) Project Guttenberg has added Kindle formatted versions of the books found on the site (or, at least, all of the books I downloaded from the site). For example, I was able to put 25 books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, including the first five Mars books and the first several Tarzan books, on my Kindle for free. And they were all formatted for the Kindle, so I didn't even have to convert them.

It's worth noting that amazon.com will convert files to Kindle format, too. When you setup your Kindle, an email address is created for the Kindle. Any file sent to that email address will be converted to Kindle format and automatically sent to your Kindle via WiFi. There's no charge for this service (though there may be a charge if you have the 3G version and use the 3G network). You can even send PDFs to your Kindle this way. Include the word "convert" in the subject and the PDF will be converted to work with the Kindle. This works fairly well, though is far from perfect. You can also simply load a PDF directly onto the Kindle and attempt to read it that way, zooming in on the screen to make it large enough to read. I've fiddled with that approach and found it to be far too, well, fiddly. I was always having to adjust the display to see everything, wasting time which could have been spent reading. Honestly, if you're primary goal is to read PDFs on an electronic device, suck it up and buy an iPad. Neither the Kindle nor the Nook is going to be really good at this.

Okay, enough about what the Kindle can and can't do. The big question is, what's it like reading from it? Simply put, it's just like reading a book except I push a button to change pages instead of turning a page. Oh, and there's no book smell, which can be a good thing if the book has a mildew odor or has absorbed smoke odor from being in the house of a smoker. In all the import elements, though, the Kindle completely simulates a book.

Someone reading this bound to be thinking, "Yeah, but I can read all those ebooks on my computer without spending money on an ereader!" That's absolutely correct. No doubt about it. And if you don't mind reading books while sitting at your computer, don't buy an ereader. Personally, I hate reading books on my computer. I spend enough time in front of the computer each day. I don't want to have to read there, too. Besides, I can take the Kindle anywhere and read it at any time. A single charge lasts for weeks (I've recharged my Kindle once since buying it), something you can't claim about even the most energy efficient laptop or netbook. The Kindle also doesn't build up heat. My laptop and my netbook both get really hot after only an hour or so of use. The Apple iPad also builds up heat, I've heard, so it doesn't really score much over the netbook or laptop.

Is the Kindle -- or any ereader -- for you? That's a question you're going to have to answer for yourself.

If you're the kind of person who loves reading older works such as the ebooks available from Project Guttenberg, and don't like reading books on your computer, you should seriously consider an ereader. The cost of the ereader pales compared to the buying even used versions of those books. Instead of waiting for the local used bookstore to get copies of books from Edgar Rice Burroughs or Rudyard Kipling or Robert Louis Stevenson, just grab the books from Project Guttenberg and start reading.

If you're the kind of person who buys books and never gets rid of them, an ereader could save you a lot in the way of storage space. The books aren't much less expensive in electronic format than in paper format, but the Kindle can hold over 3000 books at one time. That's a lot of bookshelves you don't have to buy. It is harder to loan a book to a friend, though families can put several devices on the same account, allowing everyone to read the same book at the same time. (Most ebooks appear to allow the book to be on more than one reader at the same time.)

If you're the kind of person who does lots of trading at used bookstores, well, I don't see much of a second-hand market for ebooks coming along any time soon (if ever).

In the end, I can only speak for myself. I love my Kindle.
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