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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Konfessions of a Kindle Konvert

by Bruce Bethke

I hate to do things halfway. My enthusiasms seem to have only two settings: either I approach new things grudgingly and reluctantly, or else with an over-the-top intensity that frightens mere mortals. In tech industry marketing terms I seem to be composed of equal parts early-adopter and Luddite, although I prefer to think of this behavior as merely one more expression of the never-ending battle between hope and experience.

All of which is meant as preamble, to explain how, in the space of one month, I went from being a dedicated fan of reading information preserved in ink printed on portions of processed dead trees, to owning not one but three ebook readers, and being very worried about our prospects for unloading the more than ten-thousand used books that K&B Booksellers currently has in the warehouse.

This is a big topic, though, so rather to try to cram it all into one post, I am going to kick off a series of new columns, beginning today. In the weeks to come I hope to discuss the pros and cons of print vs electronic media, the virtues and vices of the various competing e-book readers and reading programs, the processes I'm using to convert my existing books to e-media, and the processes I'm using to create new content for direct-to-ebook publication. Finally, it is profoundly to be hoped, I will discuss my experiences with selling ebooks via the various online stores.

Today, though, let's begin with a quick overview of the three competing e-readers we currently have on-hand: the Barnes & Nobles Nook, Amazon Kindle, and Aluratek Libre.

By the way, to answer the question everyone asks first: the above photo was taken outdoors, this morning, with all three devices laying on a table in direct summer sunlight, and with all three devices powered up. Yes, there is an ebook on display on the Libre screen. Can't you see it?

Neither can I.

The Amazon Kindle
We'll start with the Kindle, because this is the 900-lb. gorilla of the trade and the device that really kicked the industry off, hence the title of this column. There were earlier e-book readers, some of which still have their devoted fan bases, but none really clicked with the buying public en masse. I have been keeping my eye on this market for some years, checking out each new e-reader as it became available, but thus far have found them all seriously wanting.

Until about two months ago, when I first began looking seriously at the Kindle.

Actually, I'd begun trying to look at the Kindle much earlier, but prior to that time could only find them in Best Buy and then could never find both a working display model and a salesclerk who knew jack at the same time. (These days, whenever we go into Best Buy, Karen has taken to poking me in the ribs when a salesclerk asks, "Can I help you?" to keep me from answering, "I seriously doubt it.")

A few months ago, though, the Kindles showed up in the electronics department of Target, and all that changed. The display models worked; the salesclerks were polite and knowledgeable; and no one was trying to demonstrate a 110-db bi-amped subwoofer fifty feet away from where we were trying to have a conversation. When Karen discovered she could actually use the Kindle without having to read a manual, first, she was pretty much sold. When they dropped the price to $114 for the "special offers" version, that clinched it. I bought her a wi-fi graphite special offers version for Mother's Day, and it's been her constant companion ever since.

First Impressions: About the size of a trade-paperback book, the Kindle really scores in two key areas: readability and ease of use. The screen is big, clear, and extremely readable, even in direct summer sunlight. It's not backlit; you can't read it in the dark. But reading it indoors at night requires no more light than an ordinary book.

I also want to stress: this thing is easy to use. The controls are simple and clearly marked. If you can work a TV remote, you can use a Kindle.
Karen, who is still trying to figure out how to use many of the features of her newest cell phone, became proficient in using her Kindle in about five minutes.

Another important aspect of the usability experience, and one that I didn't take seriously at first, is the absolutely seamless integration with the Amazon Kindle store. Karen can finish reading a novel, decide that she'd like to check out more books by the same author, and have the next book selected, bought, and downloaded in under three minutes. Obviously, there is a tremendous incentive here for authors to write novels that never actually end but are merely the latest installments in the ongoing adventures of their lead character.

The Kindle is thin, lightweight (7.9 oz), and absolutely stone reliable. It quickly became apparent that she needed to be careful about where she set it down, because it could easily be mistaken for a coaster, and it needs to wear a jacket whenever it goes into Karen's purse or bookbag, strictly for its own protection. Fortunately there are a wide variety of Kindle jackets now on the market, sufficient to suit nearly all budgets and tastes, and suitably equipped, it's now become her constant companion whenever she's going somewhere where she expects she might have to wait.

Quirks: The Kindle has some distinct oddities. It really shines at displaying .mobi format files, but has only marginally adequate support for .pdf or other format files. It has surprisingly good built-in stereo speakers and the capacity to play MP3 files, but we haven't tested that to any great extent yet. The built-in software includes a web browser that does not even rise to the level of mediocre and a text-to-speech converter that still has a long way to go; however, if you've always wondered what Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" would sound like if recited by a Dalek, it's definitely an experience worth trying.

The controls and jacks, on the bottom edge of the device, are, from left to right, a volume rocker switch, standard mini headphone jack, a tiny pinhole which hides a reset switch, a micro USB port, and the power switch, which is a spring-loaded slider. Charging is done via the USB port. It comes with a power adapter and USB cable that can be used to recharge the Kindle directly off AC wall power, or it also begins recharging whenever you plug the USB cable into a computer. We don't really have a sense of what battery life is like, because, so far and despite heavy use, we have not run the batteries down significantly.

It's definitely worth noting that when the USB cable is plugged into a computer, the computer sees the Kindle as a USB memory device, and transferring your own files to the Kindle is as easy as writing to a thumb drive. One feature I thought I would miss, before I actually started using it, is that the Kindle lacks an SD card socket. Which brings us to:

The Aluratek Libre
Once I discovered just how easy it was to use the Kindle—and more importantly, how easy it was to create good-looking content in .mobi format for the Kindle—I decided I needed to pick up another reader, to have one that read the other major ebook file format, .epub, natively. The unit I picked for this purpose was the Libre Color, primarily because it was very, very cheap.

The Libre has some interesting virtues. First off, it has a backlit full-color display, which displays color photos very well and makes the Libre readable even when the Kindle is, pardon the expression, completely in the dark.

The tradeoff for this, unfortunately, is that the Libre is just about unreadable in direct sunlight.

The second major virtue is that it support an enormous range of file formats, including, rather interestingly, digital video formats. I downloaded the complete Rocketship X-M from the Prelinger Archives and thoroughly enjoyed watching it, right up until the moment when I realized I must have been confusing it with some other and much better old sci-fi movie with the same name that I remembered fondly from my childhood. The sound was terrible through the Libre's tiny built-in speaker, but very good through headphones.

Third, the Libre comes with a substantial library of public domain books already loaded, which might have some value to someone. Most, I found, were rather poorly formatted, and clearly grabbed wholesale from some archive somewhere and otherwise given very little attention. If you're going to pre-load your e-reader with the Great Classic of Western Literature, you could at least take the time to clean up all the "author unknown" tags. (Hint: the name of the author of The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe probably is known.)

After that, the list of the Libre's virtues gets pretty short. The thing is heavy: at 13 ounces, almost twice the weight of the Kindle. The Aluratek technical support was very fast, responsive, and competent—but then, I didn't need to contact technical support for any of the other readers. When plugged into a computer via the USB cable it does behave as a thumb drive; but once connected, the Libre's internal file structure was...unclear. I had to do some guessing and experimenting in order to put files in the places they needed to be in order to be accessible later.

As for the bottom-edge ports and controls:

The power switch is a push-button, which as far as I'm concerned is a serious design fail. I'm constantly turning the thing on by accident and draining the batteries flat dead before I notice that I've done so. The device does have an SD card slot, but after using it a few times, I've concluded that this is more of an advertising feature than a useful one; it's far better to load data via USB. Speaking of USB, oddly enough the device has a jack for a conventional battery charger, but comes with only a USB charger.

However, the area in which the Libre really falls down badly is in the user interface. This device uses the sort of Byzantine menu-driven command structure only a software engineer could love, and I'll have lots more to say about it in a future review.

But for now, suffice to say that it's an interesting device—I really like the support for such an impressive range of file formats, and I've no doubt we'll be giving it heavy use as a file-format test-bed machine—but it certainly is not the e-book reader I'd recommend to anyone but a dedicated techie. Which comment enables us to segue neatly to:

The new Barnes & Nobles Nook Simple Touch Reader
I'm putting this one side-by-side with the Kindle to illustrate some key points:

It's smaller and lighter than a Kindle—15/16" shorter, 1/8" narrower, and .6 oz lighter, to be exact—which makes it closer in size to a mass-market paperback than the Kindle's trade-paperback size, albeit 3/4" wider than the typical mass-market pb. (Which also, unfortunately, means it won't fit in Kindle jackets.) There is no web browser, no text-to-speech, in fact no audio capabilities of any kind, hence no speakers, headphone jacks, or volume controls. Those ridges on the sides of the screen take the place of the Kindle's paging buttons, and other than them, there are just two buttons: a power button on the back (very stiff and hard to press accidentally), and that thing they call the "n" button, but to me looks like a croquet wicket.

But in truth, although those paging ridges exist, I've yet to use them, because everything else is controlled via a remarkably intuitive touch screen interface. With this version, the Nook folks have finally come up with a stripped-down and price-competitive e-book reader that is every bit as readable as a Kindle, while being even easier to use. Which suggests to me that this is the e-book reader that might be able to give the Kindle a serious run for its money, and along the way stealing the iPad's lunch.

But that's a topic for another column.

To be continued...
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