Reflections of a new Kindle user

Amazon Kindle 3, Tuff-Luv Saddleback case and Barrack Room Ballads

Amazon Kindle 3, Tuff-Luv Saddleback case and Barrack Room Ballads by Rudyard Kipling (1896 edition)

I’m a late adopter of the e-reader or electronic book, despite that fact that I have occasionally used mobile ‘phones and computers to read such publications. Partly this is because such devices were, in my view, too expensive, and partly because I have quite enough ‘real’ books to read already!

But I have always been convinced that the e-reader and – as has been proved by the success of the iPad – the tablet computer, were the way of the future, whatever the naysayers might think.

That’s not to say that I think they will ever completely replace books; there will always, I feel, be much to be said for a fine hardback, and the sight of a full bookshelf is a joy to behold to any lover of the written word.

What I am less enamoured of, however, is the humble paperback, a format which is in many cases, by reason of the low quality of its paper and the flimsiness of its binding, doomed to the dustbin. When I was a teenager, I owned over three hundred paperbacks, because they were all I could afford. Now, most of those are long gone, and if I owned them now they would be brown and crumbling, as well as taking up too much space in my modest library.

So I see the e-reader firstly as a great alternative to the paperback, enabling the owner to carry literally thousands of books in a convenient package taking up no more space than a single conventional book. Ideal for travel, a day at the beach, and the bedside table.  And secondly, by that same distinction, it is clear that, assuming you can find the e-books you desire, you can also use such a device to build up an enormous searchable reference library or collection of books that would otherwise cost a fortune and take up many yards of shelf-space.

I have watched the development of e-readers over the last few years with interest. They have diversified, and in the hand-portable form may now be defined by their display type as well as their degree of specialisation. The two main display types are the old-style LCD colour display, and on the other hand the much easier-on-the-eye and low-power monochrome e-ink display.  There are the dedicated e-readers, deliberately limited in scope to keep down cost, and software-adapted tablet computers such as the ubiquitous but much more versatile – and more expensive – general-purpose iPad.

Now, I’m a died-in-the-wool Apple user, but I have held back from buying an iPad. I find the iPhone 4 more useful as a general purpose tool, albeit the display is much smaller.  I don’t rule out buying one in future, especially if the reputed hybrid display incorporating both e-ink and colour retina display comes to pass. That would surely be the dream e-reader!  But it won’t be cheap.

And speaking of price, I come to the subject of this post – the amazon Kindle e-reader.  This has become the best-known such device over the past couple of years, partly because of the marketing clout of the Amazon online stores, and partly because it just does its basic job so well at such an affordable price point.

As I said earlier, I’m a late adopter, in part, due to the price of e-readers. I’m simply not prepared to pay two hundred pounds or more for such a limited (or should I rather say closely focused!) gadget.  But in recent months I became convinced that it was time for me to give it a go, as the whole Amazon Kindle system had become to useful, too affordable and too accessible for small-scale and self-publishers to ignore any more.

That last point in particular has become important to me of late.  It has become obvious that the most practical and affordable way for many budding authors to get into “print” and bypass the locked gates of the monolithic commercial publishing establishment is to do it yourself in one or another electronic form, selling online.  Amazon, while by no means unique in the field, offers the most integrated of such systems for e-books produced for reading on their Kindle systems, so there you have another incentive for the writer hoping to become a successful author, albeit it may not have the kudos of being published by a top-drawer publishing house.

It’s never that simple of course, and there is more to it than just uploading your book and hoping it will sell, but others on the web have had much more to say about that than I can at the moment, and I commend you to having a look around for further info elsewhere.

Amazon Kindle in Tuff-Luv Saddleback case is the same size as Barrack Room Ballads

Amazon Kindle in Tuff-Luv Saddleback case is the same size as Barrack Room Ballads!

More to the point, what about the Kindle and my first experiences of it? Well, the current models offered in the Kindle 3 series offer either straight Wi-Fi connection, or 3G mobile connection, to Amazon’s ordering and download system via ‘Whispernet’.  The UK prices are £111 for the wi-fi only Kindle, and £152 for the 3G + Wi-Fi version.  The 3G works globally via mobile phone networks, so it’s a great option for the traveller or for those who do not have wi-fi at home.  Personally I have wi-fi so I opted for the cheaper version (cheapskate, I know!)

I’m not going to get overly technical about this as there are plenty of such reviews on the web, but I’d like to highlight a few main points.

This particular Kindle has a 6″ Display with “New E Ink Pearl Technology”, that is to say it’s a non-backlit e-ink display, not an LCD, and in good light is much easier on the eye than a typical LCD screen.  In fact it looks much like a light grey paperback page.  It’s as easy to read as a conventional book, and in some cases easier, as you can vary the size of the text at the touch of a button. The display flickers as it re-draws the next page, and this takes a little getting used to, but is worth it for the easy-reading display in this specific use.

The physical form of the device is about the same size as a standard paperback, but is thinner.  In fact it is a bit slippery in the hand, but a slightly rubberised back helps with this.  Some may prefer to use the Kindle in a case, which gives more thickness and grip, the ability to make it free-standing, and of course offers protection. In my case I purchased an aftermarket Tuff-luv Saddleback leather case off eBay for the princely sum of £21.99. It feels great, can be free-standing and seriously looks the part when packed for a trip with my journal and notebooks!

In the vertical format, which is typically used, the Kindle has a small, rather stiff qwerty keyboard, home, back, menu and text size buttons plus a cursor pad below the screen, and two sets of two paddle keys left and right of the screen for convenient ‘turning’ of the pages. The feel of all the buttons is a little stiff, but they work well enough.

The bottom edge houses a volume control, earphone socket, micro-usb port for computer connection and charging, and the on-off slider switch which incorporates a power charging light. The sealed-in battery charges via the micro-usb cable, from a computer or from the supplied power adaptor into which the cable plugs.  On the back there are small apertures towards the top for the speakers – and yes, Kindle 3 does speak your books, surprisingly well, albeit in rather robotic male or female tones with American accents.

The Kindle takes books in its own special AZW format, which is basically the MOBI format using the high compression option, and will also display pdf format books, albeit with less versatility. It’s possible to convert other formats either via Amazon or by other software means.  Kindle book reading software is also available on other machines such as Mac and PC, iPhone, iPad, Android etc.

Texts are downloaded to Kindle over the internet via Amazon Whispernet, which takes typically only a few seconds, or via the supplied micro-usb cable from Mac or PC, showing up as a usb drive on the desktop in the case of the Mac. Transfer in both cases is very easy.  In the former, Amazon’s searching and ordering system is built-in, only a few clicks separate you from downloading 1 or 100 books.  And equally, texts can be simply clicked and dragged from your computer to the relevant folder on the Kindle.

It really is that simple – until the micro-usb cable comes loose, which it does occasionally.  The supplied cable is stiff and a poor fit, and really ought to be replaced with something better.  I bought one of those extending cables for a couple of pounds which is a much better fit, for example.

One side-effect of the Kindle’s internet connection is that it is also possible to view websites on Kindle, via a basic browser, though it is limited by the lack of colour and other compatibility issues.

Once downloaded, books and pdfs appear on a table of contents accessible via the Home button. Correctly-formatted books include their own table of contents, and it may be possible to make notes or use bookmarks.

What do e-books cost? Anything from free to more than the cover price of the ‘real’ edition, that occasional higher cost being down to the fact that in the UK at least, Value Added Tax (rip-off tax!) applies to e-books but not paper books.  Clearly this is bonkers, but that’s the government’s fault.  There are loads of free books, and many are low cost, especially classics, so if you fancy building up a classical library on your Kindle you’re on to a winner!

What are my general impressions?

Kindle 3 is a close to ideal replacement for the paperback, and as a portable library, in its present form. It’s a bit on the slim side for me, so I choose to use it in a case for that and other reasons, but those with small hands will find it just right.  The screen display is great, but I hope future versions will refresh quicker, and a light would be useful (you can clip one on with some cases). The battery lasts for ages, around a month on a charge (less with the 3G version), and charges quickly.  The micro-usb cable is rubbish, though – get another one as soon as you can!

Packaging is tough but basic, and recyclable. Instructions supplied are equally basic, but a user guide is also on the Kindle, as are English and American dictionaries, very useful.

The current Amazon Kindle is very easy to use, very quick to download, and stores thousands of books and stories, with back-up on Amazon’s website for items from them, so your books can also be shared to your various devices.  For what it is, is just works, and works well – you’d almost think it had been designed by Apple, except for the less than stylish looks!

In my case, I had recently become really keen to have a Kindle 3 to help me with my self-publishing plans, and I’m glad I got one for that reason alone.  More on that in future posts – watch this space!

Meanwhile it is proving really useful for its main purpose, and spends every night on my bedside table!  I have been busily amassing books on my Kindle 3, and if I give you a shortened list of what I have so far, you might get an e-inkling of where I’m coming from, or going:

  • My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla (and other related works).
  • The Essential Tesla.
  • The Ultimate Adventure Collection – five books each by R. L. Stevenson, H.G. Wells, James Fenimore Cooper, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs.
  • Conan the Cimmerian — the complete stories by Robert E. Howard.
  • The H. Rider Haggard Omnibus: 50 novels and short stories.
  • Complete works of Rudyard Kipling.
  • Complete works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
  • Compete works of H.P. Lovecraft.
  • The Works of Jules Verne.
  • The complete poetical works of S.T. Coleridge.
  • Writing Steampunk – Beth Daniels.
  • And more….

So that’s a few reflections on my impressions of the 6″ Kindle 3. I hope you may find this useful!

As usual, YMMV and Caveat Emptor – and I should point out that I have no connection with Amazon, except as a very satisfied customer.

For more info on Amazon’s Kindle, including the DX model with the larger 9.7″ screen, by all means check out their website, but you might care to go via the Wikipedia page, which offers a useful summary to get you started, with much more background info than I can post here.  I was rather surprised to note from Wikipedia that the Kindle 3 runs on Linux, for example!

– Stuart

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