Friday, August 19, 2011

Welcome to the Future (3.5 Years Late)

The future's waiting Meatbag.

Editors Note:  I have been working on this post since if it seems disjointed, varies in tone, has sentences that drop off, etc...  I apologize, it has been a while in the works and I don't feel like proof-reading and editing this post any longer.  Thanks - the Management

I got a Kindle for Christmas. I know, it is not a big deal now - lots of people have them now. The Kindle has been out for 3.5 years now and there have been many articles, comments, debates, etc... about it since then. So for those keeping track of such things, this blog post will probably hold nothing new. However, if you are a person that is still trying to decide and want a simple review from an ordinary person (i.e. not a tech writer), this might give a little insight.

I read a lot, so e-readers have always held an interest for me. Many times in the past I have checked out various Sony models and although they seemed OK, I could not justify the expense ($300+) without really knowing how much I would like it. I had a feeling that it would be a novelty at first but 6 months later it would be collecting dust in a drawer (along with several Gameboys, Palm Pilots, cell phones, handheld Sudoku, and other electronic devices that struck my fancy over the years). Thankfully, I have quelled my need to be an early adopter because for me, it mostly led to buyer's remorse.

I finally took the plunge and asked for a Kindle for several reasons. The $140 price was now low enough that the risk was now justifiable. It was now in it's third generation so it should be more refined and have most kinks worked out. But one of the most important factors was that Amazon's ebooks were now a large enough format that I didn't have to worry about being stuck with a discontinued device that I couldn't get new books for or wouldn't get stuck with DRM'ed books that I bought but couldn't access. After being interested for over 10 years, it was finally time to give digital books a try.

I love books. Not just reading books, but the physical items themselves. A well bound, high quality book is a thing of beauty to me and I have shelves full of them to prove it. I also hate books at times too. Books can be fragile, books are heavy, and books take a lot of storage space. I don't mind keeping the books that I really enjoy, but if I hated it or it was just so-so, I hate to devote any shelf space to it. So I give these books away, donate them to library sales, etc...but that usually means I have a stack or a box of mediocre books sitting around my house waiting for disposal. I also have stacks of books that are waiting to be read. That is clutter that I can do without. I was worried that I would miss the feel of a book, the sound of the pages, and the smell of the ink and paper.

I didn't really need to worry. I think missing those things are valid, but for me I think those feelings have more to do with obsessive collecting. Reading should be about the story rather than the format - as long as you have access to an easy to read copy, it should not matter if it is a first edition hardback, or a cheesy covered paperback for air plane travelers, or a digital edition. I received a third generation Kindle which is the current grey model. Mine is the standard 6" screen, Wi-fi only. The Kindle has changed the way that I read - a lot more than I thought it would, but it does have both pros and cons. Here are some thoughts after one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight(!) months of use (yes, I have gotten distracted and this post kept getting delayed). This post having been in the works for so long, I am going to try to be thorough - covering all the things that I have thought over the past months (so you can stop reading now if you are not interested in a Kindle).

Pretty tiny actually
The Kindle is a decent size and a decent weight. The reading pane doesn't feel too small. It basically feels like a paper in both size and weight. Although weight-wise it would be a larger paperback (like the later Harry Potters) and size-wise somewhat closer to a trade paper back instead of a standard. It easily fits in my bag or any place I would normally stow a book...and many places that I previously couldn't. For size comparison, think of it about the size of a standard DVD case...but half as thick and four times the weight.

I find the Kindle to be pretty durable...and makes for a rather carefree reading experience. I tend to baby my books - well the nice hardcovers anyway. I make sure the pages don't get folded, the covers scuffed, and the spines broken, and I definitely make sure that I don't leave them in my car on a hot and humid day when it will swell and warp. The almost OCD care of books has diminished my reading enjoyment at times ("Don't open the book too wide, because the spine might split!"). With the Kindle, I dont' have to worry about these things, I treat it as a gadget instead of a book...and I am relatively rough on gadgets - dropping, tossing, leaving them in baking heat, etc... The Kindle has proven itself to be pretty sturdy and I happy how well it has held up. In a couple of the dropping/tossing incidents the corner seams of the Kindle case did pop open a bit, but the case pushed back together easily and no damage was sustained. I am still not sure how I feel about the screen itself and its durability. My screen has obtained quite a few small scratches over the months but they really don't interfere with fact, I barely notice them at all when I am reading except in very bright, direct light. Even so, I worry a little what it will look like in another year or two...will it be riddled with scratches and scuffs, so that it does now interfere with reading? It remains to be seen. There are many screen protectors for the Kindle out there, and I have tried a couple but didn't like either - they were a pain in the ass to install because even the tiniest speck of dust becomes exaggerated and looks worse than any problems the screen protector fixed, and they both had much more glare than the standard Kindle screen. I definitely don't want to get a case or cover - I don't want to make it bigger or have to mess with a cover...the Kindle is simple and fast to use the way it is. Although I am tempted to get one of the water-proof cases for better hot tub and pool reading.

The Kindle makes for easy travelling and business trips. I hate travelling and not having something to read. Often, the weight of my carry-on luggage was 25% books. I would have to take the book that I was reading, and at least one or two additional books in case I finish, and maybe a couple different genres in case I am feeling in a mood for something specific. The Kindle makes it so that I always have plenty to read to read in every genre...and if I see something specific in the airport bookstore that interests me, it can be downloaded in a minute...and save about 60% or more than I would have paid at the airport bookstore. I also like scanning any documents - like travel itineraries, meeting outlines, hotel reservations, etc...into PDFs and copying those to my Kindle. I am also super afraid that I will lose my travel info, so I tend to take 3 copies of everything - one that I use and then a backup in both my checked and carry-on luggage. Since I now have all the info on my Kindle (which I am pretty sure that I won't lose because rarely does it leave my hand), I only take that and the original printed copy. The Kindle also has great battery life...I think it is even better than Amazon originally stated. I use my Kindle quite a bit, usually an hour or more each day and I only have to re-charge every 5-6 weeks. I do have the wi-fi turned off most of the time, so I am sure that helps...but either way, having to charge is a rarity. I would feel perfectly comfortable taking it with me on a one to two week vacation and not taking the charger with me. It would be nice that if I did have to take a charger, that the Kindle had a standard micro-USB connection so that I could take one charger that could charge (and transfer data from) my cell, my Kindle, and my camera. Come on electronics industry - let's get that all standardized. 

I find the Kindle incredibly legible. The text is crisp and has a good contrast against the background - I really like how the background is muted grey and not bright white. My eyes get tired quicker reading against a bright white background (like on a computer monitor). I think if the background was a brighter white that reading would not be as soothing after a day of work. My eyes really appreciate the change of scenery after staring at my computer screen all day. When I read on the Kindle, it doesn't feel like I am reading on an electronic device - it really is e-ink. There is very little to no glare on the Kindle. You can read it in bright sunlight like on the commercials without having to move it around to see the text. However, it is lacking a light of some kind allowing for reading in the dark. Pages turn quickly and the buttons are efficient to turn pages both forward and back. Although it took a little getting used to the lower button being "forward" on both sides and the upper button being "backward" on both the left and right sides. I kept wanting to push the same button but right side for forward and left side for back like you were flipping pages (but it makes sense being able to go forward on both sides for Lefties...dang lefties, can't they just buy their Kindle at the Leftorium?).  It took me a couple days to get used to the upper/lower button scheme. 

The Kindle also contains pretty simple tools to increase/decrease font size, line spacing, and even word spacing (words per line), so that you can customize it to what best suits your needs. An instant dictionary is included and all you have to do with scroll to a word with the d-pad for the definition to be displayed. I have a decent vocabulary, but I still find myself using it a lot thanks to George RR Martin's use of archaic words and armor descriptions. I also like checking some more obscure words that I kind-of know, or at least can figure out from the context but might not know an exact definition. I'm not sure if Kindle tells you what dictionary it is using...that is something I keep meaning to check out but always forget. Kindle also allows you to rotate the document to fit your screen orientation - it is not automatic like on an iPhone, you must manually go into the menu and choose your orientation. I have tried this but for me it isn't that useful of a function - a few PDFs look slightly better in landscape orientation, I guess. Nice to have if needed, but mostly it is a non-issue. 

Amazon says the Kindle holds 3500+ books or something, but I am usually skeptical about those types of claims. It doesn't say what type or size of books, so I always think that they are talking about something that is smaller than what I normally read. My old MP3 player made similar claims and it turned out that the claim was based on low quality Windows Media Audio (WMA) files...not decent quality audio files. The Kindle however lives up to it's promise. OK, I don't have 3500 books loaded but I do have a lot...and some are large PDF files. I have enough material to last me for years and still have plenty of room to add more. I like how Amazon allows the option to connect your Kindle to your computer and transfer files directly...this is nice when I have large, or many files to add. It is much faster than waiting for wi-fi and gives you an option to add material even when wi-fi is not available. 

Like all gadgets, the Kindle ran the risk of feeling cheap and plasticy with crappy buttons. However, the Kindle feels pretty solid. The top surface is basic plastic but it doesn't really feel or look cheap. The bottom has a nice slightly rubbery texture to help with grip and to keep it from sliding across surfaces. The buttons feel sturdy and press well. But there are issues too. The power button is a slider. I am sure that they had their reasons for making this button a slider, but I do not care for it. I slide it too quick, or hold it over too long, or whatever. I am just not a fan of sliders. The Kindle has a full can do things like search, play games, make notes, etc... I don't use the keyboard enough to really justify it for me. I am rarely a note taker when I read and I didn't buy the thing to play games, I have an Xbox for that. As much as I use the full keyboard, I would rather have that gone and just be able to pull up a virtual keyboard that I navigate with the d-pad type button. It would be a pain in the ass for note takers, but for as much as I have noted or searched, I wouldn't mind.. However, if Amazon would add a few simple things from my suggestions below, the keyboard could be very useful. As of now, the keyboard is just more of an irritation due to accidental button pushes. 

Amazon uses the proprietary AZW formats and public Mobi formats. Kindle can only natively handle AZW, Mobi, and PDF files. In addition Amazon will convert MS Word, TXT, HTLM, and RTF files free of charge - you just need to email them to you kindle account and it is handled automatically. This is a good start but there are many other file formats that books come in - especially ePub (the standard of the International Digital Publication Forum), a pretty important and widespread format. So it is important to find a good conversion program. Luckily there are several that are free. I have been having a lot of luck with Calibre. Calibre lets me convert files and also edit the metadata (more on that in a bit). 

There are several things that I don't like about Kindle, so here are a few changes that I would like to see (in no particular order). 

Suggestion One - let users create sub-folders/sub-collections. To organize your books now you have a few sort options - "Most recent first," "Title," "Author," or "Collections." The first three are pretty self-explanatory I think. Collections is a little more complicated. I think of them as folder but it is more similar to a label, where you can label the books as you want - for example a few of my collections are "Fiction," "Reference," "Classics," and "Stephen King." Books can belong to more more than one label, but you can only sort by one label at a time. I like to have a clean home screen, so I would love to have subcategories. Stephen King books should go in Fiction or Horror, but I also like to keep my SK books together since there are a lot of them. Right now, I can't do this...the books can only be sorted under one label. I would like to have this under a label system, where I could step down through several labels:
  • Fiction 
    • Stephen King 
      • The Dark Tower Series 
        • Book 1 
        • Book 2 
        • Book 3 
        • etc... 

Not being able to correctly organize is a pretty major annoyance. I am sure it works well for Kindles that only have a few books but is pretty much a mess once you get into a collection of any size (which is really easy to due if you like public domain works - like many of the Penguin Classics you read in school). I want to be able to arrange my books like I do on my bookshelf and this means sub-categories.

Suggestion Two - metadata. This has to due with organization. Users should be able to edit the metadata of books and documents directly on the Kindle. When you get books from multiple sources (ie - not just from Amazon, but it can also happen with Amazon only books too), the metadata can be a little messed up between different locations. One place has the author as "Chuck Palahnuik" another location as "Palahnuik, Chuck." Some places start the book titles (when appropriate) with "The" - some don't. Your organization can quickly become a mess. Also, I often want to add notes to my titles, so the are in a particular order or easy to find. Take Piers Anthony's Xanth series - there are 30+ books, and I can never remember the order. I'm not downloading them as they come out, reading, and then patiently waiting for the next novel. I am downloading them all at once so I have them...but this doesn't help me remember the order. It would be nice to be able to add something like this to the beginning of the title "Xanth 01:" That way I would only have to glance to find the next book because "Demons Don't Dreams" just doesn't scream book 16 of the series to me. There are lots of reasons to want to edit your metadata....and you can with certain programs like Calibre mentioned above. However, that means copying the book from your Kindle to your computer, loading Calibre, making the adjustments, reloading the book onto your Kindle, and finally making sure you delete the old copy off your Kindle. Way too much work. It would be much better to be able to do it directly on the Kindle.

This is what it should do when you power
off - throw up the cover of the current book.
Suggestion Three - the screensaver. The Kindle has a built in screen saver type function where every time you turn off the device a picture appears on the screen until the next time you turn it on. I don't think it is actually a screensaver, just something so that you don't have blank screen. There are about 20 pictures that the Kindle rolls through - pictures of authors (i.e. Mark Twain, Agatha Christie, Charlotte Bronte, Alexandre Dumas), Kindle feedback info, and various art prints. It is all well and good until you have seen each one a hundred times. I would much prefer showing the cover of the current book that I am reading. It is becoming very similar to what happened with music...I now have no idea what the album or book cover looks like because all I have in an electronic file. If it book's cover popped up on the screensaver, at least there would be a chance to admire the artwork. You can view it anytime on the Kindle, but that is kind of a pain...I just want it to pop up automatically. This has also led me to miss the interaction/conversation starter with another person when they see what you are reading. This didn't happen to me a lot, but when it did it was almost always a great conversation (I read that too! What do you think of...). I suppose everyone having the same default screensaver makes it good for reading guilty pleasures (or being an adult reading Twilight - not one of my guilty pleasure, I am just saying that you should be embarrassed - yes I read it and yes I feel stupider for having done so). 

Suggestion Four - book light. I am not sure what would work better - the ability to turn on backlighting or a built in light around the bezel. It would be neat if they could institute a function that works like the LightWedge book light where the whole screen glows to light up the words beneath. The LightWedge technology is pretty awesome for reading regular books in the dark, so hopefully they could achieve something equally awesome on the Kindle.  My biggest fear on something like this would be the drain on battery life. Would I want a light function if it meant that I had to charge my Kindle every couple days? Probably not. However, if I had a built-in light for when I needed it, and used it sparingly, and only had to charge every couple of weeks? That is a trade-off that I would agree with. 

Sold Separately - this cover and book light will
set you back and extra $60.
Suggestion Five - notepad type function. A simple notepad function would be great. It would be nice to be able to type out such things as a grocery list or a quick note to myself, since I am already carrying my Kindle with me (and I would think Amazon would want me to carry it as much as possible, so I can buy more books). Sure, I can always add a note to a book or a document...but these notes rarely have a connection to the book that I am reading so it seems a little weird tying the note to the book. The best I have come up with for getting around this is sending a blank PDF to my Kindle and attaching notes to it. It is not as simple or elegant as a built in notepad, so I don't use it as much as I would like. 

Suggestion Six - favorite bookmark quick button.  I've been reading a lot of books that contain either a map or and index that I want to refer to often.  I can set a bookmark and then go to it by opening the menu, selecting bookmarks, and then choosing my bookmark.  It's not a bad system but for referring back and forth every few pages it gets tedious.  I would love to have a Favorite button (or two), where it instantly takes me to a favorite bookmark that I have set.

Suggestion Seven - audio.  The Kindle has the ability to play audiobooks and mp3 files.  This is great...except for one thing, the controls suck total ass.  MP3s only play in the order that they were uploaded...always, there is no adjustment and no changing this.  Really?  You couldn't throw in some MP3 controls?  Seems rushed to me.  Audiobooks are much better...but just like ebook files, the Kindle can only handle certain types.  What about all the other audiobooks that I have purchased over the years?  I understand that you want to drive sales to your partner, but man that sucks.  Oh, I know I could convert my old audiobooks to MP3s!  Oh, but I would have to start over at the beginning of the book every single time.  Thanks Amazon, that is handy.

Suggestion Eight - repeat customer discount.  If I have previously purchased a book in print form, I should get a good sized discount if I later purchase a digital edition (or audiobook).  I have long wanted this kind of repeat customer bonus in the music industry (i.e. when you upgrade from cassette to CD, you would get a substantial discount on the CD because you are a repeat customer for the same material) but I can see how that would be difficult to implement.  Amazon, however, is in a  perfect position to roll this out system.  All my purchases are since 2002 are in Amazon's system...they should be able to search my history and if I have purchased a printed volume before, I should automatically be given a discount on the ebook or audiobook.  Without an incentive system like this, some people (obviously less scrupulous people than myself) could probably justify to themselves that they already bought this book once - the author and the publisher have already been paid - Why should I pay full price again, I'll just hit up bit torrent and download it for free.  Now if said person received something like 40-60% off, it would be almost easier to just buy it than search the interwebicon for a good copy to download.

Suggestion Nine - 5-way controller. The 5-Way Controller (a square d-pad type thing, with a button in the center) is pretty slick and efficient as it is, but it is a little small. I think the directional button pads could be a little thicker. I have relatively small hands, and I still fat finger this enough times to be annoying. I think making this controller a little more easily usable would be nice.  I think this would also help open up the market a little more to people with hand control issues who might have problems turning a regular book page, but right now would probably also have issues with this 5-way controller.

    Final random thoughts and feelings:

    Although it is great for travel, it is a little annoying when flying that you have to turn your Kindle off during take off and landing - like all electronic devices.  So from the time they close the cabin door until the time around 10,000 feet is reached, you are forced to read Skymall or talk to the person next to you.  I like watching the take off and landing so it is not too bad, but still there is usually about 15 minutes at the beginning and end of each flight that I could be reading but can't.  Advantage goes to old fashioned books in this instance.  I do not look forward to the day that my plane is stuck in a line taxi-ing to the runway for a couple hours.

    Nooks - I am sure they are great...but I like
    the singleness of the Kindle.
    A lot of people have asked me things like "Why didn't you get an iPad?" or "Why didn't you get a Nook because it is in color!"  The iPad question is easy - it is all a matter of cost.  Yes, I would love an iPad...especially for it's comic book applications.  The iPad can obviously do a lot more than a Kindle - it is not really a fair comparison.  Especially since I wasn't sure if I would even like reading on an electronic device - I hate reading on my computer after all.  I do think the iPad is pretty amazing and will probably get one in the future, but it is also bigger than the Kindle and weighs three times as much.  I am not sure that I would want to carry the iPad around all the time for reading purposes.  The Nook question is a little more complicated.  If the Nook ran a full functioning version of Android - so basically being like the Samsung Tab - I would buy one in a minute - that would be a great price for very good hardware.  My main issue was that I didn't think I would like the screen as much for long term reading.  I also didn't need a full color display...I don't really read books with many pictures so this would be wasted on me.  If I had a child and was getting Dr Suess books or something it might be a different story. The Nook also has a lot of distractions - web surfing, games, social network features, etc...  All things that might be nice but more than likely would just distract me from reading - the entire reason that I would be getting it.  The Kindle has a rudimentary web browser and it does enough to get the Kindle up and running and registered, but it is not something that I would be tempted to use for web surfing pleasure.  Nook also touted the ability to share books with friends and borrow ebooks from libraries.  Decent features, both of which have now also been/or will soon be instituted on the Kindle.  These weren't really huge selling points for me anyway, the ebooks at the local library are always all checked out and although I wouldn't mind sharing with friends, most of my friends have different tastes in books than I do (for example, I like GOOD books).  "But the Nook is touchscreen!"

    A big deal was made about the text-to-speech option on the Kindles a year ago and book publishers being worried that it would take away from sales of audiobooks.  Well this fear was totally unfounded - do you want to be read a book by Dr Sbaitso?  OK, it is not that bad, but it can be pretty monotone, can have an odd cadence, and pronounces names wrong.  It is really hard to for me to pay attention to for more than a minute or two.  I suffices in a pinch, but it is not nearly the same as the audiobook experience and I can't see anyone using this as a substitute for a professionally produced audiobook unless A) a professional version doesn't exist, or B) the person is really, really desperate.

    After six months of only using the Kindle, I went back to try print books.  There was no real adjustment, books still felt normal...I just missed the portability and ruggedness of the Kindle.  I will keep reading regular books (I still have a huge pile waiting for me), but more and more I will probably turn to the Kindle for books that I am unsure if I will like or if I want to keep - less books to store and find a home for when I am done.

    If you like reading books, I would highly recommend a Kindle (or Nook, or iPad), whatever your preference.  If you think you will really miss traditional books, are you reading for the story or are you reading for the feel of a book?  I miss books a little bit, but not nearly as much as I thought I would.  The convenience of the Kindle more than makes up for the experiences that you feel you might be missing.


    Lax Guy said...

    I've been considering a Kindle as well. But like you I'm caught up between the Kindle and splurging for the iPad. There is so much more that I would use the iPad for, but like you I am concerend that I would get distracted by other crap when I should be reading...
    One thing I love about Kindle in general - regardless of the device - is that new authors can publish material without paying a fee. While this removes editors from the process and therefore any sense of quality control, this has opened the door for several authors that are frustrated with the previous system. Prior to Kindle, most authors had to toil with writing short stories and submitting individually to magazines in the hopes of publication. This is a long process that most frequently ends with arbitrary reasons for non-publication (too deep for audience, not specific enough for the genre, etc). And book publishing? Forget about it. For many of these aspiring and struggling authors, Kindle has finally given them a respectable forum. For that, we should all be grateful (and at times weary).

    Michael said...

    I agree, there are hundreds (maybe thousands) of authors that probably wouldn't have gotten the chance to be published. Short stories to essays to full-length novels. Some good, many not good. I pay close attention to the reviews on such authors because they really are a good predictor of whether I will like it. I have found some new authors that I will probably enjoy more in the future.
    The best thing is that a lot of these authors give free samples - from a first couple chapters to entire novels. And they aren't the only can try the first chapter or two of almost any book... It is nice to get a quick sense of a book.
    But there is tons of free books to be had besides the public domain stuff. Authors often give away the first book in a series, some authors release their entire catalog for free under creative commons. There are even a bunch of text books that have been released for free download. This probably won't help current students, but for us older people that would just like a reference or want to go back and be reminded of concepts they may have forgotten since their school days.
    You can fill your Kindle with free literature. From up and comers to established authors. I wish Amazon had a little better search options for some of these, because their store can be a little bit crowded and messy, but it is still good and still free.

    Shannonnicolle said...

    Since my blog has been receiving review requests from authors and publishers, I would say 90% of the books have come to me in ebook form. Just like you said, some are good. Some not so good. But the ebook format has allowed these authors to get their work out there quickly and cheaply. No need for a publisher, editor or agent. Unfortunately however, it's real easy to tell the ones that haven't been professionally edited.

    I'm told the Nook Color can actually be "hacked" to run an android system. I have a techie friend at work who purchased a Nook Color for this specific purpose. He doesn't read. He just wanted a cheap iPad. However, he hasn't had a chance to "hack" it yet and currently has a quite expensive Pandora player on his hands.