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A Few Days With the Kindle 2

So I am going to do something that nobody on the Internet is doing lately: post a review of the Kindle 2 after having only used it for three days.

Shocking, yes, I know.

I had never even seen a Kindle of either model before getting the Kindle 2. I had, though, thought about getting an eInk device for some time. The $359 Kindle 2 price tag caused me significant pause, though in the end I went for it due to the 30-day return policy.

On the surface, I thought that it would be weird to have a Kindle. After all, how often am I away from the computer? And there’s a small local library a few blocks from where I work. But I had a hunch it might turn out for me like my iPod did: something that didn’t sound all that useful from reading about it, but turned out to be tremendously so after having actually used it.

Turtleback Delivery

I ordered my Kindle 2 with standard shipping, which meant that it went by FedEx Smart Post. Here is my SmartPost rant.

There are two words in “Smart Post” that are misleading. I once had an item take literally a week to make it from St. Louis to Kansas. That is, I kid you not, slower than the Pony Express ran in 1860. This time, my Kindle made it from Kentucky to Kansas in a mere five days. Oh, and it spent more than 24 hours just sitting in St. Louis.

The Device

Overall, the device is physically quite nice. It is larger and thinner than I had imagined, and the screen also is a bit smaller. It is usually easier to hold than a paperback, due to not having to prevent it from closing too far at the binding edge. The buttons are easy to press, though I could occasionally wish for them to be easier, but that’s a minor nit.

The Screen

The most important consideration for me was the screen. The eInk display as both stunningly awesome and disappointing.

This is not the kind of display you get on your computer. Or, for that matter, any other device. It isn’t backlit. It reacts to light as paper does. It can be viewed from any angle. And it consumes no power to sustain an image; only to change it. Consequently, it puts up a beautiful portrait of a famous author on the screen when it is put to sleep, and consumes no power to maintain it.

The screen’s response time isn’t anywhere near as good as you’d expect from a regular LCD. It flashes to black when you turn a page, and there is no scrolling. On the other hand, this is not really a problem. I found the page turning speed to be more than adequate, and probably faster than I’d turn the page on a real book.

The resolution of the display has the feeling of being incredible. The whole thing provides a far different, and in my eyes superior, experience to reading on an LCD or CRT screen.

My nit is the level of contrast. The background is not really a pure white, but more of a light gray. This results in a contrast level that is quite clearly poorer than that of the printed page. At first I thought this would be a serious problem, though I am growing somewhat more used to it as I read more.

Reading Experience

Overall, I’ve got to say that it is a great device. You can easily get lost in a book reading it on the Kindle. I’m reading David Copperfield for the first time, and have beat a rather rapid path through the first five chapters on the Kindle already. And that, I think, is the best thing that could be said about an ebook reader. It stays out of the way and lets you immerse yourself in your reading.

The Kindle’s smartly-integrated Oxford-American Dictionary was useful too. One thing about a novel written 150 years ago is that there are some words I just haven’t ever heard. “Nosegay,” for instance. You can move a cursor to a word to see a brief pop-up definition appear, or press Enter to see the entire entry. This is nice and so easy that I’m looking up words I wouldn’t have bothered to if I were reading the book any other way.

A nosegay, by the way, is a bouquet of showy flowers.

Buying Experience

The Kindle has a wireless modem tied to the Sprint network on it. The data charges for this, whatever they may be, are absorbed by Amazon in the cost of the device and/or the books you buy for it.

This turned out to be a very smart piece of engineering. I discovered on Amazon’s Kindle Daily Post that Random House is offering five mostly highly-rated sci-fi books for free on the Kindle for a limited time. So I went over to the page for each, and made my “purchase”. It was only a click or two, and I saw a note saying it was being delivered.

A few minutes later, I picked up the Kindle off the kitchen counter. Sure enough, my purchases were there ready to read. Impressive. This level of ease of use smells an awful lot like Apple. Actually, I think it’s surpassed them.

You can delete books from the Kindle and re-download them at any time. You can initiate that operation from either the PC or the Kindle. And you can also browse Amazon’s Kindle store directly from the device itself.

I haven’t subscribed to any magazines or newspapers, but I gather that they deliver each new issue automatically the moment it’s released by the publisher, in the middle of the night.

I pre-ordered the (free to Kindle) Cook’s Illustrated How-to-Cook Library. It makes me way happier than it should to see “This item will be auto-delivered to your Kindle on March 26” in the order status.

Free Books

Amazon’s Kindle library has a number of completely free Kindle books as well. These are mostly out-of-copyright books, probably sourced from public etext places like Project Gutenberg, and converted to the Mobipocket format that is the Kindle’s native format with a minimum of human intervention. As they are free, you can see them in Amazon’s library if you sort by price. And, of course, Amazon will transfer them to the Kindle wirelessly, and maintain a copy of them in your amazon.com account.

Unfortunately, as with free etexts in general on the Internet, the quality of these varies. I was very annoyed to find that many free etexts look like they were done on a typewriter, rather than professionally printed. They don’t use smart quotes; only the straight ones. When reading on a device that normally shows you a faithful print experience, this is jarring. And I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find a copy of Return of Sherlock Holmes that actually had the graphic figures in Dancing Men. Ah well.

Your Own Content

Amazon operates a mail server, username@kindle.com. You can email stuff to it, and it will convert it to the Kindle format and wirelessly upload it to your kindle for a fee of $0.10. Alternatively, you can use username@free.kindle.com, which does the same thing at no charge, but emails you back a link to download the converted work to install via USB yourself.

I tried it with a number of PDFs. It rejected — about a dozen times from only my single mail message — a PDF containing graphic images only. However, it does quite well with most text-heavy PDFs — notably doing an excellent job with Return of Sherlock Holmes from bookstacks.org — the only source I found that was both beautifully typeset and preserved the original figures. Unfortunately, the PDF converter occasionally has troubles identifying what should be a paragraph, particularly in sections of novels dealing with brief dialog.

I have also sent it some HTML files to convert, which it also does a great job with.

You can also create Mobipocket files yourself and upload them directly. There is a Mobipocket creator, or you can use mobiperl if you are Windows-impaired or prefer something scriptable on Linux.

The device presents itself as a USB mass storage device, so you can see it under any OS. There’s a documents folder to put your files in. You can back it up with your regular backup tools, too. And it charges over USB.

Web Browser

I haven’t tried it much. It usually works, but seems to be completely down on occasion. It would get by in a pinch, but is not suitable for any serious work.

The guys over at XKCD seem to love it; in fact, their blog post was what finally convinced me to try the Kindle in the first place.

Final Thoughts

I’ve ordered a clip-on light and a “leather” case for the Kindle. The light, I believe, will completely resolve my contrast complaint. The leather case to protect it, of course.

I can’t really see myself returning the Kindle anymore. It’s way too much fun, and it’s making it easier to read more again.

And really, if Amazon manages to reach out to a whole generation of people and make it easy and fun for them to read again — and make a profit doing it, of course — they may move up a notch or two from being an “evil patent troll” company to a “positive social force” company. Wow, never thought I’d say that one.