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OK, I Got a Kindle

Over the weekend, I broke down and ordered a Kindle (which arrived today). There are lots of good reasons not to get one. Heck, I wrote a screed about it myself last year. (What? Speak up, I can't hear you over the cognitive dissonance.)

So, why'd I end up getting one? Ironically for a "gadget" purchase, it was the practical aspect that finally pushed me over: I'll be out of town the next few months and it'll be inconvenient and impractical for me to buy/store books, or have access to my bookshelf.

While I'm strongly against DRM, I'm also a big proponent of what Amazon is doing with their yourmedialibrary initiative. Anyone whose heard my spiel on digital media knows that I'm a big proponent of media management as a primary value-add that makes paying for digital media worthwhile. As we accrue more and more digital stuff, having a convenient service that stores, tracks, organizes, and delivers it when and where we want it is going to be increasingly important (and necessary).

I have a lot of books that I really like (and that are quite nicely formatted and probably won't be replaced anytime soon by eBooks) but looking at the couple hundred volumes on my bookshelves, I'm having a hard time finding many that have truly sentimental value. I think at the end of the day, I could cut down my shelf by at least two-thirds, maybe more. The upshot, besides much easier future moving, is that I'd probably use the books much more when the text of my library is fully searchable and easily annotable.

(Obviously, this will probably be different for everyone, but I think more and more will start thinking like this, especially as digital music and video take over. I have about 100 DVDs. None have been touched in months. And the only time I touch the albums I've bought are to rip them.)

Kindle and iLiad

And now for some talk about the devices. This will be somewhat more of an iRex exit review than a Kindle review (since I just got the latter), but irrespective, I think the former will give some insight into what I'm looking for and expecting of the Kindle.

In terms of the actual reading experience, having had the iLiad e-ink device since its release (Summer 2006), I knew what to expect of the screen. In comparison, the Kindle's screen is smaller (6" vs 8" diagonal), very slightly denser (167ppi vs 160ppi), and has worse grayscale (4 vs 16 shade). It is slightly faster refreshing and a little brighter (40% reflectance vs 32-35%) thanks to a newer Vizplex screen, but overall it's very similar. The serifed font on the Kindle is heavier and wider, but also better hinted than the iLiad, so while it fits even less text on the page, it may be a bit more legible. If you've never seen an e-ink screen, it's really worth doing. You don't really won't understand the fuss until you do. It's much easier on the eyes than any backlit display, and much more "solid" than any reflective LCD. It's a flat matte plastic that's hard to describe. The closest thing I can liken it to is that it looks like the fake screns on the computer stand-ins in office furniture displays.

The iLiad supports more formats, of particular interest being PDF (it runs a modified version of xpdf) and has had a fair amount of hacking done to it. It also has built-in wifi. Unfortunately, a number of issues conspire to make these advantages moot. (Actually, there's one main one which I'll get to last.)

Even though the screen is larger than the Kindle's, it's still comparatively small (about A6) so A4 PDFs aren't very legible (the zooming doesn't work well). This means that it's not very good for reading technical papers on, and that most real reading (books, etc.) need to go through a reformatting/conversion process. If you've dealt with PDFs, you know how difficult that can be, since PDFs aren't semantic, but layout based by nature. HTML files are an option, but the built in browser doesn't paginate (or remember your position, or font size for that matter), so if you're looking to read a book... well, good luck. And while the wifi sounds great in theory, in reality, there's never been any way to load documents on wirelessly.

All these (and the many other design flaws, both in the hardware and software) could be overlooked or worked around if not for the one major, MAJOR flaw that made the iLiad useless for me - it never had any working power management. That's right, no sleep, suspend, or hibernate. The lowest power screen in the world (which, come to think of it, these e-ink screens are) doesn't help one bit in that case. Despite many promises to the contrary, iRex has never been able to address that problem.

Now, granted, as an early adopter, I don't expect things to always work, but unfortunately, despite the original claims of long battery life (made in page turns, with no hint that it'd be constantly sucking juice), the device barely makes it through a few hours, not even a full day. This is a bit mystifying considering the success that OLPC and Amazon have had with instant suspends. Even worse, there's no sleep or hibernate, so a full power cycle is required before reading. Surprisingly, they've released additional products (presumably aimed at real consumers) that haven't addressed the problem at all.

To give you an idea of what this means: the iLiad took 49 seconds to boot up, and then another 14 seconds to load up the PDF. That's over a full minute just to do the equivalent of opening a book up. I don't think they mention that in the "features" section of their marketing. Considering that the average cell phone wakes up instantly, and heck, my laptop is up in 5s, this failing is really just incomprehensible to me.

This aspect of course was the Kindle's easiest sell. The reviews and reports give it an average of 4-5 days of battery-life w/ the wireless off, and 1-2 days with it on. More importantly, resuming from suspend to where you left off takes between 3-4 seconds. That's not too shabby (opening a new book from the menu also takes about 3-4 seconds). That there is basically the difference between a daily-use device vs. an over-expensive toy.

In terms of data loading, the Kindle has both the email gateway which I've tested, and is certainly convenient (after giving it some thought I'm pretty sanguine about using it since I'm pretty sure that the liability implications of keeping/tracking the files sent trump any value they might get from storing it for future data mining), and it simply mounts as an external drive when connected via mini-USB (another failing of the iLiad is its ridiculously large and awkward dongle attachment for power, USB, and network connectivity).

While there is no official Mobipocket software for the Mac, there is an alpha version of a linux tool, and more importantly, an open source set of tools called Mobiperl that seems to work well.

All in all, it's doubtful that I'll ever touch my iLiad again (well, we'll see how OpenInkpot does), but from my limited time playing around with the Kindle so far, it looks like it should do the job that the iLiad never could.

Which isn't to say it's perfect. Even with my limited usage, it's obvious there's definitely lots that could be improved (for example, the content lister is pretty impossible for organizing anything close to the storage limit - it's just a straight file listing with no ability to organize (tag, search, look up) or way to keep track of the the read/unread status). And yes, the industrial design is heinous - even ignoring the aesthetics, it's pretty much impossible to pick it up without accidentally turning the page (death by 700ms cuts?). And it'd be nice if there was a way to open up or work on the device itself (igorsk has been the only person who's done anything of note so far), but for now, I'll be happy with having a device that should be usable for what I got it for.

2008-06-17 22:59:55