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January 16, 2012

Kindle Review

I wanted to give it a couple of weeks because initially I just absolutely loved it. Maybe I was just smitten.

But three weeks later and I still love it.

I got the Kindle Touch with 3G for Christmas. Most of this review applies to any Kindle, but the specific one I'm reviewing is the Touch with 3G. (Clarification: All Kindles are wi-fi and connect to your home wireless. The 3G ones will also plug into the 3G phone system and download your book when on a train or the like. I don't know if this 3G capability is really worth it, because the number of times you're going to want to read a book, and yet have had no notice at all that you should spend the twenty seconds needed to download a book at home, are going to be rare bordering on the nonexistent.)

And with "Special Offers," which is Amazon's right to advertise to you, in exchange for knocking about twenty dollars off the cost of the thing. The advertisments are pretty unobtrusive -- the main thing they do is that when the device powers down, it puts up a full-page ad for something or other, and you can click on it to find out more. When you're actually reading it, though, there aren't any ads.

This is an aesthetic consideration. Is a $20 discount (or so) worth it to have the main page, as you power it up, consist of an advertisment? I can't answer that, of course. I'd prefer to have a selected image in there (I assume that's possible, but I don't know). Then again, it's $20 off. The ads are low-pressure and pretty tasteful; the one that was on there just now was a couple, in silhouette, walking at the edge of a shoreline; a small bit of text placed in the photo's sky promised half-off for some kind of footwear. No further details.

I should note for anyone who doesn't know that the Kindle isn't the Kindle Fire. The Kindle Fire is a tablet, like the iPad. It's a browser and a media player. The screen is like the screen of a computer or phone -- it is a source of light, and beams light at your eyes.

I didn't get that one, because I wanted a pure reader. I didn't want the device blazing light at my eyes like a computer screen; I was specifically looking for something that wouldn't contributed to eye-strain, as I'm on the computer all day and I'm pretty sure it would be bad for my eyes to add an additional hour of book-reading on a computer every day. So note that nothing I'm writing about has to do with the Kindle Fire, which, despite the Kindle name, really is unlike the actual Kindle e-readers.

As a physical object, it's very handsome. The metal around the screen is a handsome dull-gray, maybe gun-metal. Not sure what you'd call the specific color. It's pleasing enough, in an old-world way. (More on that idea -- old-world-- later.)

The screen itself holds about what a paperback page would hold, which is, I think, ideal. What little I know of speed-reading is that you're supposed to take a snapshot of a sentence in one glance; every time you move your eyes along a line of text, it slows you down. I'm not a speed-reader at all, but the page is small enough that you can read every sentence in just two moves of the eye (usually), which means, for me at least, I read faster on the Kindle than on many books.

I really love the "e-Ink" of the screen. I'm not sure how it works, but looking it at it, it looks like there is maybe a very thin membrane, which maybe turns black if electricity runs through it. Behind the membrane is a dull "page," which is somewhere between light gray and cream in color, depending on lighting.

I'm told they did not put a white "page" behind the letters because a darker page with lower contrast supposedly reduces eye-strain. It may also be that color to reduce glare when you're reading outside (and, just to check, I did read it outside; not too much glare). There is no problem at all with seeing the text or anything like that; the black letters jump off the page. I really haven't calibrated my level of eye-strain with the Kindle as opposed to an actual book, except that I suppose sometimes I have gotten it from a book, and, so far, haven't gotten it from the Kindle.

Note that unlike the Kindle Fire, the Kindle's page is unlighted. Completely unlighted. You'll need a light source to read it.

In fact, this is a little something I like: Because the letters aren't on the "page" or background plate, but above it, held in that membrane, they appear to float above the page by just a quarter millimeter or so, if you look closely. You might think that's distracting but you never notice it when you're reading. Every once in a while I give it a close inspection and I note the floating-text effect, though.

I like that. There's something very neat about that, about ink floating just the tiniest smidge of distance off the page. It looks just a little bit magic. But again this is an artifact you don't notice, unless you're looking for it.

The size and shape of the object make it very easy to read, too. I just read the big, fat, tall-paged Citizens by Simon Schama, and I struggled with the book. I mean I physically struggled with it; the prose was clear. It was hard to get it in just the right position to read the thing, and I was much-slowed in reading it as a lot of my time was spent shifting it around on my belly.

And pulling pages back hard to get at those words that curl on the page near the spine.

None of that happens with the Kindle, obviously, the page being perfectly flat, and the device being of an easily manageable size. The physical experience of reading the Kindle -- the romance of the printed book aside -- is simply better than a hard-copy book, in most cases. One spends less time futzing around with the physical thing itself and more time actually reading words.

One of the neatest features of all is an in-board dictionary. Don't know that word you just read? Well here's what you do: Hold your finger on that word. A definition comes up. If it's English, it's in there. (Alas, we're not at the level of perfection yet; there aren't any foreign words and phrases are in the dictionary. Even a somewhat-common word foreign word-- "bocor," or Voodoo witch-doctor -- doesn't pop up in the Kindle dictionary.)

Downloading a full book takes about twenty seconds. The device encourages buying books through ease of doing so, which I suppose is Amazon's master plan.

Here are a few small drawbacks, which hopefully will improve in time:

I'm questioning if the screen itself needs to be so grayish. After being initially delighted with the thing, I began wondering, "Wouldn't it be neat if this thing even more closely mimicked a real book in physical appearance?" I'm not sure about this one, but I think maybe it might make sense to feature a more whitish page, possibly even at the expense of the supposed benefits to the eyes. Aesthetics matter. Or, if you want to keep the page fairly dark, what about a more cream-colored page? They light gray/slight cream page isn't ugly, but it's just not the color you think of when you think of a book.

Weight. Ideally the thing would weight no more than a 230 page paperback detective novel or Baen sci-fi novel. In fact it weights as much as thick book. It's not a problem, really, because it's still as light as many books and lighter than some; but, now having read it a bit, I do start to notice it's a little heavier than I'd like. It's very easy to hold, and thus isn't as heavy as its gross weight might indicate, and of course it can always be set on the chest. Still, to be perfect, it would get closer to the weight of a thin paperback.

Speed of page-turning. A page turn takes less than a half a second on the kindle, maybe a quarter-second. It's a small amount of time, and probably less time than it takes to turn the page of a physical book; but then, you only turn the page of a physical book every other page. This isn't a big deal, but if we're looking for the ideal, a thing that is faster to read than a physical book in every way, I'd like to see that page turn down to a tenth of a second.

More fonts. The default font for the Kindle is very handsome. I like it. It also has a no-serif font to choose, if you hate serifs. That font isn't very nice looking.

I really like the default font. I just wonder why the heck they couldn't install four or six of them. Like, who knows, maybe one night I'm feeling wild and want to read a book in a Times New Roman style of font. Sometimes I live on the edge like that.

By the way, you can scale up the text-size if you like. The graduations of text-size are pretty fine, so you can customize it for your eyes pretty well.

No notebook!!! I'm baffled by this. There is no place to open the Kindle and just start to take notes -- a word you looked up, a thought you had. You can "take notes" inside any actual book on the Kindle, inserting a footnote, like writing in the margins of a physical book, but there is no separate free-standing notebook function, where you could just write something like "postern means a side-door" for general reference, unconnected to any particular book.

The thing holds like 3000 books or something. A "journal" function could easily be added.

The Kindle, despite being techy, actually encourages a Return to the Old Ways. I only read sporadically these last four years, since I turned 19. (Note: This age estimate may be inaccurate.) Now I'm reading more. And I sort of want to take notes in this handy contraption as I'm doing so.

I guess I'm looking for the word "journal" here but I'm afraid if I say that you'll make fun of me. So let's just say "notes."

I was just reading Robert W. McChambers The King in Yellow. He mentioned a wolfskin on the floor, with taxidermy head attached. I thought, "Oh, neat little detail, let me steal that for the thing I'm writing." But I have to write it in a separate pad.

It really would be very convenient to just do it right on the Kindle, as I think of it, without having to open a separate notebook.

Overall, I think this product is great. I had previously groused about older Kindle books still costing between 8 and 10 bucks (or more). I would still grouse about that, but I had thought that the main selling point of the device was simply that if you spent $80 or $120 upfront, you could then make that up in savings of cost of books.

You might end up saving some, overall, with the Kindle, but its real selling point isn't savings, but ease of reading. It just makes reading easier and faster and, in a lot of ways, more enjoyable.

Kindle Cover Review, or the Hunt for the Perfect Cover. You don't need a cover to the Kindle, but after getting the thing, an idea is probably going to pop into your head:

You know what would be neat? What if I could disguise this high-tech thing to make it look just like a plain old book? Wouldn't that make it aesthetically closer to the experience of reading a real book? Wouldn't that just be cool?

I think it's cool. I see a lot of people asking about just this in Kindle forums, so other people think it's cool.

I don't think there's a perfect Kindle cover out there yet. The one I have is pretty good, but pricey, but is so far from perfect I can't recommend it.

I got the sixty-dollar Kindle cover with light. You can get it for 40 bucks without the light.

The cover has some great things going for it. First of all, the Kindle simply snaps in, very securely, into a plastic molded space which perfectly fits the thing. The surrounding rubber provides some shock protection, and also a little bit of grip.

The whole outside is actually leather. I got the "purple," which is really a wine-purple and pretty nice looking. I love the idea of having, as Ron Burgundy said, "Many leather-bound books." Leather feels nice to the touch.

One critically-important design feature is that the cover folds completely behind the thing when open, so you're never holding two leafs, as with a book. That is, you can still just hold it with one hand; when the cover's folded behind, you don't even notice it. The inside of the cover has a different texture, like some kind of mock wool, which is okay as far as touchabliity but not great.

The light feature of the thing just isn't very good. The good part is that the light connects to the Kindle's batter, through two prongs that connect to small plates in the Kindle. You don't even see this. I didn't even understand how this worked at first because there was nothing to hook up or plug in. But when you snap the Kindle into the cover, the prongs touch the plates, and you're all powered up.

But the light itself falls down on the job. It's at the top of the device and swings out, on a little arm, to cast light down on to the page.

It illuminates the top part more than the bottom, which is distracting. Even more distracting is the fact that the light is not hooded at all -- from virtually all angles the light is actually exposed, in direct line of sight to your eye, rather than hidden beneath a hood. (And if the inside of the hood had a sliver reflective paint on it, it could do a better job of casting light down the page.)

When I have the light on, I wind up futzing with the book, holding the bottom of it away from me so that I don't see the light.

In addition, the light is an unattractive white-blue LED light. There's probably nothing they can do about that.

Obviously there are better ways to do this. Given the cost -- sixty bucks-- the light should be great. They might have tucked two small lights into the top and bottom edge of the cover, to light the top and bottom equally, each hooded beneath a curl of plastic so you didn't even see the light. But they didn't.

One last problem with the Kindle cover is an aesthetic one, at least to me. The cover is form-fitting of the Kindle, which is great on the inside. But on the outside -- the actual exterior -- why do the contours still follow the Kindle's shape? Why not a flat-back, like a real book would have?

This isn't a major thing, but I'm talking about what I'd like to see. I'd like to see a cover that effectively disguised the Kindle as a real leather-bound book.

Different covers have these features. But no cover has all the features I'd like to see. The Verso cover looks just like a leatherbound book or journal; pretty good-looking. But it holds the Kindle with four bungi-type cords at the corners, rather than the snap-in, shock-absorbing plastic/rubber mount of the Kindle brand cover.

This British company makes real book covers for the Kindle -- including with titles on the spine, like "Dracula by Bram Stoker" or "Emma by Jane Austen" -- and has some kind of plastic mount for the Kindle to snap into. But I think those are conventional hard-back covers, which aren't leather (and leather is nice), and if those are conventional hard-back covers the front cover won't, can't, flip all the way behind the book to effectively disappear when you want it too.

Another feature missing from the Kindle, which many competitors have, is a pocket to slide your hand into in the cover, so you're not actually holding it; it's just attached to your hand.

So, to me, the perfect cover, which isn't yet available, would be like the Verso, in appearing to be a real book. But it would have, inside, the shock-proof mount for the Kindle, and not just four little bungi-cords holding the book in place.

And if they wanted to get sexy about it, they could copy the KleverKover trick of embossing the leather with the titles of real classic books, like Treasure Island or whatever.

And the light would work like the Kindle's does -- snaps right in, draws power off the Kindle -- but it would be hooded and would illuminate the page evenly.

Since they don't make that product yet, I'd just say to go pretty cheap on a cover until they do.

I'd actually probably just get the Verso cover if I were just buying now. I would miss the shock-proof casing around the Kindle, but the other features would make up for that.

If you're going to get the Kindle cover -- which is pretty good, despite not being great -- consider skipping the light, or just buying a cheap clip-on light from another vendor.

Overall I like the Kindle cover with the light, but for sixty bucks, it really should be better. And the light itself -- which costs 20 bucks right there -- should be much, much better.

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posted by Ace at 02:38 PM

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