Quality Time with the Amazon Kindle

Amazon.com jumpstarted the stagnated ebook market with the release of the Kindle.  Though at a glance the device comes off as a simple e-reader, it boasts a feature set that make the device as powerful as it is comfortable to read.  A built in QWERTY keyboard makes it easy to annotate text, highlight passages, and leave notes beyond what would have normally fit in the magian of a conventional book.  All without doing physical damage to the book in the process.

I really wanted to take my time with the Kindle before putting together a review.  To that end, I have spent that last 5 months reading.  In that time I have completed 21 Kindle based novels and 4 hard cover versions.  More than enough time, I believe, to evaluate the content consumption device.

The unit I purchased was the Kindle 2, the second generation of the initial Kindle form factor.  Its the same size as the original Kindle, but boasts a faster screen redraw.  The Kindle 2’s display is referred to as e-Ink technology.  Essentially each dot in the screen is a tiny sphere of composite material that is black on one side and white on the other.  When a screen renders, each pixel is flashed to either black or white.  But the beauty of the technology is that, once the screen is rendered, the screen no longer needs to draw electricity.  This makes the display technology extremely power efficient.  The device yields an amazing battery life as a result.

The Kindle uses much of its battery power polling the Amazon network for new book purchases and updating the most recently read page count for the readers account via its built-in cellular modem.  It turns out that by enabling the wireless support only when needed yields amazing battery life.  In my testing, I was able to complete 4 books per battery charge.  I simply enable the wireless each time I wanted to add a new book to the device.  Once the book was downloaded, I disabled wireless again.

This power saving tip touches on one of the other great features of the Kindle.  As the reader moves through the book, the Kindle phones home (to Amazon.com) with updates reflecting the readers current location in the book.  Why does Amazon need to know what page you are currently reading?  The Kindle reader is only one way that Amazon customers can consume e-book goodness.  Amazon also has reader apps for SmartPhones, as well as Mac and Windows based desktop computers.  And since each reading devices registers with the readers Amazon account, the books are available to any of these devices.  And thanks to the Kindle’s ability to phone home with the readers current position, readers can hop to the Kindle Reader that is most convenient at any given time.  For example, I can read at home on the Kindle.  But later that day when I find myself with time to kill while waiting at the doctors office, I can pull out my iPhone and pick up reading my book from the page I left off when I left the house.  The phone knows where I left off because each Kindle compatible devices updates my latest read page via Amazon.com’s back end system.

Personally, I love the Kindle and have absolutely no desire to read a book on my iPhone, or my MacBook Pro.  I love the idea of the flexibility, but in truth, the Kindle is just so comfortable to read that I don’t care to read when its not in hand.  The iPhone and my laptop have backlit displays that fatigue my eyes and over time it makes reading on those screens uncomfortable.  But the Kindle’s screen doesn’t emit light.  The screen renders the text in a quick flash and then the page is set until I turn it again.  The text is black on a slightly gray background that offers good contrast and its very easy on the eyes.

Amazon has a very wide selection of books available in Kindle format.  And that selection is growing every week.  Prices vary, but are generally around the price (if not a little lower) of a paperback edition.  The best selling new titles are available as well as a massive collection of older titles.  My time with the Kindle was spent with a couple of new releases.  But the majority was spent on titles dating as far back as the mid 1990’s.

Its not uncommon to be reading and come across a word that is unfamiliar.  Since the Kindle has a built-in dictionary, its a simple matter of cursoring down to the word and waiting half a second for the device to pop a definition across the bottom of the screen.  It takes to time at all, and really enhances the readers ability to understand the material.

As mentioned earlier, annotation and highlighting are well implemented.  In order to make a note regarding the reading material, just jockey the cursor to the desired position and start typing on the built-in mechanical QWERTY keyboard.  The text is saved to a separate text file on the Kindle for easy access.  But that text file is linked to the location of the note to easily associate it with its proper position in the book.  Similarly, and text that is highlighted is added to the external text file for easy reference.

If there is one glaring downside to the Kindle, its the lack of a color display.  In many cases black and white is acceptable.  But some books will require a full color display in order to provide a complete experience.  And if there is a glitch in the overall technology, its the formatting of some books.  Most physical books have their type justified, meaning the text aligns flush with both the left and right edges of the paper.  The spacing between the words is distributed to accommodate proper alignment.  While most Kindle books follow this convention, some don’t.  I suspect its actually a mistake made when the book was converted to digital format, but the differences between books can be slightly distracting.  Occasionally a book is entirely left justified rather than justified.  Not uncomfortable, and after a few pages the idiosyncrasy is virtually invisible.

Another strength of the Kindle is the form factor.  Its light and the screen is a comfortable size for reading.  Similar in size to one of the facing pages of a hardcover book.  The size and weight make the device comfortable to hold for long periods of time.  And much as a reader comes to turn the pages of a book without much seeing the volume in their hands, the Kindle reader became an innocuous window to the reading material and virtually invisible as the content pulled me into the world that was the fiction I was reading.

The Kindle has another feature that I would classify as a superpower.  With conventional books, the size of the type can be a challenge.  And readers with special needs often must limit their reading to the selection of books published in large type editions.  With the Kindle, this is a complete non-issue.  With a few clicks of the device, the text of any book is easily scaled to make reading comfortable for readers of any visual acuity.  No need to shop for a large print editions.  Readers with poor vision can make the text virtually as large as they need it with no loss of type quality.

My time with the Kindle has made me a big believer in ebooks.  I prefer to read a Kindle version of a book whenever available.  The only exception has been books that are part of a series that I have already been collecting in hardcover.  Perhaps the other down side of the digital format is the collectors inability to put their favorite books proudly on display.  That said, I think the ability to easily search the contents of the digital books is a far more practical and exciting feature.

Apple recently released the iPad, a tablet style computer with a touch interface.  I was excited to see Amazon release a Kindle app for the iPad on the devices launch day.  So every book available on the Kindle is also compatible with the iPad.  I look forward to test-driving the iPad as an e-reader, but I worry that the devices backlit display will be fatiguing.  And since the iPad’s weight is much greater than the Kindle, I can see holding the iPad for hours on end could prove unpleasant.  And since the Kindle is less expensive than the iPad, it seems it has a lot going for it even as the technology marches on.  The Kindle is a solid device and a winner in virtually every way.  It has given me a new way, and now a preferred way, to consume both fiction and nonfiction.

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