Monday, January 12, 2009

Dead Trees versus Kindling

I didn't make any resolutions to engage with new media this year, but that's just the way things are working out.

Case in point: My company gave its employees Amazon Kindles for Christmas. For those of you who don't glom onto the techno-gadgets, the Kindle is the new hotness e-book reader from And it was a really cool gift, as it was definitely in the category of something I would not get for myself. And after staring at it for about a month (as it sat there, on my desk, in its box, mocking me with its cutting edge techno-goodness), I broke down and broke it out.

And its pretty good. Not something I would buy for myself(for reasons below), but something that I can use.

First off, the physical design is surprisingly sleek - an etch-a-sketch like screen with wide broad buttons for turning pages and a tiny keyboard at the bottom for those people who can type with their thumbs (as in ... not me). A roller/clicker that allows you access menus and move up and down the page. The screen is clear and the typefonts used very readable, and dare I say it - printlike. It is much easier to read than a computer screen.

The logic for using the interface takes a bit of poking about (remembering to click the previous page button, not the back button, for example), and you can choose your font size for readability. And it has limited access to the web, making it the perfect device to have on hand when you need to settle an argument in the bar (most useful site - Wikipedia).

Down sides - Its web access is pretty limited and clunky, but I think of it as a bonus, not a feature. To download books you need to have an Amazon account, and the Amazon website itself comes out pretty muddy on the screen. Screen size is not that great and it does not handle graphics well - I don't see this being used for gaming rules anytime soon (though the idea of being able to access your D&D rules with it would be kinda cool). The Amazon site is set up for computers, not Kindles, so you are better off finding what you want to buy on the computer, then downloading the exact title on the Kindle. The book choices are a mix of new titles right off the presses and shovelware just ported into Kindle format without any formatting (I almost got a complete collection of Twain, but it doesn't have any breaks between stories - instead being just one long file).

I bought a copy of Neil Stephenson's Anathem, which is pretty much the killer app for this device among SF fans. Stephenson's bug-smasher of a book shrinks down to a fairly containable size (along with a potential 199 more books), so in this way portability works in its favor. So I can carry around a book without the added weight. I'll use this for books that I don't really feel I need a hard copy of, or don't want to lug.

Since you can set your own font size, the concept of pages sort of goes by the wayside. Instead you can set bookmarks as you see fit (and write notes), but remembering to set them in the first place may be a challenge. Good news - it picks up exactly where you left off, so none of that fumbling about looking for the page you remember.

One challenge, as for all e-readers, is battery and storage. I can set a dead-tree book down by the side of my desk and not pick it up for months or years (yep, I've done this), and find exactly where I was before. The kindle needs charging every couple days (on sleep mode) or every week or so (if you turn it off). That's a point in favor of bulky, disposable dead trees.

So initial verdict? Interesting, better than anything else I have seen in the field so far. Good for a particular class of book (big, bulky, no illos or tables, and not intended to be permanent). Limited web features for the patient. Needs to grow its library further.

I'm in this for at least the first book - we'll see where it goes from there.

More later,