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Kindle considered

Technology — February 2011

Another friend has acquired a Kindle, joining early adopter Sean. I've also noticed Kindle books (and hardware) cropping up in increasing quantities in my Amazon affiliate reports.

I had a brief play with Sean's first generation model) over lunch once and was pretty impressed. And at $139 from Amazon or £111 from Amazon UK (basic wifi model, prices current as of 5th February 2011), the Kindle is really not that expensive now.

There are three concerns for me:

First and foremostly, I'm perturbed by the idea of a locked-down device with everything DRMed, supported by a proprietary "ecosystem". Since I've (personally) only really used free software for fifteen years now, this seems strange and unusual, on top of practical or ideological concerns. (The Nineteen Eighty-Four deletion fiasco happened just before I saw my first Kindle.)

Secondly, I just want one device to carry around with me, not specialised devices for all the things I want to do. The Kindle looks like a really nice device for reading books on, but though one can apparently run an ssh client on one it really isn't designed for that kind of use. (Sean argues the advantages of a single-purpose device, however, and it's not clear the kind of tablet/PDA/mobile computer I want will ever be manufactured.)

Finally, books for Kindle are rather expensive - in many cases more expensive than the printed versions! - so I mostly envisage reading academic papers on one. But I'd need to do some more testing before being convinced that the PDF rendering was good enough to make this practical, especially for diagrams.

People I know with Kindles: Sean, Simon, Sophia, Robbie, Carol. And there must be lots of others I don't know about


  1. It's not good for PDFs. Not that it couldn't be good, just Amazon have little incentive to make the user experience particularly good. If you're not going to use Amazon's services, you'd probably be better off with another reader, to be honest. PDFs work really badly because scrolling and changing orientation are painful.

    However, if you're using actual ebooks instead of PDFs, it works brilliantly. And you don't have to use Amazon's ebooks. I can vouch for O'Reilly's ebooks being very very good on the device.

    I use Calibre to send The Grauniad and the Snidey Moaning Herald to my device every day. That's really good for my reading!

    If you do buy a Kindle, I'd strongly recommend getting the 3G version. It's a little more expensive but it means you have a rudimentary, but free, web browser in just about every place in the world. And if you run out of content to read... I wish they'd existed when I was backpacking around Europe!

    Comment by Simon Rumble — February 2011
  2. I have to second the comments about PDF. I finally gave in and got an iPad as well late last year and it is far better for reading PDFs than the Kindle. I use an app called Papers which syncs with the corresponding app on the Mac and it's a great way to manage academic papers and carry them all around with you (it will even export to BibTeX). But the Kindle is still very good for true ebooks: it's lighter and smaller, the charge lasts longer and I don't get distracted by twitter and email (which happens regularly on the iPad) and, of course, it's a lot cheaper. I do understand the DRM concerns though. I'm not really sure what the alternative is at the moment.

    Comment by Sean Carmody — February 2011
  3. Thanks for the advice, guys.

    The DRM issue would stop me investing in a large, long-term library, so I'd be looking at more ephemeral material or free content. Newspapers are certainly an option here. And I assume if I'm happy to read popular pre-1900 material - I've started reading Trollope, so there's about 10,000 pages of reading there alone! - that's mostly freely available now. (There's got to be some kind of robust Gutenberg to ebook conversion process.)

    Talking about travel, travel guides would be something else a mobile reader would be good for. But Lonely Planet uses PDF format and I'm not sure the other guidebook publishers even do that. But you must be able to get travel guides for the Kindle now? (I used a full netbook for this in Vietnam and Cambodia and that was a bit unwieldy, but I was going to be carrying that anyway for email so I didn't mind so much.)

    Some kind of tablet is certainly tempting, but I don't want to end up in Apple's garden prison any more than Amazon's, so I'm actually waiting on Nokia to produce a MeeGo tablet, or the first Honeycomb Android products to appear. (Talking about shiny Apple products, that 11.6" Macbook Air is something to lust after! It is, however, nearly 6 times as expensive as the 3G Kindle)

    Sean, do you end up feeling like a cyborg if you are carrying phone, iPad and Kindle around? And isn't it annoying that that still leaves you with nothing you can run R on? (Unless you've jailbroken the iPad to do that http://www.r-bloggers.com/running-r-on-the-ipad/)

    Comment by danny — February 2011
  4. I love my kindle. I need reading glasses now, which I hate and find very uncomfortable, but with the kindle I can adjust the font and use the light that comes with the binder and it's perfect. It's light so I can read it comfortably in bed or pop it into my bag. The screen is a marvel and is clear even in direct sunlight.

    I am put off when kindle editions cost more than the paperback in some cases but I think this will change. And meanwhile it is just such a beautiful piece of technology and a pleasure to use. The kindle was clearly made by people who truly love books.

    Comment by Carol — February 2011
  5. For free Gutenberg books, nothing beats the Magic Catalog. It's a book with links direct to download other books. Works over the 3G browser!


    A quick search of Amazon finds plenty of travel guides. The DRM lock-in might be less important when you think they're out of date pretty quickly?


    Comment by Simon Rumble — February 2011
  6. Are Kobo eInk readers available in the UK? They sell in ePub format which you may find solves your ideoological concerns

    Comment by Neerav — February 2011
  7. I'm a big fan of my Kindle. The reading experience is pleasant and transparent, and it doesn't involve a glowing, backlit screen - lovely. I'm also addicted to being able to get a book sample, or the whole book, instantly to read the moment I think I might want to get it. The majority of the books I purchase are USD$9.99 which is pretty reasonable. (I set my Kindle address to the USA and buy from the U.S. store, as there is a larger catalog available and they tend to be cheaper.)

    There are two huge drawbacks to consider. The first is the DRM - DRM is evil for all the reasons we know, in particular I want to be able to buy the best e-reader, even if it's not Amazon's. I have a friend who has the tools to remove all the DRM from Amazon books and does so as soon as he purchases them, and keeps the non-DRMed version in his Calibre library which he would, presumably, be able to sync up with any device in the future.

    The second major drawback is related - you can't easily lend the books. As somebody once noted, with the DRM the publishers really seem to be selling you a book that can be read once, and only by you, and never sold. I want to be able to say to a friend - "You have to read this fascinating book, here, take it." Easy to do with treeware, how to do it fairly with an eBook?

    One minor Kindle drawback is the lack of support for ePub documents. Indications are that this probably won't be remedied soon, so you have to convert them to MobiPocket format with Calibre. It's also worth noting that maps, photos and diagrams generally look pretty terrible. It's not easy to flick back and forth to diagrams or footnotes.

    As a side note, I've also noticed something interesting. Because you never see the cover of the books you're reading, I can read a whole book and completely forget who the author is and sometimes what it's even called. Hopefully future generations of e-reader will remedy this.

    Overall though I'm very happy with the Kindle 3.

    Comment by Colin Jacobs — February 2011
  8. Calibre looks like a really nice piece of software!

    If I only read free content on it then the DRM is not an issue, so that's a "base" starting point. Given the horrors of copyright extension this may largely restrict me to the 19th and early 20th century, but there's enough there to keep me happy for quite some time. (I guess paying Amazon for a Kindle is "aiding and abetting", but it's not impossible they are actually losing money selling a Kindle which doesn't lead to any book sales)

    As Simon suggests, the more ephemeral content is the less the DRM on it worries me. If I know I'm not going to want to access the material in five years then lock-in is not so big concern. It's still nice to be able to pass travel books on to other people, though, so the "no resale" is ugly. (My one experiment here is with Lonely Planet chapters, which are DRM-free PDFs.)

    And with newspapers it's nice to be able to share stories with other people, which is one reason I don't even read "registration required" papers (e.g. the NYT) on a regular basis. But that's at the whim of the publisher anyway (whether stories I link to subsequently disappear behind paywalls is out of my control). I've found reading the Independent on my iPod Touch quite a pleasant experience.

    Comment by danny — February 2011
  9. Redhat's Ruth Suehle ponders "anti-openness gifts".

    Comment by danny — February 2011
  10. Just a little side-note to Colin's comment above...Amazon has built book lending into one of the last Kindle software updates.

    "lend books they've purchased to other Kindle users for a 14-day period, during which the person that actually purchased the book won't be able to read it themselves. That feature won't be available for all ebooks, however, as it will be up to individual publishers and rights holders to enable it for a particular book" - from Engadget.com


    Comment by Mike — June 2011
  11. I also learned (at a recent dinner with Andrew "samba, rsync" Tridgell) that the Kindle DRM has been broken, and that it's possible to keep a separate library of all one's Kindle books that can be moved to other devices (and can't be deleted by Amazon). Not being trapped makes a huge difference.

    Comment by danny — June 2011

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