better living through product    ·    by Adam Mathes   ·   archive   ·   follow @decommodify

Holiday Gift Suggestions 2012

⍚ December 3, 2012

Never Owned A Tablet

iPad Mini

The iPad Mini is probably the best gift of the year.

The iPad mini is the best tablet to get and lets be honest, it’s way better than the full sized iPad for nearly everyone.

The Wirecutter, The iPad mini is the best tablet

The only downside to an iPad Mini is that if you spend most of your time using using retina displays you might notice this one is not retina (though even many techies are overlooking that flaw.)

For those who don’t have a tablet, this isn’t an issue.

The iPad 4th generation is still amazing — see our review of the 3rd generation for why.

Those Who Love Photography

The Fujifilm X-E1 is the smaller and more affordable follow-up to our favorite camera: The Fuji X-Pro 1.

It takes everything we love about the X Pro 1 (minus the optical viewfinder, which we rarely use) and dramatically lowers the size, weight, and cost.

Outstanding usability and camera controls with spectacular image quality — this is the best small interchangeable lens camera on the market today.

$999 body only, $1399 with lens

Owns an Original iPad But Thinks It’s Too Heavy.

iPad Mini

For those that have an iPad 2 or 3rd generation iPad and think it’s too heavy, this is still a good gift, though you might want to wait another generation.

Wants a Nexus Tablet or Kindle Fire

iPad Mini

Tell them no and get them an iPad Mini. The cost difference is negligible compared to the difference in usability.

The Bookish

Kindle Paperwhite.

Be sure to pay extra to remove the ads — almost anyone who reads these days appreciates that it’s one of the few mediums left that is not ad supported.

The cheaper Kindles are still reasonable gifts and more affordable than ever, see our previous reviews.

At this point the iPad Mini is a serious contender to dedicated eink readers, but still can’t compete in terms of battery life, outdoor usage, and durability.

Men Who Wear Shirts That Don’t Fit Properly

For many people (including myself) the difference between a custom fit shirt and buying off the rack is huge. (I’m short, it’s hard to find shirts that fit properly.)

I use and recommend Blank Label and they offer gift certificates.

Nearly every time someone who knows me sees me in one of their shirts for the first time, they notice the difference and comment positively — the difference is very noticeable.

Those Who Like To Sit Around Lounging.

A high quality cotton bathrobe.

I wear a 100% cotton one from The Company Store

Men who wear underwear

Flint and Tinder Knit Boxers, see our review.

$21.95 on Amazon.

Travelers

Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Canceling Headphones are worth their premium price of $299 for frequent flyers.

People Who Use Windows Laptops

It’s almost 2013 and there’s very few excuses people have to struggle in the Microsoft ecosystem anymore — if you have to use Windows, you can run it on Apple hardware.

Apple MacBook Pro 15.4-Inch Laptop with Retina Display is the best laptop I’ve over owned and I think is significantly ahead of anything else on the market. (The last time I felt that way was the original Titanium Powerbook G4.)

This is a power user professional laptop — capable of desktop level performance in most applications that users often never care about. Most people will probably be happier with a 13” or 11” Macbook Air which is a bette form factor, but lacks the outstanding display.

More To Come

We’ll be updating this over the next few days. We also recommend:

Flint and Tinder Knit Boxers

⍚ December 3, 2012

My father is even more particular about things than me. This trait — combined with his propensity to simply buy things he needs immediately — makes him nearly impossible to buy gifts for.

But I thought he might actually like Flint and Tinder boxer shorts. So I ordered him one pair of knit boxers as a gift to try, and had them sent directly to him.

Before I even had the chance to talk with him to see how he liked them, he had ordered more online.

That’s how good this underwear is.

Underwear is exactly the kind of commodity we use constantly but is not up to the standards it should be.

Flint and Tinder realized that none of the designer underwear in stores was made in America, and in general it was not a good product. They set out to make a better, higher quality product in America.

They succeeded.

Flint and Tinder boxers are the most comfortable underwear I’ve ever owned.

Imagine the most comfortable, lush cotton t-shirt you’ve ever worn — that is what they made their knit boxers out of.

Kickstarter may be increasingly seen as the QVC of the indie web, and it’s not clear that it can always work well for products (as opposed to the sort of artistic projects like books and films I believe it was originally designed for.)

But the pitch for Flint and Tinder was exactly the kind of thing we at Decommodify want to support: high quality, simple products for every day life, made with a new attention to detail, craftsmanship and care, so I supported it.

The end product exceeded my expectations. The fit, feel, the lack of a tag, the deep colors — all really impressive.

Flint and Tinder Knit Boxers, ~$20

available on Amazon or directly from Flint and Tinder.

Fuji X-Pro 1: A Camera For Photography Lovers

⍚ May 3, 2012

If you want to take the best possible pictures in the widest variety of situations, an entry level DSLR with a nice prime normal lense is probably the best value for your money. (A Nikon D3200 and 35mm f1.8 together are under $1000.)

For better optical quality, a full frame (the sensor is the same size as a 35mm piece of film) DSLR like the Nikon D700 (what I normally use) or the new D800 with a fast prime lens is even better. And if you need the fastest possible professional grade DSLR you already know why a Nikon D3X or equivalent is even pricier.

If you just want the best digital compact point and shoot, it’s the Canon S100.

The only camera on the market with great software that is properly connected to the internet in a way that makes sense for consumers is an iPhone with iCloud.

And the most beautiful and emotional cameras when price is no object are from Leica.

If you are evaluating cameras as commodities, that covers just about everything.

People Who Love Photography

So the Fuji X Pro 1 — technically the FUJIFILM X-Pro1 — and similar small interchangeable lens camera systems occupy a space in between those options.

Smaller and lighter than an SLR without some of the capabilities, but bigger, bulkier and more capable than a compact camera.

It will never fit in a pocket.

Like an iPad, it’s an object that must justify itself.

And it does. It really does.

The X-Pro 1 is the modern camera for people who love photography.

Actual Photographers

The Fuji X-Pro1 is an amazing one-of-a-kind camera. It has image quality and lenses more like my LEICA M9 than any DSLR, and it’s smaller and lighter than any DSLR — or LEICA. … The X-Pro1 is probably the best camera ever introduced for actual photographers, as opposed to computer hobbyists or vidiots, in years. The Nikon D800 and Canon 5D Mark III are simply more of the same old thing, while the X-Pro1 is uniquely excellent.

Ken Rockwell reviewing the X-Pro 1.

Ken Rockwell spends a lot of time time using and reviewing a huge array of equipment — his review is a great read.

Key amazing things about the X-Pro 1:

  1. Real physical controls
  2. Outstanding image quality
  3. Unique hybrid optical/digital viewfinder
  4. It is a joy to use

Size and Weight

It weighs just under 16oz. It actually looks like it weighs more. It’s lighter than you would think.

It’s too big to ever put in a pocket, but small and light in a bag.

It’s significantly more comfortable to carry around for hours than my Nikon D700 or any serious DSLR today.

Build Quality

This is an all metal camera that was made with an attention to detail.

Although the branding is quite muted the camera boldly claims “made in Japan” on the back.

It is clear that Fuji is immensely proud of the quality, fit and finish of this product. It’s lightweight but solid. It feels like a Japanese manufactured camera.

Controls

The X Pro 1 is a camera that allows you to actually control the factors that create a photograph using real physical controls.

There is a real shutter speed dial. The aperture is set on the lens. There is an exposure compensation dial.

These all feel right.

These are things we used to take for granted in cameras — well made physical controls with clear affordances and feedback. And yet it is the exception — not the rule — in cameras regardless of cost today.

This camera feels more like my classic film Nikon FM2 than the modern Nikon D700 I regularly use.

I mean that in the best possible way — it looks and feels and operates like a camera — not a beeping electronic gadget.

Image Quality

I will leave this to professionals to measure quantitatively but qualitatively I have been amazed.

The camera is too new to have RAW images properly supported in Adobe or Apple products — all photos here were shot as JPEG. Unlike my DSLR, I find shooting JPEG to be fine with this camera.

Lenses

I have only use the F1.4 35mm lens, which I find to be amazing. It also focuses down amazingly close.

The only lenses available for the camera are 3 fast prime lenses with the new “Fuji X” mount.

I don’t know when the last time anyone released a new camera system where the introductory lenses only consisted of high quality prime lenses but that alone should tell you who this camera was designed for.

You can’t get the camera with some sort of slow zoom kit lens because Fuji doesn’t even make such a thing for it.

Risk

This is a brand new camera system. Unlike buying a Canon or Nikon SLR, there are not decades worth of new and used lenses and equipment compatible with it.

Unlike a more traditional camera, it is not as clear this will hold its value over time, or if Fuji will support the x-mount in decades in the way Canon or Nikon has supported their system.

It is, in some sense, a much riskier purchase.

Downsides

One annoyance was the lens was “loud” — literally, had an excessive chirping while focusing at times. This has been fixed with the latest firmware.

The autofocus is slow compared to most DSLRs, and seems to fail to find focus a little more often than I’m used to. In practice during a day of shooting at a garden, it was not a problem.

(Fuji’s similar previous offering, the Fuji X100 had similar autofocus issues that were improved with firmware over time, so it may get better over time, but it’s impossible to know.)

Fashion

This is a camera that takes it cues from rangefinder cameras made decades ago. While some may debate the authenticity of this look, I find the aesthetic to be a huge improvement over what is generally sold today in cameras.

A camera like this elicits a different emotional response than a serious modern DSLR. There is something quiet and different about a more subtle rangefinder inspired design, and that’s a huge part of the allure of this camera.

When looking directly at the face of the camera, there is no branding visible. This is rare.

In fact, this may be the best camera you can have around your neck where you don’t have to pay extra to de-brand it.

Competition

Per the introduction to this article, on technical commodity value terms, there are probably more practical options for almost all groups of consumers.

The real competition for a camera system like this is the Leica M9, which costs thousands more, or used film rangefinder systems (which still are very pricey.)

If you don’t want or need interchangeable lenses, Fuji’s previously released X100 is a cheaper but similar alternative.

Conclusion

This is a unique camera as of Spring 2012.

Getting pictures of this quality in this form factor — from a camera that looks this good and is such a joy to use — is a wondrous experience.

It’s expensive and quirky, but in my brief time owning it I’ve found it’s an object that will give a lot back to you.

Available on Amazon: Fujifilm X-PRO1, $1699 35mm F1.4 Lens, $599

Ernest Alexander Walker Wax Messenger Bag

⍚ April 23, 2012

A bag is almost too personal an item to even try to recommend, but the bag I use today is an Ernest Alexander Walker Wax Messenger Bag.

The perfect everyday bag, our Walker classic messenger is made from charcoal wax canvas, a durable and naturally water shedding fabric that develops a rich patina with age. The bag features a streamlined hidden closure underneath the flap, giving the face a clean & uncluttered look whilst holding the flap securely in place.

Walker Charcoal Wax Messenger

The back flap is perfect for a magazine or iPad, the main compartment comfortably fits my 15” Macbook Pro and accessories.

The design is functional and beautiful without the loudness and explicit branding of so many bags. Ernest Alexander as a brand is comfortable enough to let their products be beautiful and speak for themselves. The subtle use of the logo on the shoulder strap is quite beautiful.

The quality of the materials — the canvas and the supple leather, the nickel plated brash finishes, the strong zippers — and the overall feel of an intensely well made product shines through.

It’s an attention to detail coupled with the knowledge the bag will get only get better with age and use that makes this bag the best I’ve owned.

Ernest Alexander Walker Wax Messenger Bag, $295 directly from Ernest Alexander in chocolate, tan, charcoal and navy

iPad (3rd Generation, 2012) Review

⍚ March 18, 2012

It has been more than a decade since personal computers were primarily tools for hobbyists, large businesses, or luxury goods. Owning a laptop or desktop computer is now nearly essential to modern life in many places.

Cellular phones - and smartphones in particular - are quickly closing in on the PC as the most essential piece of personal electronics.

Tablets - which can not at this time replace a computer due to a lack of capabilities nor replace a phone due to size - are thus fundamentally a luxury good today.

An additional object.

You can do without one.

If you have to choose, you should choose a laptop or a smartphone to prioritize with limited dollars.

Thus the iPad must create a market for itself. It has to be a device you want, to feel, to hold, to own. It is not a necessity for conducting business or living your life or staying in communication.

The Intimate Computer

What Apple has done - and what Microsoft’s tablet efforts in the past and Android’s efforts fail to do today - is create a luxury good that creates a market for itself with how wonderful it is to experience. It must be an experience — not purely utilitarian. I have - somewhat to my surprise - used my iPad nearly every day since pre-ordering the original. It is the more natural object to use on a couch, or in bed.

(The only other logical tact is creating tablets so cheap as to be nearly disposable — this is what Amazon is doing and as they continue to cut costs they will likely be the only serious alternative by creating a radically different price point and experience.)

The iPad reinvented personal computing by making it intimate and personal.

But that is old news — that is the story of the iPad and iPad 2.

What’s new in 2012 is the display.

The Most Impressive Screen in the World

The story of the new iPad is this: the new iPad is the most impressive high resolution display in the world, and you can hold it in your hands and take it with you.

Text on it isn’t like reading on a monitor — it’s like paper that is alive.

Elements look organic, not digital and jagged.

I am just amazed by how incredible things look on it. It’s really incredible and has to be experienced. Looking at comparison images does not do it justice.

Historical Context

The screen readability problem will be solved in the future, since screens with 300 dpi resolution have been invented and have been found to have as good readability as paper. High-resolution screens are currently too expensive (high-end monitors in commercial use have about 110 dpi), but will be available in a few years and common ten years from now.

Jakob Nielsen, Be Succinct! (Writing for the Web)

I remember reading this when Nielsen wrote it in 1997.

15 years later we aren’t quite there in terms of the computers on our desks.

So realizing the most impressive high dpi reading experience in 2012 is a 9.7” tablet that runs for 10 hours that I can carry with me everywhere and has built in cellular network connectivity is mind blowing.

Conclusion

Highest possible recommendation.

Which iPad

I refuse to pay per-device for network connectivity so forego the cellular versions. Like the original, I chose 32gb as a sufficient enough size, though I think many users will be happy with 16gb. I think black makes the screen look better than white, but it’s a matter of prefence.

Purchase

iPad (2012), Apple $499 available directly at Apple Stores, Amazon, and elsewhere.

Why I Love The Ubiquitous KitchenAid Mixer

⍚ February 27, 2012

The food you make is only as good as your tools, ingredients, and willingness to fail.

(The last two are outside the scope of this site.)

The reason the KitchenAid Stand Mixer is a mainstay in a well stocked kitchen is because it’s really good at what it does.

It’s an embodiement of technology making our lives better - taking a huge amount tedious manual labor and making it nearly effortless. Do you remember how much better freshly whipped cream is than anything you can buy in a store? It’s only minutes away from reality.

The annoyance of mixing cookie dough for an endless period of time? Gone, replaced with a mechanical whir.

It’s not that you don’t lose something with with the subtraction of the strain of mixing from the cooking experience. But time and effort and willpower are finite — is the physical strain of mixing an impediment or a reward in and of itself?

By making it a choice — effortless mixing or a conscious application of force — both choices become better than if they were in isolation.

KitchenAid Mixmaster Pro 500

~$300 on Amazon

Wigwam Socks

⍚ December 14, 2011

Although I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on a single pair of fine shoes — because my feet are worth it, and so are yours — I’ve never worried about socks.

Honestly, you really should overspend on feet. There isn’t much better advice than to take care of your feet.

And yet here I am writing this in disposable, thin, not particularly comfortable or nice, generic Hanes crew socks, and you’re probably reading it in worn out socks too.


Because socks are disposable. So why care? They wear out, you throw them out, get new ones. Nobody sees them. They are just transient pieces of cloth on feet.

But that’s wrong. Just because a product may not have a half-life in decades doesn’t mean it won’t impact your life.

Wigwam Socks

Start wearing socks that are well made, from quality materials, and are comforable. My recommendation is Wigwam.

“Wigwam Mills, Inc. is proud to knit its socks in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, U.S.A., just for you because we care.”

In terms of pure comfort for lounging around the house in your socks, the Wigwam Men’s King Cotton Crew Length Crew Sock is without peer.

Super soft, super thick — like walking on a cloud, if clouds were composed of cotton and knit in Wisconsin.

The downside is they may in fact be too thick for your shoes, if you’re the kind of person who leaves the house.

Thickness of Wigwam King Cotton compared to a worn out existing sock

For a well made sock with a more normal thickness, I recommend the Wigwam Super 60 Crew, much more reasonably priced in 7-packs. Still well-made from high quality materials in the USA and more likely to fit in your shoes, but without the lush thickness.

Waking up and putting on a fresh pair of thick, comfortable socks is a small luxury within your grasp.


King Cotton Crew Length Crew Sock, ~$10 on Amazon.

Wigwam Super 60 Crew, ~$15 for 7-pack.

iPad Sleeve

⍚ November 16, 2011

There is a cottage industry of iPad cases, and while I understand their appeal I have never desired one.

Either my iPad is in use, place on a table when not in use, or in a bag with me during travel. I only need it covered while in the bag.

I know, I know, you want something to protect it from when it’s dropped or use it to prop itself up on a plane’s tray table. I get it.

But I don’t. Those other cases add bulk and get in the way.

All I want is something to protect it from being scratched when I throw it in my bag. Nothing more, nothing less.

So I use a thin, simple, suede sleeve - the iPad Suede Jacket from WaterField Designs

It doesn’t photograph well, so watch this promotional video instead.

It’s thin. Very thin, very snug.

It has two little pieces on the side to hold the sleeve open as the iPad slides in. I find it quite satisfying to use, even if it may not be the most efficient form of storage.

There’s another little pull tab at the lengthwise end to aid removal from the sleeve. Again, quite satisfying.

It’s that tactile feel of suede, the bit of satisfaction in use, and small attention to detail that make this simple sleeve recommended.

Availability

A bit pricey, but it’s high quality materials and constructed in San Francisco.

$19 from WaterField Designs

The Best Rechargeable Batteries

⍚ November 7, 2011

Sanyo Eneloops are the best rechargeable batteries.

Sanyo invented the low-self-discharge NiMH battery. Unlike most rechargeable, it retains more of its power over time. There are competitors, but Sanyo still makes the best.

Vs. Regular Batteries

At ~$10 for 4AA, they’re easily twice as expensive as normal batteries, but you should use them much longer through charging and save money.

But it’s not really the money, it’s the convenience of just charging things instead of running out of batteries, running to the store to buy batteries, throwing out batteries constantly.

I’ve been using the original versions for years, and recently bought some of the improved 2011 editions. Never having to run out to buy batteries is easily worth the price.

Battery powered devices running out of power are one life’s small inconveniences that can be made much less annoying with a little bit of forethought.

More

Consumerresearch recommended

And Cool Tools

In depth electronic testing (with graphs) of Eneloop performance and discharge

Eneloop homepage

Buy Some

4 AA with charger, ~$20

8 AA, ~$20

Power pack, ~$50

A Leather Wallet that Gets Better

⍚ November 4, 2011

I don’t remember the last time I bought a wallet.

The wallet I’ve been using for over a decade is a wallet my father got as a gift and never used.

A lovely, shiny, black leather Coach wallet.

But despite the brand, it has only gotten worse over time.

Size

The problem is it’s too tall for US paper money. The height (at 4”) is wrong. So over time when money is in it a crease develops around where cash is in the wallet, where part is thicker than the rest.

I don’t think Coach makes it anymore — all the wallets on their site now have one fewer card holder per side, and at 3.75” tall probably fixes the problem.

The glossy texture over time has become less pleasing; the seams falling apart.

It’s not that it’s become unusable over time, but it doesn’t feel like a baseball glove that’s gotten worn in over time, more like a shoe wearing away over time.

It only feels like it will get worse.

Improve over time

What I wanted was something that would get better with age, so the Saddleback Leather wallet’s pitch appealed to me: http://www.saddlebackleather.com/Classic-Wallet-Bifold.html?sc=8&category=87

100 yr. warranty. If it wears out before you do, I’ll replace it for free 100% Full Grain leather No breakable parts,e.g. zippers, buttons etc. Industrial marine grade thread Pigskin lining (tougher than leather) Gets better looking every year No one will comment on how cool your wallet is … this year. In ten years for sure, but not this year. It’s nothing fancy. It doesn’t have a window for your driver’s license and it there’s no plastic spare key holder. It’s just a very solid wallet made with leather from the top of the hide called full grain (where the fibers are the most tightly woven together). It will be the longest lasting wallet you’ll ever own and least exciting… the first year.

And at under $50 it seemed reasonably priced to try.

In Use

It’s a bit thicker and stiffer than one might like, but that’s to be expected, I think.

Cards at first were a bit harder to put in and out, though it’s become better over the first week.

The stitching and matte leather look good, the interior and exterior textures are very pleasing.

It feels like it will stand the tests of time, but we’ll find out. I’ll report on it again over the coming months as it gets used, but so far I’m positive on it.


Saddleback Classic Bifold Leather Wallet $45 at Saddleback Leather. · $50 on Amazon

Kindle 2011 Review Part 3

⍚ November 1, 2011

In Use

After extensive use on a week long trip to Hawaii, I like it.

It works on the beach and you don’t have to carry books.

The contrast and readability is acceptable, excepting the previously discussed typographical issues.

Battery life wasn’t an issue on a week long trip with hours of daily use.

The page turn buttons continued to bother me, but overall the ease and lightened load seemed worth it on vacations.

Vs. The Other Kindles

This is the wrong device to get someone who doesn’t have a computer and WiFi. If you’re getting a Kindle for a technophobe, consider one of the 3G models that requires zero setup and is fully self contained. A bit more in initial cost, but it will be configured to “just work” and be network enabled out of the box.

I don’t see much reason to get the keyboard version ($20 more) unless you find the dimensions of this one too small (remember, the screen size is the same, but the device size is much smaller) or the primary user will be buying books on the device rather than with a computer.

I have not used the unreleased Kindle Touch but I have my doubts that a touchscreen is necessarily better. I think I would rather have better dedicated page turn buttons than constantly be touching invisible targets on the screen to turn the page, but I’ll reserve judgment until I try one.

The Kindle Touch is a tad larger and heavier — ~6oz vs ~7.5oz, 6.5” x 4.5” x .34” vs. 6.8” x 4.7” x 0.40” — but not significantly, and $20 more.

The $199 - Kindle Fire - despite the name and branding - is not really in the same category of devices, and is more rightly compared to an iPad or Android tablet. The Kindle Fire will not have competitive battery life, weight, or a display easily read outdoors.

Vs. Competing Ereaders

The iPad is too heavy and impossible to read in the sun.

Nobody buys Android tablets and they aren’t really worth talking about, and again, they’re not really the same class of device.

iriver Story HD has partnered with Google to make an ugly device that has mostly been ignored. http://books.google.com/help/ebooks/ereader.html

I would never buy such a thing.

The Nook is the only serious competitor in the ereader space that has a properly integrated bookstore backing it, which is critical to the ease of use of an ereader.

Any device that expects you to purchase content, manage it on on a desktop hard drive, and sync via USB seems antiquated at this point.

The first generation Nook was a bizarre frankenstein hybrid of eink and a color touchscreen that I thought was extremely bizarre, though the latest Nook Simple Touch at $139 seems significantly better.

Conclusion

As I began the discussion of the device

The new Kindle is practically weightless, holds more books than many people read in a lifetime, runs for a month on a single charge, and frees you from housing physical manifestations of books you buy.

If that’s appealing to you, there’s never been a better, cheaper way to get an eink reader.

If you’d rather lug books around instead, I respect and admire you.

Don’t get it wet.

Kindle 2011 version, $79 on Amazon

Kindle 2011 Review Part 2

⍚ October 21, 2011

After embracing the mortality that electronic books represent, it’s easier to evaluate the latest Kindle.

The new Kindle is practically weightless, holds more books than many people read in a lifetime, runs for a month on a single charge, and frees you from housing physical manifestations of books you buy.

$79 on Amazon.com

Size and Weight

The new 2011 Kindle is small. Smaller than you might expect if you haven’t seen one in person, and significantly smaller than the previous generations.

Compared to a paperback:

The Kindle has the capacity to store about 1500 of those.

Screen

The 6” screen seems to have significantly improved in contrast compared to the second generation Kindle I own.

The “flashing” of all black during each page change of previous Kindles has been replaced with a flashing every few page turns, at the expense of slightly less sharp text, though I can’t tell the difference without looking through a macro lens. (I also have terrible vision.)

Turn The Page Again

The diminutive size of the device comes with a cost in terms of content displayed per page.

A quick non-scientific sampling of a full page of text in terms of characters per line:

  • 50 cpl (1036 characters over 21 lines)

Compared to my older Kindle 2 on the same text:

  • Kindle 2nd Generation: 50 cpl (889 characters over 18 lines)

Similar line lengths, but the new Kindle has less cruft at the top and bottom of the screens, allowing more lines per screen. In comparison to the Kindle app on an iPhone 4S:

  • 32 cpl (411 characters over 13 lines)

The line length still seems a bit short compared to most physical books, even tiny ones. Grabbing a trade paperback from my shelves for comparison showed about 60 characters a line, and about 40 lines per page.

The Elements of Typographical Style suggests 45 to 75 characters as acceptable, with a 66-character “widely regarded as ideal.”

The fewer characters per line is in part due to the way the text is typeset on the Kindle, generally yielding significant rivers of whitespace. Excellent typesetting (whether manual or automated) allows hyphenation and tightening of the space between words and letters together at times for better readability and compactness, while most electronic books and your web browser generally only spread words and letters further apart to justify the text, and don’t add hyphens. This leads to less pleasing rivers or white space, and hampers readability.

Compared to previous generation Kindles with the same size screen, there’s much better use of the space by eliminating some of the persistent indicators at the top of the screen. Pressing the menu key brings them back when necessary. This is a clear improvement.

But compared to a trade paperback (the smallest commercially sold books sold intended to be read) you’re still getting about 5/6 of the line length, and about half the lines per virtual page, so you’ll be “flipping” pages a lot more often than you would be for an analog book.

This makes the controls to flip pages even more critical.

Controls

But the page buttons are terrible and the affordances are all wrong.

I literally could not work the page flip buttons on my first attempts.

The buttons are flush with the beveled edge of the device. The angled bevel is extremely small - and much smaller than the edge of the device, which is what I assumed (incorrectly) was the part of the button one needs to push.

This is wrong.

Having realized this was wrong, I attempted to push inward on the tiny bevel to turn the page, which is also wrong.

In fact, the buttons aren’t even really buttons you push, because they hinge away from the device, so it’s actually more like you’re pulling the button away from the device - pushing “out.”

You have to, more or less, rock the edge of the device away from itself to change pages.

I have never seen or used a similar button on a device, and even after using the device it felt a bit unnatural. Compared to the buttons on the second generation Kindle, they seem more aesthetically pleasing but significantly less usable.

The directional control and four accompanying navigation buttons don’t exhibit any such problems, and navigating the menus and other systems is fairly easy, except for the noticeable delays in the refresh of pages.

The Off Switch

Why does it even have a power switch?

You don’t need to turn a real book off. You just pick it up and start reading.

Although it’s an electronic device, I’m unconvinced it’s necessary an ereader should behave differently. The long lasting battery of eink devices is because the screen is only powered on when changing the screen, not in a “steady” state.

So it actually uses power to reconfigure the screen to turn it off.

One of the possible advantages of having a power switch is that the device would stay off and not accidentally change pages when placed in a bag or pocket. But the power button - a small push button on the bottom of the device - can be triggered easily in a pouch or pocket accidentally.

A lock switch somewhere on the device might have been a better design.

Of course, the real reason you “close” your ebook (and it closes itself for you) has nothing to do with usability.

A Special Offer to Sell Yourself

At $79, the Kindle comes with “special offers” or what people who are not writing marketing copy for companies call “advertising.”

When “off” the Kindle displays an ad. There are also ads in the menus. There are no ads within the text of books (as far as I can tell.)

The cost of not having your devices “off state” sold to the highest bidder is $30.00.

If you’re not sure if this is annoying, it’s best to order the cheaper version as you can pay the $30 to remove the ads later.

If I continue to use the device, not having ads is worth $30 to me. Books are one of the few mediums left that are generally free from the noise of commerce and advertising, it seems unfortunate to sacrifice that.

Keyboard

The physical keyboard of previous Kindles is thankfully gone, replaced with a frustrating on screen keyboard that is best left unused. The slow refresh of eink, combined with the difficulty of navigating on screen keyboards with a directional pad makes more like texting on an ancient phone than typing on a computer keyboard.

This Kindle is really best as an auxiliary device for reading, where the books are chosen and purchased on a computer. When used in this way, there’s not much use for the keyboard.

Whispernet

Also removed is the free 3G wireless data connection present on previous Kindles and available on more expensive models, instead replaced with WiFi.

Other than the annoyance of typing in a WiFi password on the on screen keyboard, this doesn’t seem like a major loss, but does change the context of the device a bit.

Planning Ahead vs. Instant Vending Machine

With ever-present 3G access, the Kindle was entirely self-contained. You could go anywhere (within reason) and purchase and read books. No planning necessary!

With WiFi, before a trip you’ll have to actually load up your Kindle with what you want to read. Or find a place with WiFi, which is getting easier but is often not guaranteed or pricey.

This does make the Kindle lose a bit of the magic it originally had as a completely self-contained device where you could instantly buy and read a book anywhere, but practically may not impact most people. The real magic is buying on Amazon.com on a computer, and having books just show up on the device.

The Power Cord

The $79 Kindle comes with a USB cable to connect to a computer and charge it, but does not come with the AC adapter to charge the device by directly plugging it into an outlet.

Amazon charges $9.99 for the charger. Which is ludicrous.

(I already had one from an earlier Kindle.)

In Use

I’m taking it on a vacation next week and will post part three when I return, reviewing sustained usage, along with a comparison to other ereaders.

Embracing Mortality With Ebooks

⍚ October 20, 2011

Grasping for Immortality

As humans we seek to outlast ourselves.

Procreation allows us to pass on the information in our DNA beyond our own lives.

Beyond genetic information, language and oral traditions meant our stories could live past a single generation.

But the best method we have developed to preserve ideas over time has been to publish, in well constructed books, and distribute those books as widely as possible to institutions that exist to protect them over time — libraries.

It’s been the best chance you have that your words will live long past you.

The Mortality of The Digital

Real books don’t live forever, obviously — cheaply made materials, improper care, lost libraries and other hazards intervene.

But physical books are actual physical objects that you can own. With digital books, you sacrifice that on the altar of convenience.

Have you ever read the Kindle Terms of Service?

When you buy a book in a bookstore, you don’t have to agree to onerous terms — the laws dictating your use were fundamentally decided years ago by the government, not some recently drafted terms of service by corporate attorneys.

Copyright provides restrictions, but also guarantees you certain rights — Fair Use rights. Want to sell the book again? No problem. Rip out some pages? They’re yours! Photocopy a page? Nobody is stopping you.

Want to pass on those books to your children? You can.

Try those with an electronic book. You will fail.

The Man Behind the Curtain

When I was a child my father read to me L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books. Some of those books are from his childhood. If I have children, I’d like to read those same books to them.

Books as keepsakes are fundamentally incompatible with the digital world we are entering.

We know this is true, but we don’t fully know what it will mean, what the experience and reality will be for us.

Information vs. Its Container Object

Librarians have a formal ontology to explain what we mean by a “book.”

FRBR divides the bibliographic world into four basic concepts.

Three are abstract — work, expression, and manifestation, the fourth is concrete — item.

As readers what we hold in our hands are items — the physical reality of the platonic conceptual entities that are artistic works.

With digital books, everything becomes muddled.

The separation between abstract entities governed by intellectual property rights and physical entities governed through actual property rights disappears. We no longer own a physical item that embodies intellectual content, we have a license to manifest something ephemeral into physical reality on our screen - but only in certain contexts, on certain devices, under certain conditions.

These rules are written by publishers and technology companies rather than based on something as idealistic as

To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries

— US Constitution, http://www.house.gov/house/Constitution/Constitution.html

Article I Section 8 is the basis of all copyright law, but it was written long before media became a an industry, before the cost of copying information approached zero, long before corporate entities would take hold of the keys to our cultural artifacts’ future.

And in return for this drastic reinterpretation of what it means to own a book, we get access to typographically awful materials on low resolution screens.

Books are an amazing invention. They have lasted us for centuries, they are culturally significant objects with finely tuned notions of design and readability.

Ebooks today are digital turds.

Readability, Typography, and a Lack of Attention to Detail

If you care about the aesthetics of book design, you can spend a few minutes with a Kindle or other modern digital book and be disgusted.

Without control of these two factors you will certainly have rivers, ie, channels of whitespace running down the paragraphs since whitespace, or more accurately, word spacing, is what is used to justify the lines. Unfortunately, font size can be controlled by the user on the Kindle, so whenever you decide to change the font size, the word spacing changes, and if you don’t have a hyphenation library (which it appears Kindle doesn’t have on board yet) and you get a diluvian horrorshow:

A typographic critique of the Kindle

As books make the leap from cellulose and ink to electronic pages, some editors worry that too much is being lost in translation. Typography, layout, illustrations and carefully thought-out covers are all being reduced to a uniform, black-on-gray template that looks the same whether you’re reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or the Federalist Papers.

Why E-Books Look So Ugly

How can so little care be given to the presentation of text on a[n electronic] page? Do publishers care, or even realize, what is happening to the texts they lovingly commission, copy-edit, and proof-read, when they enter the electronic domain?

Typography is about reading – and so are ebooks

Kindle typography goes craptacular

Justified text without hyphenation or a reasonable line-breaking algorithm is a way of expressing to readers you don’t care about how text is presented by smashing them over the head with rivers of white space, amongst other crimes against the written word that the Kindle and other ereaders commit.

The Cost of Caring

Don’t bother complaining: that ebook with typos, low resolution figures that are impossible to see and improperly placed in the flow of text, and unconscionable line breaks may be downloadable in less than 60 seconds, but not returnable, and will probably not be corrected anytime soon.

In contrast to the careful professional design that publishers bring to many of their books, many electronic books look like they were put together by low wage labor whose native language is not that of the book they are working on, without any care for detail. (Because many are.)

After our society spent hundred of years perfecting the typography and design of the written word, publishers have taken their responsibility of the presentation of text and now regularly decide, fuck it, let’s outsource some low wage Asian contractors to convert this sloppily scanned book for the digital age.

It’s cheaper!

Do the CEOs of the big publishers care about the typography of their physical books, let alone digital ones?

(Do they even read them?)

Does Jeff Bezos lose sleep over the the inability to hyphenate the justified text on Amazon’s devices?

Does he notice this when he’s taking a bath with his Kindle?

I’m conflating the failures of publishers (poor document creation and editing) with those of software and device manufacturers (poor rendering, typographical choices and ignoring decades of typesetting algorithm development.)

But will there even be a distinction between those entities in the future?

The Most Perfect Cassette

We are reaping what we have sown with a steadily more illiterate society immersed in trivia. A book? It’s the perfect cassette. You can put it down and pick it up, start it in the middle, reread it. But you have to create sound and scene in your own mind with a book.

Harlan Ellison

Amazon cares about books as commodities to sell, and ereaders as commodities to sell even more books, not books as the most perfect cassette, or books as the holder of knowledge across time.

It’s silly to expect more from them. They’re a company that makes money, and they’re pretty good at that.

The Freedom from Things

The point is: it doesn’t matter.

Just as we slowly gave up the physicality of CD’s for the ease of MP3 downloads and the warm glow of iTunes, we will begin to move away from physical books as objects.

You don’t hear people complaining about how MP3s are of lower quality due to compression vs. compact discs, do you? (It is worse — but nobody can tell the difference on cheap headphones.)

I don’t want to keep buying wooden and steel shelves to house books made of trees and house them and heat them and preserve them for decades.

I have other things to do. I have a life to live beyond shepherding a personal collection of ephemera masquerading as timeless artifacts.

Don’t I? Don’t we all?

I’m out of bookshelves. I’m out of space.

I spent years studying library and information science, but I’m finding it harder and harder to recognize myself as someone who will be custodian of information embodied in paper objects for the rest of my life.

Facing Death

Ebooks are about facing death.

An admission of and acceptance of mortality and the impermanence of all things.

An ebook will almost certainly not outlast me.

It will not stand the test of time. When I die, my non-transferrable, revocable at any time licenses to content will die with me. There will be no estate sale full of the electronic books I collected over decades. There will only be a database entry on a faraway server, signifying nothing.

I’m trying to be OK with that.

But it’s important to remember The Cloud is not your friend.


This has been part one of a review of the 2011 Kindle.

Clamoring for A Better Clock

⍚ October 19, 2011

Previously:

Issues with my current clock, Various Clocks Discussed.

This is what I’d like in a clock.

Functionality

Auto-set

The clock should set itself by default, and never need setting except in the rarest of cases.

Relaxing Sound

Instead of a dream shattering buzzer to start the day, a more pleasing chime that slowly increases in loudness over a minute.

Soothing Large Blue LED Display

A cooler color than the harsh warning-like red so common in these devices, with a continuos (rather than discrete) setting for brightness.

Better Feedback

The current time, displayed in 12 hour + am/pm, along with a smaller secondary display of the alarm time to its left in 12 hour with am/pm. When the alarm is off, the alarm time is not displayed, and instead an indication the alarm is off.

Controls That Make Sense

Controls on the side of the device, so you can see the results of your changes on the front of the clock, rather than the back.

On the top of the device: a large snooze button covering most of the device, and a switch to turn the alarm on and off.

On the left of the device:

  • a switch between automatic and manual time setting.
  • a dial below that to adjust the time manually. One full rotation changes the clock’s time by 12 hours
  • a vertical slider to change the brightness

On the right of the device: * to the side a dial to adjust the alarm time. One rotation changes the alarm time by 12 hours

Aesthetics and Design

I have some ideas around that too, but I’m more concerned about the controls.

Critic vs Creator

Over the past year I’ve made an attempt to focus on creation rather than critique, but I think criticism is necessary for better creation.

The point is: this is on the list of things to try and make happen.

If you are interested let us know or follow us on Twitter for updates.

Clock Collection

⍚ October 18, 2011

PREVIOUSLY: I complained about my alarm clock.

Here is a sampling of clock designs recommended by readers and from the web that have interesting characteristics.

Giant LED Clock

While I don’t use an alarm clock, we do have a clock in our bedroom that I absolutely love simply because I don’t think about it much.

— Andre Torrez, http://notes.torrez.org/2011/10/clocks.html

Love the huge display.

Sony Dual Alarm Clock

it’s not beautiful, which matters, but it’s a pleasure to use which arguably matters more when you’re half-awake…

via @sudama

Sony ICFC180 AM/FM Clock Radio Amazon and more on CoolTools.

Sadly, it appears that Sony no longer makes any clock that features on screen persistent display of alarms and dials.

The ICF707 seems closest, but from the reviews and a quick look at the controls seems like it has usability problems.

Sony ICF707, ~$37 on Amazon

Braun Travel Alarm Clock

http://www.braun-clocks.com/clock/travel_alarm_clock

An iconic modern design, and eminently functional.

$32 on Amazon

$42 for the voice controlled variant

Zen Alarm Clock

The Zen Alarm Clock’s long-resonating Tibetan bell-like chime makes waking up a beautiful experience — its progressive chimes begin your day with grace.

http://www.now-zen.com/Zen_Alarm_Clock.html

Now And Zen offers a number of clocks that focus on more natural sounds and designs.

Click Clock

This simple, easy-to-use alarm clock features large number displays, a backlight, snooze function, and 24-hour setting. When the alarm is set, large numbers display both the current time and the alarm time. The clock’s AM and PM indicators are visually distinct, and a lock on top prevents inadvertent changes in settings. Made of ABS plastic, glass, and steel; takes two AAA batteries (not included).

MOMA Store

Note the feedback: by making the state of the clock and alarm visible and explicit there’s much less room for error.

$55 on Amazon

Zeo Sleep Manager

Zeo is designed to help you analyze your sleep and improve it, so you can be your best every day. It’s composed of a lightweight wireless headband, a bedside display, a set of online analytical tools, and an email-based personalized coaching program.

http://www.myzeo.com/sleep/shop/featured-products/zeo-sleep-manager-bedside.html

Recommended by a friend of mine.

Menu system is easy to navigate, morning sounds are pleasing, buttons have different lines and ridges so you can change stuff in the dark… all buttons are on top and huge.

Next generation: Zeo Mobile Sleep Manager

$149 on Amazon

Philips Hf3470/60 Wake-up Light

A more natural approach to waking with a simulated sunrise.

$89 on Amazon

Bose Wave Radio II

The Wave® radio II is our latest version of the radio that changed people’s idea of a time-honored medium. Digital electronics and updated speaker technology allow this innovative table top radio to deliver more accurate audio with deeper lows. And its uncluttered design makes it welcome in almost any room.

The remote provides a control mechanism that can be reasonably labeled.

http://www.bose.com/controller?url=/shop_online/wave_systems/wave_radio_ii/index.jsp

$349 on Amazon

More?

Think we’re missing something? Let us know: adam@decommodify.com or @decommodify