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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.