Me and my Kindle

Since getting my first eBook reader for Christmas (a complete surprise; I don’t recall asking for it) I have been using it and pondering what it means. My wife selected an Amazon Kindle, largely because it was top rated by Consumer Reports. She loaded it with three books (all histories; she knows what I like) and I am making my way through the first one: a recently published history of Genghis Khan.

Small screens are just one of the many reasons I haven’t bought a smartphone. I just crave more real estate. I have yet to see a computer monitor large enough for my needs, yet I am supposed to run much of my electronic life on a screen a few inches wide, at best? My wife bought me the basic Kindle, which comes with a six-inch screen, typically oriented in a portrait mode. That makes it a wider and bigger screen than a smartphone.

It sort of fits in one hand, but does so uncomfortably. It might fit more comfortably if it had small and strategically placed rubber grips. Grips on the corners or the edges, particularly above or below the page forward and back buttons would help considerably when I try to read in bed. It might also be more usable if it were a bit narrower. The screen size would not necessarily have to shrink; the engineers would just need to get rid of some of the plastic that borders the screen.

I am quickly learning that an eBook reader is not a miniature computer or a netbook. It is network aware, like almost all electronic devices these days. It may be too network aware. Unless you turn off its wireless, it is glad to get on your wireless network and give Amazon insights into what you are reading and how you are using the Kindle. Yes, I am sure Amazon is saying that they are not using this feature inappropriately. Even so I keep its wireless feature shut off, as I probably won’t need to refresh my book list until late this year.

The other big drawback to a Kindle is that unless you want to upload books in a PDF format, you need to get books in a Kindle format, which it will locate only on the Amazon network. PDF is portable, but not necessarily more usable than the Kindle format, which flawlessly reformats a page when you expand or shrink the font size. This means, of course, that they effectively become your sole eBook supplier and your electronic book price is whatever they want to charge you. Oh, and charging you is easy since you give them your credit card information. It doesn’t really have a browser built into it, but you can query Amazon’s enormous book database for other books, download them in within seconds. A Kindle is arguably friendlier to the environment. There is no need to drive anywhere to buy a book. We need to save forests, not turn their pulp into books that we pick up at our local bookseller.

Aside from these rather minor complaints, there is actually much to love about my Kindle. One thing you notice right away is the electronic paper display. The screen is black on white, but it is not lit from behind. Moreover, text is not pixilated. It actually looks printed, as opposed to imitating print. This makes it much easier to read. You should not have the problem you encounter with monitors wherein you end up rubbing your eyes from staring at its bright surface most of the day. It is black and white done right. You may find yourself preferring black and white to all those fancy colors. I imagine colored electronic paper displays will be coming soon. I suspect eventually most of us will want colored electronic paper devices once they are affordable and we have a choice. Our optometrists will probably recommend them.

My Kindle blessedly aims for simplicity and does not try to do more than it should. It is not a web browser. It cannot be used as a smartphone. It does have a headphone jack, although I have yet to find any sound content that uses it. It probably exists so you can download music from Amazon as well. There is also a microphone reserved for future use. So it sounds like the Kindle will not stay simple forever, and may be part of some master strategy to compete in the Smartphone and PDA market.

You can get magazine and newspaper subscriptions on your Kindle. Even I am wondering why I am still subscribing to paper versions of newspapers. One reasons is that there is so much more content on a page in a newspaper compared with a computer screen. My Kindle though suggests that even with a six-inch screen there may be a way to render a usable newspaper in it. At some point I may try a trial electronic newspaper subscription to see if it works well enough. The Kindle should also work well to facilitate reading while exercising. If like me you spend too many hours at the gym on aerobic equipment, you may find that reading your Kindle is a much more superior experience compared with listening to your MP3 player.

My Kindle has a keyboard, but it is not designed for more than casual use. I cannot see writing a blog entry on it. I suspect in time I will be able to use a wireless keyboard with it.

It may be that I am more of an iPad than a Kindle person. With the iPad’s larger screen size, reading electronic newspapers and magazines becomes a much more usable proposition. Apparently there is an iPad app that will let you read books in a Kindle format. Still, the drawback of the iPad is its larger size. A Kindle is much more tote-able. It weighs almost nothing and if you turn off the wireless it hardly ever needs recharging. It slips fine into purses and tote bags.

A few other nits: I miss title pages, page numbers and tables of contents. They are probably there somewhere but hard to find. And while it’s neat to get a picture of a prominent author every time you turn off the device, it would make more sense to show the cover of the current book you are reading instead.

Time will tell if the paper-based bookstore becomes obsolete. I would not discount the possibility, although like the loss of Tower Records I would mourn the opportunity to simply go to a bookstore and browse. Going to a bookstore is very much a social experience these days. There is inevitably a coffee shop attached. It is nice to be around fellow booklovers. The last thing Americans needs is more reasons to spend time alone. Devices like the Kindle appear to be moving us toward that future.

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