Living the ebook dream

Four years ago, I was looking forward to an ebook future. Well, four years have passed and I’m happy to say that we’re finally there.

I picked up an Amazon Kindle when I was in Seattle earlier in the year. Basic summary: awesome.

Everyone has an opinion about what the Kindle is going to be like – typically, they enumerate the ways in which paper books are superior. But it’s interesting to see how my friends have reacted when they finally played with the device. The e-ink screen is a pleasure to read from. It is slightly different from paper because it has a slight plastic-y sheen to it, but it’s easy to read from in the same way that paper is. The page flickers briefly as you change pages, but it’s something which you stop noticing quickly.

I decided to write about my experience because I’ve just done my ebook litmus test: I went on holiday for a week and read only from the Kindle. It was a good experience!

Now, I bought the Kindle in the US and brought it here to the UK so I can’t actually buy any books for it. However, there are quite a lot of old out-of-copyright books available in Kindle-compatible format on the internet and I can copy them onto the device via USB. So my holiday library consisted of lots of history, science and engineering books from before 1950. But, hey, that’s what I mostly read anyway so it’s no bad thing.

First big win: I took about 40 books on holiday with me, and they all fitted into the space which one paperback would take up.

Second big win: You can highlight passages in the book you’re reading as you go, and then view all of the highlighted passages together on a summary page. I used this to mark sections which I wanted to research further, and also to mark out the ‘key’ paragraphs in the book. I’m one of those people who hates scribbling on a book with a pencil. But I also learn best when I’m interacting with the text rather than reading it passively. So I have unexpectedly fallen in love with the highlighting feature on the Kindle.

Third win: Variable font size. I usually wear contact lenses. If I don’t have my contact lenses in, or if it’s low light conditions, I just bump the font size up and read in comfort. You can’t do this on paper.

Fourth win: Ergonomics. When the Kindle was launched, it didn’t wow anyone with it’s looks. However, once you start reading with it, it starts to make more sense. I hold the Kindle in at least two different ways – in my right hand with either my thumb hitting the right-hand ‘next’ button or my fingertips curling round to hit the left-hand ‘next’ button. I very quickly forget that I’m holding “a device” and just tap the button to turn the page. I find it much more pleasant to hold a Kindle than a paperback book because you don’t have to continually hold the pages open. My hands and arms are much more relaxed when reading the Kindle.

That’s the good stuff. Now for some downsides.

I had to recharge it once during the week. I get good battery life because I have the network turned off. Actually, that’s almost part of the problem; the battery life is so good that you forget that the device needs charging and then it comes as a surprise.

The “library” part of the Kindle isn’t very good. It should have different areas for “currently reading” and “read recently” and “unread” and “read”. When you hit the ‘go home’ button on the keyboard, it currently always goes to the first page of your library – it should remember where you were last time. The “read” section is psychologically important. There’s some small part of my brain which likes putting a completed book back on the shelf like some kind of trophy. When I finish a book on the Kindle, there’s no fanfare or celebration. It’d be great to see some kind of cheap trick here – maybe it could tell you when you started reading the book, and how long you spent reading it. Anything, really!

I’d like an easy way to see how much further it is to the end of the chapter – ie. should I go to sleep now, or stay up reading for another ten minutes. I do this all the time with paperback books but it’s not very easy on the Kindle.

The ‘highlighting’ feature doesn’t allow you to span pages, as far as I can tell. This is annoying if I want to highlight a paragraph which spans two pages.

I had two crashes during my week’s holiday which required me to hit the small reset button under the back cover. I guess it’s early days for the software still.

I use highlighting all the time, and never use notes or dictionary. I’d love to customize the click action during reading so that it goes straight to highlight mode without going via the menu.

The number of books available on Kindle is still a limiting factor, although obviously Amazon are working daily to improve selection. The last time I went on holiday, I took four print books and none were available on Kindle at that time. On this holiday, I played to a Kindle strength. There are a huge number of old out-of-copyright books available digitally and, it seems, there’s a lot of really good old books out there!

That’s all the downsides I encountered. Overall, it is a brilliant device for reading. It’s also a game-changing device too. In the US it connects to the amazon store using mobile phone like technology. This means you can browse and buy books from the Kindle without needing a PC. In other words, the Kindle is a true ebook device not “one of those computer things”.

The future is here. The Kindle rocks.