Saturday, June 11, 2011

Amazon Kindle - Do You Need One?

Digital Readers are the wave of the future.  Question is, which one to buy?

A friend of mine won an Amazon Kindle at a raffle and offered it to me for cheap.  I figured, why not?  We are traveling to Canada, and it would be nice to have all the travel books loaded on it, rather than have to carry them.  And maybe a few trashy summer novels as well.

Ordinarily, I am not a gadget person, but keeping up with gadgets is part of my job description, and since the price was right, it seemed like a good opportunity to explore the brave new world of digital ink, at a bargain-basement price

Of course, the best deal in book reading is your local library.  They have most everything you want to read, except perhaps Sarah Palin's latest page-turner or some other celebrity tome.  And the regional library systems can usually order any book you want within a few days.  The Georgia PINES Library system is remarkably efficient and has a user-friendly website.  And best of all, it is FREE.

But, on the other hand, you can only check out a book for so long, even with renewals, before turning it in.  And eventually, even the library systems will have to deal with the advent of the e-reader in one form or another.  Once the digital property rights are worked out, and a way of "loaning" a book through a library is discovered, libraries may go to digital readers as well.  And this may mean our brick-and-mortar libraries become empty shells, community centers, or are transformed into other uses.

Each advancement in technology means changes that sometimes are unpleasant.  But look at it this way, you can tell you Grandchildren you used to go to something called a "Library" where they had "Books".  It is inevitable.  And it is a change for the better, in some regards.  The savings in paper and the reduced costs and overhead in bookselling will be enormous.  And just as the Internet changed the music business, digital ink will change the book business.  Will we see publishing houses have the influence they once had?  It will be interesting to see.  Self-publication will be a lot easier - just as garage bands can self-promote their music online now.

But I digress.....

The Kindle has a nice display - very crisp, but of course, no backlight.  You need light to read it, but not too much apparently (bright sun and LCDs are usually problematic, but the Kindle actually works best in direct sunlight).  It came with almost no instructions but set up very easily.  It recognized my wireless router and interfaced with the Internet.  It found my Amazon account and synced with it, downloading a book I had bought a couple of years back using "Kindle for PC".  Finding and purchasing books is pretty much the same as on Amazon, and even with only two bars of service, the books downloaded pretty quickly, including Fodors Canada.

And the cost of e-books is less than the print books, but not as much less as you'd think.  But if you factor in shipping costs, the savings could be considerable.

My model is WiFi only.  There is a 3G model available, but of course, you'd have to pay for the 3G service.  WiFi is free.

You can also surf the web and access e-mail (e.g., gmail) using the "Experimental" mode.  It is pretty primitive - you get a cursor, but it moves in increments, not like a mouse.  But within a few minutes, I could log on to my e-mail and download e-mails - a handy feature for traveling when you don't want to lug around a laptop.

The Keyboard is QWERTY, but so small that real typing is not possible.  And alternate characters, including numbers require you to pick them from a menu, which can be a bit awkward.  So as a digital tablet or internet access - or even a texting device - it leaves a lot to be desired.  Answering an e-mail would be awkward for other than short messages.

But overall, I'd say it was a pretty nicely designed little toy, intuitive for someone who is not computer literate, and fairly easy to use, once you figure out the menus and how to navigate them.

It takes some getting used to, reading from it.  The model I have is the size of a small paperback, and it seems the pages paginate oddly.

One annoying thing is that there are advertisements in the start-up screen.  This is the cheaper ($114) version of the Kindle.   If you want to keep it ad-free, you have to pony up another $25.   Since I paid half price for it, I ain't bitching too much.  I understand it displays ads as a screen saver as well.   Annoying.  But unfortunately, this may also be the wave of the future.  Perhaps I will go back to papyrus and quill pens.

Frankly, with the adverts, the damn thing should be free, not $25 less.....

You can also subscribe to newspapers and magazines through it, which is handier than having to wait for the paper copies to arrive every month (and some months they go missing).

Public Domain works are very cheap - entire works of Dickens or Conan Doyle are 99 cents each - not for one book, but all of them - 51 in the case of Dickens.

You want the latest celebrity tell-all book?  That's $12.99  Frankly, there are not many of these "new" books I really want to read - at least at those prices....

Fonts are another issue - you get one, and many books are beautifully laid up on wonderful fonts.  No more, you get Kindle Gothic and that's it.

My overall impression?  I nice toy, and probably the wave of the future.  But at the present time, not a "must have" item.  I still prefer to get my books for free from the local library, instead of online through Amazon, where I have to pay for them.  While e-books are cheaper than paper versions, books from your local library are FREE all the time, and free beats the snot out of "cheaper" any day.

And I suppose if you are going to go this route, a more flexible device, like the iPad would make more sense - even though it is four times the retail cost of a Kindle.  But the iPad has much more flexibility and expandability - and you can surf the Internet in something other than "experimental mode".

I suspect that, long-term, perhaps the Kindle will upgrade to compete more head-to-head with the iPad and other tablet devices.  Or perhaps not?  By keeping it simple, relatively primitive, and cheap - and keeping it focused to one thing - selling, downloading, and reading books - perhaps Amazon is on to something.

Computers are cheap as dirt.  So the idea that one computerized device should serve as a word processor, video display, telephone, game platform, accounting machine, internet interface, e-mail platform, etc. is sort of outdated.  Computers are so cheap, it might make more sense to have a different "thin" device for each application, rather than a one-size-fits-all generic computer for all seasons.

So a dedicated book reader might make some sense - provided it will talk to your other devices.

Stay Tuned....

UPDATE:  My conclusion is that if you can find one of these for cheap (very cheap) it might not be a bad deal, if you want to fill it up with public domain books.  But spending $15 to download "Freakonomics" onto it is, well, just a waste.  And it is very easy to click "buy now" on it and download a lot of stuff.  In fact, if it is ever stolen, make sure you close your Amazon account!

UPDATE:  The Kindle has an "experimental" mode where you can surf the internet and send and receive e-mail and visit websites.  But the resolution is tiny (you can enlarge portions) and the cursor moves from place to place in steps, not like a mouse.  It is hard to navigate.

You can also send e-mail from a address, if you want to, but the keyboard is so tiny, that you'd be hard-pressed to send more than short, text-like messages.

There is also an MP3 player, but it plays MP3 format only, and only in the order they are stored on the device - you cannot view and select songs to play.   And the output volume is very, very low.

This could have been a great device, if it had these additional features.  Since it is simple, it uses little battery power and stays "on" for days, if not weeks.  But the internet and MP3 features are hobbled to the point where they are pretty useless.  They may upgrade these features in future software or hardware releases.  Problem is, the further you get away from it being a simple "e-book" the more issues you raise with battery life and cost and heat, etc.

Memory is the main issue to expanding the device.  It has no internal hard drive (good) but that means less memory.  Books, stored in ASCII mode, are very compact files.  We've forgotten how little data bits you need to send a message these days - when the minimum file size of a WORD file is like 10 Kilobytes (for all that 'metadata').  Using simple ASCII, the Kindle can download the complete works of Dickens (51 books in all) in a couple of minutes.

But this does mean you don't get a lot of graphics or images - which are memory and bandwidth hogs.

The device is fragile.  I took mine to the beach today and it crapped out - the display went off on a diagonal across the face of it.  It is no longer usable.  It took all of a four days to BREAK. 

This reinforces a lesson I've learned in the past and should know better by now - you invest a lot of time and energy and money in an electronic device, and if it goes South, well, you are left with bubkis.  Better off to have fewer electronical gizmos in your life than more of them.

That electronic books are the wave of the future seems to me to be a foregone conclusion.  However, I am not sure the Kindle, being so fragile and having such limited capabilities (but clearly capable of far more) is the answer.

Frankly, I am surprised they don't just give these away.  After all, if you buy one, it is a foregone conclusion you will spend hundreds of dollars at the Amazon store.

I will see if Amazon repairs or replaces this unit.  If they do not, I suspect my experience with the Kindle will be at an end.  I do not see spending $114 more on a device with a service life of four days.

My decade-old Dell Laptop doesn't seem to have these problems.... and continues to soldier on.

UPDATE:  I called Amazon (I e-mailed first and they suggested I call).  You log onto the website, enter your phone number, and they call you.  I was connected to an American service rep in a minute.  He sent out a new Kindle, free of charge (well, not exactly, they would put a $114 hold on my credit card until I return the old one) and it should arrive in a few days.

Not bad customer service.  He opined that the device may have been defective.  He also gave me some hints on using it.

But overall, it was a good lesson to me about gadgets - a lesson that needs to be re-learned again and again!


  1. UPDATE JULY 2013: The kindle soldiers on, but frankly, other than buying older, cheaper books (in the $0.99 to $1.99) range, I have not bought a lot of content for it.

    We have bought tour books for it, for traveling overseas. However the display leaves a lot to be deserved, and often maps and pictures are placed in odd places - and the formatting of the book is off, most of the time.

    Of course, the Gen I Kindle is horrifically outdated by now, which is to be expected. They have color Kindles now which are much more than mere book readers.

    But the real growth area seems to be in the Pad market, where you can download ANYONE's content and not be limited to one "store" - even if it is the cheapest one.

    I did discover that you can download PDF files to the Kindle by e-mailing them to a special kindle address. This is handy if you want to review documents later on, without having to haul around piles of paper or a laptop. It also means you can download your own content, in PDF format.

    I bought this as an experiment, and because a friend wanted to sell it. I likely would not have bought it, if my friend had not offered it to me, fairly cheaply.

    The public library remains our largest source of reading material.

    The days of paying $9.99 for a paperback and $29.99 for a hardcover, are long gone.

    Sadly, the e-book business has still to shake out, and publishers (like the Music industry) expect us to pay the same amount for an e-book as we would for a hardcover - despite the fact that e-books cut their risk and costs by a factor of 100.

    It seems that some folks just don't get it.

    An interesting offshoot of this is, of course, self-publishing. If I can just get around to finishing the Great American Novel....

  2. UPDATE March 2014:

    The Kindle soldiers on, and you can find lots of cheap content (like "Megapacks" of short stories and novellas for 99 cents) as well as cheap mysteries and the like.

    But some content is staggeringly expensive.

    Early Kindles are now very cheap and many people just give them away. We now have two. The second one is a Gen II keyboardless touch-screen black-and-white model. Mark uses it to buy mysteries to read at the beach. His model has an "enlarge" mode to scale up the fonts for better readability.

    A friend of Marks GAVE HIM this Kindle when they went to an iPad. Free is my favorite price, provided it really is free.

    The Pros: Battery life measured in weeks. Crisp display, cheap to buy, lots of cheap content out there.

    The Cons: Ancillary features like web surfing are really "experimental" and not really usable. Much content is staggeringly overpriced.

    e-readers are the wave of the future. Already many books are being released in electronic format only. Like the record store, the bookstore will become a thing of the past - at least the megastores and such. There will always be a demand for specialty books and coffee table tomes and the like.


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