06 September 2011

Kindling Introspection on E-book Readers

[Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos/ source:Newsweek 2007]

It has been about two years since I got my first e-book reader.  E-book readers had been around for years, but they had limited market penetration because of the technical backsupport that was required.  Amazon introduced the Kindle in late 2007 which could be seen as high tech for the masses, since you could download books without hooking up to a computer.  Other brick and mortar book retailers sought to get into the act with Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-book reader and Border’s Books Kobo, and Sony had it’s Reader.

When I discerned that I needed an e-book reader was when I worked in a situation that was electronically cut off from the world and brief sessions of reading e-mail from a small smartphone screen caused me severe eyestrain. I determined that an e-book reader could bring myriad of reading material that could be downloaded for later consumption, both from books as well as text based websites.

At the time, the price point for new units was quite exorbitantly priced, so I counted myself lucky when I could get a refurbished Kindle at ½ price.  Even thought I got a Kindle 1 from Amazon, I did not mind having an older unit as it still had a removable battery and an SD card slot.  It seemed like the older unit would not run out of power without recourse and I would not be stuck with the limited capacity of a Kindle.

But my fears about battery and storage were over-exaggerated.. Since you could read Moby Dick on one charge (so long as you turned off the 3G connection), battery consumption was a non-issue.  While the original Kindle could only handle 300 books without the additional SD card, my experience was that subsequent models had plenty of storage space that I did not use, and it was easy to make more space by archiving things on the web cloud. In fact, I have over 700 items on my Kindle 2 and it takes up less than 400 MB.  That being said, I figured out that keeping MP3s or Audible audio books would take up too much room and was not the right approach for me.

E-book readers can have a great capacity for electronically storing books, so a reader could carry one’s entire library in a unit that is the size of a paperback book. That makes it great for reading when one is mobile and switching between books on the fly.  These features entice me to read more and a greater variety of material.

While it initially seems cool to read on a high tech gadget, after a few pages turns it seems just like reading.  The Kindle uses E-Ink display technology, which is said to be easier on the eyes and allows for reading in direct sunlight. me. But other e-book readers can more readily mimic traditional pages like on a dead-tree edition.

One way that my reading patterns have changed with an E-book reader is that when I hear an author being interviewed flack a new book of interest, I can immediately download a sample. This allows me to remember the interview and give the opus a chance.  Because there are many public domain books as well as authors giving away samples, I have been able to collect a large collection of things to read.

Just before I got my first Kindle, I was vacationing in a remote venue and I got a yen to re-read Don Quijote.  Granted, I had read it in English and in Spanish and I owned a few tomes to that effect, but none were accessible.  When it would have taken a two hour trip to a bookstore to buy yet another copy, I let that urge pass.  Now that I have an e-book reader, I can download it within a minute wirelessly.  If I am feeling really stingy and did not want to pay for a formatted public domain book, there are legal sources to download it via a PC, use software to make it Kindle friendly and then dowload it to the E-book reader.

When my father-in-law got his Kindle, he wondered why it had a keyboard.  Despite my protestations about making margin notes, accessing the internet and looking things up on Wikipedia, he could not see the utility.  Another use that I serendipitously discovered was looking up details in a book.  I was reading a potboiler political thriller and had forgotten about one of the ancillary villains. Just by doing a search on the character’s name, I found where he fit into the page-turning plot.

There have been some situations where I could not physically read but was able to take advantage of the text-to-voice feature.  While it does not sound like James Earl Jones reading the material, it will do in a pinch or when your eyes should be elsewhere.

The feature that I really love and seems underappreciated by those who are Nook-ies (sic) is the complimentary text based web browsing.  A friend proudly showed me his Nook Color which had been modified to also allow for Android applications. The Nook Color had a seductively sharp color display, but in order for him to surf the web, he needed to use a cell phone hot spot, which was an additional monthly subscription.  While I do not think that I would want to stream The Green Lantern on a 7" screen, it would chafe me to pay $30+ a month to do text based web surfing when it is gratis on the Kindle.  Granted, this sort of web surfing is not a computer replacement, but it is more than adequate for checking e-mails and reading most blogs. And the Kindle Whispernet can be used for free in many places throughout the world.

E-book readers often offer a service to subscribe to periodicals and blogs.  I have not subscribed to any periodicals, since so much is already being given away and I do not need it pushed to my E-book reader.  I have only subscribed to a couple of blogs where “the price is right” as an experiment.  While it is nice to have the material right there without having to access it on the web, I am dubious that I would pay money for that privilege as long as there are other convenient alternatives.

Many buyers of other E-book readers (Nook and Sony) did so based on the prospect of borrowing from the public library and lending their purchases to others.  Amazon slowing adding those features. But the book lending feature has been really oversold.  A person can loan a book one time for 21 days (and not have access to it) and then no more.  As for borrowing from the public library, that seems appealing depending upon your public library system.  But publishers tend not to allow for multiple simultaneous loans.  And publishers demand that a library buy a new digital copy after 26 loans, the same as for a physical book but without the damage.

Kindle 1 with broken screen and Kindle 2
Experience has taught that E-book readers have sensitive screens which are not built with Gorilla Glass or  an "unbreakable" paper display.  So an E-book cover is essential, but it need not be treated like a delicate flower. But E-book readers are more than just hardware, as you will be linked to a bookseller.  I have nothing but kind things to say about Kindle customer service by Amazon.  After all, my unit isn’t called “Striker” for nothing.  If the rumors are true about the Kindle Tablet are true, Amazon is following a customer centric strategy that takes an initial loss on the hardware, but entices them to consume and makes up the money in future media purchases within their “click and mortar” cyber storefront.

As for the future, I expect that I will continue to enthusiastically use my current e-book reader.  The K2 is a great design for reading in all environments.  I prefer to not have a backlit screen for gadgets primarily used for reading.  And I certainly do not want to constantly wipe fingerprints from a capacitive touch screen on my reader.  I like having a physical keyboard for making notes or doing social sharing of a key passage on Facebook.

Of course I am interested in popularly priced tablets.  Maybe I will load the Kindle feature and link the tablet to my virtual bookshelf.  But touchpad tablets strike me more as a media consumption device rather than an E-book reader. Sure, you can read on it, but wouldn’t you rather watch a YouTube video or surf the web on it and then read your E-book.  What will color my enthusiasm for tablets is the price point, the features that are associated with the unit and the particulars of the hardware.

But it struck me how much the world had changed when I went camping amongst 200 zymurgists  and it was much easier to find an E-book reader than a traditional book. People use their E-book readers in different ways but nary a soul who made the leap from dead-tree editions rues the decision.

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