Sunday, February 28, 2010

My (outside US) Kindle experience

Back in Nov last year, a colleague lent me his Kindle for a testdrive (I'm not sure if the features have changed/ improved since then).

Overall verdict:
  • It was easy to learn how to use it.
  • Handling the Kindle was easier in some ways but harder for some aspects.
  • Whether something like the Kindle is "better than a print book" depends on what criteria we're using. And advantages/ disadvantages might be relative as well. E.g. if cost is the main consideration, I'd go for a pbook anytime. But even then, it's relative. If you regularly buy books, then the cost per book may be lowered as you purchase more eBooks and spread the fixed cost of the Kindle.
  • Though one can't help compare it as an "eBook" Vs. a "pBook" (i.e. print book), I think both formats should be appreciated for what they uniquely offer rather than whether one is better than the other. They both give different user-experiences.
  • Content is still king. Both the electronic and print book versions have inherent pros and cons, which affects the reading experience. But I can still never get through Tolstoy's War and Peace, regardless of "e" or "p" versions.

That said, here's my rambly review (btw, you may find my review contradicting what I wrote about making comparisons, but I'm "comparing" more as a benchmark for explanatory purposes):


INITIAL IMPRESSIONS
My first thoughts were: "Sleek and stylish; makes you want to pick it up and just... use it!"

The whole thing just felt right in my hands. Here's how it looks like in its synthetic leather cover:
My Kindle experience - RamblingLibrarian

This was how it looked like without the leather cover (I placed a pen on it so that you get a sense of its dimensions)
My Kindle experience - RamblingLibrarian

It's really thin and light. The size difference is even more apparent when placed next to a hardcover book (incidentally the hardcover book was titled "The Shock of the Old", heh).
My Kindle experience - RamblingLibrarian


USABILITY
I could operate it with familiarity within 5 minutes of fiddling with the buttons, and without referring to any user manual or asking anyone else. It was like learning how to operate a mobile phone -- just fiddling and by trial and error. The Kindle wasn't going to crash just because you pressed the wrong buttons, so that was its plus point.

My Kindle experience - RamblingLibrarian

Its black-on-grey screen display was easy to read. If an eBook was interesting enough, I could read it through without tiring my eyes. You can also change the text font size, so that helps for prolonged reading.

I could hold the Kindle with one hand and press the "next page" and "previous page" buttons. Together with its light weight, its very handy for reading while traveling on MRT trains (you'll appreciate that if you've attempted to read/ flip the pages of a print book, in a crowded train, while trying to grab hold of support).

The built-in dictionary was really handy. Typing on the keys activated the dictionary.

When you return to the eBook, it automatically went to the last page location when you left the ebook. Like an automatic bookmark.

Battery life was excellent. I charged it once and it lasted for a month easily (I didn't read it everyday though).


MORE ON KINDLE'S FEATURES
There's a text-to-speech feature. Turns your book into a hands-free set. However, after a while I couldn't stand the computer narration and went back to sight-reading (it could just be me).

I also wondered how easy it would be for a Blind person to activate the speech mode. I mean, if you couldn't visually navigate to get to the buttons, then how does one turn it on/ off in the first place? Well, maybe a Blind person would memorise the button sequence.

There's a nifty "note taking" feature. At the 'pages' where I wish to record some notes or thoughts, I simply called up the notetaking feature and typed in the text with the hard buttons.

But the downside was that the recorded notes could only be retrieved for that specific ebook title/ e-copy. Meaning, there wasn't a way to read all recorded notes from the main menu (unlike a true notepad application). You'd have a problem if you wanted to retrieve an earlier note but you couldn't remember which eBook title it was when you typed it in.

You also couldn't export the notes.

So the Kindle wasn't designed as a notepad per se, but more for individual eBook titles to be read (the note-taking was incidental and designed around the individual eBook titles).


A KINDLE ISN'T AN eBOOK-READER PER SE
Think of the Kindle as more of "a device to read Amazon.com's eBook titles". According to the instructions, Amazon.com will "convert the document into Kindle format and wirelessly deliver to your kindle for a small fee or back to your computer for free."

Of course, you could download free eBooks from sites like www.freekindlebooks.org, where they offer free ebooks in Kindle compatible formats. Or if you come across authors like Cory Doctorow.

But quite honestly, the general selection of free books -- even from Amazon -- were boring stuff (except for Cory Doctorow's work, but he's more of an exception).

In short, I wouldn't have borrowed those free stuff in the first place, even if they were available in the public library, let alone buy them.


WHAT I DIDN'T GET USED TO
Using the Kindle lacked the experience of physically browsing and turning a print book. Not that I need to feel paper per se, but I realised a print book allowed me to do a very fast -- albeit hit-and-miss approach -- browse of the contents by flipping and stopping at random sections.

With the Kindle, you needed to know the specific page numbers in order to jump ahead the pages. The page number system wasn't intuitive to me. E.g. an eBook could start with a first page like "Locations 19-23", then the very next page was "Locations 23-30", and then next "Locations 30-37". Maybe there was a pattern to it, but I'm the sort who do badly at IQ tests. Then again, you shouldn't be a genius to use a Kindle...

Oh yeah, it came a point when I needed to charge the Kindle. But as I mentioned at the start of the post, it shouldn't be a case of eBook device Vs. Print Book (like how we don't complain about charging our mobile phone Vs. talking face-to-face with a friend -- if you can reach them in person).

Anyway, the battery charge lasts quite a long time. No complaints from me for that aspect.
My Kindle experience - RamblingLibrarian


LACK OF VISUAL CUES
Many times in using the kindle, I was reminded at how it lacked the visual and physical navigation that I took for granted with a print book.

The horizontal bar gives a visual clue how much of the book has been completed and how much is left. But you don't get any other visual cues of the thickness of the book, because the horizontal line is the same length for a 10 page book and a 100 page volume.

Flipping physical pages was still the most efficient way to browse a book, I thought. At least, when you didn't need to look for something specific. With a physical book I can jump very quickly to the middle or end parts of the book.

With a Kindle, there was only the "Go to Beginning" and "Go to Location" options from the menu. The horizontal bar might have given me a visual cue which point I was in the book, but to "get there" I had to press the forward/ backward buttons repeatedly.


THINK-ALOUD #1: JUST DIFFERENT READING EXPERIENCES
Personally, I don't get the "X-is-better-than-Y" argument about eBooks and print. Both reading formats should be appreciated for what they uniquely offer rather than whether one is better than the other. They both give different user-experiences.


THINK-ALOUD #2: IT'S MANY FACTORS WORKING IN CONCERT
eBooks have been around for years, but never got the buzz until Amazon's Kindle came along.

Until I tried the Kindle, I didn't think it would be feasible to read a book on an electronic device, for protracted periods. The Kindle isn't the only well-designed eBook reader out there. There's Bookeen, for instance. And of course the more well-known Sony reader.

However, I don't think all the buzz was just from one or two single factors like eBooks or the eBook reader (although they could be fairly important ones). In totality, it was probably a combination of range and choice of eBook titles, their affordability, a trusted brand/ store, a loyal and ready customer-base, online purchasing habits, a well-designed eBook reader...

All things considered, I suppose the Kindle was the tipping point.

Even Sony seems to know that it has got to offer both an ebookstore and a reading device.


THINK-ALOUD #3: IT'S STILL ABOUT GOOD READS
One other thing that was quickly apparent: a difficult (I choose not to use the word boring) book remains a difficult book. Regardless of whether you read it on a paper-based book or on a kindle.

At one point in my Kindle test drive, I had 92 books in it, including the Kindle compatible ones I downloaded.

But the only eBook that I read from beginning to end was Cory Doctorow's "I, Robot".


THINK-ALOUD #4: IT'S STILL PUBLIC LIBRARIES FOR ME, FOR FREE READS
I'm sure if I had purchased some good eBook titles (and I knew a few), my "cover-to-cover" completion rate would increase.

The Kindle is a device designed by Amazon.com, for the specific use of buying and reading eBooks from Amazon.com. I can attest that it's a great product. But after the initial novelty, the device became less important.

I wanted more of the good stuff.

Amazon.com has lots of good stuff. But I've never been one to buy books. I'm so used to just borrowing the good stuff from public libraries that I automatically close myself off any notion of buying books.

From that perspective, I suspect those who use public libraries will continue to do so. And those who buy books (electronic or print) will probably carry on and aren't that much of public library users.

Do I think public libraries should offer eBooks like how print is offered? Yes, for sure.

But whether it's a sustainable model, that's a whole other issue (and for another blog post). [update: I posted this in response to the sustainability issue].

10 comments:

  1. Having own a Kindle, I sympathize with the lack of visual/tactile feel in these eBook readers. I juggle between books, and often when I get back to a previous book, I can't recall which "location" I was at since all the "pages" look and feel the same, unlike a real book (e.g. remembering where I last thumbed to).

    Although ebook readers can recall your last reading location, I read on different devices (iPhone & Kindle), and the last point syncs one way (I think).

    In short, getting lost in an ebook is my greatest fear. Real books let me quickly browse and the shape of the text on a page as well as the pressure from the bend of the bound book can sometimes be familiar cues where I last left off. These are subtle, but important I think.

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  2. Two quick corrections: Isaac Asimov wrote "I, Robot." The Cory Doctorow item is "I, Row-Boat." And it's a short story, not an entire book, which may explain why you read it from beginning to end. Otherwise, fascinating, detailed post.

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  3. Correction to my previous comment: "I, Row-Boat" is, technically, a novelette at some 14,000 words: Longer than a short story, shorter than a novella, a lot shorter than any but a children's book.

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  4. Hi Ivan,

    Thank you for your long and interesting review. If only I could get my hands on one of those!

    Now you’ve piqued my interest; I hope you will post your views on why offering ebooks for loan is not a sustainable model for libraries very soon. I had the impression that the ones in the USA are doing really well with Overdrive and other digital media services. These type of services may well attract those people whom you mentioned will not normally use the library.

    I have been using the Sony PRS-505. (It was purchased just before the newer models came out :-() Everything that you've said about the Kindle pretty much applies to the Sony as well. Except that this version does not do any dictionaries or text-to-speech and it may have a slightly shorter battery life and is also a bit thicker and heavier. However, these shortcomings are not bad enough to pose too much of a nuisance and I have really enjoyed using it. Especially since I could download ePub format ebooks from a digital collection service which our library will be launching very soon.

    Flora
    Malaysia

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  5. Kevin - you've expressed what I wanted to say in another way. I agree with you -- it's a different reading experience. For some, the touch and feel is as important as the content. I think it's easy to overlook that wood pulp/ paper is a also a "reader" format.

    Walt - nice to have you here! Actually, Cory Doctorow did write his version of "I, Robot". It's a Creative Commons licensed eBook from his website (I provided the link above). It's just above "I, Row-Boat" in fact.

    Floral - give me a week to get my thoughts in order :) Oh, and thanks for letting me know about the similarities with the Sony reader.

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  6. Ivan: Whoops. You're right. And, of course, titles aren't subject to copyright, so Doctorow could legitimately do that.

    Still: it may be an "eBook," but Doctorow's story is a novelette, roughly a third of the minimum length for a novel. (I am acutely aware that, in the earlier days of ebooks, claims for numbers of ebooks downloaded/sold included individual short stories and poems as "books.")

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  7. @Walt - hmm... good point about 'eBooks' Vs eStories. Yeah, the length of the content may affect the readability. I've not read more "ebooks" to say for sure, though with Doctorow's "I, Robot" when I reached the ending I felt surprised that I'd reached the end. I mean that as a compliment, in that I wouldn't have minded reading more. In the context of my post, I still maintain that alot has to with the content itself. I can imagine myself reading Frank Herbert's Dune on the Kindle, and would enjoy it as much.

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  8. Ivan: So far, I haven't tried an ebook reader--but I'm nearly certain that, if the content was compelling, the device would fade into the background pretty quickly: You'd be too engrossed in the book itself to pay attention to the format. So, yeah, I think you're right.

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  9. Hi Ivan,

    Thanks a lot for the review. I was playing with the idea of byuing a Kindle for some time now. I see people carying it around and reading on the buses, etc. I love it, but still, one thing puts me off.

    I love the feeling of my books. I want to know how far I have left, I like to see pictres on the front page, but most importantly, there is nothing like a smell of a book :-)

    Plus you cannot borrow it to people, then u re left with nothing to read.

    How does it work, btw with buying new books? I imagine they have to be speacially tailored for the machine, which surely limits the options.

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  10. Hi zlamushka, you've got a very good point about not being able to lend another person a book. Yeah, ou'd have to let the person have your Kindle and not just one book. About buying Kindle books, basically you go to the Amazon.com site, under "Kindle Books". Basically pay and have the book downloaded to your personal Kindle.

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