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Journal langelgjm's Journal: A Slashdotter's thoughts on the Kindle DX

I've been using the Kindle DX for about a week now, and I thought I'd post some initial thoughts about the device. There are plenty of reviews on tech sites out there, so while I will cover some of the typical review ground, I'm also going to include some other, non-review type thoughts for your consideration.

First, why bother with an e-book reader in the first place? The answer depends on the individual. If you read a lot of paperback fiction, a smaller format reader like the Kindle 2 or a Sony model might suit you; digital books seem to cost slightly less than their physical counterparts, though the difference is small enough that it might take you a long time to recoup the cost of the device.

However, if you find yourself having to read a lot of PDFs, an e-book reader becomes more attractive. In academia, journal articles are distributed as PDFs; often professors distribute scanned materials as PDFs; dissertations and book chapters circulate as PDFs. Outside academia, lots of government and industry reports are distributed as PDFs. In other words, there's simply a lot of PDF reading material. Typically, your options for reading this are: 1) read it on a computer screen, or 2) print it out and read it. Option 1 becomes tiring after about 10 pages, and also requires having a computer. Option 2 costs time and money, and either results in a significant amount of paper waste, or a lot of paper that needs to be catalogued and stored somewhere.

Enter the e-book reader. E-ink displays are not backlit, are fairly glare-free, and provide a contrast comparable to a newspaper. This means, for example, that they can be read outside in direct sunlight (try that with a laptop). Eye fatigue is no longer an issue (I've read about 500 paper-back size pages on the DX so far without any issue); waste is avoided; storage and cataloguing are made infinitely easier.

Second, why the Kindle DX? Quite simply because it is a large-format, (relatively) high-resolution reader. The DX's screen measures 9.7" diagonally, with a resolution of 824 x 1200. Compare this with the typical small-format e-book reader, which sports a 6" screen, and a 600 x 800 resolution. The only products I am aware of that compete with the DX in screen size and resolution are manufactured by iRex; they appear to be superior feature-wise, but they are also significantly more expensive, and there are numerous complaints about iRex's products and support (or at least enough to make one very nervous about plopping down the cash - see the iRex fora for details.). While the DX is not cheap, iRex's products range from EU 600 to EU 700. Furthermore, the DX is Amazon's first Kindle to natively support PDFs. In this respect, Amazon is somewhat late to the game; competing devices such as Sony's PRS-505 have offered native PDF support for about a year already.

The DX's PDF rendering is, frankly, superb. I have viewed about a hundred documents from various sources and distiller versions, and so far, only one has rendered improperly, and even that was only a font issue (it was a local government report, so I'm not confident of the quality of the original document, either). Images look surprisingly good, despite being shown in a mere 16 shades of gray. Anything other than rendering, however, is hit-or-miss. Full-text searching depends on whether the original document contains searchable text, of course. While the screen is large enough to mostly obviate the need for zooming, it is unfortunate that the only way to enlarge the size of a PDF is to rotate the DX to landscape mode, and even this only seems to work with about 75% of the documents I have. Links within PDFs do not function. In keeping with the nature of PDFs, text size cannot be automatically adjusted. In spite of these flaws, for me, the PDF rendering is the killer feature. Journal articles, many of which are printed on less than letter size paper in the first place, fit perfectly on the DX's screen.

Another touted feature of the DX (as well as other Kindles) is Sprint's 3G Whispernet service. This essentially functions as a free internet connection, primarily designed to allow you to browse and purchase selections from the Amazon Kindle store; however, the DX also includes a basic web browser that is fairly capable. I have used it to read Slashdot and the New York Times, search Wikipedia and Google Maps, and to browse Project Gutenberg. The latter is particularly exciting; the DX can directly download certain file formats, such as the MOBI format e-books offered by Project Gutenberg, through the Whispernet service. All this comes with the caveat that Amazon reserves the right at any time to change the terms of service regarding Whispernet. I can only hope that DX users do not abuse the service and cause Amazon to begin charging for its use.

Many of you will have heard of the debates over the Kindle 2 and DX's text-to-speech feature, which allows the device to read documents aloud. Suffice it to say that I do not anticipate using this feature much, and don't feel like discussing the issues of copyright and accessibility raised by publisher-imposed limitations on the feature (at least not in this review). The DX can play MP3 files, but I find this also to be mostly a novelty, since you cannot feasibly control the order in which they are played. If this feature were improved, the DX might be useful for people who wish to listen to music while reading sheet music (and sheet music looks pretty good on here, though it's probably a bit too small to be used while playing).

The DX includes a dictionary which will be extensive enough for most users. Other features include the ability to insert bookmarks and various annotations. Excerpts can also be "clipped" and saved to a file which can be retrieved when the DX is attached to a computer. When the DX is attached, it functions as a simple USB mass storage device, meaning it is essentially platform independent. No special software or drivers are required (or available). These annotation features appear to be fairly rudimentary, and the tiny chiclet-style keys force me to emphasize that the DX cannot function as a note-taking device.

Flaws include a total lack of organizational ability, which Amazon, in perennial mulishness, refuses to address. The solution would be a firmware update that allows the DX to browse the directory structure. One of their developers could fix this in an afternoon, but instead they have chosen to ignore repeated requests, a fact which is costing them sales (seriously - I read one review where the professor returned the DX because of the lack of folders). My less-than-ideal solution involves manually renaming files with tags, which are then alphabetically sorted and can be searched.

In short, the DX is first and foremost a reader. It does this job well, and well enough that someone who does a good deal of large-format or PDF reading may be able to justify its cost.

Now to other thoughts. I can sum these up simply: the DX is an iPod for books.

Think carefully about what that means. What are most people's iPods filled with? We'll not kid ourselves: pirated music. Of course pirated books and texts have been on the Internet for years, long before the MP3 reached its zenith. But just as the iPod made listening to those MP3s simple and enjoyable, to really enjoy a pirated book, you'll need an e-book reader, unless you want to read on the computer or print it out. Now, even e-book readers have been around a while; however, there are a variety of formats, and conversion between them is not always simple. PDF, on the other hand, is an extremely common and widely used format. This means that one could load up their DX with hundreds of pirated PDF books, all in one portable, simple to use package.

I won't be bold enough to call this a prediction, but rather a possibility: with the increasing adoption of e-book readers, particularly those capable of reading PDFs, we might witness digital book piracy on a much wider scale than before. I doubt it will ever reach the levels of music piracy, since books require a much larger investment of time to digest, but I do think it will increase markedly. The interesting thing about this is that while music piracy seems to cluster around recent and highly popular works, I don't think this will be as much the case with book piracy. Don't get me wrong; you can find all of J. K. Rowling's or Stephanie Meyer's works on The Pirate Bay, but you can also find the works of Isaac Asimov and Ayn Rand. Slightly older books such as the latter, despite not being classics of all time, still elicit continued interest. So, when book piracy increases, sure, we'll see this year's bestsellers being shared, but we'll also see a lot more books published between 1923 and 1980 being shared than we see music from that time. This also means that we'll see a lot of books that, while still under copyright, were written by authors who are now dead. And if the copyright debate turns toward digital book piracy with even partially the same furor it has over music piracy, it's going to be a lot harder to convince people to feel bad about violating the copyrights of dead authors.

If there are any Star Trek fans reading this, you'll recall the PADD - an e-book like device ubiquitous enough to be carried in stacks, lent to friends, and forgotten carelessly. The DX is the first step in that direction. Like all consumer electronics, the price will drop eventually (remember how expensive the first VCRs and DVD players were?). And the idea of having free, wireless access anywhere in the U.S. to a sizable library of public domain works at Project Gutenberg is pretty inspiring. Imagine expanding that idea so that anyone with an e-book reader had access to a universal library of books. It'll be possible... let's hope that copyright doesn't stand in the way.

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A Slashdotter's thoughts on the Kindle DX

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