Stress testing an e-reader

We haven’t had a great deal of success with e-readers in Digital Birmingham it has to be admitted. A couple of years ago we decided to test out the Sony Reader. Unfortunately for us this purchase coincided with the city’s rollout of software that encrypted any USB drives plugged into its computers. A couple of ill-judged clicks later and we had an unusable device.

It took me weeks to work out how reset that darned thing.

This photo, Kindle 2: Electronic Paper Display, is copyright (c) 2009 Yutaka Tsutano and is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license

Anyway, I spent four weeks travelling around India and Nepal recently and before I went I had been considering buying an e-reader to take with me. Also, a couple of months before some friends had got married and they both took Kindles away on honeymoon with them. Whereas he came back declaring himself thoroughly satisfied, she was a little less effusive. However, that seemed to be due to a design fault with the Kindle approved case that she had used, which had broken it.

Based on this I decided to buy the Kindle, but not the case. Instead I carried it around in the side pocket of my netbook case. I was a bit worried that this meant it was prone to getting bashed about and the screen maybe getting broken, but it proved to be okay and it made it around unscathed.

So, was it any good? I have to say that I loved having it with me. I was away for 4 weeks and so normally I would take 4 – 6 books along, which takes up a lot of room and adds a fair bit of extra weight. This makes quite a difference when, like me, you are moving every day or every second day and feel like you are constantly repacking your bags.

At first I was a bit disappointed that the fabled long battery life seemed to be exaggerated when I had to recharge it after about a week, but then I realised that I had left the wireless on. Once I turned that off I didn’t have to recharge it for the rest of the trip.

One feature that I liked was the ability to change the text size. This meant that when I only had a weak light source – in the desert, on an overnight train – I could bump up the font size and carry on reading. Really simple things such as the Kindle remembering my place in every document or book I have on it is also helpful, as is the ability to place bookmarks elsewhere.

There were a couple of features that I haven’t really explored yet. One is note making, the other is the sharing of those notes, either through the Kindle or by posting to a social network, which is the next thing I really want to look at. Digital Birmingham are members of the ICT Programme Board of the newLibrary of Birmingham, and I am interested in how e-readers will change the way that we share books and our thoughts about them. The digitisation of content for devices such as the Kindle might lead to a situation where librarians start encouraging us to write in books in the future and I am keen to explore the possibilities of this.

Downsides to the Kindle were that I was a bit nervous about it breaking as I was aware that if it did I would have been left without anything to read, except for my Rough Guide. This leads on to my next issue, which is that only a subset of books are published for Kindle at the moment, and hardly any travel guides. I appreciate that often the publishers of guides feel their images are valuable and integral parts of their books, and it is hard to imagine DK Eyewitness, my favourite guides, transferring to Kindle any time soon, but I would happily have bought a text-only guide.

Finally, I have to query the cost of Kindle e-books. These are sometimes coming

in at the same price as a paperback and I can’t see how this can be justified. Out of copyright stuff can come in free or less than a pound in price and there is always Project Gutenberg to consider of course.

Overall I am very happy with my purchase and there is just one last thing: when I sat in public reading and looked at other people around me reading their paper books, I did feel a little bit like I was part of the future. You know that unjustifiably warm, smug feeling you can get from buying a piece of technology and imagining that it makes you as smart as the people who actually made it? I imagine that I know a little what it’s like to own a Mac now.

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