I agonised for ages about whether or not to get a Kindle.

I had a couple of pretty serious misgivings about it.  For a start I wasn’t keen on the way Amazon seemed to be locking the content.  I didn’t want to spend money on a book that relied on a particular bit of electronic technology.  And the technology itself didn’t look all that appealling either.  For a start it was ugly.  It also seemed a bit basic.  Black and white only?  And no back lighting to the screen?  That sounded like a major missed opportunity.  If you are going to read a book on a device you surely the ability to read in bed with the lights out would be one of the key advantages?

So it didn’t really grab me as something that was particularly interesting.  But  I started thinking about it again when I upgraded to a smart phone.  Looking for stuff I could do with my  new toy I discovered that the Kindle software was a free download.  This gave me a chance to see how it worked on a small scale.  And I was impressed. 

For a start,  in the Kindle store I could find all the free out of copyright stuff that I had been reading for years from sites like Project Gutenburg much more easily.  It instantly gave me access to every bit of classic literature I would ever want for free on my phone.  Well, that was good.  I was also impressed that I could get hold of my library on my laptop and my computer at work via another free download.  It even remembers the page you were on on the previous device.  So just as long as Amazon don’t go bust it looks like my purchases are safe for the foreseeable future.

I also found that at last, I had finally achieved my personal nirvana of one handed uninterrupted reading. So I could now read a book while drinking tea and eating toast.  My total reading per day went up and my approach to cuisine became one handed.  The ability to read a book on the phone when on the move is rather magical.   Now even getting stuck in the queue at the checkout need not be a total waste of time.   Particularly if like me you have a fondness for long books.  It has to be said, that a Trollope can be trouble.  Lugging some of those large volumes around can be annoying, particularly if you are travelling on business and have lots of other stuff to carry.  And what is more frustrating than carrying a book that in the event you never open half way round the world.

But there are some drawbacks to a phone.  For a start the battery life is not brilliant, and there are times when you need to make sure you hang on to your supplies of juice in case you have to actually use the thing as a phone.  And there are quite a lot of distractions on my particular phone too.  I get alerts  from my e-mail and Twitter accounts on it.  Can you resist an unopened envelope icon?  I know I can’t.  It connects to the Internet so my unhealthy news obsession can be continually fed.  And it might even ring.   So the reading experience is sometimes interrupted.  Also – and this is something you don’t realise at first – the small size of the screen makes reading less of an immersive experience.  You can’t lose yourself  in a phone the way you can lose yourself in a book.

So I began to wonder about the Kindle.  You don’t see too many of them about so I had never actually set eyes on one.  Would reading one be more like reading a book on my phone or more like reading an actual paperbook?  There was really only one way to find out, which was to actually buy one.  I looked it up on Amazon – I have never seen them in the shops.  The Kindle has developed since its original incarnation as the big ugly older brother of a wall mounted central heating controller.   They are now onto the Kindle 3. The Kindle 3 looks much more like a mainstream consumer product than its predecessors, though it is still a long way from being the thing of beauty that the iPad is.  But no matter – I was interested in the books not the device.  I want to forget I am reading a Kindle, not admire its appearance.  I had a look at the price and worked out that it was about the price of 20 paperbacks and
that I could get for free more than 20 books that I hadn’t yet read. SO I decided to give it a try – there was always Ebay if I didn’t like it.

I often suffer from buyer’s remorse about 2 seconds after I have clicked the confirmation button on an online purchase.  But in this case I felt okay.  In fact I began to be a bit impatient for its arrival. In the event it arrived a day early.  I eagerly opened it up and had a laugh at the ‘free of frustration’ label on the pack.  I had never known an electronic gadget to be free of frustration so I confidently looked forward to being sarcastic about that at a later date.

First off, the device needed to be charged prior to use.  This took about an hour.  Not bad at all.  The battery life of a month claimed for the device is believable but I doubt with the heavy use I make of it that I will get away with such a long time between charges.  But nonetheless, power consumption is modest and you can probably get away without packing the charging cable if you are travelling.

So my first question was how good is to actually read from?  The size is actually a bit too large to hold comfortably for long periods of time – though that is also true of most books.  But I found that I could easily get used to it and I experienced that loss of awareness of my surroundings or the reading process itself that you get from reading a book and that I didn’t get from reading a book on the phone.  The screen is dull and doesn’t grab your attention in the way a laptop does, but that makes it easier to get lost in.  I am still not convinced that it wouldn’t be a bit better with a backlight option, because it becomes unreadable in low light conditions quicker than print does.  But basically I was very happy with the experience.

One of the advantages claimed for the Kindle is that the non-luminous screen reduces eye strain.  I can sort of believe that this is true, but I haven’t noticed this benefit yet.   If I had to read for several hours solidly I would still choose a book over either a Kindle or a standard computer screen.  That is, if I was doing it for fun.  If I needed to read as much as possible however, I would choose the Kindle.  The reason would I would make that choice is the text to speech facility.

Now I have a pretty good text to speech option on my laptop.  And in fact the quality of the speech generated is much better on the laptop.  But the way it is implemented on the Kindle is just so simple.  You are reading some text.  If you want to switch to having it read out to you, just a few keystrokes and off you go.  And the Kindle turns the pages as you go along. 

So you can be reading a passage, get up and make a cup of tea and continue following the book as you do it.  When you are ready to start reading again just switch off the voice.  You don’t lose the flow.

The sound quality and volume produced by the Kindle’s speakers are pretty good and certainly good enough for what they are intended for.  I think there is room for improvement on the voice front.  In particular a brief pause when starting a new sentence would be a huge improvement.  But it is perfectly understandable and if you have a lot of text to get through I think it would be a great feature.

In fact the audio capabilities of the Kindle were the last thing on my mind when I bought it, but I am finding that this is the main thing that makes me love it so much.  It will play audio books from Audible with ease.  You can’t download them directly to the Kindle, but if you have them on a computer you just transfer the file to the Audible folder on the Kindle and they are ready to play.  Like other players it remembers where you were last time you played it.  Unlike some others, it remembers the position of multiple different files.  So you can be listening to half a dozen audio files and keep your place in all of them.

It also plays MP3 files.  You can listen to these as background music simply by transferring the files to the Music folder.  This is fine if you want to have something to listen to while you are reading.  It is pretty lame as a music option though.

You can’t see what track you are playing and as far as I could work out you can only move forward through your list of tracks.  There are plenty of other options for listening to music while you read so you won’t often need this function.  I hadn’t even realised it played MP3s when I bought it, so I wasn’t too bothered by the poor performance in this area.  If anything the fewer knobs and dials to distract me from getting through the book I am reading the better.  But I did make a discovery.

If you transfer an MP3 file to the Audible folder rather than the Music folder, the Kindle treats the file not as a music file to play in the background but as an audio book.   All the same features are available, including crucially for me, remembering where you stopped listening.  I couldn’t find any reference to this in the user guide, but I doubt I am the first person to realise.  If I am, well you read it here first!

I typically have a couple of audio books and a few podcasts on the go at any one time.  I listen to books from Audible.co.uk and from free online resources like Librivox.  Once they are on my Kindle the two formats are indistinguishable.   So I finally have a way of keeping track of all the stuff I am listening to on one device.  I particularly like the way the list of files on the Kindle is in the order I last listened to them so the ones I am most concentrating on are up near the top.  You can also create collections of a particular type of file if you want to get taxanomic about your collection.

The quality of the in-built speakers is good enough to listen to straight from the device about the house.  And I can listen to it in the car via a jack.  I can also listen to chunks of books I am reading to research podcast broadcasts.   I have been able to do all these things before, but only by deploying a range of devices and software.  Unfortunately it isn’t possible to download audible or MP3 files directly to the Kindle, so I still need to use my laptop to get hold of some of the media – but I had to do that any way.  As Amazon owns Audible I suppose one day they might add the functionality to do exactly that.

But it gets better.  The Kindle reads text documents – you just need to copy them to the Documents folder.  And you can use the text to speech setting on these documents.  So I can copy a script for a podcast to the Kindle and hear what it sounds like – a great way to proof read and to get familiar with it before committing to tonsils.

I should also mention that the Kindle does have a rudimentary web browser.  It isn’t very alluring – who wants to browse the web in black and white – and the controls make it as much fun as doing a jig saw with chop sticks.  Again, perversely I like the rubbishness of this aspect of the Kindle.  I want to read on it, not web surf.  It isn’t sold as a multimedia device and I for one don’t want it to be.  It is handy to know that if you need to look up something you can get to it without having to switch your computer on.  But you will only use it for something you really need – there is no risk of getting turned into a
mouse potato.

So to summarise – I love my Kindle.  There are a few features that I would have loved to see on it.  You can’t play sequential audio files on it, so for a long car journey you need to plan what you are going to listen to so  you don’t run out of material just when you are going to be hitting a motorway.  I would also have liked a sleep mode on it so you can listen to books as you dose off.   But on the whole I agree that the Kindle is indeed frustration free.  It does everything you expect of it with the minimum of fuss and lets you get on with the serious business of enjoying the content.  I realise that my particular requirements might be different to many peoples.  But if you are a big fan of both written and audio books it might be worth having a look at the Kindle.


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