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I love books, and I come from a family of lovers of books too; we live, eat and breathe them, have houses stuffed full of them, and some of my first memories are of visiting any book shop we came across on family holidays, whilst my children's first memories no doubt involve books too, I've been reading to them since birth. I have to make this all clear, as though what I am about to say seems somewhat of a betrayal, I've got to say I LOVE my kindle.
The Amazon Kindle was launched in the UK in September, through the Amazon store where it has its very own area and discussion boards, and accompanied by some rather confusing adverts on TV that don't actually really explain what it does. Being one of the very first purchasers of this device I've had time to test it in full, so hopefully my insight will guide others in that important issue of whether to put this on the Chrismas list or not.
So what is a "kindle" ? To put it concisely, a kindle is an e-book reader, though actually as far as kindle goes it is hard to be concise as, in my experience so far it's really best described as a whole new way of reading, and one that I am thoroughly enjoying. There are other ebooks available, sony makes one, but the kindle is sold through amazon who also supply all the accessories and books.
The Kindle itself, comes in two versions, either wi-fi or 3G, priced at £109 and £149 respectively. I opted for the wi-fi version as I felt that I would be happy enough to download books from home. If you don't have wi-fi you can download books via the usb port, if you are thinking of buying one of these it's probably worth reading the product description in some depth on Amazon before deciding which is for you. At time of writing both Kindles are "sold out", I found I had to wait about 3 weeks for mine, though it did come 2 weeks earlier than promised, and according to the Amazon community the 3G is despatching quickest. If you do order one you may need to be prepared for a wait, but in my opinion it is really worth waiting for and priced well for what you get.
What the kindle looks like:
The picture in the descripiton above is a very good representation of the kindle - and shows the scale nicelay, what you can't see is that it is very, very thin - only 8.5mm. I have mine in a case, but if you use it out of the case it sits very well in your hand, being only 123mm by 190mm high, it weighs in at a mere 241 grammes.
The screen itself is 6", so a little smaller than a standard book. What's amazing about the screen and due to it being an "e-ink" display according to Amazon, is that it really does emulate the experience of reading a book authentically. I won't begin to pretend that I understand what "e-ink" is, all I know is that there is no glare from the screen, the letters look as if they are made from ink and you can see the page in beautiful crispness even in bright sunlight. Reading from the screen is not tiring on the eyes, and photos too are sharper than I thought they would be - albeit in black and white. The Kindle is dominated by the text on the screen, which is, in my opinion a good thing as the focus is on the primary purpose - reading. It's noiseless and heat free - not like reading from a computer at all.
The body of the Kindle is made of nice tactile plastic, the keys on the side of the device (for turning the pages) are convincingly solid and easy to press - they don't make a huge noise either, which has proved useful for reading discretely for me, for example in bed at night or during a children's film showing. Like reading a book you will need a light source when reading in the dark as the screen doesn't light up. When you turn pages by pressing the buttons on either side, the screen goes briefly black before the next page is displayed, but so quickly you barely notice.
The keyboard is very small, but usable - you can use it to type in search terms or add notes to your books, but I don't think you would want to use it to type a huge body of text as the buttons are just too small and fiddly. Personally I don't need the buttons to be bigger, and I think for what it has been designed for they've
done a good job. It is slightly annoying that there are no number keys - you have to press symbol instead, I found this the only frustrating part of setting up my kindle when I first got it out of the box, entering my details on my account required using numbers and symbols, and it was tricky.
I did find when first using it that my holding of it was a little cack-handed and I was almost tempted to touch the screen to change pages, but with further use I have found this device to be a joy to use and now reading from it has become intuitive - I can almost forget I am not reading a book, in the traditional sense.
What you can do with the kindle:
The kindle can hold up to 3000 books. You can, in theory also use it to read files in other formats, such as pdf and you can also listen to MP3 or audio files, and access the internet via the "experimental" feature. You can download newspapers and blogs via subscription and books can be downloaded via the amazon store, everything is delivered within 60 seconds (according to amazon and true in my experience) and automatically via what amazon call "whispernet". You can purchase books from you kindle directly or via your amazon account.
In practice I have found I mainly use my kindle for reading books. I have had a look at some of the newspapers available - all of which are offered to you for free for 14 days and which then tend to cost about £9.99 a month, but the kindle doesn't in my mind lend itself very well to reading papers, the copies I've read have tended to be rather prone to strange typos and formatting, and also lacking in photos - you get a very reduced version of the actual paper edition. Also, without being unfair, there is a rather geeky feel to the magazines currently on offer - obviously it's early days, perhaps in the future the offerings may be better.
Books-wise, the offerings from Amazon are good, but not unlimited. There is a huge catalogue of free books, which are mainly classic books, but also contain a few contemporary items - I'm currently reading "Blood Sweat and Tea" by Tom Reynolds which is the modern day account of an Ambulance worker in London, and which I downloaded from Amazon. There are plenty of free books for download online, Project Gutenberg being a good example of this, and though I am scarcely techno-savvy I have found it easy (if somewhat addictive) to find and download books. I find www.mnybks.net excellent - I tend to find the book that I want on my PC and then access the webpage via my kindle to download directly - it's easier than it sounds.
Amazon haven't made it as easy as it could be to find the free books in my opinion, perhaps for obvious reasons, but free books aplenty there are amongst the catalogue - again if you do think of buying one of these it's probably worth having a good look to see what is on offer via the amazon pages which is, realistically going to be your main source of books. Since owning this I have found myself reading even more than usual - it's been a joy rediscovering Winnie the Pooh (free and with my daughter) and I've read things that I wouldn't necessarily have read in traditional format, revisiting some French classics and also downloading one or two paying new releases. I'd read my first full length novel within two days of owning my kindle and since have read many, many more books with ease!
Buying new books is dangerously simple via one-click - (if you buy by mistake you can let amazon know and shouldn't be billed) my one criticism that is probably one shared by other users is that some books are really priced very high, considering they are being downloaded it's hard to understand why some new releases are £6 or more - also Amazon seem to vary the price charged, a new release paperback I bought seems to fluctuate from £3.35 to £2.40 on an hourly basis. I hope that pricing will become a little fairer over time - I personally won't be buying anything if it is more than half the price of release, even though I am getting the benefit of my "book" being automatically backed up and available "forever", I'm still not buying a physical product so I feel that the costs saved by the publisher and in dispatch should be passed on to the consumer. I would also say that the catalogue has its limitations at present graphic novels seem to be few and far between, and the choice for children is limited. No doubt over time the choice will become wider, though I would think anything like a cookery book that depends on colour pictures is not going to work as well in Kindle format.
I have experimented with the audio features of the kindle and downloaded a free audio book - but in all honesty this device is best used for reading books, and for most people realistically that is what they will use if for. I personally was surprised by how readily and quickly I was converted to the idea of reading from a kindle - firstly as the screen is just so good, and secondly as I really can see the advantage of reading what I like to term as "non-keeper" books on this device and avoiding clutter. I am sure I will continue to buy and enjoy special paper books, but in some ways reading from kindle is a whole enhanced experience.
Ways in which reading on a Kindle is different from reading a book:
Having established that the kindle is pretty easy to hold and use, I should add that there are some features that really add to the experience of reading. Firstly there is an integrated dictionary - you can highlight words and the kindle will tell you what they mean - the default dictionary is American English, I changed mine to the Oxford English. You can also add notes to pages, search for items and easily navigate any book. In theory you can tweet (or share via any social network site) your thoughts on the book - label me generation X if you will, but I can't see me using this feature, but it could be of use to online book clubs or the more technically advanced than me!
The kindle will remember where you were last reading from, and it's easy to have several books on the go at once, you can see how far through any book you are as there is a little visual scale at the bottom of the "page" which tells you the percentage you have read.
Another good feature is the fact that you can change the font to the size that best suits you - there's a choice of about 8 sizes. This I can see would be a great boon to those who struggle with smaller text and I can see schools finding this a good feature for those with special needs. You can also get the kindle to read aloud from any text on it that is not protected from this feature - there is a choice of male and female voices, in practice they are very artificial sounding, and lacking in intonation, but it's still amazing that this device has this potential. You can also organise books into "collections" - a bit like having a virtual bookshelf, and clip any interesting articles from newspapers for future access.
So is it easy to learn how to use all this?
If you've managed to bear with me thus far, you are probably wondering if it is easy to use. I would have to say, resoundingly - yes. Though I did find the integrated user manual infuriating at times due to it's Americanisms and oversimplification, it's comprehensive, and within minutes of using my kindle I had worked out how to add books to collections, and my 6 year old worked out how to read from it without it being explained to her. Support from Amazon is available on their site too - though you might find the online forum community on amazon itself a little difficult to approach, there seem to very vocal and somewhat opinionated posters on those boards; kindle forums such as www.kindleusers.co.uk are springing up and seem to be a good source of information.
I had absolutely no trouble at all (to my husband's astonishment) getting this to work with my wifi and working out how to download and organise books - it was, on the scale of these things, easy.
The Home and Menu buttons are easy to find, and what amazon call the "five way" button ( a button with an enter key and 4 direction keys), works well. If you are used to navigating a computer this isn't a big step at all.
What you can't do on a kindle:
As I've already hinted, the kindle
Pictures of Amazon Kindle Keyboard 3G + Wi-Fi
the ciao homepage as seen by kindle
is mainly for reading books - there are some apps available in America, such as scrabble, but in the UK at the moment there is only a default installed minesweeper - which seems a bit retro! Though you can in theory look at sites such as the bbc site or wikipedia, in practice this is limited - navigating via the 5 way is clumsy, and you can only really view webpages - in an emergency (eg to check a front page of a new site) or to download books it works, but you wouldn't want to use it as your primary connection. I've uploaded a picture of the web browser (hopefully the page looks familiar to ciao users!) - but you can't really "do" anything with the ciao homepage other than look at it and read some reviews. It's not an i-pad - you can't interact via touch, and it is a lot more limited - but then it's a lot cheaper and not designed to do more than it does. You can't have two windows open on the browser at a time - something which has stopped me reading from publiclibrary.com - the rumour on the forums is that a firmware update is imminent on this function - I hope that is true as at present the internet function (though billed "experimental") is limited.
I also think you can't really use one of these long term without a cover - I have one, with an inbuilt light, it added substantially to the cost, so again consider this carefully before purchase. You can't change or remove the battery on this item - so long term this is a concern - though the Kindle comes with one year warranty, when/if the battery becomes less rechargeable, I do wonder whether the kindle will prove to be disposable. Time will tell. So far my kindle is still looking as good as new, with extensive use, there's no visible wear or tear to the device, though the cover (official amazon one), hasn't been as sturdy as I would like the kindle itself is excellent.
The kindle *can* in theory go a month between charges - it takes about 3 hours to charge and is permanently on - when not in use the screen is covered by a screensaver (there has been much discussion on the web about the fact that you can't change these and have your own and that they are rather boring, but the pictures of famous authors and the like don't worry me). You can charge the kindle either via the usb cable and your computer or by plugging the aforementioned cable into a rather snazzy white three pin plug with "amazon"on it. In practice I have found the battery has lasted 6 days, albeit with extensive use of wifi, which drains the battery, and also from using the light (my cover uses the kindle as a powersource). I can imagine that if you just used it to read already downloaded material, it probably would last as billed, certainly turning off the wifi makes the battery last considerably longer.
There's much, much more I could say about the Kindle - but it's testament to how good it is that since I've owned it I've barely been apart from it - I've read as much as I can, and it has replaced my book for reading before bed (I'm one of those annoying people who has to read before sleeping), which is something I never thought would happen. Everyone I've showed it to has been very impressed and most people have wanted one. Though my Kindle will, no doubt, never replace paper books in my life completely, I really am a total Kindle convert and really pleased I bought it. The myriad of glowing reviews on amazon reflect my experience, no doubt a time will come in the not too distant future will come when people ask each other "what are you kindling?" - I don't think it's the end of reading at all, it's just the next page. If you love books, contradictory as it seems, I really recommend getting one of these - I don't think you will regret it!
Additional advanced info and update:
Both types of kindle are now mainly in stock at amazon and delivery times have been reduced since I bought mine. Having been using my kindle a good while now one really valuable discovery has been the existence of free software that will convert any e-book to kindle format - one such being at www.calibre-ebook.com - the software is a whole other review but if you do purchase one of these it is really worth checking it out - it frees you from the confines of amazon and opens up the possibility of downloading even more free e-books and publications, with ease, which is amazing! I really can't imagine going back to reading paperbacks now - the kindle is a whole new world!
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