more on ebooks, Kindle, O'Reilly, and Amazon

First off, I will note that I’ve decided to make a little Amazon “aStore” for stuff I find myself recommending a lot. Be forewarned that I’m going to link to it when I link to stuff I endorse, and that if you buy from it, I get some cash. If you find this repellant, copy the ASIN and search for it at Amazon and buy there.

My father recently had some major heart surgery. (He’s fine now, and the speed of his recovery is pretty impressive!) He got stuck in the hospital for about a week, and I told him he could borrow my PRS-300 to read stuff while stuck in bed for all that time. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work for him, and I was off at OSCON. When I got back, I rebooted it and it was fine, but he didn’t get any quality time with it, so I loaned it back to him. After a day or so with it, he seemed sort of semi-interested. He was also kind of interested for me to bring by my other, bigger ebook. I was surprised, because I think of it as a pretty special-purpose device. Then again, my dad is a serious gadget man – much moreso than I am.

So, I went back the next day with my beloved Kindle DX. I use mine for reading technical books, because they just don’t scale down nicely to the little five inch screen on the Sony reader. Dad was captivated. He could read at all kinds of font sizes – the Sony supports three, but anything small is often pointless, since you only get a few words on the screen at once otherwise. He could print genealogy reports as PDFs and show them to relatives while visiting. He could take them with him to rural churches where researching more family history, for reference. He liked the text-to-speech feature. Shortly after I left, he went ahead and ordered it. I’m really interested to see how he likes it, after some time. I’m even more interested to see whether it can be used as leverage to get him to donate away some of his huge collection of unlikely-to-be-read-again books.

As for me, like I said, I really like my DX. My big problem is getting books for it. Many of the best classic and important texts on programming are just entirely unavailable on ebook. Addison-Wesley and Pearson titles are the worst offenders, possibly because they published some of the most important early books on UNIX and C programming. There don’t seem to be legal editions of Software Tools, The Unix Programming Environment, TCP/IP Illustrated, Advanced Programming in the UNIX Environment, or dozens of other really, really great, important titles. It’s not just that I want to have digital copies for fun, either. APUE, for example, is almost a thousand pages long, 2.5 inches thick, and weighs almost five pounds. This is not a book I can stick in my bag to carry around and read! The same goes for plenty of other really useful technical books. I am against buying books with restrictions on their use, but to make these books usable, I’d probably suffer through it. I could really use the shelf space, too.

O’Reilly Media seems to be way ahead of everyone else in the field. Not only do they offer a large fraction of their catalog in electronic form, but they tend to do it in multiple formats (epub, mobi, PDF, and more), and they do it without DRM. They also have a “deal of the day” that drops the price of one ebook to $10. It’s usually something I’m not interested in, but once or twice a month at least I buy the book and get a great deal on something. I was also very excited when I saw that their Safari Bookshelf program seemed to be targeting Kindle for its mobile interface. Unfortunately, what I found was that it was hard to navigate, unpleasant to use, slow, and often just inaccessible when I was on the road. This is where O’Reilly should embrace some kind of scheme for limited duration book checkout, as some libraries now do with EPUB books. I don’t think Amazon provides a way to do this, but it would add a lot of value to Safari Bookshelf and Kindle. I was so disappointed in the performance of Safari Bookshelf on Kindle that I ended up canceling my account. I’d definitely go back if I could get books onto my reader.

When I want to read web pages on the Kindle, I tend to go through Instapaper, which can strip articles like news sites, Wikipedia pages, or blog entries down to just formatted text. I’ve set it up to send my unread articles to me wirelessly so I can read them offline. They show up looking something like magazine, and they’re much easier to read offline than when sitting at a browser with lots of other windows trying to distract me.

Now that I’m reading more and more on my Kindle DX, I’m starting to find the things I really do and don’t like. The basic likes are pretty easy to imagine: it’s light, it holds a charge for days or weeks, it holds all my technical ebooks at once, it’s easy to get books onto, and when absolutely necessary it makes a tolerable Wikipedia reader. The fact that it can read full-page PDFs without scaling down to an unreadable or squint-inducing scale is also a great thing, and a large part of what makes the DX so useful for me – I can read technical books and scanned journal papers easily.

Unfortunately, every once in a while an ebook comes along that is just no good even on the DX. The original free version of Higher-Order Perl was one of these, because every page had huge margins that did nothing but cause the page to be zoomed out until illegible. (Joe McMahon very kindly removed this whitespace and the HOP website now offers a much Kindle-DX-friendlier PDF.) O’Reilly’s “Rough Cuts,” seem to have this problem, too. They only offer their books in PDF, which is fine, but they tack on large margins and footers that cause the whole page to become nearly unreadable.

Surely, the Kindle DX can zoom in and pan around the page, but this is slow, ugly, and basically not something that anyone would really want to do to read a book. It’s nice that the feature was added, but it really doesn’t mitigate the “I can’t read this PDF because of the font size” problem. Or, rather, it replaces that problem with one of nearly equal obnoxiousness.

PDFs are, in most ways, inferior for reading on the Kindle DX. They can’t be reasonably font-resized because they’re already typeset. (This isn’t Kindle’s fault, it’s just the way things are.) They aren’t as searchable. Their metadata isn’t as easy to edit. They don’t offer as many “jump to” locations – except for one kind: pages. PDFs, because they are typeset, have pages. Ebook formats, on the Kindle, do not. This drives me batty. I realize, of course, that there are no physical pages, but including page number markers would be really welcome. The EPUB format supports this. On my Sony, the current position indicator tells me that I’m on page 4, or seeing parts of both page 4 and 5. Sure, at most font sizes I will be “on page 4” for several page turns, but that’s okay. On Kindle, most of my books seem to have thousands of “locations,” which are presumably something like “paragraphs.” I haven’t looked into it. This is a problem when someone asks, “What page is that on?” I have no idea. “It’s at location 48,102.” doesn’t help them. I can’t even tell them what chapter or section it’s in, either, because Kindle ebooks do not usually have headers or footers announcing the current section, which a PDF book does show.

On a related note, it’s nice that page breaks no longer need to be a hassle. If a code listing seems to be broken at a page turn, I can advance just half a screen’s worth of lines to get the code listing centered on one screen. It’s unfortunate that to do so, I need to manually enter a new location number, instead of just hitting something like Shift+NextPage.

As I put more books onto my Kindle, I’m finding it harder to get to just the book I want. The Kindle book-browsing interface is no iTunes. They did recently add “Collections,” but they can only be managed from the device itself, and that’s pretty slow and gross. It would be nice to get an OS X program that could organize my Kindle’s content for me by manipulating the files on it directly. Instead, I’m stuck with Calibre, a program that is both fantastic and horrible at the same time.

Finally, there are all the little things that bug me about Kindle: I wish I could change the sleep screen images without “hacking” the software; I wish bookmarks and notes were easier to add. Kindle recently added a Twitter client for posting excerpts, but it can’t post random tweets, and posts from my own PDFs only credit “personal document” and not the book by name.

In the end, though, the Kindle DX has been well worth the price, and I’m definitely getting a lot more technical reading done. I’m hoping that the future brings us a Kindle more on the scale of the Sony PRS-300, because even the Kindle 3 is just a bit too big for my pockets.

Written on August 2, 2010
🏷 ebooks