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Sunday 14 February 2010

Amazon Kindle

It's not very often that you can evaluate a major purchase objectively. The very act of investing a couple of hundred quid in a single object tends to colour one's subsequent opinion of that object - almost as though your cash investment obligates you to love it. This is why we see the bizarre internet phenomenon of fanboism. Nothing stirs the blood worse than someone calling your hard-earned trinket a waste of money! I suffer from this myself to a certain extent, I suppose everyone does. So it was with some surprise that I found myself buying, and then subsequently hating, an Amazon Kindle.

I should give some background: last year I worked on a tough project. Really long hours, weekends, lots of pressure; but also lots of overtime pay. By about month five, I found myself resenting the time I lost, but also (amazingly) resenting the extra money I was getting in my wage slip. Almost as if the fiscal gain was an avatar for my stress. Of course, working resentfully on a Saturday morning and having a surplus of disposable income is a bad state of mind to browse Amazon in. Sure enough I found myself spending somewhat, shall we say, recklessly. A new TV. New speakers. A PS3 Slim. New phone. And, ultimately, an Amazon Kindle.

Now, I'd never expressed an interest in a Kindle before. Never even really knew much about them. But the announcement that Amazon were releasing an international version triggered some kind of lazy enthusiasm, and without giving it much thought at all, I ordered one. Didn't even really think about it till it arrived.

It was in this odd state of apathy that the Kindle and I began our strange relationship - a device I wasn't interested in, using a technology I had no previous opinion about, paid for with money that I wasn't really going to miss. A recipe for objectivity if ever there was one.

Okay, first thing - the Kindle is a lovely device. It might not seem like it from photos, and the QWERTY keyboard does like kind of clunky, but it is nonetheless attractive in a quirky kind of way. A bit like a sexy librarian - slim, trim and very pleasant to look at, but with a faint air of learning about it. The screen, e-ink as all good e-readers should be, is perfect to read on. It looks pretty much like paper (slightly greyer than outright white, but nice) and comes pre-printed with a quickstart instruction list - a list that some purchasers may find themselves looking for a loose corner to peel off so they can see the screen underneath, ahem.

It has built-in 3G and Amazon will thoughtfully pay for you to download books and (selected webpages) on a Sprint roaming tariff, no contract necessary. The wireless stuff is actually really cool and transparent. You can buy a book on the Amazon website on your computer and when you next pick up your Kindle it will be downloaded and ready to read. That said, as mentioned, Amazon will only let you view certain websites when not in the US - understandable given that they pay 35 cents per megabyte, but annoying given that they also won't let you download pictures for newspapers or magazines - text only in the UK unfortunately. A wifi option would have been nice.

Response is slow, as you'd expect with e-ink, but not massively so. You tend to notice the screen flash when you turn a page a lot at first, but soon get used to it. In fact, the flash of the screen seems to be exactly the same length of time it takes your eyes to go from bottom to top when starting a new page.

Apart from that, there's not a lot to say about it. It is a device that lets you buy and read books.

So why did I hate it? Well, learning to use an e-reader is a strange experience. It isn't like reading a physical book. Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm not a dead tree fetishist like many people seem to be. I have no great need to be surrounded by the smell of paper or experience the weight of a hefty 1000 page epic in my hands - books to me are great, but space filling and they need dusting, so I have no qualms about replacing them. My problem was that I couldn't see beyond the device to the story within.

When you first use it, it's like you're looking through a two hundred pound window, but you're only seeing the window frame and not the view outside. Your eyes are continually looking at the screen, you're constantly adjusting your fingers to sit better on the buttons, you check the battery life indicator, the wireless indicator and, if you're of a geek mentality, you have that new gadget lust that occupies your mind and blinds you to all else. This makes it very difficult to lose yourself in a book, which requires you to see beyond the medium and have the words take hold of your mind.

It also didn't help that my first book purchase was Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver - the first thousand page book in a trilogy of thousand page books - which I'm reliably informed by Gareth takes about 1500 pages to really get going.

If prospective Kindle owners take only one piece of advice from this blog, it should be this - for your first book, keep it short, keep it light, keep it something that you know you will enjoy.

I dragged out Quicksilver for the best part of two months, each page an effort to get to the bottom of and eventually found myself hating the device as much as I disliked the book. I was about ready to declare the e-reader revolution over, and go back to paper and then something strange happened. I gave up on Quicksilver and bought something completely different (Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan). This book was far more accessible, far easier to read and suddenly the Kindle disappeared from my line of sight and I could see only story!

With this revelation, I started to see the Kindle in a new light. I started to notice little things: like how easy it was to find my page when returning to a book, how useful it was to be able to search text or lookup words in the dictionary, how light the device was to hold, how much easier it made reading in a cold bed, how easy it was to throw in a bag and pull out on a train, how nice it was to be able to buy a book on a whim and save it to read later. The device suddenly opened up to me and I found myself reading more and more. I even take the thing in the bath now! And I have a queue of books I want to read for the first time in years and years.

So the story has a happy ending after all - three months I've had it, and I love it now. The Kindle, or something like the Kindle, is undoubtedly the future of reading, of that I'm convinced. But it's early days - I really hope they sort out the DRM nonsense before it gets to be like how MP3s were in 2005, and the technology is very primitive. I can't help but think I'll look back on my Kindle v2 in 5 years time and wonder what the hell I was thinking. But, for now, I'm happy to see beyond the device and enjoy that content.


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