Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Future Is Now

On Christmas Day of the year 2000, I received as a present a Palm Pilot. It was a primitive device that I chiefly used to discretely play Solitaire during boring classes. The other interesting thing that I discovered for it was the ability to download and read public domain novels. It was on my Palm Pilot that I enjoyed Stoker’s Dracula, struggled through Joyce’s Ulysses, and (not for the first time) read the first chapter of Moby Dick before giving up on it. The dark grey text on grey/green background and 3-inch screen did not make for the best of reading experiences, but the words were every bit as powerful as if I was holding the physical book in my hands.

I eventually retired my Palm Pilot, but I knew, without a doubt, that I was not done reading on electronic devices. I flirted around with reading downloaded books on my computer. This was never ideal to me. Firstly, a backlit screen causes eye strain if you read for too long without looking away. But the biggest reason is that I tended to skim books as if I were reading a web site. I just couldn’t get in to the book the way I could with a paper book or even my Palm Pilot. So, for the past several years, I have flirted around with the idea of buying an e-book reader. What kept me from pulling the trigger was the feeling that they just weren’t quite there yet. That greatness was just around the corner.

kindle Well, I finally got tired of waiting. Amazon released their second generation Kindle and I knew that my time had come. I pre-ordered it the day it was announced, and received it this past Friday. After playing around with it for a weekend, I find it a fascinating device. Though not perfect, I can tell that it is something I will use and enjoy for a long time.

The device feels very solid in your hands. The buttons are firm, yet responsive. It is nearly impossible to turn the page accidentally (a common complaint about the Kindle 1), but easy enough when you mean to. The 4-way joystick used to navigate the device is a little too stiff, but I image that it will get better as it gets broken in. Navigating the menus is sluggish because of the slow refresh rate of the screen. But it is fast enough when turning pages, although the flash that occurs when you do change pages is a little disorienting. The screen looks good. It is very sharp, if not as contrasty as I would like. It still has the gray-on-green look that the Palm Pilot did, although not nearly as bad.

The most significant feature of the Kindle, though, has nothing to do with reading books on it. The device has cellular internet access with no monthly charge. You can buy and download books without hooking up any wires. My first book that I bought before the Kindle was delivered was already on the device when I first opened it (I don’t know if there is some sensor that knows when you open the box or if they shipped it with the radio on.). You can go online with the Kindle, and though the slow, black and white (um, gray and green) screen makes it not the best experience, it is more than serviceable for text-heavy sites. Access to Wikipedia had drawn comparisons to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a sentiment that I don’t disagree with.

The little touches for reading are nice too. You can resize text to suit your eyes. You can instantly look up the definition of a word you don’t know (I hadn’t even realized how often I blow through words, guessing at their meaning from context, until I had the ability to highlight and automatically define them without getting up and going to my computer.). You can bookmark and tag text, a feature that I love because I am really into quoting book passages, but hate having to scan back through a chapter to find one that I remember reading. You can also search. I will never use it, but the text-to-speech is surprisingly non-horrible.

The Kindle certainly isn’t perfect. Like I said above, it still doesn’t match the contrast of ink on paper. I wish that the screen was bigger as well. I really like the size of the device itself, but there is a lot of wasted space around the edges. The keyboard is pointless and in the way about 99% of the time as well. Although I wouldn’t want one that is on all the time, I do wish there was a backlight for use in a pinch. There is more glare on the screen than I was expecting. And, although it is quite adequate, the responsiveness certainly could be improved. It is also very, very expensive.

But, for a technology geek and a book nerd like me, these problems are very small and the upside is very big. As newspapers and magazines have been replaced by the web, compact discs have been replaced by MP3’s, and DVDs are being replaced by streaming/downloadable video, I think that dead-tree books are on their way out. Oh, sure there will always be collectors and bibliophiles who insist that books are superior, but the rest of us will happily understand that it is the content, the words, that matter. Not the container that they come in. And devices like the Kindle will bring us those words in more useful ways than paper can ever deliver.