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The Kindle is ready for programmers

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Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with Amazon. I recently received a Kindle as a gift and substituted my ebook reader with it. In this article I talk about the 6' model form direct experience.

User experience for e-books goes beyond obviously advantages, such as paper and ink savings, or reduced size and weight. Reading and enjoying technical books, containining lots of code, was difficult when ebooks arrived on the market due to formatting issues, battle of file formats and vendor lock-in. But now it's a lot easier.

User experience

Of course Kindle provides no eyestrain, thanks to E Ink Pearl technology. That's an old point, but it's nice to keep it in mind: the Kindle's screen is very different from LCD, and it's usable outdoor even in sunlight (and as programmers we should usually get more sunlight). Our eyes already get stressed from monitors, there's no need to stare at another LCD screen for reading Clean Code. By the way, every ebook reader features an E Ink screen.

The Kindle goes further, and tries to please old-fashioned readers. It features fast switching of pages and in general good user experience, superior to the one of other e-book readers:

  • fast startup, going from turned off to ready in 2-3 seconds.
  • Lightweight: you can keep it up with one hand.
  • Browser-like Back button, very handy when you commit a mistake.
  • Double change-page buttons for left and right-handed people.
  • 16 shades of grey.
  • 600x800 resolution, with 10:1 contrast ratio.

There are many Kindle non-indispensable features which however help, such as text search, addition of notes with a responsive physical keyboard, and bookmarks shown as dog-eared pages.

File formats: (nearly) everything

That brings us to the issue fo formats. Of course you won't experience issues if you buy from Amazon (Azw/Mobi format): you will be free to resize text and change formatting.

However many of us have existing book collections, or buy regularly from other sources. The ubiquitous PDF format is supported without conversions from Kindle 2 and superior. This means you can buy PDF books from other sources and load them on the Kindle (4GB of space); usually PDFs are free of any DRM (don't know if it's even possible to apply it to this format) and only watermarked by the publisher. Many vendors, like the Pragmatic Bookshelf, gives you a Mobi version specific for Kindle anyway.

But you can also read any kind of PDF files: computer science articles and papers, slides from the last conference you attended. Or you can download your unread blog posts of the week via Calibre or Instapaper, although these tools already produce Mobi files (I do these things regularly.)

Even with PDF files, a format originally thought for print, an ebook reader like the Kindle does wonders in landscape mode, with automated zoom to fit the width of the page.

This setting does not destroy formatting, since it's just a type of zoom. You can read code again:

You can also try the Kindle DX in case you really need more zoom, and try putting that in landscape mode for a giant window over the text. You can instead zoom on an area and pan, but it's just more difficult than lanscape mode.

A problem that remains is that of papers formatted on two columns of text. It's just that they were made as A4, and there's no way. But the Kindle tries to remove blank margins, to gain space. Usually research papers have ridicoluously large margins; their authors may get paid by page:

Due to the double columns, navigation is not perfect, but you only have to change your scrolling habits inside a particular page.

You can also convert HTML, .doc and some other types of file by sending it to a special email address, and downloading them via wireless for free (I have not tried yet this feature since I'm fine with PDF for now.)

An advantage of the Kindle over other ebook readers is its market share. Beyond the buzz effect, it means lots of support and dedicated forums; and also that lots of applications target the formats supported by Kindle. For example, Instapaper produces EPub files as output (I use it for reading technical blogs), but also Mobi files specific for the Kindle.

Browing and googling

That's true, but only in the US. You can save some money and buy the Wifi version instead of the 3G one if in your country it's not supported anyway.

Browsing the web is something I couldn't do efficiently with my previous reader. Nothing complex (the refresh rate of the E Ink screen is low), but for looking up concepts on Wikipedia it's very good. The Kindle ships with two included English dictionaries, but Wikipedia and Google are much better for computer science and programming topics.

You have the ability to study on Wikipedia and read it without getting eyestrain. Even if the browser is marked as an experimental feature, it took me only some seconds to open it up, googling for the topic and go to Wikipedia. When you use the 5-way controller, the mouse pointer jumps on interesting targets instead of moving pixel-wise with too many degress of freedom.

The remaining issues (and why they're not so important)

  • EPub is still not supported by the Kindle, but rumors say it will support it in the future. Since the Kindle is the best device, Amazon is already the market leader and it arguably does not need a proprietary format like Windows needed .doc files to stay on top. It make sense to support the free format (but DRM-able) and sell the Kindle even to Stallman. The issue is mitigated by the spread of the Mobi format support.
  • The keyboard is not handy for inserting long texts, or anything that contains symbols or numbers. Yet it's not a typewriter, it's an ebook reader.
  • There is no place for an SD card. If this was an Apple product it would obviously be for selling you a larger version for $200 more, but for books is not really an issue since they weigh a lot less. You already store titles bought from Amazon online, so you're free to delete them to make space.
  • You can't quickly flip through pages as it's not a physical book, yet you can look up a word or a phrase instantly. Imagine refusing to use Google because you can't flip between your physical archives anymore...
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