Jan 252011

The New Sony E-Reader 350

A couple of interesting e-reader deals I stumbled across today: the latest-generation Sony Pocket E-Reader (model PRS-350) is on sale at Wal-Mart for $128, with free shipping. The Sony PRS-350, which I cover in more detail here and here, comes with a 5″ e-Ink Pearl touchscreen, and weighs only 5.64 ounces. If you’re looking for something very small and light, and that is also compatible with Overdrive library e-books, the Sony at this price is a compelling choice (I’ve said before that the Sonys’ major problem is their high prices). On the down side, this model does not have wireless connectivity (so you have to download e-books to your computer and put them on the device with a USB cable).

The ViewSonic VEB620

While I mainly discuss the major e-reader brands (Kindle, Nook, Sony, Kobo, and iPad), just for a little variety I’ll throw in a mention of a sub-$100 e-reader deal. Those of you looking for a budget e-reader may want to consider the ViewSonic VEB620on sale at B&H for $99.95. The ViewSonic does come with a 6″ e-Ink screen, reads ePub e-books and PDFs, and has a respectable 2GB of internal memory plus an SD memory card slot. It also plays MP3 music files, has an accelerometer (so you can turn the device to switch from portrait to landscape mode, and also “shake” it to turn pages), and weighs only 7.8 ounces. On the down side, the display does not appear to be the newer, much better e-Ink Pearl display that I find so compelling in the Kindle 3 (or new Sonys), it doesn’t have wireless connectivity, and doesn’t appear to have basic functions like a built-in dictionary or folders, let alone text-to-speech or Internet access. It also doesn’t appear to be linked up with an e-book store, making it more difficult to find content to read on it. Finally, it has poor reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, with reviewers complaining that it’s very slow to open e-books. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend the ViewSonic (I think an extra $28 or $39 for the Sony above or the $139 Kindle 3 Wi-Fi will be well worth the extra cost), but I thought I would present it for your consideration.

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Jan 212011

While I’ve probably raved enough about the Kindle 3 around here, the device certainly isn’t perfect. There are several things I’d love to see improved — including some obvious hardware improvements like even better screen contrast, lighter weight, a color e-Ink screen, etc. Those will have to wait for the Kindle 4 or Kindle 5, but in this post I’ll focus on the software improvements I’d like to see — things that could all be done with the existing Kindle 3 hardware. Amazon has actually added a number of software features — including better PDF support, more font sizes, and other features — that retroactively improved the Kindles that people already had. Most of these features are not only possible, but fairly simple for Amazon to do — if they get the message that enough Kindle owners want them. Please comment if you agree or disagree with any of the features on my wish list, or any other ones I’ve missed.

Custom screensavers: OK, this one is obvious, and simple to implement. By default, your Kindle will show you a rotating set of screensavers, mostly of dead authors. Very literary, but kinda boring, and not very personal. How about an option to display the cover of the e-book you’re currently reading? Or let users load up their own pics? There is an unofficial hack for this, so the functionality is certainly possible, Amazon just has to decide to enable the feature.

Better Library Management: After far too long a delay, Amazon finally issued a software update that enabled “collections,” tags you can assign to books that act somewhat like folders. However, the feature is limited: you can’t have nested folders, and your sorting options are limited (sorting “by collections” puts the collections to the top of the list, but sorts the remaining e-books by most recently used, with no option to further sort by author or title). There should also be a way to assign and sort e-books based on a series (and order within the series) they’re in. I shouldn’t have to use a 3rd-party program to append series info to e-book titles (I use an abbreviation and number, like “[VS3],” tacked onto the end of e-book titles) to figure out what order I should read my e-books in. Even this work-around doesn’t help sort the e-books how I would like. How about being able to edit metadata, add series (and order) info from the Kindle itself, and collapse and expand e-books in a series? And, even better, e-books you buy should have series information already included.

Marking Books as “Read”: In a similar vein, another wish for better metadata control would be a little checkmark or something you could add to books you’ve read. Yes, I add them to a “Read” collection, and yes the little dots showing your progress will all be bold if you stay at the end of the book and don’t jump back to the beginning, but I’d prefer a simple “Mark this book read” and a little checkmark or icon I could see next to the book title, whatever order I’m sorting by. Maybe even a “read count” to show how many times you’ve read the book for people who like to re-read. And, while we’re at it, a way to save the date you marked it read. That would be pretty cool, no?

The Kindle 3's adjustable font settings

More E-Book Formatting Options: The Kindle 3 not only lets you select among 8 font sizes, but also from 3 different typefaces, 3 different line spacing settings, and 3 side margin sizes — which is fantastic. (P.S.: I use font size 4, sans serif font, medium line spacing, and default words per line, and the readability is great.) But I’d also like to see a couple more options: specifically the ability to add or remove blank lines between paragraphs, and one to add or remove first-line paragraph indents. As a fan of first-line indents and no spacing between paragraphs, I find e-books that deviate from that standard harder to read — but it should be user-selectable since I know some readers disagree. Right now, it’s left to the whim of the e-book’s formatter, and varies from e-book to e-book.

Page Numbers: Yes, I fully understand why page numbers are problematic with e-books: all those font / typeface / line spacing adjustments mean that the number of words displayed on your screen will vary each time you change your settings. And the Kindle’s concept of “locations,” which correspond to 128 bytes of data, is uniform among various devices and settings. Yet, they’re not very intuitive (there are roughly 15 locations per standard “page,” but it varies, and most e-books have 3,000 – 7,000 locations). I’m not a fan of using fixed “pages” from the printed book, since those vary from paperback to hardcover anyway. But maybe something more useful, like 100 words to a “page,” so I could easily tell that a book with 750 locations is a 75,000-word novel — even before I buy it. UPDATE: The Kindle 3.1 software update adds page numbers, though they relate to printed books (when available), not how I’d hoped for them to be implemented.

Better Navigation Within E-Books: If formatted properly, e-books will have a table of contents, which is accessed through a menu, and which will allow you to jump between stories or chapters in the e-book. If the e-book is formatted even better, it will also contain chapter waypoints, which show up as little black dots in the location bar, and which let you jump from chapter to chapter by flicking the 5-way controller left and right. (I find this a very useful feature, but I’ve sadly found it to be rarely implemented — I spent a lot of time learning how to include a TOC and waypoints in my own e-books.) And all e-books allow you to enter in a location number to jump to. However, I find the navigation a bit clunky, and it takes too many button presses to get where I need to go. Amazon, you have some smart people there, please come up with an easier way to get around in an e-book — maybe a way to scroll through the location bar with the 5-way or something else that feels like the way you can flip through a paper book.

That’s all I can think of for now. Agree? Disagree? What are your most wanted Kindle software features?

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Jan 142011

Borders has a coupon up offering $40 off the latest-generation Kobo Wireless E-Reader (discussed in more detail here) for Borders Rewards members, knocking the price down to just $99. It expires Jan 17. It appears 2011 may just be the year of the $99 e-reader. While the Kobo doesn’t have all the features of the top e-readers, it is light and fairly simple to use, reads ePub files (including Overdrive library e-books), and $99 is a great price for a decent e-Ink-based e-reader. Note that Kobo claims the Wireless edition uses a “sharper e-Ink screen,” and I’ve seen conflicting reports whether or not it’s the same e-Ink Pearl screen that I like so much in the Kindle 3.

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Hands-On: New Sony E-Readers

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Jan 142011

The new Sony E-Reader lineup: the Pocket, Touch, and Daily.

I got a chance to try out the new Sony E-Readers at a local Best Buy recently. Sony’s new lineup, discussed here, includes the 5″ PRS-350 Pocket Edition ($179, currently on sale for $149), the 6″ PRS-650 Touch Edition ($229), and the 7″ PRS-950 Daily Edition ($299). Each has the new e-Ink Pearl screen, for excellent contrast and readability. Each is made with an aluminum frame (most e-readers have a plastic frame), and are available in multiple colors (whereas most e-readers are white or gray). And each has a new touchscreen technology: a grid of infrared lasers is embedded around the edges of the screen to sense your touch — which is a great improvement over Sony’s old touchscreen method, which required an extra layer of plastic over the screen that muddied the display.

Sony’s e-readers have been described in many reviews as good hardware that is somewhat overpriced and lacking an easy-to-use, robust e-book ecosystem. It’s almost like Sony wants to make great, pretty, expensive products, and leave it to the user to figure out how to actually get e-books on the device and use it. For example, only the most expensive version (at a whopping $299, or more than double the cost of the $139 Kindle 3 Wi-Fi or $149 Nook Wi-Fi) comes with any form of wireless connectivity; the cheaper two versions require downloading books to your computer and sideloading them to the device through a USB cable. Also, Sony’s e-book store is harder to navigate, has a smaller selection, and the e-books are often more expensive than the Amazon or B&N stores. On the plus side, Sony’s e-readers do read the ePub format and can access Overdrive library e-books.

As for the hardware itself, I have to say I wasn’t as impressed with them as I thought based on reading their descriptions. For some reason, I didn’t prefer the aluminum frames to plastic. And I’m not a fan of the controls: the main culprit is the page turn buttons, which are located on the left side of the row of 5 metal buttons below the bottom of the screen, and are therefore not in a comfortable position for one-handed reading (even if holding it with your left hand, you’d have to hold the device by the very bottom corner). I far prefer the page turn buttons on either side of the screen, like on the Kindle or Nook.

And I was disappointed with the touchscreen, which is hyped as the defining feature of the new Sonys (it’s the only major e-reader with a touch-enabled e-Ink screen). The description of the new touchscreen system, which doesn’t affect readability, sounds impressive. But I found that it didn’t register my touch several times, with a little minus-sign-in-a-circle symbol showing up in the bottom right corner of the screen. Probably a bad sign that the touchscreen is so finicky, there’s programming for a symbol to show up when it doesn’t work right. Further, I’m not jumping on the touch bandwagon: I think it’s overrated for most uses, even on something like the iPad, and I find myself wishing for a “low-tech” mouse. Sure, touchscreens are helpful for some things, but as often as not they’re horribly imprecise (and I click the wrong link on a web page or miss a tiny button), your fingers obscure some important screen element, or I miss the tactile feedback of a good old-fashioned control pad on games. For e-readers specifically, I don’t see much benefit in being able to touch the screen, and one clear drawback is getting finger oils on your screen.

All in all, I was mildly disappointed by the Sonys, and I didn’t find them compelling. Since I’m not a fan of their defining feature (touchscreens), I find their controls inconvenient, their e-book store is lacking, and I consider them pretty badly overpriced (their normal prices are excessive; when on sale they’re merely on the high end), I don’t really recommend them. On the other hand, they are small and light, and they come in a variety of screen sizes (5″ and 7″, in addition to the normal 6″ screen you’ll also find on most other e-readers). And they are one of the few e-readers (along with the Kindle 3, but not the Kindle 2 or Nook) to come with the new e-Ink Pearl screen, which I consider a must-have e-reader feature.

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Kindle How-To: Tips & Tricks

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Dec 022010

So, you just got a Kindle? Looking for set-up instructions, trying to figure out how to get e-books on your Kindle, or just want some Kindle tips and tricks? With this Beginner’s Guide to the Kindle, I’ll do my best to give you a starter course:

Preparing For Your Soon-To-Arrive Kindle

After you click the “Buy Now” button for your new Kindle, while you’re waiting for it to be delivered, you can already start buying or downloading e-books from Amazon in preparation, and start reading them as soon as it arrives. If you bought the Kindle for yourself, it will show up already registered to your Amazon account, and you can start downloading any e-books you bought from Amazon right away. (If you’re receiving the Kindle as a gift, it’s a quick process to register it once it arrives.)

If you prefer to get e-books from other sources in addition to Amazon (for example, Project Gutenberg has thousands of free, public-domain classic e-books), and if you’re the type of person who likes to organize and back up all your computer files, you may want to consider downloading the free program Calibre. With Calibre, you can manage your e-book library, convert e-books from various formats, back e-books up on your computer, and transfer them to your Kindle.

Another place you can find e-books for your new Kindle? Right here — just use the links on the sidebar to the right, or click the tabs at the top of the page for more info on my novels, which are just $2.99 each. When you buy e-books from my website, I’ll happily send them to you in Kindle format (or any other format you request).

Kindle 3 Initial Set-Up

So, your new Kindle 3 just arrived in the mail, what now? When you take it out of the box, you’ll notice what appears to be a sticker on the screen instructing you to use the USB cable that came with your Kindle and plug it into your computer (or into a wall outlet with the included adapter) to charge. What took me a moment to realize when I first saw it is that it’s not a sticker: that message is displayed on the e-Ink screen, which takes zero power to display that message — so the Kindle could sit in its box for months, happily showing that image and waiting to be opened. E-Ink screens, unlike LCD screens, only require power to change the image — you could take the battery out and whatever is showing on your screen would stay in place.

So, once you plug your Kindle in and let it charge, what can you do? First, let’s quickly look at the buttons on the Kindle:

The Kindle 3 displaying a menu from within a book (note the "Menu" button on the upper-right corner of the keyboard below the screen)

On the left and right of the screen are long buttons marked with arrows, the “next page” and “previous page” buttons. Below the screen is a full keyboard, used for typing notes, names of folders (called “collections”), website URLs, etc. To the right is a 5-way controller (arrows for up, down, left, and right surrounding a center button). Near that are “Home,” “Menu,” and “Back” buttons. Also of note is the “Sym” key, used to type numbers and symbols, and the “Aa” key, used to change the text font and size, change the screen orientation, and use text-to-speech. At the bottom of the Kindle, from left to right, are a volume button, a headphone jack, the micro-USB charging port, and the power slider. (Note that the K2’s buttons are in different places, but generally do the same things.)

When you first get your Kindle, slide the power switch to the right and release it to turn your Kindle on (sliding it again puts it to sleep, and holding it to the right for several seconds restarts it). Press the Menu button and use the 5-way controller to select the “Settings” option (your current selection in the menu will be underlined). Press in on the center button of the 5-way controller to activate your selection. The Settings screen will come up, and you will see “Registration,” “Device Name,” “Wi-Fi Settings,” and other options (at the bottom, it will say “Page 1 of 3,” use the previous page and next page buttons to see the rest). The word “register” should be underlined. If you haven’t registered it yet, press the center 5-way button again, and enter the email address and password associated with your Amazon account.

Once your device is registered, you can change your Kindle’s name, connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot (on the Kindle 3; the Kindle 1, 2, and DX only have 3G connectivity), set a password, and change other options. Press the “Home” button when you’re finished.

This will take you to the home screen, where you’ll see a list of all the books on your device, as well as an entry for “Archived Items,” and any collections you may have. Use the previous page and next page buttons if you have more books than fit on the screen at once. Use the 5-way controller to select books and open them. If you’ve purchased books from Amazon, they should download to your device if the 3G or Wi-Fi wireless is turned on — if not, press the Menu key and select “Sync & Check for Items.” In that menu, you will also see an option to “Turn Wireless On (or Off)” (turning it off when not needed — like when reading a book — saves a lot of battery life), “Shop in Kindle Store” (which lets you browse and buy e-books from Amazon straight from your Kindle when wireless is turned on), and “Experimental” (which is where you can access the Web Browser, MP3 player, and text-to-speech function).

Getting Books Onto The Kindle

You’ll want something to read. As mentioned above, any books you purchased from Amazon can be downloaded by selecting “Sync & Check For Items” when you have wireless access. You can also use Calibre (mentioned above), or simply drag & drop e-books you have on your computer. If, for example, you’ve downloaded some free e-books from Project Gutenberg and want to put them on your Kindle, just use the USB cable that came with your Kindle and attach it to your computer. It will show up just like a USB flash drive or external hard drive that you’ve attached to your computer, and will be called “Kindle.” If you double-click to open it, you will see folders, including one named “documents.” Simply drag any e-books (in the appropriate format, like .PRC or MOBI) into the documents folder and eject your Kindle — your new books will show up on your home screen. The Kindle 3 comes with 4 GB of memory — plenty for several thousand e-books. The Kindle 2’s 2 GB should be plenty as well.

Reading And Organizing E-Books

Once you have the e-books you want on your Kindle, return to your Kindle’s home screen (slide the slider if your Kindle has gone to sleep, and press the Home button if necessary). You’ll see a list of all your e-book titles, along with “Archived Items” and probably a dictionary or two (which you could — but wouldn’t normally — read like a book; they’re used for the Kindle’s built-in dictionary look-up feature). At a minimum, you should see a Kindle User’s Guide and a Welcome Note. You can use the previous page and next page buttons if you have more e-books than can fit on a single screen.

If you press the Menu button, you’ll have the option to “Create New Collection,” which is like a folder, or a tag for a book. You can organize your e-books by making collections (“Science Fiction,” “Romance,” “Read,” “Favorites,” etc.). You can then select those collections and press the center 5-way button to open them, or press to the right on the 5-way controller, where you can open, rename, or delete your collections, or add e-books to them.

Similarly, you can select an e-book from the home screen and press the 5-way to the right to see options about that book (“Add to Collection,” “Go to Last Page Read,” “Go to Beginning,” “Search This Document,” etc.). You can press the 5-way to the left to remove the book from the device — for books purchased through Amazon, this will send them to the “Archives,” where Amazon backs them up for you. You can re-download them whenever you have wireless access by going to your “Archived Items.” For books you have “side-loaded” through your computer with the USB cable, it will delete them from the Kindle and Amazon won’t back them up.

At the very top of the home screen will be a bar that shows the name of your Kindle in the upper left, and the wireless status (bars for 3G, Wi-Fi, or “OFF”) and battery life indicator in the upper right. Just below this bar, it will say “Showing all 35 items” (or however many you have on your device), and “By Collections.” Press up to select this line, and press to the right if you’d like to sort by “Most Recent First,” “Title,” “Author,” or “Collections.”

Back on the home screen, use the 5-way controller to select one of the e-books on your device (the “Kindle User’s Guide” will work), and depress the center button to open the e-book.

The e-book will open on your device, and you’ll see the bar at the top, this time with the name of the book in the upper left. At the bottom is the location bar, which shows you your place in an e-book visually, by percentage, and by “locations.” Since you can change the text size and other aspects of an e-book, there are no fixed “pages” like in a printed book, so “locations” are used to track your progress in a book instead (as a rough guideline, about 15 locations would correspond to the average printed book page, so a decent-sized e-book novel would have 2,500 – 7,500 locations).

The screen will show the text of the e-book, bringing you back to the last spot you’ve read, or perhaps the e-book’s cover or a table of contents (if it has them) if it’s your first time opening that particular e-book. To navigate through the book, use the next page and previous page buttons on either side of the screen. The bar at the bottom will show your progress, and, in a nice touch, the bar at the top disappears to provide more room for text. (Press the Menu button to bring back the bar, along with a clock.)

Another method for navigation is to press the Menu button, and one option will be “Go to…” Select this, and you can either type in a particular location number then press the 5-way down to select “location,” or use the 5-way to select “cover,” “beginning,” or “table of contents.” From the table of contents (which most, but not all, e-books have), use the 5-way controller to select the chapter and press the center 5-way button to go there. To back out of a menu without selecting anything, just press the “Back” key in the bottom right.

General Usage And Tips

Dictionary: when in an e-book, press the 5-way directional buttons to select a word, and the definition will pop up in a little window on the screen (press “Back” to make it disappear, or press the Enter key just left of the 5-way controller to get a full-screen definition; from the full-screen dictionary, press “Back” to return to the book). I find the dictionary very convenient, and use it often.

Font Size: press the “Aa” button just right of the space bar, and a menu will come up that allows you to select one of 8 font sizes, three typefaces (“regular,” “condensed,” and my favorite, “sans serif”), line spacing (“small,” my favorite “medium,” or “large”), and words per line (which sets the side margins; I use “default”). Note that typefaces and line spacing are only available on the K3.

Text-to-Speech: to turn on the text-to-speech feature, which is a God-send for people who like to listen to e-books in the car or for the visually impaired, press the “Aa” button and select “turn on” where it says “Text-to-Speech.” Unless the publisher has disabled the feature for that particular e-book, the Kindle will start reading the words to you in a robotic voice (use the volume buttons on the bottom of the device to adjust). The voice isn’t like an audiobook read by a real human voice actor, but it’s still a nice feature. Press the “Aa” button again and select “turn off” to stop.

Notes, Highlighting, & Bookmarks: from within any e-book, use the 5-way controller to move to where you’d like the note or highlight to begin, and simply start typing with the keyboard to create a note, or click the center button to start a highlight. To add a bookmark, press the Menu button and choose “Add a Bookmark,” or just press Alt + B.

Battery: you’ll see the battery life in the upper right of your Kindle. With normal usage, your K3 should last about a month, reading an hour or two a day. You should be able to get through several books on a single charge. For best battery life, turn the wireless off from the Menu whenever you’re not using it; with wireless on, the battery won’t last nearly as long. Amazon recommends you simply put your Kindle to sleep when you’re done reading (just slide the slider switch briefly to the right and release, or just leave it alone and it will go to sleep automatically in 10 minutes). They also recommend you aim to keep your battery above 25% if possible — unlike some batteries, it’s not great to let this one run all the way down before recharging. Just plug it in from time to time (it will charge when connected to your computer through USB), and aim to keep it between 25% and 75% charged.

Cases: you may want to protect or show off your Kindle with a functional or stylish case, or use a reading light for night reading, or even get a case with a built-in reading light.

Final Thoughts

I hope this Kindle beginner’s user guide and tips & tricks have been helpful — the post got quite long even though there’s lots more I could talk about! Please just leave a comment below if you have any specific questions, and I’d be glad to answer them for you. Enjoy your new Kindle, and happy e-reading!

Nov 302010

My old white Kindle 2 next to my new graphite Kindle 3

A few days before my birthday, I got a pleasant surprise in the mail today: a new Kindle 3 from my wife. I own (and am quite happy with) a Kindle 2 already, but after reading and writing about the Kindle 3 for almost 5 months now, and seeing photos and being able to play with one at the local Target, I finally decided I wanted the upgrade — and I’m glad I did.

I decided on the $189 graphite 3G + Wi-Fi Kindle 3 — while the $139 Wi-Fi-only version is a great deal, only $50 extra for 3G connectivity and free-for-life 3G wireless service was too good a value to pass up. For $50, I’d rather have it and not really need it than need it and not have it.

The first thing that struck me is just how small, thin, and light it is. While my old Kindle 2 is hardly enormous or heavy — only 10.2 ounces — the Kindle 3 is smaller in every dimension and only weighs 8.7 ounces (about half a pound). It’s very easy to hold and read one-handed, especially since I haven’t gotten a case for it yet.

The second thing I noticed is the new e-Ink Pearl screen, which promised increased contrast. It definitely delivers. Just check out the photo above: see how much darker the blacks are on the K3 compared to the K2? On the K3, I find the blacks to be noticeably darker (almost a true black), and the background to be slightly lighter (still not a true white, but a lighter shade of gray than on the K2). In combination, the text really pops off the page on the K3. While the K2’s contrast was fine by itself, when I look at it compared to the new K3, it seems a bit “muddied” in comparison.

Helping text readability even more is the K3’s new support for 3 different fonts (normal, condensed, and sans serif) and 3 line spacing options — in addition to the 8 font sizes shared with the K2. After playing around with them a bit, I like the sans serif font (which is bolder than the normal) with the medium line spacing option, on the 4th text size. Check out the difference in the photo below:

Notice the bolder, darker text of the K3 (click pic to read more…)

The text on the Kindle 3 is significantly darker than on the K2, and the background is lighter. The combination makes for a noticeable improvement in readability. Another nice improvement: notice how much more text you get on the K3 screen — an extra 5 lines of text. This is from a combination of the font being more condensed (but more readable), and the location bar being moved all the way down to the very bottom edge of the K3’s screen. Even better, once you click the next page button on the K3, the title bar (that shows the name of the book and the battery indicator) disappears, giving you more room at the top and bottom. Even with the same font type and size, the K3 will get several extra lines of text per page. In total, it seems like I’ll get 25-33% more words on the K3 screen, which is great for a few reasons: having to press the page turn button less frequently (which is nice in itself) also means I should be able to read faster, and the battery will last longer, since e-Ink screens only use power when you change pages (you should get about 10,000 page turns per battery charge, regardless of how many words are on each page). In other words: a book that used to take 1,000 page turns (and use 1/10th the battery life) might now only take 750 page turns (and 1/13th the battery life).

A few other notes: the K3 has a few improvements I haven’t really noticed yet, including longer battery life (both will last for weeks), more storage space (I’m nowhere near filling up either one of them), and faster page turns. I did a side-by-side test, and the K3’s page turns are a little faster, but this is honestly a non-issue for me, as the K2 is plenty fast enough anyway — faster than turning a page in a physical book. Whether the K2 is 0.8 seconds and the K3 is 0.6 or whatever, they’re both fast enough that I don’t notice any delay.

I played around a bit with the K3’s improved web browser (and Wi-Fi connectivity, which for some reason didn’t “see” my network, but once I entered the network name and password it connected with no problem), and it does seem to be much improved. Using the web browser on the K2 could be described as frustrating at best: you could do it, but only if you really had to. The K3 browser is still far from pleasant (compared to a computer or iPad), but it’s much faster, more usable, and seems to render more sites properly. It had no problem with my Yahoo portal, Yahoo mail, this blog, and Amazon’s DTP book sales reports … which I’m embarrassed to admit that I check way more often than I should. 😉 (Ironically, Amazon’s DTP page had problems loading properly on the K2.) The K3’s zooming and panning functions (a necessity due to the 6″ screen) worked pretty well, and the “article mode” (which strips out extraneous stuff and just presents the main text from some web pages) works great so far — this blog came up looking great in article mode. Of course, the Kindle’s e-Ink screen is 16-shade grayscale, and it doesn’t do video, so certain sites are just not going to look that great. And the speed is so-so over Wi-Fi; I think it’s slower over 3G but haven’t tested that yet.

I do have to include a few early nitpicks: I miss the number keys (both have full keyboards, but the K3 loses the top row of number keys from the K2 — instead, you need to press ALT + the letters on the top row). I think this will turn out to be minor, since I hardly ever use the number keys normally, but I had to use them a few times in the initial set-up (mainly punching in location numbers to get to the right place in certain books). But it seems like they could have fit the number keys, or at least printed the corresponding numbers on or near the top row of letter keys. My second nitpick is that I hit a few buttons accidentally: the page turn buttons (which now depress toward the edge instead of the middle like on the K2) and the buttons near the new 5-way controller. I think the side button issue will go away once I get a case, and hopefully I’ll just adjust to the 5-way button and it won’t continue to be an issue.

What else? I’ll have to read more on it (I just got it a few hours ago) to give you more detailed thoughts on the reading experience, and I’ll write a follow-up article in a couple weeks when I can give a more thorough review. But my early impressions are very favorable: the main reason I wanted the K3 was the improved screen contrast, and it delivered. I think the combination of better contrast, more words per page, and lighter weight are going to combine to make the reading experience — which I already found superior to a printed book with my K2 — even better.

Nov 242010

'Tis the season … for Kindles, Nooks, and iPads

UPDATE: For the 2011 version of this post, please CLICK HERE.

In anticipation of Black Friday and the upcoming holiday gift-giving season, I thought I’d put together a post for anyone thinking of picking up an e-book reader for themselves or as a gift this holiday season. I’ll discuss the different e-readers out there, give my experiences and recommendations, and tell you the best places to pick up a copy of each (in-store and online) — making sure to cover special Black Friday deals, which mostly consist of older models on sale for under $100.

If you’re not yet sure if an e-reader is the right gift, you may want to take a moment to consider my “Do I Need An E-Book Reader?” post, which details the types of people who would enjoy and get the most use out of e-readers.

I anticipate that e-readers will be a very popular holiday gift this year, as prices have come down and the technology has improved pretty dramatically from even a year or two ago. There are now more choices than ever, from black & white e-Ink-based devices specialized for reading, along with color LCD multi-purpose tablet computers that can read books along with checking email, going online, and watching videos.

The first decision to make is whether you want a device focused on reading, or more of a multi-function device. For avid readers, e-Ink screens are generally preferred, as they are easier on the eyes and the batteries last much longer (click here for more information on the difference between e-Ink and LCD screens). For those who only read occasionally (1 book a month or less), they may prefer a device that does lots of other things, like play games and run apps and watch videos. Here is a rundown of the leading e-readers available this year, with links to more detailed reviews, as well as links to purchasing information:

Amazon’s Kindle 3 is the most popular e-reader, and for good reason. It comes in two versions: the $189 Kindle 3 Wi-Fi + 3G, and the $139 Kindle 3 Wi-Fi. The $189 version comes in two colors: white and graphite, and the $139 version is graphite only. Each model has a 6″ e-Ink screen, a full keyboard, and a battery that lasts for a month. The difference between the two models is that the $189 Wi-Fi + 3G version can connect wirelessly through AT&T’s cellphone network (with no monthly fee, as lifetime 3G access is included) and where you have access to a Wi-Fi hotspot (like at your house or office or coffee shop), while the $139 Wi-Fi only model can only connect at a hotspot.

I own a Kindle 2, and I strongly recommend the new Kindle 3 to anyone who enjoys reading fiction books: it is the most full-featured e-reader, with a built-in dictionary, adjustable font sizes, text-to-speech, notes & highlights, limited Internet browsing, some apps and games, and more. It also comes at a very reasonable price, has the newest and best e-Ink Pearl screen with increased contrast, is very small and light (only 8.5 ounces), the battery lasts for a month, and Amazon has the world’s largest e-book store, with over 750,000 titles. My recommendation: avoid sales tax and buy it from Amazon.com (with free shipping), their customer service and generous return policy is legendary.

Almost a separate animal, Amazon also offers the large-screen $379 Kindle DX 2, which offers a huge 9.7″ e-Ink Pearl screen. It’s great for reading PDFs, and much better at browsing websites than its smaller sibling. Of course, it’s far heavier (18.9 oz), less portable, and more expensive — I personally don’t think it’s worth double the price of the K3.

Black Friday Special: So far, there aren’t any Black Friday deals on the K3 and I don’t think we’ll see any, since the K3 only came out in August and has been selling very well; in fact, there are signs it may sell out before Christmas. But the Kindle 2 will be on sale for just $89 from Amazon.com on Black Friday, which is a great deal on what is still an excellent e-reader (one I use every day), and the best of the Black Friday e-reader deals, in my opinion. It goes on sale here, starting at 9 AM Pacific on Nov 26, and I’d expect it to sell out quickly.

The Barnes & Noble Nook

Barnes & Noble’s Nook and Nook Color is the second-most-popular e-reader brand, behind the Kindle. The Nook has recently split into two product lines: the new $249 Nook Color, an Android-based tablet computer with a 7″ color LCD screen that B&N is marketing as a tablet “focused on reading,” and the original $199 Nook 3G + Wi-Fi and $149 Nook Wi-Fi, which each have a 6″ e-Ink screen along with a small LCD touchscreen below it.

The Nook Color is marketed as being a device focused on reading, and able to read color magazines and interactive children’s books, browse the Internet, and run certain (but not all) Android apps and games. However, I find that its LCD screen means it suffers from a number of drawbacks, including that it’s heavy (15.8 oz), expensive ($110 more than the K3), has a short battery life (8 hours), and lacks 3G connectivity. However, when considered as a tablet that can also read, it is half the price of an iPad. For pure reading, I’d definitely recommend one of the original Nooks (and their e-Ink screens) instead. They share many of the same features as the Kindle 3, although they add an LCD touchscreen, a memory card slot, and the ability to read free library e-books; however, they are heavier, slower, have shorter battery life, and lack the new e-Ink Pearl screen. As the Nook “Classic” line is now a generation behind the Kindles yet they cost slightly more, I can’t recommend them any more, unless library books are a must-have feature for you.

Black Friday Special: Best Buy will have the $149 Nook Wi-Fi model on sale for just $99 on Black Friday, which is a great deal if you are a Nook fan.

The New Sony E-Reader 350

The Sony E-Reader Line includes the $149 PRS-350 Pocket Edition with a 5″ e-Ink touchscreen, the $199 PRS-650 Touch Edition with a 6″ e-Ink touchscreen, and the $249 PRS-950 Daily Edition with a 7″ e-Ink touchscreen. Each uses the new e-Ink Pearl screens, with a touchscreen technology using infrared beams instead of an extra screen layer that would make the screen less crisp. The Sonys have the advantage of reading library e-books and some people may prefer the touchscreen, but their prices are a little high compared to the Kindles.

Unfortunately, only the expensive Daily Edition comes with wireless (Wi-Fi + 3G) connectivity; the other two models have none, and need to use a memory card or be hooked up to a computer with a USB cable to transfer books. One good thing about the Sonys is that you get to choose the size of your screen: you can pick the 5″ screen of the Pocket Edition, which gives you ultra portability and light weight at only 5.64 ounces; you can stick with the “standard” 6″ screen size of the Touch Edition, which is still only 7.93 oz; or you can opt for the nice 7″ screen of the Daily Edition, which is only a tad heavier than the Kindle at 9 ounces. As I said, the downside is price, although Sony just reduced prices and made their lineup much more competitive. For $249, the Daily Edition is $60 more than the K3, which may be worth it for a larger screen. If you like library books and the touchscreen, or want a slightly larger or smaller screen, the Sonys are your best choice.

Black Friday Special: Dell offers the 5″ PRS-350 for $119, or if you’re OK with last year’s model, the 5″ PRS-300 Pocket Edition (no touchscreen) will be on sale for $99 at Wal-Mart on Black Friday.

The Kobo Wireless E-Reader

The Kobo Wireless E-Reader is a simple, no-frills e-reader that lacks some of the extra features of the Kindle (no keyboard, Internet access, notes, text-to-speech, etc.) or Nook (no LCD touchscreen or e-book lending feature). While the $139 Kobo Wireless (their second-generation e-reader) added Wi-Fi connectivity and a built-in dictionary to match the Kindle and Nook, and does read library e-books, it still falls short in the feature department, considering that it is roughly the same price.

On the plus side, the Kobo is simple to use and focused on reading, with fewer distractions (some people might consider the lack of games or Internet access a good thing — parents, for example). But the bottom line is, unless you’re a die-hard Borders fan (the Kobo interfaces with both the Kobo and Borders e-book stores), I think the Kobo falls behind the competition.

Black Friday Special: Wal-Mart lists the Kobo Wireless for $129, and the previous-generation Kobo E-Reader (without wireless or a built-in dictionary) is still $99 from Borders.com.

Apple’s iPad is an interesting device: far more than an e-reader, some love its ability to do many other things (run apps and games, surf the Internet, play movies, etc.), while some don’t consider it an e-reader at all, since its 9.7″ LCD screen makes it much harder on the eyes, heavier, more expensive, and it has much shorter battery life than the e-readers listed above. Starting at $499 for the 16GB Wi-Fi model, and ranging up to $829 for the 64GB Wi-Fi + 3G model (which also carries a $30 per month fee for 3G wireless access — so a whopping $1,549 for a 3G iPad with 2 years of service), it is in a completely different price range than the other e-readers described here.

The iPad is really a tablet computer that can surf the Internet, play all the cool apps and games on Apple’s App Store, watch videos, perform light computing work, and — oh yeah — read e-books. Personally, I never read on my wife’s iPad — I far prefer the e-Ink screen (much easier on my eyes), light weight (much easier to hold with one hand), and superior battery life (measured in weeks instead of hours) of my K2 for reading. However, the iPad’s full-color LCD screen lets it do things the Kindle either does poorly or can’t do at all, and I find myself using the iPad for playing games, using apps, surfing the Internet, checking email, and watching movies. To me, the question becomes: are you (or the person you’re buying a gift for) an avid reader, or not? For someone who reads more than a book a month or so, I’d recommend a dedicated e-reader over the jack-of-all-trades iPad. For someone more interested in all that other stuff — and who might like to check out a few books a year, or maybe read some magazines — I’d recommend the iPad, or possibly the less expensive Nook Color, described above.

Black Friday Special: Apple’s Black Friday sale (online or at your local Apple store) knocks $41 off the iPad and $21 off the iPod Touch line. Of note, some T.J. Maxx and Marshalls stores have the 16GB Wi-Fi iPad for just $399 — but stock appears to be limited, and quite random.

Final Thoughts: In addition to the e-readers detailed above, there are several other brands of e-readers out there, although I don’t recommend any of them for several reasons. The Kindle, Nook, Sony, and Kobo e-readers are the 4 most popular brands, and for good reason: they have e-Ink screens, the best prices, and the best e-book stores. There are a bunch of other e-readers out there (including the Aluratek Libre, Velocity Cruz, Augen Book, Pandigital Novel, Cybook Opus, Ectaco JetBook, Sharper Image Literati, and a bunch of Android-based tablet computers), but each suffers from serious problems: many use LCD screens that are harder on the eyes, yet don’t even have the redeeming features of the iPad or Nook Color; several are overpriced; most of them lack features; and many don’t interface easily with a decent e-book store.

In summary, my recommendation depends on two things: your budget, and whether the person you’re buying an e-reader for is an avid fiction reader or not. For those who read a book a month or more, I recommend the $189 Kindle 3 Wi-Fi + 3G, as I think it’s the best e-reader out there and a great value for the money (the $139 Kindle Wi-Fi is an excellent choice as well if you can live without the 3G). For those on a budget, I recommend Amazon’s Black Friday special, the $89 Kindle 2. And, for those who aren’t all that interested in reading and really want a mini-computer that does lots of different things (and can read e-books in a pinch), the iPad is the way to go.

UPDATE: For the 2011 version of this post, please CLICK HERE.

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Kobo Wireless E-Reader $129 at Wal-Mart

 Posted by at 4:42 PM  Tagged with: ,
Nov 232010

The Kobo Wireless E-Reader

The new Kobo Wireless E-Reader, Kobo’s second-generation e-reading device, is now available at Walmart and at Walmart.com, for just $129 with free shipping. That’s $10 less than Kobo charges directly from its own website. It is available from Wal-Mart in black, lilac (that’s a light purple, for the guys out there), and silver.

The Kobo Wireless E-Reader, which I discuss further here, connects with both the Kobo and Borders e-book stores. It features a 6″ e-Ink screen and Wi-Fi wireless access.

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Texas Hold ‘Em on the Kindle

 Posted by at 3:24 AM  Tagged with: , ,
Nov 132010

Texas Hold 'Em comes to the Kindle

I thought this was interesting enough to merit a quick post: Electronic Arts has released a Texas Hold ‘Em poker game for the Kindle. It’s available for download now for $3.99.

I’ve posted before about Kindle apps, but what makes this one so interesting is that it’s one of the few Kindle apps available so far that’s not a word game or strategy game — previous games included Scrabble, Every Word, and Sudoku, although EA also released a Solitaire card game last month.

Texas Hold ‘Em is obviously a hugely popular game, so I think a lot of people would be interested in this. It makes me wonder what else we’ll see on the Kindle, and if it will soon become a full-featured game machine that will get more and more cool apps. I was wondering if Amazon intended to keep the apps and games reading-related, or at least “cerebral.” Well, poker can certainly be cerebral, but this seems like more of a “mainstream” game than Amazon’s first two app offerings, which were both word games that really seemed to “fit” the idea of a Kindle.

Texas Hold 'Em on the Kindle 3

Of course, the types of games and apps are limited by the Kindle’s black & white e-Ink screen, but I’ve been impressed so far by each of the Kindle games I’ve seen — the screen wasn’t a hindrance, and the games were easy to play (the Kindle’s full keyboard helps).

Anyway, we’ll see if this starts a trend toward more “casual” or “mainstream” Kindle games. And I’m also keeping my eyes peeled for apps — weather, note pads, a thesaurus or translation app, etc. Kinda cool that this capability didn’t exist when I got my K2, so it’s really come as a bonus (although, sadly, these apps don’t work on the older K1).

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Hands-On With The Kindle 3

 Posted by at 12:26 AM  Tagged with: ,
Nov 102010

The smaller, graphite K3 next to the white K2

I got my first chance to see a Kindle 3 in person yesterday at Target, and I have to say I was impressed. Even though I’ve talked about the K3 before, and pointed out how it’s 21% smaller and 15% lighter than the K2 that I own, seeing (and feeling) it felt like a bigger difference than the numbers indicate. The K2 is already thinner and lighter than most paperback books (at 10.2 ounces), but the K3 felt feather-light and paper-thin in comparison. Weighing in at only 8.7 ounces (8.5 ounces for the Wi-Fi-only model) and less than 1/3rd of an inch thick, the K3 really felt absurdly easy to carry around and read one-handed. Yet, it still felt solid, not flimsy at all, just the right weight to feel sturdy but not heavy. The rubberized back had a nice feel to it as well.

The other thing I was impressed with was the new page turn buttons and 5-way controller. Some people have complained about the thinner page turn buttons on each side of the K3, and how they depress toward the edge of the device. But I thought they felt great: quiet, just the right amount of resistance, and easy to press while holding it one-handed. Similarly, I was concerned about the new controller pad, which replaces the little 5-way joystick knob on the K2 — the K3’s control pad has 4 directional buttons surrounding a center button, and it looks like you could accidentally press one when you meant to hit the other. But I found that not to be the case, and I never accidentally hit the wrong button or any of the adjacent buttons. In fact, in my limited testing, it felt a little better than the K2’s joystick, which can (rarely) be accidentally pressed in when you mean to move it in one of the 4 directions.

Unfortunately, the units at Target are just demo units that aren’t fully functional, so I couldn’t play around with the functionality much or read on it or comment too much on the new e-Ink Pearl screen. Next time, I’ll bring my K2 to compare side-by-side.

The only downside: it made me want a K3 again, after I had nearly convinced myself that I’m fine with my perfectly-functioning K2. 🙂

UPDATE: I visited a different Target and, after resetting the frozen demo Kindle by holding the bottom slider to the right for several seconds, it went into a demo mode where it cycled through 10-15 different screens of info. It also invited me to “Press any button to stop demo,” after which it takes you to the home screen and lets you select and start reading some books, adjust the font size, and generally play around with it. That’s a big improvement from the un-interruptable demo cycle of the K2. Oh, the e-Ink Pearl screen looked very impressive: I still need to bring my K2 for a side-by-side comparison, but the improvement in sharpness and contrast seemed significant.

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