Feb 032011

The Kindle Settings Menu

Kindles are really just small computers, and they run software (like an operating system) just like your Mac or Windows PC. Every so often, Amazon will release an update to the Kindle’s software, sometimes to fix bugs and sometimes to include new features.

Amazon, like many software makers, uses an odd decimal system to differentiate the versions of its software. The current Kindle software version is 3.0.3 — where the initial 3 is the major release number; in this case, the software for the Kindle 2 always starts with 2 and the software for the Kindle 3 starts with 3. The second digit is the revision number, so version 2.5 is a fairly important upgrade from 2.4, often adding new features. The last digit is a minor revision number, usually just a simple bug fix, where you might not even notice the difference between versions 3.0.2 and 3.0.3, for example.

This leaves three questions: (1) How do I know which version of the Kindle software I have installed?, (2) How do I upgrade my Kindle’s software?, and (3) When should I upgrade my Kindle’s software?

How Do I Know Which Version of the Kindle Software I Have Installed?

First, we’ll cover how to figure out which version of the software you have currently installed on your Kindle. From your device’s Home screen, press the “Menu” button and choose “Settings” from the menu. From there, you should see the currently-installed software version in the bottom-right corner of the screen (see the screenshot above).

Note that the software version in the screenshot is “3.0.3,” while the long number in the parenthesis is an internal Amazon version number you can usually safely ignore.

How Do I Update My Kindle’s Software?

There are generally two ways to update your Kindle’s software: (1) wait for Amazon to send the update wirelessly (over Wi-Fi or 3G, depending on which type of Kindle you have), or (2) download the latest update to your computer from Amazon’s Kindle Software page, and then transfer that update to your Kindle via a USB cable.

The first option is the easiest. When Amazon feels the update is ready, it will send it out to wireless-connected Kindles. Note that to receive these updates, your Kindle must have wireless turned on. Some people will leave their wireless on overnight when they know a new software version is being rolled out, in the hopes of being one of the first to get it. Otherwise, so long as you turn on your Kindle’s wireless every so often (I usually keep mine off to conserve battery life), you should eventually get a notification on your screen that there’s a new software version available to install. Just follow the on-screen instructions and the update will proceed automatically (it may take 5-10 minutes).

The second option is to visit Amazon’s Kindle Software page and find the latest version of the software for the type of Kindle you have. Through this page, you can get “pre-release” and trial updates, so I’d only recommend it if you feel comfortable messing around with your Kindle a little bit. As I discuss below, this is probably not necessary unless you have a good reason to upgrade right away.

To upgrade, select the proper software version from the page linked above and download it to your computer. Then plug your Kindle into your computer via the USB cable and transfer the downloaded file to your Kindle’s home directory. Then, from your Kindle (once ejected / disconnected from your computer), press “Menu” from the Home Screen and select “Update Your Kindle.” (There are more detailed directions on the Amazon Kindle Software page.) Your Kindle will then update, and restart once or twice. Again, the process will take 5-10 minutes.

When Should I Upgrade My Kindle’s Software?

As I said, minor revisions (e.g., 3.0.X) are usually just bug fixes and the like. In general, if your Kindle is working fine, I wouldn’t bother going out of your way to upgrade it for 2 reasons: (1) if you have no problems now, then there’s nothing an update can solve, and (2) it’s not really worth the time and effort since there are no new features.

Of course, if you’re having problems, it’s probably a good idea to try the update to see if that fixes them.

On the other hand, more major updates (e.g., 3.X) — like 2.5 or whenever they come out with 3.1 — usually have new features that you may want, and it’s probably worthwhile to make those upgrades.

So, if you need the upgrade (to fix some bug or get some new feature you want right away), you may want to go ahead and do the update manually by USB. If not, you may as well just wait until your Kindle updates automatically through wireless.

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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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Kindle How-To: Tips & Tricks

 Posted by at 3:57 PM  Tagged with:
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.

 e-readers, reviews  Comments Off on Holiday & Black Friday E-Reader Buying Guide

Give Kindle E-Books As Gifts

 Posted by at 6:16 PM  Tagged with: , ,
Nov 192010

Kindle e-books can now be given as gifts

I’ve been waiting for this one for a while: you can now buy Kindle e-books and give them to friends as gifts through Amazon’s Kindle store. The process seems pretty easy:

  1. Choose from 1 of over 750,000 e-books available through Amazon’s Kindle Store
  2. Click the “Give as a Gift” button in the upper right of the screen
  3. Provide your friend’s email address so he/she can collect their gift

What’s cool is that your friend doesn’t even have to have a Kindle — they can download one of the free Kindle Apps (for Mac, PC, iPhone/iPad, Blackberry, or Android) to read their e-book. Presumably, if I know Amazon, they’ll provide all that information in the email sent to the gift recipient.

It seems this option is available for every book in the Kindle store — it’s enabled for all three of my books, and every other one I checked.

One note: the recipient has the option to accept the e-book gift, or apply the amount to an Amazon gift card instead (which they can use on anything available at Amazon.com, which is, well, pretty much anything). This is what would happen if your recipient already owned the e-book you’re trying to give them, for example.

I think lots of people will be getting a Kindle 3 (or the $139 Kindle 3 Wi-Fi) as gifts this holiday season, and even more people will get a few e-books as gifts to get them started. This is a feature that was long overdue.

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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).

 e-readers  Comments Off on Texas Hold ‘Em on the Kindle
Oct 252010

Today’s Amazon press release contains a number of Kindle milestones and sales figures, although Amazon does get a bit cute with the wording:

  • Sales of the “new generation Kindle devices” since their introduction surpassed “total Kindle device sales” for Q4 2009. This has a bit of tricky wording: are they talking just about the Kindle 3, introduced July 28, or the Kindle DX 2 (introduced July 1) as well? Removing the DX from both sides of the equation, this would mean the Kindle 3 sold more in its first 2 months and 28 days (July 28 through today, Oct 25) than the Kindle 2 over the last three months of 2009. True, holiday sales are Amazon’s busiest time of the year, but this one isn’t as impressive as it first sounds, since we’re comparing almost equal time periods and I’d expect a sales bump when a new model is introduced.
  • Over the past 30 days, Amazon sold twice as many Kindle editions of books in the Top 10 on Amazon.com as it did of print books (paperback and hardcover combined). They also sold more e-books than print books for the Top 25, 100, and 1,000 Amazon bestsellers. This statement is also a little clever, and notable because they DON’T just say they sold more e-books than print books over the past month. Clearly, their e-book sales are stronger on their bestselling titles, while print books have a more robust “long tail.” Still, it’s an impressive statistic that for the Top 1,000 bestselling titles on Amazon, more were sold in electronic form than printed form in the past 30 days.
  • Amazon also notes that they sold more than 3 times as many Kindle e-books in the first 9 months of 2010 than they did for the first 9 months of 2009. An impressive growth rate that pretty much equals (or slightly exceeds) the growth of e-books in general.
  • On a similar note, those same industry e-book sales figures claim that e-book sales increased 193% from January of this year to August of this year, and Amazon says their Kindle e-book sales surpassed that figure (although they don’t say by how much).

Overall, solid stats and figures, although I wish Amazon (and Apple, to name another culprit) would be a little more direct with their statistics, instead of couching things in intentionally-confusing language that requires decoding and sounds better than it really is.

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Kindle To Add E-Book Lending

 Posted by at 3:25 PM  Tagged with: , ,
Oct 222010

Amazon matches B&N's Nook, brings e-book lending to the Kindle

Amazon announced today that they will bring lending to Kindle e-books “later this year.” This is a feature that many users had been clamoring for: after all, they reason, you can lend printed books to whomever you want for as long as you want. With e-books, the process can theoretically be even simpler: instead of arranging to physically meet up with someone (or mail the book back and forth, which might cost more than the book!) or worry about getting your book back, you can just input a user’s email address and zip the e-book to them wherever they are. Even better, you could set a time for that e-book to “expire” and it would automatically come back to you — I’m sure we all have paper books we’ve lent out and never gotten back!

This is also an important move by Amazon, as it matches the Nook’s existing “Lend Me” feature, which enables e-book lending for some Nook titles (if approved by the publisher).

Of course, publishers aren’t generally too keen on the idea of unlimited lending, so there are understandably some limitations (which happen to be identical on both the Kindle and Nook): first, once you lend an e-book, you can’t read it while it’s lent out — so only one person can read the book at a time. Second, each e-book can only be lent one time, period. Third, the lending period is exactly 14 days, no more, no less.

Even with these limitations (which seem a bit too stringent for my tastes, but some limitations are perfectly understandable), it’s a cool and useful feature, and one that negates a previous Nook advantage. One of the reasons I am a fan of all e-book readers (not just my beloved Kindle 2) is that advances in one e-reader’s hardware or software capabilities generally trickle down to all e-readers soon enough. So far, the existence of the Nook has at least motivated Amazon to lower Kindle prices and add this lending feature, so that’s a win in my book.

One other note on lending: with Amazon’s Kindle, you have the option of registering multiple devices to a single account, including multiple Kindles or Kindle DXs, the Kindle for iPad/iPhone app, or Kindle for Mac/PC apps. Most Amazon e-books allow you to read them on up to 6 devices simultaneously (look for the part on the e-book product page where it says “Simultaneous Device Usage,” and there will either be a number or “Unlimited”). That means that you can register multiple devices to your Amazon account (including devices used by your family members or friends you trust to be on your account), and e-books you purchase can be read at the same time on your Kindle 3, your wife’s Kindle 2, your son’s Kindle for Mac program, and your daughter’s Kindle for iPhone app (as one example). Even better, the 6-device limit is only a simultaneous limit and is per e-book, so you can read an e-book on your Kindle, and then de-authorize it from that device and authorize it on your 7th device and read it there too. For certain families or close friends, this system is far better than any lending feature, and allows for multiple people to easily share the same e-book purchases, even if they live in different parts of the world. Try doing that with a single copy of a printed book!

 e-books  Comments Off on Kindle To Add E-Book Lending
Oct 222010

More and more brands of e-book readers are showing up in more and more retail stores (such as Wal-Mart and Target) nationwide. This gives people who may be unfamiliar with e-book readers or the benefits of e-ink a chance to see one hands-on and understand what e-readers are all about. I’ve posted before about various e-readers becoming available in retail stores, but with the recent news that the Nook and Kobo E-Readers will soon be available at Wal-Mart, I’ve decided to make a summary post detailing when and where each of the popular e-readers are available. I’ll try to update this post with new info as it becomes available. I hope it’s useful.

(Links go to posts giving more info on that brand of e-reader. E-readers should be currently available at listed stores unless noted otherwise — but calling your particular store to double-check might be a good idea.)

  • Kindle (latest versions are Kindle 3 for $189, Kindle 3 Wi-Fi for $139, and Kindle DX 2 for $379)
  1. Direct from Amazon.com
  2. Target
  3. Best Buy
  4. Staples
  5. UPDATE: Wal-Mart, as of May 5, 2011
  • Nook (latest versions are Nook for $199, Nook Wi-Fi for $149, and Nook Color for $249)
  1. B&N bookstores or direct from Barnes & Noble.com
  2. Wal-Mart
  3. Best Buy
  4. Books-A-Million
  • iPad (latest versions range from $499 for 16 GB Wi-Fi to $829 for 64 GB 3G)
  1. Apple stores or direct from Apple.com
  2. Wal-Mart
  3. Target
  4. Best Buy
  • Sony Reader (latest versions are Pocket for $179, Touch for $229, and Daily for $299)
  1. Sony Style Stores or direct from Sony.com
  2. Wal-Mart
  3. Target
  4. Best Buy
  5. Staples
  6. Office Depot
  1. Direct from Kobo.com
  2. Wal-Mart
  3. Borders bookstores

Of note, you can view and compare Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and Sony Readers at Best Buy, making it a good choice for a one-stop shop if you’re unsure which one you’d prefer. Most e-book readers are now available in most large retail stores: the notable exceptions being no Kindles at Wal-Mart and no Nooks at Target yet. [UPDATE: Kindles are now at Wal-Mart, which makes it an option for comparison shopping.] Please let me know in the comments if I’ve missed any large retail stores where these e-readers are available.