Archive for August, 2009

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My Kindle DX and newspapers

August 16, 2009

The Los Angeles Times is not necessarily my favorite daily newspaper –although I’ve not lived in the Bay Area for 12 years I still enjoy reading the San Jose Mercury News whenever I can get my hands on it– but it clearly is the paper I read in the most varied ways.

Ways I read the Times, in my order of preference, include:

1. In print
2. Through the Times web site
3. Through Twitter on my iPhone (LA Times feeds)
4. Through my Kindle DX
5. Through third-party RSS links (from blogs) on my computer
6. Through Twitter on my iPhone (third-party Tweets with links)
7. Through RSS links from the LA Times
8. Through my iPhone app for the LA Times (sorry, this was too cludgey and I’ve deleted the app from my iPhone. So scratch this one. What a terrible interface.)

On any given day I’m likely to read a Times article via five or more of these sources.

My most recent pathway to reading the the Times is with my new Kindle DX. Reading it this way most decidedly is an acquired taste, one that I’m still working on.

I’ve read a lot about e-book readers being the next big thing for newspapers and have wanted to try it. Amazon.com sells Kindle and with no brick and morter stores to visit to test the Kindle, you pretty much have to buy one on faith. And that takes a lot of faith because the DX, the only version that handles newspapers, sells for close to $500. (Amazon did not even answer my query about whether there was such a thing as an educational discount or whether I could get a reviewer’s discount.)

While I like LISTENING to books –my iPod/iPhone gets a lot of use and I currently carry almost 100 books on it– I can’t really say I’m an avid book reader. I DO read novels and non-fiction books from time to time and do a lot of newspaper and blog reading, to say nothing of textbooks because of my teaching job. I just don’t READ enough books to justify even the lower-end Kindle that sells for around $300.

I like to listen to books while walking, which I do a lot, and highly recommend Audible.com. I’ve been a subscriber for years and can download two unabridged books a month from its humongous and ever-growing library for less than the cost of one newly released printed book. (Hey, Audible, if you are listening, I would willingly accept the gift of a free book for that unsolicited but heart-felt plug.)

Lately, though, I’ve found the Kindle book reader app for my iPhone and that has increased my love of book reading, especially with favorite authors who don’t seem to condone their books being distributed in mp3 format. Yes, Clive Cussler and Tom Clancey, I’m talking about you! I’m currently devouring Cussler’s Oregon series since only two seem to be available in iPod/iPhone listening format.

I bought the Kindle DX because my job includes reading lots of course outline documents. The DX screen is big enough to read these documents as PDFs, which are easily uploaded to the Kindle. Carrying the 1/3-inch thick device around is far superior than carrying 3-inch to 5-inch stacks of course outlines that my job as campus Curriculum Chair requires. That made it worth the purchase price.

My verdicts so far:

* Reading books on the Kindle DX is okay, but quite frankly, the touch screen navagation of my iPhone makes that experince far more satisfying. I even prefer the limited iPhone experience (forget texts that require illustrations) to reading a printed book.

* Reading newspapers on the Kindle DX is interesting, but ridiculous. Forgive me, but presentation DOES count and the presentation on a Kindle leaves a lot to be desired. More below, but I cannot for the life of me understand why Kindle limits newspaper readership to the high-end unit. With some minor tweaks in the interface, my iPhone would be a much more convenient way and I don’t see why it can’t be done. The navigation system of the Kindle is cludgey compared to the touch screen iPhone and if the rumored Apple iTablet ever comes out and gets into the newspaper game Kindle will have a competitor.

* Reading short PDF documents on the Kindle DX is a godsend. But the built-in search function combined with the ridiculous chicket keyboard makes including pdf reference books, such as my college catalog, which I have to refer to almost daily, a lousy choice. Again, the iPhone approach to touchscreen navigation and virtual keyboard is going to blow Kindle out of the water.

Story viewLet me talk for a minute about the newspaper reading experience on the Kindle DX, which some of my journalism teacher colleagues have asked about.

In short, you subscribe to a text-only version of a newspaper. (Again, why the cheaper versions or iPhone app can’t handle that is unclear.) The DX has a built-in wireless connection to your personal Kindle account and the paper is delivered automatically within minutes of turning on the unit in the morning. The previous day’s paper is moved to archives. That’s cool. But unless you are a hard core newspaper reader the appeal drops off after there.

Home viewYou access your files/newspaper by scrolling down the home menu with a five-way joy stick key that can give your thumb a blister. And it takes a while to become comfortable with what you can and cannot do with the the joy stick.

When you select the newspaper you want to read it defaults to opening up the text of the first story, presumably the lead story of page one. You use “Next Page” and “Previous Page” buttons on the right side of the Kindle to page through the story. Because you have some control over the size of text a story can take more or less pages to display. (And given the Times’ penchant to make any story long, count on most stories taking multiple pages, even at smallest font size.)

Navigational buttonsThere is a slight delay in the pages changing on the screen after clicking the button and the button requires a pretty good push to activate, but you get used to that…unless of course you’ve gotten use to the easy touch screen swipe on your iPhone. You learn to click the button before you get to the bottom of the page so as to keep the interference with the reading flow to a minimum.

You use the joy stick to linearly page through the stories one at a time. But because presentation isn’t an issue with Kindle, you have no way in this mode of knowing where you are in the list of available stories and what is coming up. With the printed version or online version you can scan for the story that interests you and jump directly to it; you can read which stories you want in the order you want. That is not the consideration here.

There IS hope, though. Move the cursor to the bottom of the page with your joy stick and you can select a “View Sections” option that lists the major sections of the paper (Front Page, California, The Nation, The World, Business, Sports, Opinion, etc.).

Section viewYou can choose one of those and start your linear oddessy just in the section you want.

The Section View also tells you how many stories are in the section. You can even move the cursor to number next to the section name. Click on the number and your Section View changes from a list of sections to an RSS view of the stories in that section: headline and first few lines of the story. Ahhh, now you are getting somewhere. You can now choose which story you want to read without having to wade through each story. Simply move the cursor to the headline and click on it to get the full story.

RSS viewBut did I mention that presentation matters? There are no photographs with the stories. The headlines are barebones and there are no drop heads or pull quotes to entice you into a story. Roundups and letters to the editor are difficult to read because there is not even an extra line of space between each item and the subheads are indistinguishable from body text.

When I look at how I select stories to read from the print edition of the newspaper I rely heavily on those drop heads and pull quotes and photos to give me more information about whether I’d be interested in the story. No so luck with the barebones approach. And that barebones headline may not be very descriptive. There does not appear to be any effort on the Times’ part to rewrite the headlines with the Kindle interface in mind. A clever five word headline followed up with a more descriptive drop head –to say nothing of the interesting photo– works fine in print and even on the web. But that same five word headline as the ONLY information I have about the story does not. True, in the RSS view I have the first few lines of the story, but use an anecdotal lead, which the Times does a lot, and you have no idea what the story is about.

Don’t buy the Kindle DX to read newspapers or even books. If you can find another reason like I did, then think about it. If Kindle tweaks its interface, if photos and additional subhead information can be included it might someday be good. Last ngiht, for instance, I had time to kill waiting for my daughter’s beach party to end, so I plopped my butt into a chair at a Starbucks and enjoyed reading the SJ Mercury and a few Times stories had not already read earlier in the day. It was hgih tech, it was cool.

Now, I’ve left out a lot. The screen IS easy to read. Maybe not as easy as my iPhone, but the iPaper platform works for me. It is not backlit, so you still need a well-lit environment. But you could read this thing on the beach (if you weren’t worried about the sand getting in it and gummying it up). It has a built-in dictionary; move the cursor to any word, click on it and the definition appears at the bottom of the screen. And the sucker is supposed to be able to handle something like 3,500 books (because they are all text-only with no graphics), not that you’d ever want to do that. Without a better navigation system, I don’t see it being a viable option for textbooks, too bad.

To put documents on your Kindle, those you don’t buy for greatly reduced prices from Amazon, is really easy. Either attach your Kindle to your computer via cable or email the document to your special Kindle account and wait for it to be delivered wirelessly.

There is a text-to-speech function I haven’t tried, but the thought of uploading a light background music mp3 file sounds like something I may try.

Despite my mostly negative comments above, I like my Kindle and look forward to its interface being upgraded to be more useful. Unfortunately, without the touchscreen archtecture built in, though, I’d probably have to actually buy a future generation version to take advantage of a fully pleasurable-to-use unit. (Apple or Kindle, keep me in mind as a reviewer of new versions; I think this technology has potential and will accept my current role as an unfortunate early adopter.)

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