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Issue #93 Late August 2010

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Hi all —

I'm a Windows guy, but I must admit that two non-Windows tools have greatly changed my life in the past couple of years:  the iPhone and Amazon's Kindle.  I travel a lot, but I never leave home without my Kindle 2.  I love its easy-to-read screen, its ability to store hundreds of books, and its amazing battery life -- I've gotten four weeks on a charge.  Now, I know that a lot of you are avid readers of fiction and non-fiction, and I'll bet that while you love reading, you feel that an e-reader wouldn't be as satisfying as a physical book.  Well, let me tell you something:  I, too, felt that way until about a year and a half ago... and I was wrong.  Unlike LCD screen-based readers, devices like the Kindle are so easy on your eyes that -- believe it or not -- I can actually read a book on Kindle about 20 to 30 percent more quickly than I can read the paper version of that book! 

Whether you're a current Kindle owner or still on the fence about e-readers, though, you probably know that Amazon has just redesigned their Kindle and may be wondering, "is it any good?"  Well, I just got mine and so wanted to pass along some of what I've found... but first, a word from our sponsor:

Is the Kindle 3 Worth the Upgrade?

I just got my new Kindle 3G and have been spending some time comparing it to my old Kindle 2.  The results?  Basically, I can't find anything bad to say about the 3G in comparison with the 2, except that I think Amazon over-hyped the screen differences.  Essentially the Kindle 3 offers a screen that's perhaps a tad better than the Kindle 2, with a significantly improved form factor and control set, at a much-improved price.

First, let's compare the looks.  Here's my old Kindle 2 next to the new 3G:

That's the 800x600 view, but if you'd like to poke around a big closer, click here to see the 3700x2700 view (warning, it is 1.8 MB in size).  Thus, you can see that the screen size is identical, but the Kindle 3G housing is noticeably smaller than the Kindle 2's.

The Viewing Screens

How different are the screens?  Amazon says ( ) that the screen has "50% improved screen contrast" and "crisper, darker fonts."  Well, let's set the two of them side-by-side in the sun and see what we see:

See much difference?  I sure didn't (click here to see the full-size version, it's a bit above 2 megs), and so thought that perhaps the page I first showed -- a page from a book about sharks and rays in the Gulf of Mexico -- was perhaps badly converted to Kindle (a far too common occurrence) and so chose a page from the Oxford American dictionary that ships with every Kindle.  (I'm assuming that Amazon did it, and that Amazon knows how to convert books to Kindle format.)  Choosing a few words from each and placing them next to one another, we can see this:

Guess which one is which?  The one on top is the 3G, the one on the bottom is the 2.  No, I didn't get that backwards; the darker one is from the Kindle 2.  (That's partially due to slight differences in the angles of the Kindles with respect to the camera and due to me not being an expert photographer.)  The point is this: Hold a 2 and a 3G in your hands side-by-side in a good light, and you'll see that while the 3G screen is better than the 2's, it's a marginal improvement, not a "50% improvement."

The Controls

If you're a Kindle 2 user and wondering if an upgrade's worth it for you, then, as I've already said, the screen's probably not a sufficient reason.  Nevertheless, I don't regret getting my Kindle 3G, as some of its new fit-and-finish is quite nice.

First, the size.  When I read about the 3G, I honestly didn't think that shrinking the Kindle by a half-inch in height and a half-inch in width, and dropping its weight from 288 grams to 230 grams (a bit above 10 oz to a bit above 8 oz, and those are my measurements, not Amazon's)  would make any difference, but it really did.  Don't get me wrong, I've always liked how light the Kindle 2 is -- just about one third the weight of an iPad -- and the size is easy to handle, but it is large enough that I sort of grip it on the left side, as I would a pad of paper.  The Kindle 3, in contrast, is lighter and skinnier enough that I hold it in my hand rather than with my hand, and given the many stories that I've heard of people dropping and breaking their Kindles -- just a two or three foot fall to the ground is often irreparable, I'm told -- I like the added security.

The 3 also puts the keys and buttons in better places, or at least it seems that way to me.  Both Kindles have two buttons on their right and left sides -- here's a look at the 2's right-hand side and the 3's left-hand side buttons:

The Kindle 2 buttons are wider than the 3's, but the 3's work more easily and don't make the loud "click" sound that the 2's do and that's no small thing -- someone complained a few times about the sound.  What the buttons do on the two Kindles varies as well.  The Kindle 2 sets the left-hand-side buttons up as "Next Page" and "Previous Page," and the right-hand buttons as "Home" and "Previous Page," and many's the time that I wished that Home button could be configured as a "Previous Page" button.  The 3 grants my wish, and now I've got a Previous Page and a Next Page on each side.

The Kindle needs a "Home," "Menu," and "Back" button, and the 2 scatters those among some oddly-placed side buttons on the right-hand side.  I have frequently sought to press "Next Page" but instead got "Menu" or "Back."  That doesn't seem to happen with the Kindle 3, as Amazon has clustered Home, Menu and Back next to the new five-way "joystick," all of which are tucked into a corner of the keyboard:

I wasn't sure about it at first but now I'm liking it quite a bit.  The previous joystick used a small rectangular bump both to indicate direction and selection, and so it was a bit iffy sometimes.  The new one seems much better.

Other Differences

What else does the new Kindle offer of interest? 

  • A Web browser.  Yes, there was a "basic Web browser" before, but it brought new meaning to the phrase "basic."  This one's based on Webkit and so can now render graphics, and does it well given the limitations of the 16-level gray screen.  I could actually see using this to look up something like the weather in extremis, and I couldn't imagine doing that with the 2's web browser.
  • Wi-Fi support.  Yes, my 3G still has Amazon's no-charge 3G "Whispernet" network, but that network's not the fastest one around, and so if you've got access to a Wi-Fi network, then you can tell your Kindle 3 or 3G to retrieve your purchases over Wi-Fi, or perhaps to make productive use of that new Web browser!  (To configure your Wi-Fi, go to the Home page, then Menu, then Settings, and then you'll see "Wi-Fi Settings.")
  • Double the storage.  So where I could store a thousand or two books on my Kindle 2, now I can store three or four thousand on my Kindle 3.  Hmmm... not sure this one's all that exciting, unless you plan to store several gigabytes of MP3 tunes on your Kindle, as it plays MP3s.  (I can't vouch for how well it does it, as I've never tried its MP3 feature.)
  • Lower price.  If you don't need the free 3G wireless network to buy books, you can get a Kindle 3 for $139, or the 3G version for $189.  In contrast, a Kindle 2 cost $299 just a year ago.

What Kindles Still Need

Overall, then, the Kindle 3 is a winner.  But they either goofed or entirely ignored a few important things, in my opinion.

  • PDF Support:  a year ago, you needed a Kindle DX in order to be able to read PDFs natively on a Kindle.  That changed with a firmware update offered (if memory serves) late last year, but unfortunately it was useless, as most PDFs are published with 8.5"x11" pages in mind.  The Kindle's page is about half the size of that, and so you end up with truly tiny, unreadable PDF pages on the Kindle in most cases.  With the Kindle 3, Amazon promised better PDF support, but every PDF I've tried out on a Kindle 3 has been useless unless specially built for a page the Kindle's size.  My workaround has been and still is to just convert the PDF to the Kindle-friendly PRC format with MobiPocket Creator, a terrific free tool that you can find at
  • A nonslip back:  as I've said earlier, Kindles are quite easy to drop.  Amazon put what looks like an aluminum back on the Kindle 2 and polished it to a nice smoothness, with the result that it's slipped out of my lap and onto the floor more than once, although I've been lucky and haven't personally broken a Kindle yet.  I'd hoped for a less smooth back on the Kindle 3, but no luck there.  I'm thinking that brushing just a tiny bit of a rubber coating like Loctite Color Guard or squirting a bit of Blue Magic rubber coating spray onto the back of the Kindle would give it enough "no-skid" to keep it from sliding off slightly inclined surfaces, but honestly I don't yet know whether or not those products would damage the plastic, and it occurs to me that if I did do that, the Kindle would be as much of a pain to put in my pocket as my iPhone 4 is now that I have Apple's bumper on it.
  • Lending books:  I have no problem with Kindle's DRM except in one case:  book lending.  Amazon has already demonstrated back in July 2009 that it has the ability to erase e-books remotely from a user's Kindle reader, so why can't I lend a book that I've purchased to another Kindle user?  I should be able to go to the Amazon Web site, point to a Kindle book that I've purchased and tell Amazon, "let user such-and-such have this."  Amazon would then erase it from my Kindle and make it available to the other user, who would then give the book back to me when he or she was finished with it.
  • A better way of organizing books:  at this point I've got almost 100 Kindle books that I've purchased, and another 100 of publicly-available books, and paging through them on my Kindle is a nightmare.  Amazon, how about letting us create folders, add keywords and the like? 
    Correction 29 August 2010: Reader Jay Gallman kindly wrote to point out to me that as of the 2.5 firmware (keep reading if you don't know what that is) we get "collections," which are essentially folders. They're a bit clunky, but they're a big step in the right direction. Thanks Jay!

And If You're Not Upgrading...

If I've convinced you not to upgrade to a Kindle 3/3G, then my apologies, but let me leave you with the following note.  The Kindle 3/3G has a somewhat improved on-screen user interface, including a wider array of font sizes than those found in the standard Kindle 2.  You can, however, upgrade your Kindle 2's firmware to get many of the Kindle 3's software features -- not the new Web browser, though -- with Kindle Software Update Version 2.5.  You can find it here: and I found it worthwhile on my Kindle 2 before the new guys became available.

I'll get back to Windows topics soon, but I've found the Kindle to be such a great convenience that I wanted to pass along what I've learned about the new Kindle to my readers.  I hope you found this information useful!

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