· technology · geek ·

I’ve always been a voracious reader. I constantly had my nose in a book when I was younger, and when we went away on holiday, I spent ages agonising over which books to take. They were pretty heavy but the obvious danger was that if I took too few books, I might – oh, the horror! – run out of books to read. That catastrophe had to be avoided at all costs. I fantasised about some magical device that would allow you read any book you liked, and store several books in the space of only one: that way, I would never have to worry about how many books to take on holiday again.

About a decade ago, I went on a work trip to New Caledonia. I took several paperbacks (not nearly enough, as it turned out) but also a few ebooks on my Palm III organiser. I had to severely ration the batteries, but I had the deliciously dissonant experience of reading Dickens (‘Our Mutual Friend’), on a handheld computer, in a tent on an island in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific. It had novelty value, and it served me well when my precious book supply ran out, but it wasn’t a very comfortable experience. The screen was so small that I was constantly clicking the button for the next page, and the backlit screen and low resolution text was very fatiguing after a few minutes.

Two years ago, I decided that I would use over 1kg of my precious 19kg luggage allowance to lug Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ to Brazil. I had to drastically reduce the number of changes of clothes I took, but I just resigned myself to hand washing my stuff more often.

This should have given you some feeling for why I was so excited when real ebook devices first came out. I thought that they were a terrific idea, but I didn’t buy one initially because of the high cost of both the readers and the books. However, as technology has a habit of doing, they have been improving quickly and when the new Kindle 3 was advertised for sale in the UK, I couldn’t hold out any longer. The prices for books are generally much more reasonable now (unless you want books that have just been published), and the reader itself has come down in price a great deal.

I got my Kindle yesterday, and I love it. I couldn’t believe how thin and light it was when I got it out of the box. Anything is light compared to War and Peace (which I still haven’t finished, incidentally), but even compared to a fairly standard paperback, the Kindle feels small. It has a nice, tactile quality: important for something that you’ll end up holding for long periods. The back is slightly rubberised so that it’s non-slip, and not only are the corners rounded, but the edges are also softly chamfered, so that it feels a bit like a nicely sea-worn skimming stone. The buttons have a firm feel, but while that makes them a bit tedious to type on for long periods, it stops you worrying about pressing buttons accidentally as you shift the Kindle around in your hands. The thing is for reading on not typing on anyway, so this is a good trade-off.

I haven’t seen an e-ink display in person for a long time (since the very early models) and the Kindle’s screen is really extraordinary. The text is so dark and crisp that it really does feel like reading ink on freakishly smooth paper. The ‘paper’ is the very palest grey, but the contrast is great and it is very comfortable to read on. The buttons are thoughtfully placed, and the forward/backward page buttons are replicated on either side of the device so that you can operate with either hand.

What I love about it is that it is a more or less a single function device, but it does that single function very well. Once you have opened the book you want to read, you just read. Everything else falls away and there’s nothing to distract you from the text. I love the fact that it doesn’t have the usual drawback of reading huge books on it: your arms don’t get tired holding it, and every page is as easy to read as every other, independent of the position you read in, or how far through the book you are. I haven’t had time to test the battery properly, but if the advertising is to be believed, it should last at least 3 weeks, which is a very decent length of time. I deliberately got the Wi-fi only model because it had better battery life and was lighter. I can cope with loading up with new books before I go on a trip, and don’t need to have constant access to them.

There are inevitably a few minor downsides: the digital rights management (DRM) that Amazon imposes is annoying. It would be nice to be able to lend a book to a friend, even if it meant that I couldn’t read it while they had it (as I can’t with a printed book). I borrow a lot of books from the library, so the ability to borrow ebooks from the library can’t come quickly enough for me. The flash as the screen refreshes the display when you turn a page or move the cursor around is a little disconcerting at first (when you are used to instantly refreshing LCD screens), but you quickly get used to it and I don’t find it particularly annoying. The quality of the screen while you are reading more than makes up for it.

Other than those minor quibbles, I can’t say enough nice things about my Kindle. I’ve got roughly half novels and half technical books on there at the moment. Some of the technical books are O’Reilly ebooks which are available in .mobi format, and look great on the device. Others are in PDF format which is a bit less convenient. You really need to zoom in a bit to see the text clearly, which means more scrolling around. Still, it’s better than nothing, and means that I can read technical books in a comfy chair. I also have a big stack of Take Control ebooks as PDFs and they seem to fare much better, because the font is clearer and they are formatted for optimal screen reading anyway. If you are an Instapaper user, you can even export your ’to read’ articles to the Kindle, which provides a brilliant way of reading longer articles from the web.

Needless to say, I have also bought (for the princely sum of 71p) a Kindle edition of War and Peace. I’m going to finish that sucker if it kills me.