Friday, August 20, 2010

Review of my first Kindle, the Kindle 1

In 2007 I received a first-generation Kindle.  In summary, I would say that the Kindle matched the functionality of the Rocket eBook while adding a host of technological improvements and one key feature that NuvoMedia could never muster (i.e., seamless integration with an online bookstore).  In fact, the free, always-on connection to the cellphone tower gave the device access not only to the Kindle Store but also the World Wide Web.  Granted, the browser in the device was very crude -- suitable for displaying text-based websites only.  This made the Kindle a very good Wikipedia reader, for example.  The programmers included shortcuts in the search system that made using the web browser in this way easier.  For example, prefacing your search with the term "@wiki" would search Wikipedia for a specified term and automatically load the most relevant article.  Similarly, "@web" allowed for quick Google searches.

The Kindle was most special for utilizing E-Ink for its display technology.  The screen went a long way toward relieving eyestrain by mimicking the properties of a printed page.  Unlike CRT or LCD computer monitors, which project light out to you, ambient light illuminates the E-Ink display.  This is why a Kindle reads very well in direct sunlight or under a reading light.  Of course, in darkness it can be a hassle to always have a reading light.  Perhaps one of the advantages of an older e-reader, like the Rocket eBook, or even a laptop, is that they provide their own backlight illumination.

The Kindle was also the first e-reader that I was able to finagle into displaying foreign language texts.  Mind you, this was not because the Kindle came with any native support for foreign alphabets (The Kindle 1 only supported the ISO 8859-1 (Latin 1) character set).  I was only able to read Anna Karenina in Russian on my Kindle due to the fact that the device has a hidden image viewing application that can be used to display page images.  Follow these directions in order to reproduce my workflow for preparing a text: 

1. Download a foreign-language text in HTML or plain text. 
2. Typeset it in a modern word processor (I use OpenOffice) using the custom page dimensions 3.5" X 5" (which approximates the size of the Kindle display).  The margins on all sides should be .1"
3. Export a PDF of the document.
4. Use an application like PDF2PNG to create a batch set of image files from the PDF representing each page of the text.  These files should be placed inside a file folder labled with the title of the work.  This will be the title that displays on Kindle's main menu.
5. Drag this folder to a "pictures" folder on the Kindle.
5. Press the keys "Alt-Z" while at the home screen to make the book you added appear in the list of available reading matter.

Unlike what was true of the Rocket eBook, the Kindle made it easy to extract your textual annotations to your computer for use in other applications.  All annotations were collected into a plain text file that could easily be copied to the computer when the Kindle was attached via USB port.  As of last year it also became possible to sync and view these annotations online at Amazon's website.  Of course, this is not the same as being able to transfer text and annotations together and, in turn, view them together outside of the device.  I do not think that these ways of recording and presenting notes compare favorably to what is possible with good PDF annotation software on a computer (see my earlier post).

I should also mention that the Kindle was a much more flimsy device than the Rocket eBook.  In actual fact I broke the screen of my first Kindle within weeks of receiving it (I had mistakenly placed the device under a heavy book which cracked the screen).  Thankfully, Amazon replaced the device free of charge.  The second device that I was then sent in early 2008 has lasted to the present.  However, I have had to replace the battery once, and most recently the modem has started to work only intermittently, forcing me to use the e-reader via USB if I want to be able to reliably transfer documents and books.

I no longer use this Kindle as my primary e-book reader, having purchased late last year a Kindle 2.  However, I will not discuss this device separately since it has many of the same features and functionality as the Kindle 1.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Remembering the Rocket eBook, the true pioneer of eBook readers

I was thinking that this blog would be an appropriate venue to discuss eBook readers, especially since in recent years they have really started to come into their own as separate appliances.  Certainly it could be argued that these devices have reached a tipping point in the mass consciousness.  I have actually used an eBook reader of one sort or another on and off for the last ten years.  For much of that time I used a Rocket eBook 1000.  This device was by no measure common and really did not gain a wide following.  It appears that the page that I linked to is an advertisement from circa 2000 (I would link to a Wikipedia article, but there is none).  It is amusing that the page boasts that the now defunct NuvoMedia has sold "tens of thousands" of the reader.  Note that Amazon has sold three or four million Kindles, and this is also supposedly a niche device for serious readers.

In late high school and early college I used the reader to take advantage of Project Gutenberg public domain texts.  Especially at that time, reading a whole book on a curved, CRT monitor was a much more daunting prospect than reading on a modern, flat, high-resolution LCD screen.  The reader's low-resolution black-on-green display was as good as a Palm Pilot's, and yet the screen was large enough (as large as the Kindle's, in fact) to be able to read comfortably for hours at a time.

My Rocket eBook was the way in which I read all of the Constance Garnett translations of Russian literature, including War and PeaceAnna KareninaThe GamblerCrime and Punishment and Dead Souls.  I made many annotations and underlined just as many passages from these works.  The only problem was that at the end of the reader's life it was difficult to transfer this information back to my computer.  For that matter, it was difficult getting any information, including the actual books themselves, off the device.  Naturally, the reader was not very good for any kind of reading where one could expect to incorporate annotations into a Word document on a computer, for example.

The device could display only ASCII text.  This means that trying to use the reader for reading anything but English-language texts was nigh impossible.  After I started learning Russian I racked my brains trying to figure out a way to trick the device into displaying Cyrillic.  (Since the reader could display GIF-based images, I even experimented converting pages of Russian text into small image files.  This, alas, did not really work very well.  I will talk about how I implemented this solution on my first-generation Kindle in my next post).

The Rocket eBook anticipated Apple's current generation of mobile devices by basing the whole interface around a touch screen.  You selected text with the stylus in order to made underlines, and tapped an on-screen keyboard to enter notes.  (The handwriting recognition, like the Palm's, was truly awful).  And also like the iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, the device could display text either in portrait or landscape modes.

For its time the Rocket eBook was a very nice appliance.  It was built using hard plastics that I do not see in many consumer electronics today.  The fact that it survived from 2000 to 2007 through near daily use speaks to the quality of its construction.  (The fact that the screen showed nary a scratch after seven years of tapping and dragging with the stylus is perhaps more impressive).  I only retired it because I received a Kindle for Christmas 2007.  I fetched a handsome price for the Rocket eBook when I sold it on eBay (the reader does indeed have a small following of devoted fans), and the lady who won the auction wrote me an email afterwards describing how much she loved her first Rocket eBook.

Monday, August 9, 2010

OS X and the Life of Reading

In my first post I wanted to evaluate the functionality Mac OS X in terms of my workflow of digital reading, which occurs mainly in the form of PDF and multi-page TIF files (the latter contain scanned journal articles which I write abstracts for).

1. The ability to annotate a text is necessary for any kind of serious reading, electronic or analog; the process of marking a text and writing notes is bound up in my ability to fully digest and comprehend a text.  (To judge by the extensive record of readers' marks and marginalia in printed books going back to the fifteenth century, this kind of active engagement with the text has long been a hallmark of reading for others too). Indeed, Preview is touted for its ability to annotate PDFs.  But I was not more than a day into using my new Mac last December before I realized that my PDF annotations were not being saved to the PDF file in such a way that other applications could read them.  In searching for alternatives I quickly came across Skim.  But Skim saves all annotations to a separate file in the same directory with the PDF.  Thankfully this app allows the user to save annotations permanently to the PDF file so that other software can see them.  But this option is not automatic and must be manually selected from a menu.

When I was using Windows I really fell in love with PDF-XChange.  This was the first PDF viewer that I used which could truly annotate my readings.  Like other enhanced third-party viewers and editors, as well as Adobe Acrobat itself, PDF-XChange can highlight text and add notes, whether in the form of embedded speech-balloons or direct writing in the margins.  But unlike many other apps, PDFXChange allows you to draw semi-transparent boxes that can be used to highlight text in image-based PDFs.  All highlights can be double-clicked in order to add embedded notes.  Everything that I do in PDF-XChange appears without a hitch in other PDF viewers, including Preview and Adobe Acrobat Reader.

I knew from my experience using Ubuntu that PDF-XChange ran very well under Wine in Linux.  As it turns out, it also runs very well in under Wine in OS X.  And it is currently my PDF viewer and annotator of choice.  (N.B. This tutorial provides a good explanation for how to install Wine in OS X).

Another feature that is important for PDF readers that are used for long-form reading is the ability of the software to remember your place in a document between sessions.  PDFXChange is generally very good at this, but I noticed this evening that if you move your PDF document into another directory on your computer the program will proceed to forget your place in the document.  Of course, for more serious marking of one's place in the text it is also possible to bookmark.

2. TIF handling seems to particularly poor in OS X.  If you open a PDF file in Preview, you can set a zoom level and the option to display pages continuously and not just one at a time.  However, a multi-page TIF file must be viewed page-by-page, and the zoom has to be reset for each new page.  One natural solution to this predicament is to just convert TIF files to PDFs.  Preview in fact gives you this option from the "Save As" menu.  However, the app invariably crashes when it tries to convert large TIF files running to a hundred pages or more.  I initially tried to find an alternative native application that would allow me better TIF viewing and PDF conversion.  Nothing (e.g., CocoViewX) seemed to work any better than Preview.  Finally I found a Windows application, Advanced TIFF Editor, which I was able to run via Wine instead.  This works perfectly without a hitch!  It can easily rotate images and convert TIF files to PDF.

3. One way that I record excerpts from books on the fly when I don't have use of my scanner is by taking pictures using a digital camera.  This method obviously requires post-processing of the image files, and in particular the ability to rotate images.  Preview has difficulty rotating a set of images en masse.  I have not found much discussion of this problem around the Internet.  (I am using 10.5.  I realize that Snow Leopard may have fixed this problem).  Preview has no problem rotating JPG or GIF images individually.  However, if I try to open a series of these files at once, select all of them and press command-R (or -L), the images all appear to rotate.  I then select "Save All" from the file menu, and it appears that each file is being saved.  However, if I try to open any of these files after closing the current Preview window, the images are still all unrotated.