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I am a programmer and architect (the kind that writes code) with a focus on testing and open source; I maintain the PHPUnit_Selenium project. I believe programming is one of the hardest and most beautiful jobs in the world. Giorgio is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 638 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

The Kindle is ready for programmers

05.31.2011
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Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with Amazon. I recently received a Kindle as a gift and substituted my ebook reader with it. In this article I talk about the 6' model form direct experience.

User experience for e-books goes beyond obviously advantages, such as paper and ink savings, or reduced size and weight. Reading and enjoying technical books, containining lots of code, was difficult when ebooks arrived on the market due to formatting issues, battle of file formats and vendor lock-in. But now it's a lot easier.

User experience

Of course Kindle provides no eyestrain, thanks to E Ink Pearl technology. That's an old point, but it's nice to keep it in mind: the Kindle's screen is very different from LCD, and it's usable outdoor even in sunlight (and as programmers we should usually get more sunlight). Our eyes already get stressed from monitors, there's no need to stare at another LCD screen for reading Clean Code. By the way, every ebook reader features an E Ink screen.

The Kindle goes further, and tries to please old-fashioned readers. It features fast switching of pages and in general good user experience, superior to the one of other e-book readers:

  • fast startup, going from turned off to ready in 2-3 seconds.
  • Lightweight: you can keep it up with one hand.
  • Browser-like Back button, very handy when you commit a mistake.
  • Double change-page buttons for left and right-handed people.
  • 16 shades of grey.
  • 600x800 resolution, with 10:1 contrast ratio.

There are many Kindle non-indispensable features which however help, such as text search, addition of notes with a responsive physical keyboard, and bookmarks shown as dog-eared pages.

File formats: (nearly) everything

That brings us to the issue fo formats. Of course you won't experience issues if you buy from Amazon (Azw/Mobi format): you will be free to resize text and change formatting.

However many of us have existing book collections, or buy regularly from other sources. The ubiquitous PDF format is supported without conversions from Kindle 2 and superior. This means you can buy PDF books from other sources and load them on the Kindle (4GB of space); usually PDFs are free of any DRM (don't know if it's even possible to apply it to this format) and only watermarked by the publisher. Many vendors, like the Pragmatic Bookshelf, gives you a Mobi version specific for Kindle anyway.

But you can also read any kind of PDF files: computer science articles and papers, slides from the last conference you attended. Or you can download your unread blog posts of the week via Calibre or Instapaper, although these tools already produce Mobi files (I do these things regularly.)

Even with PDF files, a format originally thought for print, an ebook reader like the Kindle does wonders in landscape mode, with automated zoom to fit the width of the page.

This setting does not destroy formatting, since it's just a type of zoom. You can read code again:



You can also try the Kindle DX in case you really need more zoom, and try putting that in landscape mode for a giant window over the text. You can instead zoom on an area and pan, but it's just more difficult than lanscape mode.

A problem that remains is that of papers formatted on two columns of text. It's just that they were made as A4, and there's no way. But the Kindle tries to remove blank margins, to gain space. Usually research papers have ridicoluously large margins; their authors may get paid by page:


Due to the double columns, navigation is not perfect, but you only have to change your scrolling habits inside a particular page.

You can also convert HTML, .doc and some other types of file by sending it to a special email address, and downloading them via wireless for free (I have not tried yet this feature since I'm fine with PDF for now.)

An advantage of the Kindle over other ebook readers is its market share. Beyond the buzz effect, it means lots of support and dedicated forums; and also that lots of applications target the formats supported by Kindle. For example, Instapaper produces EPub files as output (I use it for reading technical blogs), but also Mobi files specific for the Kindle.

Browing and googling


That's true, but only in the US. You can save some money and buy the Wifi version instead of the 3G one if in your country it's not supported anyway.

Browsing the web is something I couldn't do efficiently with my previous reader. Nothing complex (the refresh rate of the E Ink screen is low), but for looking up concepts on Wikipedia it's very good. The Kindle ships with two included English dictionaries, but Wikipedia and Google are much better for computer science and programming topics.

You have the ability to study on Wikipedia and read it without getting eyestrain. Even if the browser is marked as an experimental feature, it took me only some seconds to open it up, googling for the topic and go to Wikipedia. When you use the 5-way controller, the mouse pointer jumps on interesting targets instead of moving pixel-wise with too many degress of freedom.

The remaining issues (and why they're not so important)

  • EPub is still not supported by the Kindle, but rumors say it will support it in the future. Since the Kindle is the best device, Amazon is already the market leader and it arguably does not need a proprietary format like Windows needed .doc files to stay on top. It make sense to support the free format (but DRM-able) and sell the Kindle even to Stallman. The issue is mitigated by the spread of the Mobi format support.
  • The keyboard is not handy for inserting long texts, or anything that contains symbols or numbers. Yet it's not a typewriter, it's an ebook reader.
  • There is no place for an SD card. If this was an Apple product it would obviously be for selling you a larger version for $200 more, but for books is not really an issue since they weigh a lot less. You already store titles bought from Amazon online, so you're free to delete them to make space.
  • You can't quickly flip through pages as it's not a physical book, yet you can look up a word or a phrase instantly. Imagine refusing to use Google because you can't flip between your physical archives anymore...
Published at DZone with permission of Giorgio Sironi, author and DZone MVB.

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)

Comments

Andy Roberts replied on Tue, 2011/05/31 - 12:31pm

I'm not convinced that academics are paid by the page. The large margins you speak of are probably more to do with good typesetting practice as prescribed by LaTeX.

Giorgio Sironi replied on Tue, 2011/05/31 - 3:46pm in response to: Andy Roberts

It's interesting to see how typography changes with the target medium. If readers and tablets become the standard in the next years, large margins will actually be cut out automatically. At the same time, the "page" concept is disappearing in ebook native file formats because every resize redefines them.

Jeff Girard replied on Wed, 2011/06/01 - 10:40am

Great post, you covered details which I was wondering about before buying my Kindle...and now I'm running to get mine. Thanks!

Chris Cundill replied on Thu, 2011/06/02 - 8:47am

Great article - I've heard some negative comments about the Kindle in some circles but I think their criticism was based on past incarnations.  Kindle 3 is very different and very good.  I own the DX for the bigger screen (and because I have big hands ;)  My colleagues just think I'm just showing off with the "supersize" Kindle though!  +1 for Kindle :)

Mis Tigi replied on Thu, 2011/06/02 - 9:12am

I bought a Kindle DX with a sole purpose to read technical books. I returned it after a month. In my opinion its not there yet.

 Page refresh is really slow, if you are reading it from front to back its not an issue. However if you want to go back a couple of chapters its an issue, its annoying and not feasible to do so.

 It has a bulit in browser which is usable for "emergency" browsing, however url/text input is so akward it is of no use for regular browsing. On the flip side I was able to use gmail with its browser but again it was very annoying and not something I would do on regular basis.

 Reading pdfs may also be annoying if kindle cannot reformat it properly. I guess this is going to become less and less of an issue once more is published with kindle in mind.

As mentioned in the article great thing about e-ink technology is that you can read it in full sun which is almost impossible with any existing lcd technology.

If I was commuting by a public transportation I would buy it again without hesitation just not for technical books.

Alan Hampson replied on Thu, 2011/06/02 - 10:44am

Just wanted to throw in a comment for the Nook Color vs. the Kindle. It too is readable outside in bright daylight. The store rep told me the screen is made by the same people who make stadium displays, so they know about outdoor visibility. The screen is gorgeous and easy to read. I had the original Nook with epaper screen and I prefer the color screen.

I've found that reading tech books on the Nook is a really good experience as well. You can make the text as large or small as you can tolerate. An added bonus is that the Nook software (or the Kindle Software) can let you read the purchased books on your computer. This also lets you copy code samples from the book into your editor.

The Nook also takes a micro-SD card and has native support for ePub, as well as a number of other formats, including PDF.

No hardware keyboard, you have to use the Android screen keyboard, which (like the Kindle keyboard) is adequate, but not great.

You should look into Calibre (http://calibre-ebook.com) for your ebook library. It is free, open-source and available for many different OS platforms. It also will do conversions from one format to another, including from epub to mobi.

Finally, you can get protected PDF files. I don't know if it's considered DRM, but I have a couple of files I bought that have been password protected. If I don't remember the password, I can't read the PDF.

Best regards and keep on reading!

Michael Schnell replied on Thu, 2011/06/02 - 12:22pm

> File formats: (nearly) everything

The Kindle still does NOT support the ePUB format. This makes the reader nearly unusable here in Germany - Almost all books in German language are using the Adobe DRM protected ePUB format.

Roger Voss replied on Thu, 2011/06/02 - 11:47pm

I like the Kindle for non-technical books. But the pdf can be a so-so experience. There are some pdfs that I generated from Word docs that would not display correctly on the Kindle (display elements dropped out). Plus dealing with the page-centric orientation of pdf docs can be rather irritating. Guess I'm not as enthusiastic to go moving around on a page in landscape mode as the author.

I'd like to start buying technical publications electronically as the price savings could be very nice. The DX would seem like the ticket, but I'm going to wait for Amazon to rev their technology line up another generation before making any more purchase decisions. In the meantime we'll pick up an iPad for the family in order to have a handy browser for the couch. I may try out a technical book on the iPad via Amazon's Kindle reader for iPad. The larger screen size will give me a sense of how viable tech books will be in electronic format.

One thing that concerns me: non technical books I pretty much read front to back. Yet most technical books I go hopping around in different chapters based on subject areas I want to dive into. Plus it's hard to beat a book for flipping through in order to go back to something that you know is there. It's more tedious to do similar random access with electronic books.

None the less, technical books cost a lot, comparatively speaking, so a significant break on price would be most welcome. Plus, many tech books tend to loose relevancy after a few years. Much of my collection of tech books wind up consuming space on my shelves but have not been touched in years.

All that being said, I have a very deep affection for physical books and view them to be the single greatest invention of mankind. If physical books fade away I fear for the long term outlook for civilization. We'll end up being just an EMP blast away from being rebooted back to the stone age.

Giorgio Sironi replied on Sun, 2011/06/05 - 6:14am in response to: Mis Tigi

Easy navigation is something that it's not easy to tackle with respect to physical books. :)

For the PDF there is really nothing a reader can do, the format is not designed for reformatting but for describing a printed page.

Giorgio Sironi replied on Sun, 2011/06/05 - 6:22am in response to: Michael Schnell

Lack of Epub is clearly written in the Remaining issues section.

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