When it was released earlier in 2010 the Kindle 3 caused quite a stir and led to a fair amount of interest from those backpackers who love their gadgets. It is not difficult to see why. The Kindle weighs around 250 grams which is as light, if not lighter than many paperback books.
Could this Kindle be an ideal companion to the lightweight backpacker? Well, I’ve been using one extensively for a couple of months now and I thought I’d review it not just in normal usage but in backpacker mode as well.
So, how does the Kindle 3 measure up?
The key to the Kindle is its weight. This is a properly portable machine which can slip into your case or pack quite happily. The Kindle is not a computer in the sense that an IPad is, but then you wouldn’t want to lug an iPad across a chain of mountains. The Kindle has two big things going for it.
First off, this is a very light way of carrying a lot of books â€” Amazon reckons you can get around 3,000 paperbacks here, more than enough to keep you busy for even a long trip!
Secondly, the Kindle doesn’t use an LCD or LED display and this saves a lot of power. A computer screen â€” such as the iPad â€” refreshes thousands of times a second, which is how we get animation and so on. The Kindle uses a completely different system known as e-ink. The screen in nowhere near as versatile as a computer screen but it is optimised for reading. The display is mainly static and only refreshes when you turn the page. The screen is also not backlit which saves power as well. As a result the Kindle doesn’t need a big battery. Amazon say one charge can last a month. I’ve certainly used mine for several weeks at a time without re-charging.
So, it’s very light, has a big book storing capacity and the battery lasts a long time. You can see why backpacker were interested!
The first big surprise with the Kindle is the quality of the e-ink screen which apparently has 50% more sharpness than that of its predecessor. Reading a Kindle is a rather pleasant experience and certainly feels less stressful than reading on a computer screen.
E-ink is not backlit and in many ways it appears like paper. The Kindle always looks better in good light. The mat screen does minimise reflection. It is still present but at nowhere near laptop levels. In poor light you will want to illuminate it as you would a book. When camping a head torch makes a big difference. You can’t read a Kindle in the dark. The machine does have a contrast setting but this only seems to make a small difference to the overall quality.
In good light text is very crisp. Being an e-reader you can optimise the size of the text to suit your own eyes with a simple click of a button (and you can even change the typeface). I find the standard default settings work well for me.
The Kindle is easy to operate and anyone who uses a computer will pick things up quickly. Mind you, it is amazing how the Kindle feels very old fashioned now. No matter how hard you try you just want to touch the screen with your fingers. It is amazing how quickly touch-screen phones and tablets have become the norm.
In operation the ‘turning of pages’ is very easy. On each side of the Kindle there are two large buttons. The largest of these flips you on a page and the smaller of the two flips you back.
Underneath the screen is a QWERTY keyboard and some non standard buttons.
MENU brings up the standard operating menu. This allows you to switch wifi on an off, search the book, add bookmarks and notes. The ability to highlight and add notes is a real plus. There is also an option to shop at the Kindle store but this is nearly always more effectively done from your computer â€” but it does allow you to make purchases on the go. Actually, there are two menus, one for reading a book and one for the home page.
BACK simply takes you back!
HOME takes you to the main home screen, the one which lists your books. This can (and should be) customised as you expand your book collection. In effect, you can group books into folders or Collections as the Kindle calls them.
In addition there is a kind of joystick key which allows you to move around the menu system and select options â€” remember this is not a touch screen device.
On the bottom of the machine is an on/off switch and a contrast control. It is worth pointing out that the Kindle never really switches off in the sense that in off mode it displays a picture of a famous author. Remember the screen is static and not refreshing and so the machine is not really using much power. I kind of like the pictures of authors.
All-in-all the operation of the Kindle is simple and straightforward and there is no great learning curve. Most people will be up and running in a few minutes.
The ability of the Kindle to synch with Amazon’s servers is a major plus. Kindle software is available for PCs, Macs, iPhones and Android phones. Buy a book on your Kindle and you also have access to it on your computer and phone. When the Wifi link is turned on Amazon’s Whispersynch service comes to life. Basically, this simply synchs all of your page positions, notes and bookmarks to the cloud which in turn synchs them to your other devices.
This means that you can follow books on any device. But probably more useful (to me at least) is the ability to have access to notes, bookmarks on each individual platform. You may find that this is important. For example, it is not possible to copy and paste text from the Kindle to a text file or word pro file. But I can take a quick grab of highlights or notes and push them through an OCR reader â€” using DevonThink on the Mac this is a pretty quick and intuitive process.
Use in the Field
The Kindle is light and while I wouldn’t say that it was particularly fragile I do think it benefits from some protection. I have purchased a leather case from Duragadget that not only protects the Kindle but incorporates a very useful stand.
I mentioned battery life earlier on and this is very impressive. With the wifi link usually off I have been able to get three weeks usage without any problems at all. If you are backpacking you should be able to rely on three weeks, maybe four, so long as you keep the machine warm at night, although I must say I’ve not noticed any great degrading of battery performance in the cold.
When backpacking you will want to keep the Kindle in a waterproof sleeve of some kind â€” I use an Ortlieb map carrier which I know to be watertight. Phil Turner has devised his own protection system details of which he has published here so you can knock one up yourself. I have to say I would ignore his comments about the costs of covers. The Duragadget is much cheaper than Amazon’s own leather cover but it is very effective.
My Kindle weighs 240 grams or so and the 3G version weighs just a few grams more. Even with a leather cover the overall weight is comparable to a decent sized paperback.
This is basically an e-reader but there are other utilities on the machine and software available elsewhere. There is a built in PDF reader which works moderately well â€” in grey scale of course. You can also transfer a whole range of documents â€” including Word Docs â€” to the Kindle using the USB cable that comes with the power fitting. If I link up to my mac the Kindle shows up on the desktop as an external drive and I can copy and paste accordingly.
The Kindle also has a browser of sorts. I say of sorts because, well, it is not that good.
There are some games available for it and some third party apps. For example, there is a Twitter client available â€” Kintweet â€” but while this is a clever bit of programming it is not good to use as the Kindle keyboard is pretty poor. The keyboard is simply used to enter simple notes or configuration/account details. Writing text on my iphone is far easier.
More interesting is an audio book feature which can be used with a headphone socket, although I’ve never tried this.
The Kindle Store/Buying Books
So far there have been few downsides to the Kindle. But the Kindle bookstore is bizarely one of them but this is not Amazon’s fault.
If you are chasing a particular book search carefully as many ebooks are as expensive as their paper equivalents, indeed sometimes they are more expensive!
You will find that big selling books â€” like the Stig Larson trilogy â€” are very chear, a couple of pounds or so. But go beyond ‘the charts’ and the cost can mount up. As a long and regular customer of Amazon I have Prime status and these discounts often mean it is cheaper to buy the hardback that the kindle ebook! The reason for this? Publishers! I guess so many have no been sold â€” especially at Christmas â€” that these prices will fall but meanwhile think carefully about which format you want your book in!
The Kindle will also accept books in the AZW format â€” downloaded to your machine using the USB link.
The really big downside is that you can’t share books or pass them on to someone else. You can register up to 6 Kindles with one Amazon account, which might get around things a little. But this system is still far too inflexible and Amazon need to sort this out quickly, even if it is to let you pass books on a limited number of times.
I could go on and on, and some people will think I have missed some main features. But I’m dealing here with the basics.
The Kindle is a great e-reader. The screen is comfortable to use over long sessions and integration with Amazon’s store is superb.
Battery life is so good as to make this an ideal companion for most two or three week walking trips. Beyond this, well the power chord and ‘plug’ are pretty lightweight. I can place the USE cable of the Kindle into my iphone charger and that saves weight and makes recharging the Kindle a doddle.
During the summer I seldom carry a book at all. I prefer to simply drink in the landscape or concentrate on photography. But during winter camps I suspect the Kindle will become a regular companion.
If you are not one of the thousands of people who had one of these for Christmas but who is thinking of buying one I wouldn’t discourage you! It is a fine machine. But you do need to think carefully about the pricing of these books.