Gear Tests

E-book Readers for Yotties (A review of the Kindle Touch)

What are you reading, Rox?

For some time now we’ve been considering the pros and cons of an e-book reader. We yotties never seem to have enough room in the boat for all the books that we want to carry, and so a device which promises to house a thousand or more in one tiny space has obvious appeal.
An e-book reader also seems to offer easy access to the hundreds of freebie books which can be downloaded from the internet. Of course, one can read these PDFs on the laptop, but reading a book on the screen is not a very relaxing pastime; and it soaks up our very finite power supply. Having spent quite a bit of time not managing to sit down and read the scores of PDF e-books handed on to us over the past couple of years we were keen to find a solution to the problem.

As a rule, the Mollymawks aim to avoid the acquisition of modern gadgets – or, indeed, of any unnecessary “consumer items” – but in this case it seemed that the new toy really would have a significant bearing on the quality of our lives, and so we splashed out and bought a Kindle Touch.
The following article presents a brief overview of the e-book readers currently available on the market, explains our reasons for selecting the Kindle Touch, and provides a review of that particular machine. It also contains an outline of the pros and cons of e-book readers in general.

“It’s a pity we haven’t got anything new to read.”

The Problem

I guess there are probably yotties who don’t care to sit and read while their boat plods along, carving an ephemeral path over the ocean, but I think they must be few and far between. For most people, this is one of the pleasures of a long passage; however, it also entails a problem. What do you do when you’ve run out of things to read?
On the one hand, this dearth of new reading material provides us with a handy excuse for visiting every other boat in the anchorage. “Do you have any books to swap?” is a fairly standard ice-breaker in this community. But, then again, this kind of exchange only satisfies the needs of those whose diet is made up of novels. Somebody wanting to improve his knowledge of Buddhist dharma or electronics will starve.

Buying new books in our own language is seldom easy, although one learns to keep an eye open and grasp whatever opportunities come along. I well recall our delight, after almost two years of intellectual drought in West Africa, when we discovered that there was a small bookshop in the University of Accra (in Ghana). The shop sold English language text books, and not only text books but also Ladybird Early Readers! Caesar (then 4) and Xoë (2) thought that Christmas had come early.

The internet has made life a lot easier for yotties. In theory, we can now buy own-language books from any corner of the globe. However, when it comes down to it there are still a couple of fundamental problems. For a start, once you have added in the costs of shipping the book from England or America the price is sometimes double that of the one advertised; and if you wind up paying import duties it might double again.
Secondly, you still need to find a reliable address; and you need to be hanging around at that address for a decent length of time. The Book Depository, for example, require up to four weeks to fulfil an order.
While we were in Argentina I placed an order for five books, and although two of them arrived within a week the others were caught up in Mrs Kirchner’s new anti-importation policy. According to the president, books contain dangerous levels of lead, in the ink, and so they can no longer be brought into Argentina …

All things considered, a gadget which offers instant access to millions of books looks like a god-send. The e-book might have been invented specifically for the needs of yotties and other travellers!

Encryption

In an ideal world every e-book would work on every e-book reader; but this is the real world – the increasingly greedy, capitalist world – and so, whereas records used to play on any record player and tapes played on any tape deck, and whereas CDs work in every CD player, the e-book manufacturers have fixed things so that their books will only work on certain devices. Thus, books bought from Amazon will only work on the Kindle and not on Barnes & Noble’s Nook; and books bought from Barnes & Noble won’t work on the Kindle. In reality, this is not so much an attempt to chain us to one bookstore but a means of preventing copyright infringement.
Ways do exist to reverse this engineering and remove the DRM – the software to do this is readily available on-line – but because decrypting books makes it possible to copy them it is illegal in many countries.

Besides the millions of books available from the likes of Amazon and Barnes & Noble there exists a huge body of literature which is no longer in copyright. The author of a book gets life plus seventy years for his work (which, in the case of Enid Blyton, seems about right) and so any book published by a long-dead author is available for anyone to re-publish as they choose.

Various charitable organisations have taken advantage of this fact and are in the process of providing the world with free access to the world’s literary works. Naturally, these people have no wish to make life difficult for anyone – on the contrary, they want everyone to be able to get at the books – and so these titles are generally available in a variety of formats suited to all of the e-book readers.

Besides these out-of-copyright works there are also millions of books which have been made freely available by their authors, but these are not generally produced in a form which is ideally suited to an e-book reader. As a rule, they are in PDF format. More on this subject in a little while.

Formats – (A rough outline, just so that you know what they’re talking about)

Just as there are several ways of saving your digital photos or the text which you type on your computer, so there are several formats in which an electronic version of a book might be saved.
The most commonly used format was developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum (a trade organisation) and it is called EPUB. This open standard format is available for anyone to use, free of charge, and the majority of e-book readers use a format which is based on this basic structure.

Effectively, the various manufacturers have taken the EPUB format and twisted it slightly, adding encryption software to try to prevent copyright infringement. Encryption makes it difficult for you to duplicate your books in order to share them with other people. A lot of people seem to think that free books are part of their birthright; they believe that the written word should be passed along like influenza. If they wrote for a living they might feel rather differently.
The fact that an encrypted book may not work on a different species of e-book reader is merely a side-effect – but a very annoying side-effect from the customer’s point of view, as it chains you to one store.

The Great Information Grab – (Theft is still theft even when it’s invisible)

As I have said, the hackers have had no difficulty in cracking the codes and one can very easily acquire the software which makes it possible to get round the problem of encryption. However, before you go running off to Google for the tools I suggest that you stop for a moment and think about what it is that you are about to do.
We have become accustomed, in this age of anarchic electronic communication, to assume that all information should be freely available. Merrily browsing our way across the vast and astonishingly lush plain of the world-wide-web. we have come to imagine that things like Wikipedia are our basic human right. So, I should just like to point out that this is not actually the case.
Just as plumbers and carpenters, doctors and bankers, all need to eat, so too do authors. Some of us are happy to provide free information (such as this website) but there are not many people who can afford to hand out their books for free. Decrypting the format of a book so that it works on your machine is, to my way of thinking, perfectly legitimate (even if the lawmakers in America don’t agree), but cracking it so that you can share it with your mates is another thing altogether.
When you want to give your friend a bar of chocolate or pint of beer, do you nick it…? Likewise, if you want to share your e-book with your friend then you should buy him a copy.

Amazon’s Format

One of the principal derivatives of the standard EPUB format is called Mobipocket. Once an independent company, Mobi now belongs to Amazon and most of the Kindle e-book readers use formats which are based on Mobipocket.

Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader does not support the basic EPUB format, but – as we have seen – conversion of these documents is not at all difficult; and it isn’t immoral nor even illegal (because EPUB books are not encrypted and so you are not “circumventing copyright protection systems”). The software which will allow you to perform this conversion is called Calibre.

For more information than anyone could possibly need on the subject of e-book formats, take a look at this article on Wikipedia.

Colour v Black-and-White

There are two main types of e-book reader: the simple kind, which run on something called e-ink, and the fancy sort which are effectively pocket-sized computers.

Examples of the fancy sort of e-book reader include Apple’s iPad, and the Kindle Fire (not currently available in the UK).
The advantage of these tablet computers, as they are properly known, is that they fulfil many different functions besides that of support mechanism for your e-books. You can watch movies – if you don’t mind peering at the mini-screen. You can play games – if you have the time for that sort of thing. You can type letters – if you don’t mind fiddling with the tiny touch-screen keyboard. You can take photos and then peruse them on the full colour LCD screen. You can even go on-line, if there’s a wifi signal. In fact, you can do pretty much anything, on a tablet, that you would do on a small, low powered computer.
But if what you really want is an e-book reader – if that will be your primary use for the device – then I suggest steering clear of these fancy toys.

Arguments Against Tablet (colour screen) e-Book Readers

The most obvious argument against the tablets is that they are much more expensive than the simpler readers. The iPad costs more than four times as much as the basic Kindle, and even the smaller, less sophisticated Kindle Fire is almost three times the price of the basic Kindle model.

Secondly, the basic e-book readers with their e-ink screens are much easier to read than the equivalent sized LCD screen. While you read this article you are gazing at a bright light, and after a while this will tire your eyes. E-ink screens are more like the paper page. They are not back-lit; you read by the ambient light of the room where you sit or by the light of the big blue sky above you.

E-ink is perfectly readable even in bright sunlight

As you will know if you have ever used your laptop in the cockpit aiming to link into the local wifi network, trying to read a glossy LCD screen under a bright sky is next to impossible. Brief acquaintance with the iPad shows that it is no better in this situation. When a friend wanted to show me her photos, at the beach, I couldn’t see a jolly thing. Even when she switched to a mode called e-ink simulation I still couldn’t see anything except my own reflection; and this was on an overcast day, with low cloud blocking out the sun.
By contrast, the genuine e-ink screen remains perfectly legible even under the brightest sky.

For a very interesting but very scientific explanation of e-ink, and the way it works, visit this Wikipedia page.

The third disadvantage of the fancy full-colour e-book readers is that they use a lot more power than the simple sort. And I mean a lot more power. Whereas the Kindle Fire has a battery life of only eight hours of continuous reading, the simple black and white e-book readers will keep on going for yonks. (More on this subject in our review of the Kindle Touch.)

Different Brands

Wikipedia have a page which provides a basic comparison between all the e-book readers in production.

The three principal e-book reader manufacturers are Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Sony.

Sony, as we all know, is a multi-national corporation. Their e-book is simply called the Sony Reader.
Barnes & Noble is an American bookshop chain; the equivalent of Britain’s Waterstones. They are the largest book retailer in the USA. Their e-book reader is called the Nook.
Amazon claims to be the world’s biggest book store, and although this is disputed by Barnes & Noble (on the grounds that a website is not a store, and that the company only brokers books) it is clear that they are the biggest sellers of books in the world today. Amazon’s models all go by the name of Kindle (eg. Kindle, Kindle Touch, Kindle Fire).

One disdains to add further to the wealth of any of these mega corporations; but on the other hand, if you want an e-book reader then you want one which is known to be reliable, and you want one which is supported by the on-line bookstores (or whatever B&N would have us call them).
If you buy an e-book reader from a lesser-known company and that company then goes down the drain, or if it simply decides not to continue selling e-books, then you are up a creek without a paddle. And note that this is not just a theory that I have cooked up. A couple of e-book manufacturers and publishers have done just this, leaving their customers in the lurch.
Even the big three are not as reliable as one would hope. For example, Fictionwise, a subsidiary of Barnes & Noble, were no longer able to provide e-books for their customers after their partner company, OverDrive, stopped providing download services.

Which One is Best?

In choosing which e-book reader to buy we examined their features, as listed on the various websites, and we considered which bookstore we preferred to shop in. This latter item is quite crucial because – as I have hinted – once you have signed up to one or other, by purchasing their brand of machine, you are then pretty much committed to buying your books from the same source. (That is, unless you want to go to the trouble of decrypting them).

So far as features are concerned, the main things to consider are size, means of operation (ie. through the use of a touch-sensitive screen or through the use of buttons), storage capacity, and battery life.
In retrospect we might also have considered whether the battery is replaceable. Generally speaking, it isn’t.

When it came to the choice of shop, it took me only ten minutes to decide that Sony’s bookstore drives me nuts. All I was trying to do was find books by the Dalai Lama, but no matter what I typed (including such things as “by Dalai Lama” and including the names of various books) the search engine kept coming up with books about the man, by other authors.
When I typed in “Stages of meditation by Dalai Lama” it came up with just one book:
“Making Waves: My Misadventure in the Standardised Testing Industry” by Charles Halpern.
What…?

The books that we were searching for tended to be a dollar cheaper through Barnes & Noble than through Amazon, and so we were somewhat inclined to go for the Nook; but then we discovered that this device has one huge disadvantage. Whereas the Kindle Touch has 3GB of available storage space, the Nook has only 2GB.
Now, you can fit as many as 2,000 books in 2GB (provided they are not PDFs, which can be several GB in size) but unfortunately the Nook is compartmentalised in such a way that only a quarter of the 2GB space is available for freebie uploads. The other three-quarters will only accommodate books purchased from Barnes & Noble…! Now that’s what I call a racket.
To be fair, you can add to the Nook’s memory size by installing an SD card similar to the one which you use in your digital camera (and you can’t do this with the Kindle) but, still, the principal of the thing seems all wrong. If I’m paying, then I’ll be the one to decide what goes on the machine, thank-you!

This left Amazon as the only runner.

The Kindle Touch

Kindles

Amazon make five different Kindles, four of which employ e-ink.
The one which first caught my eye was the Kindle Keyboard. I quite fancied the idea of being able to use the reader as a note pad. However, further investigation revealed that none of the Kindles is equipped with the software to allow the creation of documents. The keypad can only be used for adding notes to books and for typing emails. As a matter of fact, you can do this on all of the Kindles, provided that you don’t mind using a rather fiddly little keyboard.
The Kindle DX is almost twice the size of the other Kindles – and it, too, has a keypad. Whilst most people seem to think that small is beautiful, I was not at all sure that I wanted to try reading a book on the tiny standard-sized screen (only 6” high, as compared to the DX’s 10” screen). However, since the DX is also more than three times the price of the smaller Kindles this put it right out of the running.

Thus, the field was narrowed to the basic Kindle and the Kindle Touch.

The basic Kindle is the only e-book reader with which we had any acquaintance before we set about choosing one for ourselves. It is operated by a series of buttons, including a “five way controller” like the one on a digital camera or a mobile phone.
If you just want to turn the page then the buttons are straightforward to use – there is one on each side of the screen, enabling you to go either forwards or backwards – but if you want to go to the contents or search for a word or a page then things are a bit more complicated; and if you want to look up a word in the Kindle’s in-built dictionary you have to bunny-hop down the page and across to your word, using the controller. Not difficult… but somewhat tiresome, perhaps.
The Kindle Touch is operated by merely touching the appropriate place on the screen. So, if you want to look up a word you rest your finger on it… and up pops the dictionary definition. Very nice!

If ease of control were the only consideration then I think that, being tight-fisted, we would still have gone for the basic Kindle but there are also a couple of other differences between the two devices.
Firstly, the battery in the basic Kindle is said to last for only one month before it needs recharging whereas the battery in the Touch lasts for twice that length of time.
Secondly, the basic Kindle has only 1GB of available storage space, whereas the Touch has 3GB.
In retrospect, it now seems to me that the size of the storage space is not of much consequence. You can fit more than 1,000 books on a 1GB hard-drive, and the chances of us managing to acquire 1,000 books before the machine breaks down are nil. Moreover, supposing that we did manage to acquire more books than the thing can hold we could store them on an external hard-drive or on a computer or in Amazon’s “cloud storage” facility.

The Big Bubble

Mention of cloud storage reminds me – any book that you buy from Amazon is automatically “stored” in this great library in the sky. This also means that you needn’t slit your throat when you drop your Kindle in the sea; you haven’t lost your magnificent collection; you’ll just need to buy a new e-book reader and then you can download the whole lot again.
Note, however, that you would not be able to buy a different brand of reader. Or at least, if you did – if you switched to the Nook, for example – your Amazon collection would be inaccessible. As I said before, once they’ve got you hooked, they’ve got you landed; you’re theirs forever after.

And note, too, that the opportunity to download books for a second time may not always be with us, for it would seem that the e-book reading public is at the mercy of the e-book suppliers.
A few years ago Amazon discovered that one of the books which they were selling had not been released by the copyright holder for electronic publication. Recognising that the publisher was in contravention of the law, Amazon promptly removed the book from its store – and from its customers’ Kindles!
Yes, in this world of invisible commodities they do have the power to do that. Every time you go on line to download a new book, they have access to your collection.

No doubt the story of this deletion would have made the headlines whatever the title of the book, but as it happens it was Orwell’s 1984… and the irony was not lost on people.
Amazon subsequently issued an apology but more importantly, so far as we are concerned, they also promised never again to delete books from their devices.

So far as one can see, Amazon’s contract with the customer does not promise to allow customers to download books for a second time, to a new device, although, as I say, they do currently allow people to do this, and they advertise “free cloud back up” as a feature of the various devices.
The contract specifically outlaws the modification of “security features” (such as DRM) thus denying the customer the right to convert his books for use on a another brand of device..
More significantly, it specifically says that the company retains the right to modify or suspend their service whenever they feel like it.
Thus, it would seem that Amazon’s e-book customers could, in theory, end up finding that they have bought a load of hot air.

In 2006 Amazon stopped selling their old PDF format e-books. Thirty days after this date their old customers were unable to download, for a second time, books which they had already purchased, and so they were unable to read their books on the new generation of devices.
In practical terms this means that their old customers had thirty days to break the law by converting their books to another format.

What goes for Amazon goes for various other big companies too: –

Microsoft tried to do the same sort of thing to their music customers. When they changed and improved the DRM system which they use to encrypt their music sales, they disabled the servers which allowed people to download music previously purchased. This meant that customers upgrading to a new computer could no longer download the music for which they had already paid! In the event, the hue and cry was such that Microsoft were forced to back-down – or at any rate, they left the servers on line for a further 3 years.

In July of 2008 Yahoo pulled a similar trick with their music store, giving their customers just two months to download their music onto any computer which they might want to hear it on in the future…
Anybody determined to hang on to their music collection after this date will have had to find a way to crack the DRM. Illegally, of course… qv.

Walmart attempted to do much the same thing in October of the same year, but after a lot of bad publicity they left their old servers on line.
Adobe have done the same thing to e-book readers, depriving them of access to their collection when they, too, changed their installations.
In 2010 HarperCollins closed their e-book store, making it impossible for customers to download books to new devices in the future.
As we have seen, one of Barnes & Noble’s subsidiaries has also failed its customers.
There is absolutely no doubt that this list will continue to grow.

Cases of this sort serve to remind us that when we buy encrypted electronic content we are investing in something extremely nebulous whose continued existence – such as it is – depends up the continuing existence and the continuing cooperation of the company from whom we made our purchase.

This one, small, slim gadget will accommodate all the books on our boat. (But only if we buy them all again…)

Review of the Kindle Touch

Being of a conservative nature – and being, more to the point, over the age of forty – it took me a long time to cotton on to the idea of swapping dog-eared paper for a small plastic gadget. And after four months of using the new toy on a daily basis I still have my reservations.

The Kindle Touch is undeniably a very nice, ergonomically designed device. Constructed from plastic of various different types, it nevertheless has a quality feel about it.
The front, framing the screen, is silver-coloured. It has a silky appearance and does not distract from the content of the page, whereas I think that a bright, white frame or a colourful one might do.
The curved back is made from a rather softer, slightly rubbery plastic, so that it doesn’t slide around on your desk.
The device sits snugly in my hand and is about the same weight as a paperback.
The display does not tire my eyes; I can read my books for as long as time will allow.
Page turning is instant and very smooth (which is not the case on some of the cheaper devices).

Using the touchscreen to select a book

It took me a long time – at least a month of regular use – to become adept at operating the touch screen. Initially I found myself touching the screen and turning the page by mistake, or touching it in the wrong place, or touching it too hard. (The sensors are not in the pad – they consist of infra-red lights on either side of the screen – but I still insist that when you touch the screen too heavily it doesn’t respond.)
I think it is only fair to say that I am the world’s worst when it comes to this kind of thing. I still hadn’t got the hang of driving the iPod when it broke down…
Needless to say, the younger members of the crew took to the touch-screen instantly.

Kindle features popular with this consumer include the easy-access dictionary which enables you to look up a word without even leaving the page that you were reading, never mind leaving your seat to go and fetch the big fat tome.
The search facility also works well: you can search either for a word or for a location (the e-book’s equivalent of a page number).

Highlighting text and bookmarking (the top-right corner has a “dog-ear”). The list of bookmarked pages can be accessed via the menu.

I also like the book-marking facility – (tap the corner of the screen and it marks the page with a little dog-ear and adds it to a list, accessible via the menu) – and I like the ability to highlight sections of text.
I’m a demon for marking text, and subsequent readers of the same book do hate me for it…

Of course, in the case of an e-book, since the highlighting is ephemeral – even more ephemeral than the book itself – the next reader can easily remove it with one swipe of his finger. Thus, everybody is happy.

Changing the text size

Another useful feature is the option of changing the size of the text, enlarging the letters in poor light, for instance.

Besides reading from it, you can also use the Kindle Touch to listen to audio-books or to music. In fact, you can even have it play your music while you read, if you like wallpaper music.
You can also get it to read your e-books and PDFs to you – although if you are English you will probably find the rather twangy American accent of the robotic reader somewhat irritating.
This is not a feature which I have used much since I can’t listen to an audio book without falling asleep.

You can use the Kindle to surf the web

Like most readers, the Kindle Touch has a built in wifi aerial which makes it possible to download books from Amazon or browse the world-wide-web, provided that you are near to a signal. You can also get at your Gmail or Yahoo in-box and you can even type e-mails using the touch-screen keyboard.

The keyboard is small but perfectly usable

To my great astonishment I found that I actually enjoyed using the device for this purpose. The controls are all fairly intuitive – yes, even to a wrinkly – and the cramped keyboard was far easier to use than I had anticipated. Obviously, if you’re standing on deck, typing with one finger, you aren’t going to want to be bothered to send lengthy epistles but from my point of view this is no bad thing; it forces me to be concise…

On the debit side, the device is a wee bit smaller than I would wish. Sure, it fits in the pocket of your oilskins, but I am more comfortable reading a slightly larger page of text.

I wouldn’t want to risk bringing our e-book reader on deck in this kind of weather.

Being an electronic device it is also a lot more fragile and vulnerable than a real book, and so one is obliged to treat it as something precious. Certainly, I would not want to risk taking it into the cockpit while we are at sea.
The type of reader which is operated in the old fashioned way, by buttons, can be kept inside a waterproof pouch but I can’t see this working for a touch-screen device since the bag itself would be forever activating the screen and turning the page.

While we’re on the subject of protection, the device really needs to be kept in a bag or a box – if only for the sake of the screen – but none is supplied. Amazon offer a leather cover which costs 40$ US. In my opinion they ought also to offer a very much cheaper and simpler pouch, suitable for penny-pinchers and also for vegetarians.

Battery Life

One thing which immediately impressed us all is the Kindle Touch’s battery life. The ads claim that it will last for two months, but when you read the small print you find that Amazon only expect you to spend half an hour each day reading. Since we like to read for rather long than that – and since I assumed that they were exaggerating, anyway – I didn’t really expect the battery to last for more than a fortnight; but it does. Our recent passage from Uruguay to Brazil took forty days, during which time we used the Kindle every day for several hours. Despite this, at the end of the trip the battery symbol was still indicating that the tanks were half full.

Throughout the four months that we have owned the Kindle we have never had it run flat and have only ever charged it at our convenience. If I am working at the computer and it happens to be lying there on the table, then I usually plug it in for a top up. It really is the most easy-going, hassle-free piece of electronic kit that we’ve ever owned!

I do wonder how long the battery will actually last; and I do wish that it were easy to replace. It seems to me that this built in obsolescence shows a wanton disregard, on the part of the manufacturer, for the need to go easy with the earth’s very finite supplies of non-renewable raw materials. As a matter of fact, there are people who sell replacement batteries (a Google search reveals various sources), but Amazon themselves certainly don’t have it in mind for us to take the back off the Kindle.

In the Dark

Since its screen is not lit – since it really is just like a book – the Kindle Touch is not legible in the dark. Until very recently if you wanted to read an e-book in the dark you needed to buy one of the full-colour, LCD screen tablets, but Barnes & Noble have now released a lighted-screen e-ink reader which they call the Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight.
Seemingly, the GlowLight screen is illuminated by LEDs hidden under the edge of the frame. Regular use halves the battery life from two months to one, but based on our experience i should say that this isn’t an issue.
According to this very full and comprehensive comparison of the Kindle Touch and the Nook GlowLight, the anti-glare coating on the screen of the latter device reduces the contrast of the display, making it less crisp.

Roxanne reading the Kindle in her cabin

Amazon sell various clip on LED lights which can be attached to the rim of the Kindle. The one which we bought (the Verso) is nicely made and does the job reasonably well but is, in my opinion, vastly over-priced at $20. It runs on watch batteries – which cost another small fortune – so I try not to use it very much.
Besides the simple case mentioned above, Amazon also sell one with a built-in light which runs off the Kindle’s battery. It doesn’t look very robust – and it brings the price of the cover up to a whopping $60.

Against the e-Book Reader

The attractions of an e-book reader are many, but what about the cons?

The first disadvantage is that all of your books are in one place.
You might have thought that this would be a pro, but it isn’t. Or at any rate, not if the device is shared property. When Nick wants to read his meteorology book at the same time that Roxanne wants to read Fabre and I’m already reading about Zen….. we’ve got a war on our hands.

My second observation is equally capable of being interpreted as a favourable point. With this device you have access to the entire world of books.
With this device you can add to your collection with just one single click. That’s all it takes, and you’ve parted with another eight quid, or €11, or $15 US, or whatever.
With the Kindle I can now get my hands on the books that I’ve been wanting for years. There’s no waiting, and once you’ve registered your device and given the company your credit card details there are no forms to be filled in; you just click on the word “Buy” and you’ve done it: the book arrives, on the instant, and your money is gone.
Should parting from our cash really be so painless, I ask myself? In half an hour I could probably empty the bank account completely!

Why Aren’t e-Books Cheaper?

One tends to assume that e-books should be a lot cheaper than real books. After all, you’re only buying a long string of digital code. However, the price of the paper and the ink and the printing, and the costs of storing the book are, it would seem, but a small portion of the sum demanded from the consumer. Regardless of whether the finished work is something you hold in your hand or on your hard drive, the publisher still wants paying for his labours; and the guy who created the thing – the author – he still hopes to earn a crust for his months and years of labour. Thus, e-books are seldom cheaper than the real thing. Sometimes they are actually more expensive!
On the plus side, when you buy an e-book you don’t have to waste money on postage, and you’re also saving trees, ink, and the oil which would have been used in carting the thing half way round the world. (Whether the carbon saving is greater than the expense of making the machine… I wouldn’t care to say.)

PDF Problems

Although I relish the idea of being able to get my hands – or my eyes, at any rate – on a super-abundance of new books, the fact is that we Mollymawks can’t really afford to splash out in this way. The cruising budget does not run to such luxuries. When we bought the e-book reader it was principally for the purpose of reading the many PDFs which we have accumulated. Thus, I was hugely disappointed when I found that the Kindle does not cope well with these documents. Or rather – it didn’t cope well.

PDFs don’t generally display very well on an e-book reader. The text is often too small for comfort. Whereas with a genuine e-book you can enlarge the text, when you enlarge a PDF parts of it flow off either side of the screen.

Whereas an e-book is just an endless column of words and spaces and so forth, and can accommodate itself to any size of page, a PDF is designed in such a way that it will look the same on all devices. So, if the PDF is designed to look good on your 14” computer screen… well, you can imagine what it will look like on the screen of your e-book reader. You won’t be able to read the words.

If you search the web you will find numerous programmes (such as Calibre) which claim to be able to convert PDFs for e-book readers, but the fact is that none of these works very well. An e-book is a chain of characters, and these characters can be displayed at any size. A PDF is an image, and converting an image to a chain of characters is a hit and miss affair. At best, the numbers and page headings will appear within the text. At other times – where the image consisted of two columns of text, for instance – the paragraphs will be completely jumbled.

The bigger the screen, the bigger the display, and the better the chance of being able to read the words in the shrunken PDF image. When it came to us the Kindle Touch was absolutely hopeless in this respect, being just about the only currently available e-book reader which lacked a “landscape facility”. When it arrived, the Kindle Touch could only be used in portrait format.
Of my several score of PDFs only about 10% were legible, to my antique eyes, in portrait format, and so I was somewhat put out… until, one day, after using the machine to check for e-mails, I found that it had been secretly and surreptitiously updated!

The same text fits the screen and is easily legible with the device in landscape mode.

The fact that Amazon can do this without my knowing is a little bit unnerving… – (What else can they do, I wonder? Are they reading my e-mails over my shoulder?) – but the result was entirely satisfactory. Amongst the list of new features the one which hit my eye was “Landscape” – and, sure enough, the Kindle Touch can now be turned on its side. Although the screen is still only half as wide again as in portrait mode, I find that 90% of my PDFs are now legible.

In Conclusion

I have a love-hate relationship with the Kindle. On the one hand, it provides me with easy access to all of those PDFs and now contains enough material to keep me well-read for a year; on the other I would most definitely prefer to hold those books in my hand.

I’d sooner hold a book in my hands…

I dislike having to be so precious with my reading material – I’m accustomed to tossing it down on the seat when I go on deck – but most of all I miss being able to flick through the book to look back at something I read yesterday. If that sounds trivial, consider the many times when you have wanted to re-read a particular anecdote or instruction but can’t recall which chapter of the book it was in, still less which page. Flicking through an e-book involves tap-tap-tapping through every page.

I am also more than a little unhappy about the very nebulous quality of my (very few) purchased e-books. Somehow I can’t see them being available to me for as long as the poetry book which I bought when I was thirteen and still have, aboard…

…but since I can’t get any new paperbacks, the Kindle and I are inseparable.

All this having been said – and since I can’t get my hands on any books – I have no regrets about buying the Kindle Touch. I could hardly live without it now I depend on it so much, and when it breaks down (as it surely will) then I shall be distraught.

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5 Comments

  1. Thanks for the nice detailed review.

    I was not aware of the “75% reserve” of 2 GB on Nook vs the 3 GB limit on the Kindle. However, I was disappointed you eliminated the Nook from further consideration based on this fact alone, given that only the Nook allows an SD card– very inexpensive 4-8 GB SD card are so widely available. This would facilitate back-up and storage of books onto PC (a potential shield against the Amazon secret “takeback” you described so well).

    I have to wonder if B&N offered “sponsored links” and gave you the same deal you get from Amazon if you would have been so quick to cut them off your list … I have nearly decided on the Nook Glowlight largely because I fear we (my family) already spend too much at Amazon …. and would prefer we continue to have good competition!

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      Like you, we would prefer not to spend too much money with Amazon; and like you, we are attracted to the idea of the Nook Glowlight, with its in-built light. But having now used the Kindle for eight months or so I would say that the size of the memory is important – particularly if (like me) you plan to fill the thing full of PDFs. I think I only have three Amazon books on there, so far, and only about 100 books in total, and yet the memory is already half full. PDFs take up a lot of space!

      Yes, you can use an SD card. And it’s true that this means that “they” can’t get at your books (except while the SD card is in the machine). I don’t know where I would buy an SD card, right here and now, in this backwater where we’re hanging out; but I suppose I could have ordered one with the machine.
      Then again, using an SD card is really little different from storing your books on a computer or on an external hard drive.

      If you go that way – if you choose the Glowlight – we would be interested in hearing about it. Our Kindle is in great demand…as described – so we’re thinking of buying a second machine. It will probably be another Kindle Touch, but the Glowlight is a possible option.

      As regards the sponsored links thing: I hadn’t even thought about it while I was writing the article. In fact, it’s been so long since we made any money from it I wasn’t sure if it was still up and running.
      I think that if i were that way inclined – if I were wanting to write something especially to advertise a product – then I would be a lot less rude about its shortcomings! And I would fill the site up with articles about things which people want to buy.
      During all the years that we’ve had this deal with Amazon I should think it must have earned us almost fifty quid.
      If making money were our objective then I guess we would get round to the business of plastering the website in ads, wouldn’t we? We often talk about it, and it would certainly be nice to make some money out of the website, but as objectives go it comes very far down on the agenda.

  2. Jill, it’s pleasure to read your reviews, thanks.

    One point though: There are a LOT more ebook readers these days than those tied to big bookshops, i.e. Kindle, Nook and Sony. All of them are multi-format, some support epub DRM. Yes, you can’t buy books from Amazon or B&N directly, but then, you’ve got only three items from Amazon. And these you still can legally buy using a Kindle app for iPhone or whatever, and then convert them for your library. This way you are not relying on Amazon, they don’t control you anymore. You sacrifice some convenience for some freedom, as usual, but, in my opinion, it’s worth it.
    Just my 2 cents.

  3. We use Nook glowlight with 32gb SD cards. So basically we can have thousands books for everyday reading. And more important factor – Nook have buttons!

  4. Thanks for your comments.

    We now have two e-book readers and a Nexus tablet, so I’m just supplying this update for anyone who’s interested.
    The Nexus is extremely versatile – it’s beome our main navigational tool (very much to our surprise, since we are basically sworn off electronic navigation!), and we also use it for star-gazing ID and, of course, for going on-line. It’s much easier to slip this little gadget in your pocket than to lug a computer ashore. The one thing that we don’t tend to use it for is book-reading; or at least, Caesar does, but we others don’t. It’s that little bit bigger and less comfortable to hold in your hand; and the power-usage is an issue.

    We still haven’t had the chance to try the Nook. Our second e-book reader is a Kobo, purchased from WHSmiths. As I recall it, it was slightly cheaper than the Kindle. It has the advantage of being Amazon-free, and it has a light.
    On the debit side, the page turning is quite a bit slower than the Kindle (you actually have to wait for the pages to turn). Also, it occasionally freezes and has to be turned off – when you can persuade it to turn off… and Nick once had to crash it and reinstall all of the books and PDFs.
    Ah, yes: PDFs. I’ve never tried using the Kobo to read PDFs – I stick to my Kindle :) – but Nick and Rox both say that it’s hopeless for that purpose since you have to zoom out and then in again every time you turn the page.
    The light is a definite asset BUT with the light on the battery is used up much more quickly; and we all find that we can’t actually read comfortably in the dark. So, this facility, which was the determining factor when we made our purchase, does not actually get a lot of use.

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