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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Review: Amazon Kindle

First off, I'm going to start off with my standard disclaimer: I make money off of Amazon. Not a lot, but it's what keeps this blog going and it's where the bulk of my adventure budget comes from. When readers like you click on any Amazon link here and buy anything fromAmazon in the next 24 hours, a percentage of your purchase dollars go to me. It doesn't cost you anything more but Amazon pays me for the referral. So if you buy stuff that way, thanks.

If you are thinking, "hey, he's just talking about X because he wants me to buy it!" (and in this case X is a Kindle), well, yes, I certainly do have an incentive to sell you stuff. But I bet you don't come here to be sold stuff. I bet you come here to find something that might be interesting, useful or of some relevance to bike riders. The Kindle scores well on all three counts.

I've written briefly about my first big bike tour back in 1982, when I was fresh out of college. I rode solo from Minnesota to California. For company at night in camp, I read paperback books I picked up along the way. Books are heavy, so I'd only carry one. When I'd finish the book I had, I'd give it away and buy something else. Of course the trick was picking the right book, one that would match my mood. And while it would have been nice to carry a whole library with me, there was no practical way to do it at the time.

Now there is. Now we have things like iPhones, Androids, Nooks and Kindles. The Internet has a wealth of stuff ready to be grabbed and read. I'll let other people rave about how cool their iPhone is and tell me how I should have waited for an iPad. That's OK. I understand gadget enthusiasm. It is the enthusiasm that has inspired me to write this post.

The Kindle is an electronic book reader. It's not the first ebook reader and it certainly won't be the last, but it is the one that made me hit the "Buy Now" button last week. It's not a move I made lightly, it's a pricey little gadget after all, and it is something I'd dismissed long ago as being to limited, restricted and intentionally crippled to be of use to me. I not only dismissed the Kindle, I pretty much echoed Cory Doctorow's negative impressions of the device that he posted on Boing Boing back in 2007.

Some people think the three words "I love you" are the hardest to say, but I find saying "I was wrong" is much harder. I spent a couple of years bashing the device without revisiting my assumptions or checking out the revised Kindle. When I finally did re-examine the world of ebooks, gadgets, and the status of creative content in our evolving digital age, I found that I had to utter those three words. I was wrong about theKindle.

I've long been a believer in things like Open Source and the Creative Commons but I'm also a believer in checking out at least some of the more reasoned opposing views, so I bought a copy of Jaron Lanier's book You Are Not a Gadget. Jaron makes some interesting points in favor of the value of closed systems and the need for methods to compensate those who create the art and products that enrich our lives. We can't all give everything away or support ourselves with advertising. Of course, it is a bit ironic that a paper book called You Are Not a Gadget may turn out to be one of the last paper books I buy and that it served at least as a partial inspiration for me to buy yet another gadget!

Steve Jobs also ironically helped me push the Buy Now button for theKindle. Everyone knows Steve is the driving force behind the Mac, the iPod and the iPhone. And soon we'll have the iPad. But Apple really likes to lock things down, to control what can and can't go on their devices. That's their right and they make wonderful products that people love, but I like that there are companies competing and that we as consumers get to vote with our dollars. I'm glad that Google Android devices are out there competing with the iPhone and that the iPad is going to be competing with the Kindle. Competition will improve these devices over time.

Which brings me back to the Kindle. When I looked at the iPad what I said to myself was what I really wanted was a light device with great battery life, that would let me read books and web pages. It would be great if it could connect wirelessly to the web (not just at wifi hotspots, but via 3G) but I didn't want to be paying a bunch every month for web access I might not use that often.

I found out that while the Nook may get a web browser at some point, the Kindle has one right now. It's not great and it's labeled "Experimental" but it's built-in and it works. It connects to the web wirelessly, for free, via what Amazon calls Whispernet. Once I found that out, plus the fact that I wasn't just limited to getting books from Amazon, I ordered my Kindle.

The Kindle is really thin. The protective case I ordered is much bulkier than the device itself, but even with the case the Kindle is smaller and lighter than a slim hardback book. And the readability of the screen is amazing. The screen looks like a page, not a screen and the Kindledraws damn near zero power from it's internal battery except when you "turn" a page. You can pick from various font sizes and rotate the screen to display your books in either portrait or landscape mode. Dedicated buttons let you page back and forth and a tiny joypad and keyboard let you take notes, place bookmarks, navigate menus and things like that. If you want, the Kindle can read to you in your choice of a male or female robotic voice.

Amazon claims that the Kindle can go for a week without a charge and longer than that if you shut off the Whispernet. The charger is very compact, an AC plug that connects to a USB cable.

The cable lets you connect the Kindle to a computer for file transfers. The Kindle side of the cable is a micro-USB, so the charger works with my Peek. The modular cable also works great with my Solar Charger, so my entire email/web-browsing/book reading kit can run off the sun.

An eReader needs eBooks and obviously Amazon is betting that folks will fill their Kindles with eBooks from Amazon. The first eBook I bought was one that I passed on in hardcover because it was just too big. Really. Stephen King's latest novel, Under the Dome, weighs about three pounds. I just couldn't see myself hauling that around on my bike. The Kindle edition adds no weight to my pack and Amazon sells it for half of what they sell the hardcover for. So a heavyweight author like Stephen King just made one more sale because his book is digital.

My second Kindle purchase supports a woman who I'm sure is not making a stephenkingload of money. Amy Stewart's The Last Bookstore in America is a wonderful grass-roots novel with wonderful characters and a great plot revolving around the changes wrought by gizmos and etexts. See her website at for more details.

While Amazon makes it incredibly easy to buy books with just a click on your Kindle or computer, they also have over 20,000 public domain classics for free.

I've long been getting free eBooks from and I was happy to find out that their 26,000 titles can all be easily searched and downloaded at the Kindle-friendly mobile version of their site at:

And if you want even more Kindle books, this great tip from A Kindle World Blog tells you how to directly load eBooks from Project Gutenberg to your Kindle.

I've been amazed at how quickly I've taken to the Kindle. I've become as annoying as those iPhone zealots. I bet Sherman Alexie wants to punch me. But I can carry a library on my bike. I can read a bunch of books at the same time and the Kindle keeps track of my place in each one. I can search for that cool quote I half remember. I can scribble e-notes and not feel guilty.

My wife, for one, is glad I've become a Kindle convert. "I've wanted one for a while," she confessed, "but I figured you'd give me crap about it". I told her I was sorry. I told her I was wrong. We're waiting for one more check to clear and then ordering her Kindle this Friday.

BTW, long suffering blog-fans, I've just wrapped up my old job, just started my new job and am amping up the Tour Divide Training. And I had to get a couple of articles out for some old-fashioned paper publications. And I've been reading about a dozen books on my Kindle. Which all is a lame way of explaining the lack of blog posts here. But fear not, trail adventures are in the works as are some more blog post where I wont try to sell you a damn thing except for the idea that you should be out on your bike having fun!

Keep 'em rolling,