Kindle vs iPod Touch: Reading Journal Articles

posted Dec 28, 2010, 8:46 AM by Francis Esmonde-White   [ updated Mar 10, 2011, 12:07 PM ]
Karen and I read a lot of journal articles. I mostly read them on my laptop (a 13" MacBook Pro), sometimes printing them out if I need to make annotations. A few months ago, I found the Discover application for our iPod Touch tablets. Since then, I have started to read pdf articles on my iPod. This Christmas we received a Kindle as a present, so now we have another way to read articles. In this post, I will outline some of the differences, and dispel the misconceptions that I previously held. First, here are how the 3 devices I read on look together in my dining room with one of my journal articles pulled up.

The most obvious differences are in the relative size and brightness of each screen. Clearly my laptop and iPod have much brighter screens than the Kindle, which doesn't have a backlight. The Kindle reflects the ambient light only, so it can't be used in the dark (but it can be used in bright sunlight). I find it more comfortable reading on the Kindle than the backlit devices, because the extremely bright backgrounds cause eye strain for me. All have a neutral color balance, but the background of the Kindle screen is not as bright as a piece of white paper. It's a bit more like phone-book paper than novel paper, with a grey tint.

The laptop screen size easily allows me to read both columns of text on one screen. But everyone knows how articles look on a laptop screen.

The Kindle screen size is midway between that of the laptop and iPod. Putting the Kindle in landscape mode (by pressing the "Aa" key while reading an article and changing the Screen Rotation) allows two columns of text to be read one one screen at a modest but readable size. The main journal text looks like an 8-9 point printed font size (a bit on the small side). The figure captions are readable but uncomfortably small, even for my young eyes. It is possible to zoom on the text (again using the "Aa" button, and selecting between "fit-to-width", "150%", "200%", "300%", and "actual size"). Once zoomed in, the 5-way button (the Kindle equivalent of arrow keys) allow fine-grained movement of the view-screen. Figures look great, but I don't know how a color figure would look.

The iPod screen is definitely too small to read both columns in a single view, even in landscape mode. However, the ease of zooming and the great controls mean that it's really simple to get one column  to occupy the screen. Likewise, figures can be zoomed into and even color figures look great. One difficulty is with large figures, where you can either zoom in, or see the whole figure, but it's definitely a compromise.

A big disadvantage of the Kindle is the setup of controls used to adjust the screen. It's uncomfortable and they have reinvented terms that we're all used to. They rename the use of WiFi and 3G networks to download content as "wispernet". The limited keyboard is very irritating, particularly in the first 5 minutes of using the device. To register the account you need the "@" key, which requires opening the symbol menu (pressing the "Sym" button) and scrolling to the @ symbol. Likewise for entering other punctuation like dashes. Numbers can be accessed using the symbol menu, but also via holding the "Alt" key and pressing "q" through "p" for the numbers 1-9 and 0. Why not use alt-"." to access a dash? It seems arbitrary selected and poorly worked out. It would be very helpful to have the alternate character values printed directly on the Kindle. And why not expand the Alt-key accessible characters while at it? The screen also sometimes displays ghost images, but it can be manually refreshed to clean up the image by pressing Alt-"G" (an extremely convenient function). Finally, when browsing PDF files, the end of each page is visible on it's own screen. As shown below, this is really goofy, and reminiscent of the early days of the Adobe reader. Hopefully this will be fixed in software updates.

Getting articles onto the Kindle is definitely easy. Just drag and drop PDF's from your computer into the Kindle "documents" folder with the standard USB A to mini-B cable connected. Unfortunately, the Kindle doesn't charge while connected to my laptop. It is also possible to email PDF's to your Kindle, but this seems tedious and inconvenient to me. With my iPod, I can charge the iPod by connecting the proprietary Apple iPod cable to the laptop USB port. But I can't easily drag and drop PDF's through the standard file system options. By connecting the iPod and laptop to a wireless network, I can quickly and easily transfer PDF's to the iPod through any browser on my laptop. The iPod interface has one major advantage: the Discover application allows you to easily sort PDF files into folders and sub-folders. Since I have hundreds of articles on many different topics, this is tremendously helpful. With the Kindle, I have to scroll through 27 screens of items, with seven items per page. It is possible to make "collections", but it isn't possible to make "collections" within other "collections". This is another example of the goofy renaming of common terms like file folders.

Overall, the Kindle is a lot more comfortable to read on, definitely displays journal articles quite nicely, and is a lot less expensive than the iPod. The interface is less convenient than the iPod. The additional features of the iPod (email, calendar, contacts, maps, games, ect) also make it extremely convenient around the house.

Here are some other comparisons of the Kinde with the iPod/iPad: