On eBook Readers

posted Dec 26, 2010, 8:07 PM by Francis Esmonde-White   [ updated Mar 10, 2011, 12:08 PM ]
For the last two years I have been eyeing various e-book readers. The Kindle (Amazon), Nook (Barnes & Noble), Reader (Sony), Story (iriver), and the iPod touch (Apple) are the main ones I had been looking into. I read about several of them online, and I remember people discussing how the early ebook readers didn't handle scientific journal articles very well. That negative feedback has made me wary of the paperless devices- and none of the academics that I have chatted with about the subject have had anything positive to say about the ebook readers. Of course whenever Karen and I visit any bookstore, I still get drawn towards the displays with the ebook readers out of curiosity. Unfortunately, at every single store (without fail - and this includes at least 15 visits to various brick & mortar locations) I get the same disappointing response to my primary question at each store. "How well does your ebook reader handle scientific PDFs?" That's my primary concern, since Karen and I read a lot of journal articles. We often have to read & reference articles while writing papers, and it's really important that we be able to read the graphs, tables, and images in the manuscripts. Unfortunately, no store ebook reader display has any demos with scientific PDF's. (Considering the number of freely available scientific articles, also called open-access, it's shocking that no company selling ebook readers has decided to include a sample of articles as demos.)

Well this Christmas, Karen and I were given an absolutely lovely gift: a 6" kindle with WiFi. It turns out that the Kindle does a fine job of scientific journal articles (at least in my very limited test). I regret not getting one earlier.

The assortment of freely available classic literature books is staggering. I have known about Project Gutenburg for several years, but I didn't realize that they now books directly downloadable in kindle (and other) formats. Also, directly using WiFi on the Kindle, I have downloaded a ton of books right through the Amazon online store (completely freely). The free books are almost all out of copyright, meaning that for the most part only older titles are free. Yesterday I downloaded about 130 books while looking through the store. Feedback for the Amazon folks: It's extremely inconvenient that the Kindle doesn't have the ability to search by more than one criteria (including price range and genre). When it comes to reading books, I think that hands-down, I'll read literature on the Kindle. I'm not sold on periodicals (newspapers or magazines) or reference books (I particularly like the O'Reilly programming books), but I am now considering purchasing reference texts in ebook format rather than paper.

The device itself is extremely lightweight, and very comfortable to read on. I'm not sure that I like the keyboard and page-turning buttons yet, but they're definitely growing on me. I rarely need to read product manuals in order to get a good grasp on device menus, but I needed to read the Kindle manual to get a grasp on several aspects (like the device capacity, how to change the text size, and how the different power modes work).

Tonight I tried out one of my scientific PDF's with the Kindle (it's one of my articles, that will be published in the journal Applied Spectroscopy in January 2010). It worked extremely well. I just plugged the Kindle into my computer by USB, uploaded the PDF to the 'documents' folder, then was able to open the PDF file directly. It's a bit cumbersome scrolling through the pages, and the final few lines of each page end up occupying an entire scroll-screen to themselves. However, the text and figures both came out extremely well. I have no issues with the quality of the final output. The zooming and scrolling is definitely tedious, but using the shift-scroll key combo, it's manageable. I think that I may also use the Kindle for scientific PDF's.

Perhaps I will try to convince Karen that we should also get a 9.7" Kindle, but that's probably a bit premature, since we have had ours for less than 48 hours.

I will post some reference photos in another posting, comparing photos of the Kindle, iPod touch, and my MacBook Pro displaying the same PDF file.