Saturday, October 23, 2010

Further Frustrations with Kindle

I have been using my Kindle for a couple of weeks now. After the initial learning curve, I was settling into being able to listen and read to my Kindle with minimal interruptions. Mind you, I can't do anything special with it -- I have not felt comfortable enough to experiment.  However, I have even started to trust the claims of long battery life.

I used to charge it obsessively as I have been trained to do by iPods, netbooks, and other devices. However, I am now not charging it every night. With light use it has lasted several days without recharging and with more than half the battery left. I do believe it is reasonable to expect to get a week of use without recharging it. I also learned how to turn off wireless which soaks up a lot of battery. If you're not planning to download or go online, there's no need for the wireless. I can also report that it recharges quickly.

That's a win on battery life. That's a major point and will hopefully permit me to ditch the charger while sailing with the ship. I'm going away for a week to Downrigging Weekend in Chestertown, Maryland this week. I will take the umbilical cord because I haven't driven the battery to its extreme, but I plan to use the Kindle as much as I can without recharging to see how long it lasts.

Note, use of the reading light built into the Kindle case will also use up battery life. I plan on using it in my bunk, so that will be an extra drain on the battery. In a week I should know just how long-lived the battery is.

However... the Kindle's bad design continues to surprise me in new ways. For example: the cover and table of contents for a Kindle book is hidden. My personal feeling is that when you acquire a book, the cover is the first thing you should see. It has important stuff on it like title and author and cover art. This tells you what book you've got in your hands and sets expectation for the work.

Next, the copyright information and table of contents and other front matter should appear. I admit it, I skip over the copyright material, but it really ought to be there -- because it's illegal and unethical to steal ebooks, just as it is illegal and unethical to steal physical books. Readers of my other blog,, will know about my unhappiness over discovering my fiction series is being pirates. In fact, I think there are to be very large print warning against stealing books, just like there is a warning at the beginning of DVDs warning that electronic piracy is a crime. There ought to be no excuse for a person to claim, "I didn't know it was wrong."

Then the table of contents should appear. I like reading the chapter titles. They intrigue me and interest me. I like to see how many chapters there are to help me gauge what a commitment I am making in pursuing the book. The Kindle's "00%' complete really gives me no clue how long a book is. When buying a physical book, knowing that something is a half inch thick verson three inches thick matters. When I'm planning my time, I like to have a rough idea at least of what I'm diving into.

The table of contents should be easy to get to. I have found that the Kindle's 'automatic' bookmarking leaves something to be desired. It would be much simpler to refind my place by having an easily accessible table of contents so that I can at least get to the correct chapter. To get to the table of contents you have to click on Menu, Go to, then navigate using tiny buttons to click on the tiny button that says 'table of contents'. Once you have done this, you are lost. You will not automatically return to where you left off reading. Same thing if you want to look at the cover art or something else, you are not bookmarked.

Yes, it's possible set bookmarks, but I haven't figured it out yet. I don't like setting bookmarks because then you have to delete bookmarks. To me it seems that a little contextual awareness would be easy to implement. Once you've gone to a non-prose part of the book, there should be something you can click to take you back to where you were in the text. Maybe there is and I haven't found it.

I have also found further shortcomings to text to speech, plus some small benefits. Pressing the space bar will pause and resume text to speech. That's easier than pressing the teeny tiny Shift key + SYM key. I suggest to Kindle that turning on text to speech can more easily be accomplished by pressing the space key for three seconds, and turning it off the same way. That will only take one hand and less coordination than the current method, which will make it easier for those of us with fine motor problems to use. The Kindle with its ability to enlarge the font and read aloud should be popular with older folks as well as people with disabilities, and I'm sure they would welcome less dependence on teeny buttons. Given that the space bar is shaped differently than the other buttons, it's easier to find in the dark or if you don't see so good.

Unfortunately, pausing the text to speech does not allow you to use the menu or turn pages. You still have to turn off text to speech to do anything. The only exception is the Menu button which will operate while speaking. However, all the options are greyed out except for Turn Wireless ON/OFF and "Shop the Kindle Store." Yes, if you want to buy a Kindle book, they will let you do that. If you want to do something for your own convenience like add a bookmark, you can't. Kindle is all about making it easy for you to give them money, not so much about making the Kindle useful to the consumer.

I decided to try and teach myself how to use the Dictionary. Gah. More frustration. You use the navigation button to scroll through to the word you want. Unfortunately, the Kindle defines EVERY word the cursor passes next to. They pop up at either the top or the bottom of the screen (in very small print, much smaller than the print size you have chosen), and they flicker and don't stay put. If you have vision problems, this will drive you up the wall. If you've selected an enlarged font because you need it to see, you won't be able to see the tiny dictionary font. The flickering is bad for people who have a negative reaction to other flickering lights (as I do): instant eye strain. The fact that it doesn't stay in one place means you have to hunt for it if you want to read it. Kindle: make up your mind. Put it in one place and leave it. If the cursor disappears under it, then move it.

On the positive side, the tiny little sliver of definition you get is easily expanded by pressing the more button (back arrow) on the keyboard. Not to be confused with the delete button conveniently located right next to it. Fortunately, clicking the Delete button does not appear to do anything. Assuming you can hit the correct tiny little button, a screen pops up that replaces whatever you were reading with dictionary page. The dictionary page is in your chosen font. However, you context has now disappeared, so if you want to check what you were reading to try and figure out which of several meanings makes the most sense in the work, you can't.

Having a half page screen so that you could examine context and definition would be better. This would be especially useful when say, looking up how to do something in the Kindle Guide that turns out to have multiple steps. You could flip back and forth between the instructions and attempting to do it. As it is, you need a piece of paper so you can write down all the steps, then close out the Guide and attempt to do what the directions told you. If that doesn't work, you then have to navigate back into the Guide.

The dictionary page also brings up irrelevant entries. Having clicked on 'xebec', the page also gave me Xeloda, Xenakis, and Xenathra. No thank you. The dictionary lets you page forward and backwards through it, so if you want to read the entries next to the word you looked up, you can. The dictionary is directly implemented as a book you read, not as a resource you use. There's a leap of imagination needed here: We don't want to use a dictionary because it is a book, we want to use a dictionary because it is useful. A book is not the most convenient way of implementing a dictionary, hypertext is.

An even bigger conceptual leap is needed here: the ability to have two (or more documents) open at once, the ability to confer easily between them. For example, I'm an author. Sometimes I need to proofread two documents side by side. I can't do that on a Kindle. With a little bit of thinking about how to make the Kindle useful to an active reader, as opposed to a passive reader, the Kindle could become a professionally necessary device instead of just a substitute for the printed book.

The worst drawback to the dictionary: you can't use it while using text to speech -- the navigation button doesn't work, so you can't pick a word. You have to turn off text to speech. Pausing doesn't work. You have to turn it all the way off. Once you turn it off, you can navigate to your word to look it up. The cursor is NOT located at where the text to speech stopped speaking. It's at the top of the page, so you have to navigate through the page to find it. Fortunately, the navigation button does wrap. However, and this is a Very Bad Thing, text to speech is not enabled for the dictionary.

I have also learned how to restart the Kindle. This became necessary when text to speech failed to start and took out the book I was reading with it. As in, gone. Blank. Nothing. Rebooting the Kindle, which required navigating through multiple menus and selections, fixed the problem.

Conclusion: I am having a love/hate relationship with my Kindle. I love being able to read a book in a week instead of six months, but I am repeatedly frustrated by the klunky interface, lack of true accessibility support, poorly thought out features, and the need to take a zillion steps to do just about anything. It doesn't make me any happier to think that the Nook and other rivals to the Kindle are worse.

I hope that Apple's iPad is better at this because Apple has a better record for design and accessibility support, but since it isn't possible to download Apple's bookreading software to my desktop Mac, I haven't a clue what they've done about it. You'd think Apple would want its existing users to be able to access the iBookstore, but no.

Sadly, not only are the rivals worse than the Kindle, they're far more expensive. Glitzy with their shiny color screens, but not better.

I can tell you this: if I didn't love words, the Kindle would not turn me into a book reader. It is only because I love books that I am willing to put up with its shortcomings. Should any other device do it better, I will instantly leap to it. Or as soon as I can afford it.

Kindle, I'm grateful you read to me. Now get your shit together.


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