Call me fickle, but just about a year ago, I was looking at the ebook-e-reader market and thinking that it was a waste of time, that paper books were here to stay for years yet and that it was far too expensive. Who in their right mind would pay $300 – $400 just for the reader, and then more for the damn books to read on it? Up until January, my only exposure to reading electronic books had been the Stanza app on the iPhone, and while it worked for reading short passages, it was woefully inadequate for full novels.

Of course, a year is a long time in technology, none more so than 2010.

First, the iPad came along, and I flip-flopped on the idea of buying that before finally caving. Initially I used it for games, videos, and all manner of internet browsing, before finally deciding to take it along with me on my daily commute. On the train, all those options were off the table – so I tried out iBooks, and found it amazingly readable.

A pity then the iBooks bookstore is so overpriced, none more so than in Australia – paying more for a digital edition is just about the biggest rip-off I’ve heard of. There were some classics for me to catch up on, and I managed to churn through quite a few. There’s only so much archaic 19th century prose you can read before getting a little weary of it, and so I tired of it.

And then came the Kindle…

When the Kindle shows up in the post, you almost think there’s been a mistake. The box weighs more than the device, and seems absurdly oversized. When I say this thing is thin and light, there’s absolutely no kidding – it’s hardly thicker than 20 pages of a typical novel, and so easily held in one hand with its lightness. Turn it sideways, and it’s virtually gone.

Perhaps I’m too used to the iPhone/iPad, but the first time I turned it on I touched the screen to turn the page. It might have become instinctive to do so, but the Kindle retains physical buttons – for the majority of interactions with it, that’s not a bad thing at all – indeed, the buttons on the Kindle 3 at least are placed exactly where you need them, and “flipping” the page is an easy operation that doesn’t get in the way of the text.

Of course, the key differentiator between an iPad-style device and the Kindle is its screen. E-ink has improved leaps and bounds since I first tried it out in Japan in 2005, at the Sony store. Then, the screen took a couple of seconds to refresh, the background colour was closer to green, and the device was bulky. The Kindle’s light grey screen, partial page updates and sub-second refreshes makes it close enough to a magazine-style surface as makes no difference; it’s like a 6″ portal to a black and white magazine.

For those convinced they could never read something which isn’t an actual physical book, let me preach to you as one of the converted: it can work, just give it a try. The reading feels good; it is hi-res enough, far more so than the iPad to my eyes, that it doesn’t feel like it’s a computed interface. Being able to carry around multiple novels at once in a teensy little package make it unbelievably good for the voracious reader such as I, and that’s without even mentioning the use-anywhere book store.

It’s not all a land of milk and honey, however. The keyboard is awful, especially for my fatter fingers. A better E-Ink refresh would be even better – the blink is long enough and the partial page updates annoying enough still. The UI could do with a good working over, and other features beyond reading sorely limited.

Many e-books, commercially produced and otherwise, are a little… under-formatted. You do lose some of the book’s fidelity in exchange for the flexibility of an e-book. The prices feel damn high still for books that exist in such non-corporeal forms; when you think of a 500 page novel shrinking into some few hundred kilobytes, it somehow doesn’t feel fair to still be paying a good 50 – 60% of the physical price. The library is artificially limited by publishers choosing not to publish or not having electronic versions of books, such as many that were printed prior to computers getting involved – solve that, and you’ve suddenly made this an even more attractive proposition. (Google’s making an effort to digitise a whole lot of books, but whether that comes through in a usable form is still unknown).

These last couple of criticisms would apply across the board to any e-reader; none of them allow you to pick up a favourite novel, flick quickly to a favourite passage and re-read. Sure, you can set up bookmarks to jump to pages, but just “knowing” the favourite bit in a novel by the thickness of the pages is something I got used to.

The Kindle does not replace reading “real” novels for me, but there are a couple of things it does diminish or eliminate. When travelling, my automatic option would be to have  everything I need to read on the Kindle; I would be less compelled to go to a library, especially if prices drop for older products. My default option now would be to purchase or look to have an electronic version which I can put on the Kindle, only the true favourites earning pride of place on my bookshelf. I’ll be able to read more, whenever and wherever I need, and with far more flexibility than I ever expected. I’m reading at about the same pace as a paper book, and I’m loving it.

In short, not the end of reading with real books for me, but certainly a change to the way things are done for the majority of my reading.

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