Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Kindle 2 – So what exactly IS a Kindle?

It’s like a book you read on a screen, right? Well, yes and no…

First of all, the Kindle is not a book in itself. It’s an electronic reading device that can store thousands of books you download onto it from amazon’s website over its wi-fi connection or the worldwide 3G whispernet. These can be e-books or audio books, since it also has neat little speakers on the back and a headphone socket.

Second, it doesn’t contain books like the ones on your shelf, with the pages all neatly laid out for you. Instead it displays the content you might otherwise find in a book (i.e. the author’s words and illustrator’s pictures), which have been converted into digital format so that you can read them displayed in special “e-ink” on its screen. Pictures show up as greyscale (like a black and white TV, if you’re old enough to remember such things!), though if you download a Kindle app for your ipad or computer etc. any coloured pictures will of course show up in colour. This is because the Kindle e-ink is a different technology from your computer screen, being easy to read in bright sunlight… and no doubt colour e-ink is just around the corner!

The Kindle is about the same size as your average paperback book, but some of this is taken up by the frame and control buttons, so the screen area for displaying text is a bit smaller than a normal page. However, it is much thinner than a book, so easier and lighter to hold. It does not open up like a printed book, so you see just one “e-page” at a time, which I've found actually helps the eye focus on reading what is there, rather than dancing about a large page getting distracted by other things... though you shouldn’t think of them as pages, more as a screenful of words and/or pictures. You turn these “e-pages” by pressing controls on the edge of your Kindle – forward or back, just as if you were reading a book.

So far, so like a printed book.

Now for the exciting bit… YOU ARE IN CONTROL.

Not of the actual words and illustrations, but of the way you want to read them. Print too small? No problem. You have eight choices of print size, the largest rather like the big letter at the top of your optician’s chart that you can read from across the room – though of course the bigger the print you select, the fewer words you’ll get on your “e-page”, and the more times you have to “turn” it. I usually go for a medium-sized print and increase this by one step for reading in poor light or if my eyes are feeling tired after a long day staring at my computer screen.

Don’t like the font style? You can change that, too. You have three choices – regular(serif), condensed, and sans serif. Want wider line spacing? Again, three choices. Want fewer words on a line? Three more choices. It’s like being able to design your very own book so you can read the authors’ words the way YOU want to, not the way the publisher decides you ought to read them.

If you don’t like reading your Kindle upright with the controls at the bottom (Muse: they are quite small, so it can be fiddly if you have big hooves like me), that’s no problem either – simply turn the Kindle and its text sideways, or turn it upside-down if you are that kind of person. I find it easier to read mine turned sideways with the buttons on the left, since I'm left handed.

And if you are feeling really lazy and want your book read to you, you can turn on the text-to-speech feature, which I think is fantastic. You have a choice of two voices – male and female – who will then read the words on the screen and turn your “e-pages” automatically for you when they reach the bottom. Admittedly, the male voice sounds a bit like Stephen Hawking, and the female voice sounds like an American robot, so this is not quite the same as downloading an audiobook read by an actor or the author themselves, but it’s not bad, and should improve as electronic voice technology improves. For a book with lots of headings and small sections, the voices do not pause as they should do, but they’re much better reading a novel, and I actually think the Kindle reads my book “Spellfall” quite well! There’s a volume control at the bottom. And if you want to listen privately or in a noisy space, you can plug in some earphones (not included with the Kindle package, so you need to buy these separately).

Need to look up a word? Easy. There’s a built in dictionary. Just hover the cursor (which you move around the screen using a five-way controller) over any word, and up comes a definition. Pressing enter will take you to that word in the dictionary for a fuller explanation. You can choose between English and American dictionaries (Muse warning: the Kindle defaults to American, so if you are in the UK you’ll probably want to change this in the settings menu first.)

You can also search for a word or phrase in any book you are reading by choosing the “search” option on the Kindle menu and typing your phrase at the bottom. This gives you a list of locations in the book where your search text occurs, together with the appropriate paragraph from the book –just as if you had looked something up in an index of a print book to get a page number, only better because you don't have to flip through all the pages to find the right one. Simply click on a location to go straight to that part of the book and read more. This is very useful for non-fiction books and research… oh, how I wish I’d had a Kindle while I was researching my Seven Fabulous Wonders series!

Flicking through the pages of your e-book is quite easy, too. Select the Kindle “go to” feature from the menu, and you have the option of going to the cover, or the start (for example chapter one), or a chosen location (enter a number between 1 and the maximum for that book), or the table of contents.

I find a book's table of contents the most useful, especially for a short story collection or non-fiction. It looks just like the contents page in a print book, but is hyperlinked to the chapters so you can click on one and jump straight there. (Muse warning: some of the free and very cheap books available for download do not have this feature linked up, so you need to page through manually or guess by entering a location number – like printed reference books without an index, you tend to get what you pay for!) Some e-books also allow you to use the five-way cursor for moving quickly between different sections of the book. These show up on the location bar at the bottom of the page as tiny black marks, so you’ll know if you have one of those.

When using any of these features, the BACK button returns you to where you started so you don't have to worry about losing your place. And there is no need to bookmark your page when you “close” the book or put your Kindle to sleep, either – it remembers where you were, so next time you open that book it takes you straight to the “e-page” you just left.

Also, if you do manage to fill up your Kindle with e-books (Muse: I don't know anyone who has done this yet!), you can archive the ones you've read with amazon and get them back again whenever you want.

Things NOT to do with your new Kindle:
* Drop it in the bath.
* Spill your coffee over it.
* Throw it at your cat/husband/boyfriend.
* Leave it on the train.

Things to do with your new Kindle:
* Download all the free books you can find – lots of great classics out of copyright are either free or available for less than £1 on amazon’s site.
* Carry it with you when you have to wait at the dentist, or for a friend.
* Take it to bed with you…?

The Muse would love to hear what other new Kindle owners think of theirs!

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