Reading PDFs on the Kindle

November 29, 2010

About three weeks ago Vicki and I traded Kindles, as combination late anniversary/early Christmas presents. She’d gotten hooked on e-books using the free Kindle app on her Droid smartphone, and wanted to get something dedicated.

I’d been skeptical about e-readers for a long time. I’m a book guy; the second-best job I ever had was working in a used book store. I like curling up with books. I doubted that an another Damned Machine (the usual appellation for the electronic devices in my life) could offer the same cuddliness.

Well, I’m a believer now. The Kindle is lighter than hardbacks and even lighter than some paperbacks (I’m lookin’ at you, swollen fantasy epics), and a lot easier to read one-handed than either one. I topped up the charge when I got it, and it’s still at about a quarter of a tank three weeks later, so the promised month of battery life looks legit. I’ve taken it to the park and read in full sunlight, and it looked even better.

It is such a nice piece of kit that I have actually found myself reading more than I did before. At first I wondered if this was just infatuation with the new toy. But it’s been three weeks and I’m not only still reading more, period, but also more kinds of things. Right now on the Kindle I have:

  • about a dozen of my favorite essays, copied from the web into Word docs and sent to my Kindle wirelessly (and freely) using its dedicated e-mail address;
  • about 30 short stories, most of which I haven’t read, courtesy of Tor.com and Cory Doctorow (also free);
  • a whole shedload of classic literature from the Kindle store, from the Bible to the Origin of Species (yes, I value them both) to G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to the first five novels in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series (also free);
  • and a handful of paid-for novels that I really desired.

The Kindle is so small that my default now is to just take it wherever I go, and then if the mood strikes, I have a whole range of things on hand to choose from. I don’t have to decide in advance whether to take a book along, or which book to take; to a first approximation, whatever I might want to read, I have with me just about all the time.

One thing I haven’t put much of on the Kindle yet is PDFs. As a scientist I both produce (a little) and consume (a LOT) of scientific literature, and almost all of it these days is in the form of PDFs. Unfortunately the Kindle is not going to replace the PDF vault on my hard drive, or even a good fraction of it. I have something like 20 gigs of paleontology papers in PDF form on my laptop, and the Kindle has about 3 gigs of user-available space, so if I want to take it all with me I’m going to have to wait a couple of hardware generations (at least). Taking it all with me is attractive because I never know when I’m going to be in a museum basement, looking at the vertebrae of some weird dinosaur, and have a sudden and quite desperate need for a paper on Apatosaurus or Dicraeosaurus or whatnot.

For this very reason, my friend, colleague, and frequent commenter Mike Taylor asked me to test-drive a PDF on my Kindle. Thanks to some dumb rules at Amazon, he has a shedload of Amazon.com credit that is useless at Amazon.co.uk, and a Kindle would be a convenient and possibly useful way to dump some of it. So I loaded up the 2007 paper in which he and Darren Naish described the new dinosaur Xenoposeidon, and took it for a spin. The rest of this post is basically copied and pasted from what I reported back to Mike.

It works surprisingly well. Just opening the PDF gives one entire page per screen. At that scale I have no problem making out the text, but it’s too small to be comfortable. The screen is 6″ on the diagonal, so that’s no surprise, and I don’t regard it as being either a pro or a con. The device is what it is.

Adjacent to the space bar is a button with two capital As, one larger than the other, that controls page size, contrast, and screen rotation (for PDFs; with Kindle format docs you can also choose among 3 typesets, 3 line spacings, more or fewer words per line [independent of font size], and text-to-speech [wherein the device will read to you if you have headphones on]). Page size options include fit-to-screen (the default), 150%, 200%, 300%, and actual size. Going to 150% lets me get a bit over half a page on the screen at once, so I can see a whole page with four clicks in portrait view, or just two, I’d reckon, in landscape view.  I set it to ‘actual size’ which turns out not to be far off of 150% and had a good close look at the specimen photos. Resolution was fine. I noticed some pixellation so I opened up the PDF to compare, and the pixellation I noticed on the Kindle is just what’s present in the PDF, and nothing worse. The one downcheck here is that the Kindle screen background is not white but a very subdued gray. I imagine that this is deliberate, to prevent eyestrain during marathon reading sessions, but it does noticeably decrease the contrast range for photographs.

Final analysis: (1) using the clicker button to navigate around on a zoomed in page is slightly less invisible than using a mouse, but only slightly, and I’ve only done the former for about 30 seconds so the device might disappear more from my notice with longer use; and (2) the contrast range is reduced which sucks some of the life (and information) out of illustrations.

Other than that, based on my exhaustive 5-minute trial, the Kindle makes an acceptable PDF reader. You couldn’t tote your entire collection, but you could load it up with a gig or two of stuff you’d most likely need on any given trip.

Getting back to books–and to the stated purpose of this blog–the Kindle is kind of a dead end, astronomically speaking. Few astro books are available, and astronomy is a very visual thing but most Kindle versions (of everything) have the illustrations stripped out. There are a couple of compilations of star maps but these terrible reviews. I did find a handful of older astro books–as in, 19th and early 20th century–but I haven’t had the inclination to check them out yet. If anything good turns up, I’ll let you know.


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