How to Carry a Library in Your Pack
By Tamia Nelson
December 14, 2010
The economists—you know, those clever guys and gals who assured us the housing bubble would never, ever burst—pretty much all agree that human wants are insatiable. And this time they may be right. At least in my case. I've been drafting a packing list for an ambitious "amphibious" journey, and I've run up against an all‑too‑obvious problem. It's hard enough cramming a trip's worth of gear into a small boat, but when both boat and gear are going to be hauled by a bike… You get the picture, I'm sure. Weight and space are at a premium. Which means that I won't have room for my usual library of field guides and old journals, not to mention the novel I put aside for rainy‑day reading. This time around, one paperback is pretty much the limit. Just one. But then there are also the maps. Several dozen topos. Plus road maps. Plus… But why go on? I was already out of room. And out of patience. That's when my eye fell on Farwell's new Kindle e‑book reader. It was…
A Eureka Moment
I love books. There are at least two thousand of them on my shelves. And it wouldn't be easy for me to pick just one to take along on any trip, let alone an expedition. But there's an alternative. Many of my favorite out‑of‑copyright titles are available as weightless e‑books from sites like Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive. I've already downloaded quite a few of these free titles onto my laptop, in fact. So when I started drawing up the gear list for my amphibious bummel, I considered bringing the laptop along. I've no objection to taking a laptop on a bike tour—it slides easily into a pannier, where it's protected by a padded sleeve—but I'm a little leery of bringing one aboard a canoe or kayak. Laptops aren't exactly waterproof, after all, and a laptop‑sized, gasketed hardcase would be a rather bulky item. Nor are most laptops really suited to the rough and tumble of outdoor life. I don't see my laptop surviving many portages unscathed. More to the point, the laptop is a hungry beast. The battery goes flat in six hours or so. This isn't too much of problem on the road, but it's a killer in the backcountry. You can never find a current bush when you really need one.
Next, I thought about buying a netbook. It would do most of the things that a full‑sized laptop can do, yet it would be both smaller and (hopefully) sturdier. But netbooks have their own drawbacks—high cost being one. And they're almost as hungry as full‑featured laptops. In the end, I didn't see I had much to gain in the exchange.
That's when I took Farwell's new Kindle for a test drive. And I liked the way it handled. So after a long wait for Amazon to rebuild its stock after the initial consumer feeding frenzy, I placed my order. I'm glad I did. I think my Kindle and I are going to be inseparable. But before I go into detail, let me tell you something about my…
Once Amazon had the Kindle back in stock, they lost no time in getting it to me. It was on my doorstep less than a week from the date of my order, despite my having opted for the free shipping. If you haven't yet seen a Kindle up‑close, here it is:
It's not what you'd call bulky, is it? The display is 6 inches on the diagonal, but it makes more sense to speak of width and height, which measure 3.5 inches and 5 inches, respectively. A somewhat abbreviated QWERTY keyboard sits beneath the screen, and while you wouldn't want to write a novel with it, it is (just) possible to touch type—if your fingers aren't the size of sausages. A rather heavy "fist" is required, however, and you'll need to place the Kindle on a firm surface first. (You can also type with your thumbs, text‑messaging style, if you want. But despite my having trained on a now‑orphaned PocketMail Composer, I don't.) The odd‑looking raised square to the right of the keyboard is the "5‑way controller." It functions as a sort of stationary mouse, moving the cursor from place to place on the display, opening books, and selecting text. It's handier than it looks.
The Kindle is powered by a hard‑wired, lithium‑polymer battery, which you charge using a USB cable. Be warned: The Micro‑B connector is tiny and less than robust. So use extreme care when inserting or removing it. Not sure which way is up? I wasn't either, at first. But careful inspection disclosed that the USB trident logo identified the top (see photo on left, below).
The connector at the other end of the cable is the familiar Type A. You plug it into a USB port on a computer in order to transfer e‑books and other files to and from the computer's hard drive, while charging the Kindle's battery at the same time—though not all USB ports deliver enough juice for the latter purpose. If you're not interested in transferring files and just want to recharge the battery, simply plug the Type A connector into the AC power adapter (right‑hand photo) instead. Even a completely discharged battery will be topped up in a few hours.
So much for my first impressions of the Kindle. Now let's look at what lies…
Beneath That Pretty Face
As soon as I'd figured out which button did what and charged the battery, I was ready to load a few of my favorite books. I didn't need to visit the Kindle Store to do this. As I've already mentioned, there is a wealth of out‑of‑copyright titles available at Gutenberg and the Internet Archive. You really need to visit both. Although the Internet Archive has by far the larger collection, I prefer Gutenberg's carefully proofed Mobipocket (.mobi) e‑books to the Internet Archive's machine‑generated .mobis. (These are so riddled with typos that I find them almost unreadable.) Unfortunately, many titles are available only as Internet Archive PDFs, and while I like these for reading on my laptop, the Kindle's small screen and leisurely refresh rate make paging through longer PDFs something of a chore. Large‑format PDFs, in particular, present intractable problems. They're best read on a computer. To minimize difficulties with other PDFs, always choose the black‑and‑white version when available.
In fact, there's no reason to opt for color at any time, since the Kindle's E Ink display is limited to 16 levels of gray. This isn't as much of a handicap as you might think. While not quite as sharp as real ink on paper, the display does a creditable job of emulating the look of a printed book. Unlike a book, however, you can control the size of the text and the spacing of lines, at least in .mobi texts. You can even choose from among three different fonts. The result is eminently readable. Not convinced? Just compare a printed copy of the 19th‑century classic The Cruise of the Betsey with the e‑book:
Since the image compression needed to reduce download time and system overhead introduces "noise," this photo doesn't do full justice to the Kindle's display. Still, you can readily see that the Kindle text is at least as readable as the original. (The brown cast on the pages of my 152‑year‑old copy of the Betsy is an artifact of age.) And like a book, the Kindle will be just as readable outdoors under full sun as it is indoors under subdued light. Try that with your iPad!
I mention the iPad deliberately. The Kindle is good at its primary job: displaying text. It is, after all, an e‑book reader. But I wanted more than that, and it was the Kindle's ability to go online while on the road (or under way) that first awakened my interest. The fact that the price of the wireless service was bundled into the initial cost—"Free 3G Wireless," as Amazon understandably prefers to characterize it—clinched the deal. (Warning! This freedom isn't always free. There are caveats. See below. Be sure to read the small print in Amazon's "Wireless Terms and Conditions," too.) And just how good is Kindle at making connections? Surprisingly good, as it happens. The Kindle 3G gives you a choice. If you're within reach of a public Wi‑Fi hotspot, it will hook up with that. If not, it looks for a 3G cellular network, and if that also fails, it tries to make an EDGE or GPRS connection. The Wi‑Fi mode is fast, the 3G less so—but it's still fast enough for many chores. EDGE connections are best described as marginal. You'll probably time out before you download any but the simplest pages.
Once you grab a good connection, however, you'll find that many websites are easy to view and navigate. At least they are if your experience of computers, and therefore your expectations, predates color monitors and broadband. The Kindle doesn't do Flash, so you can't watch embedded videos. That said, I've had good luck reading news stories, working with webmail, and getting forecasts from weather sites. (The radar maps show up just fine, by the way, though you can't run the Flash‑driven animations. What you see is what you get, at least until you refresh the page.) Make no mistake, however: the Kindle's small screen is a handicap. But it's not a crippling handicap. You can zoom in for a closer look, change the screen orientation from portrait to landscape, or—my favorite—use "Article Mode" to display text and illustrations unencumbered by extraneous sidebars and other distractions. This last feature works very well indeed at sites like Wikipedia and the BBC News website, for example.
A little nearer to home, here's how the In the Same Boat Archives page at Paddling.net shows up:
Not too bad, eh? I was about to zoom in for a better look at the outlined portion of the page. Later, when I'd found the article I wanted, I switched over to landscape orientation to make reading easier. (Article Mode would have been better still.)
Don't assume that sixteen‑level grayscale can't cope with illustrations, by the way. Even complex photos render well:
So much for the setting‑up exercises. To test my Kindle's ability to make connections away from home base, I took it down a portage trail along The River, protecting the screen with a heavy‑duty ziplock freezer bag:
Despite being in a marginal coverage area, I grabbed an EDGE connection quickly, even when standing under a rock overhang next to the water. Wherever my cell phone could pick up a signal, I was able to make a network connection with the Kindle. As the photo below shows, I managed to check in with the Wunderground weather site, despite the EDGE network's marginal data‑transfer rate. I even got a look at the radar weather map:
Later, back at base, I experienced an epiphany of sorts. If I could read PDF books with my Kindle, what about PDF maps, including the wonderful free USGS topos? So I gave it a try, loading a few topos onto the Kindle from my laptop. And the result? See for yourself. If you opt for the "actual size" display, even the smallest features will be visible:
You can only see a small portion of a typical quad at any one time, of course, but there's usually enough for practical navigation and general orientation. For these purposes, at least, the Kindle's screen bests the diminutive display on my otherwise excellent Garmin GPS.
Well, it's no secret that I like my new Kindle. But the devil's in the details, right? So let's get down to the…
And I'll start with the items on the plus side of the ledger:
The Kindle 3G…
- Is compact and lightweight, even when compared to a netbook.
- Is reasonably robust.
- Offers Wi‑Fi and 3G connectivity at no additional cost (but see my cautionary note).
- Has a crisp, clear display that works fine out of doors.
- Does a surprisingly good job with images, including color photos.
- Displays pages in either landscape or portrait mode.
- Can zoom right in to make tiny text legible or reveal small details.
- Offers a choice of e‑book fonts and formatting.
- Allows you to adjust contrast to enhance the readability of PDFs.
- Can be used to make notes as you read. (It's awkward, but it's do‑able.)
- Makes it easy to bookmark any page that you'll want to return to.
- Permits you to organize your books and maps into labeled collections.
- Goes a long time between charges. (I'm on my third week as I write this.)
That long battery life is a distinct advantage, particularly for travelers who venture off the beaten track. Amazon claims that the battery will power a Kindle for "up to" one month with the wireless off, before needing to be recharged—"up to" 10 days with a wireless connection "always on." My experience to date suggests that this is a bit optimistic, but I'm confident that a single charge would see me through a weeklong trip, even if a storm kept me reading in my tent for several days. I'd play it safe by limiting my time online, however, especially in marginal coverage areas. (Weak signals increase the drain on the Kindle's battery.)
All in all, this is an impressive list of pluses. But nothing's perfect, right? And the Kindle is no exception. Here are some points on the downside:
- The comprehensive user's guide is loaded on the Kindle. That's handy under most circumstances, but it's not much help when the display locks up!
- While the Kindle certainly isn't big, it isn't exactly a featherweight. If you often find that holding a hardback book is tiring, you'll need a place to rest your Kindle while you read.
- It takes time to render each page—a little time in the case of .mobi e‑books, a lot of time for some PDFs. If you're a speed‑reader, you'll probably get impatient.
- Some PDFs don't render. At all. Period. There's no cure. You'll just have to find another copy of the text and hope you have better luck with it. To my chagrin, I've found that Google PDFs almost always work. (Google is otherwise my library of last resort.)
- Unlike PDFs, e‑books don't have page numbers. Instead, you get a progress bar. It's a mighty poor second‑best.
- Amazon leaves you in no doubt that their e‑book reader is a marketing gateway for the Kindle Store. Whatever menu you open, "Shop in Kindle Store" will be near the top of the list. And, no, you can't change this.
- A number of the Kindle's other default settings are either intrusive or annoying, at least in my eyes. I'd urge you to review them when you make your first connection. I disabled both "Annotations Backup" and "Popular Highlights." On the other hand, you may be happy to leave things just as they are. It's your call, obviously. But you should know you have a choice.
- In effect, you don't own the e‑books you purchase through the Kindle Store. You license them, instead. And Amazon can "repossess" your Kindle titles under certain circumstances. It's not very likely, however. Amazon found themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit after they yanked George Orwell's Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty‑Four from purchasers' libraries. It proved a costly mistake on their part. So I don't think they'll be repeating it anytime soon. And there's more good news: They can't touch your Gutenberg and Internet Archive titles. Those are yours.
- Don't expect that you'll find every book you're looking for in the Amazon Store. They've got almost all of the current crop of best‑sellers, but if you're searching for an obscure nonfiction title that's still in copyright, you could be out of luck.
- The Kindle's rudimentary keyboard has no number keys, and you'll need to use a menu to type most symbols. So you'll want to keep your e‑mails short and simple.
- The "free" 3G wireless connectivity that makes the Kindle such a bargain—when compared to, say, the iPad—may not remain free forever. Amazon reserves the right to change the "fees and terms" for services, including wireless connectivity, "from time to time." I'm not too worried by this, but you may be. In any case, you've been warned.
OK. It's bottom‑line time. Do the pluses outweigh the minuses? In my book, they do. The Kindle's a great e‑book reader. That comes as no surprise. But it's also a pretty fair tool for making connections under way. If you'll be paddling where there's cellular network coverage, or if you'll be touching base with "sivilization" now and then, you can send and receive e‑mails, check the weather forecast, and even keep up with In the Same Boat. You won't have to waste time at every rest stop searching in vain for a current bush to top up your battery, either.
Better yet, the Kindle's a pretty sturdy little sucker. You don't want to drop it in the lake, let it fall on the rocks, step on it, or toss it in the fire, of course. I wouldn't suggest wiping the display with the same bandanna you use to mop out the bilges of your boat, either. But if you avoid these rather obvious pitfalls, it ought to cope with the everyday rough and tumble of backcountry life just fine.
What more can I say? Kindle lights my fire! And I'm not alone…
Have you ever found yourself wishing that you could bring your library with you on a paddling trip? I have. But there's no room in any of my boats for bookshelves. Enter the Kindle 3G. Now I can pack hundreds of titles (and dozens of maps) in a space no bigger than a geologist's field notebook. And I can use it to keep in touch when I'm on the go, too. That's real bibliotrekking!
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