By David Lammers
It’s Christmas, and I bought a Kindle Fire to celebrate.
I probably won’t get any other presents this year, because my wife’s mother died at age 82 in Fukushima on Nov. 21st. By Buddhist tradition the family doesn’t celebrate for 49 days, and so Mieko suggested we do without the usual rounds of gift exchanges this Christmas.
I still have an earlier e-Ink Kindle, which uses Amazon’s “Whispernet” cellular network, useful in airports where free WiFi is not always readily available. The original Kindle’s display was less power hungry, and non-reflective, which made it easier to read in a brightly lit room. Also, one of my favorite subscriptions through Amazon.com was the Reuters “News of the Day,” which gave me half a dozen breaking news stories for just $0.99 a month. Reuters offers a more-comprehensive subscription on the Kindle Fire, but for $9.99 a month.
One reason I bought the Kindle Fire had to do with the clicking sound when pushing the “Next Page” button on the original Kindle. My wife would be in bed trying to fall asleep, hear a few of those clicks, and request quiet. The Kindle Fire has a color touch screen and is silent as the pages turn. And the screen is bigger, which means fewer pages need be turned. However, the Kindle Fire is probably twice the weight of the original Kindle, another drawback when reading for a long time — but when compared to a good-sized book, the weight is probably about the same.
Tablet computers fill an obvious need: something to hold comfortably in bed which combines the ability to read and surf the Web. Nobody wants a hot and heavy laptop resting on their knees in bed, and smartphones are too small for long reading sessions.
The original Kindle got me started down the road of buying Amazon digital subscriptions to e-magazines. The M.I.T. Technology Review, The Atlantic, the aforementioned Reuters newsfeed, and the New York Times Review of Books, together cost about $10 per month.
Things got better, but more complicated, when I discovered the Calibre software. I did a Google search on how to convert a book from the standard EPUB format to the MOBI format which the original Kindle supports. Calibre was the answer, and so much more than that.
Calibre is an access point to many hundreds of publications, including nearly 400 U.S. publications, about 25 in French, and dozens of other languages. I set up scheduled downloads for the free Associated Press news feed, Anandtech, IEEE Spectrum, and the Columbia Journalism Review. I “fetch” these publications, store them on my external hard drive, then load them to the Kindle Fire by plugging in the USB cord and letting Calibre transfer them in the correct Kindle format for either of my devices. Calibre also will find, download, and transfer e-books, of course, especially the free volumes which are no longer under copyright protection.
I also have learned how to download e-books from the Austin Public Library. That process was interesting as well. I went down to the Austin downtown library to return some print books, and spoke to a librarian who told me the Austin library is part of the national network of libraries which support the Overdrive system of handling e-books. The Austin library has subscribed to the digital rights to 4,500 volumes, he said, not all of which are in the Kindle format. Another 34,000 e-books (mostly beyond copyright protection) can be had through the Gutenberg Project. I found several recently released e-books which I wanted to read, but they were already “checked out” so I put them on hold.
I did find a Kindle e-book I wanted to check out from the library, a biography of Gandhi (Great Soul, by Joseph Lelyveld.) To actually get the e-book, I needed to check it out from the Austin library, and then quickly log in to my Amazon account, where I found it in my account for free downloading. Though the book is free, and I didn’t have to drive downtown to the library to get it, I was able to check it out for only 14 days. Three days before it was set to expire, I got a message from savvy Amazon asking me if I wanted to buy a digital copy of the Gandhi biography, which I avoided by spending most of Christmas Day finishing the book. Mission accomplished.
Another source of “free” e-books is through the Amazon Prime membership, which costs $79 per year. I am trying this for a year to see if I get my money’s worth. Besides the Kindle lending library of “free” e-books and videos for Prime subscribers, the main attraction is free shipping. But I’m not sure I will buy that much stuff which needs to be shipped. In fact, a print book I bought as a gift for my daughter (“Makioka Sisters” by Junichiro Tanizaki, about a family in pre-War Osaka) did not qualify for free shipping, because it came from a non-Amazon book vendor.
I had lunch with “LithoGuru” blogger Chris Mack shortly before Christmas, and found that Chris has one of the large-format e-Ink Kindles, which I didn’t know existed. Chris teaches at the University of Texas now and also does quite a bit of expert witness testimony in patent disputes around the country. Rather than carry a heavy bunch of 60-70 page printouts of patents, Chris loads the PDFs on to his Kindle and reads them on the airplane. Makes sense. And Chris reports that his wife Susan is an avid e-book reader, devouring a couple of digital volumes every week.
I readily admit that Amazon is channeling its Kindle customers to its proprietary library of e-books and movies, much as Apple sends people to iTunes. There are other affordable options out there. A Sony tablet running Android is recommended by Kovid Goyal, the Calibre code writer, and my tech-savvy neighbor Roland Schwarz is still trying to find a good deal on the discontinued but still sought-after H-P Touchpad.
The $199 Kindle Fire is a good deal, and finding free content for it has been particularly entertaining. Next up: download some free movies. Call me Scrooge, but free is good.