The Kindle Paperwhite and Store: An Indian perspective

Amazon has been on a relentless journey since the Kindle launch in 2007, steadily making improvements to the product range to arrive at the perfect e-book reader. In the current era of pervasive LCD screens, the e-ink screens in the Kindle readers make for a paper like reading experience (albeit grayscale). This is the USP for dedicated e-book readers in the current tablet and smartphone era. The Kindle devices (apart from the large screen Kindle DX) have stuck to 6” screens that seem to be the ideal size, resembling your typical paperbacks. The devices started off with physical keyboards in the pre-iPhone era, and gradually evolved to a more compact form factor letting go of the keyboard in the Kindle Touch and 4th generation Kindle.

Hardware

The Kindle Paperwhite is the culmination of Amazon’s pursuit over the years, combining the essentials of an e-book reader with an attractive price point. Introduced in 2012 and upgraded last year, the Kindle Paperwhite is a near perfect e-book reader. The Pearl e-ink screen is of the de facto standard 6” size, with a 200+ dpi resolution resulting in print like readability and is the best of the current Kindle readers. There is also a special LED and fibre optics based backlight that can be adjusted to enable reading in poor lighting situations. In fact you can either turn off the light completely or turn it up to get rid of glare in most situations. While the first generation device had some complaints due to the non-uniform lighting in some devices, the second generation device has addressed this issue. Then there is also the touchscreen that makes for speedy navigation and organization of your collection. There are however no physical page turning buttons unlike the other Kindles, and this remains a bone of contention for some users. The touchscreen itself is not capacitive, but IR based due to which it can be activated by inadvertent contact with objects. It also supports multi touch (only 2 points though), and this can be used to adjust font size.

The device as a whole is quite lightweight (a little over 200 g which is around 50% heavier than a typical smartphone) and feels quite good in hand even though it is made of plastic with rounded edges. This also means that in case you doze off while reading on the bed, you are less likely to end up with injuries than your metallic tablets like the iPads. The Kindle Paperwhite has just one hardware button that functions as the power button. Apart from this the micro-USB port is the only discontinuity in the body. The device comes with just a USB cable in the box, and Amazon assumes that you have sufficient adapters at home to take care of the charging. Any standard USB adapter should do the trick for charging, and this is something that you will not need to do very often. Unlike smartphones with their daily and tablets with their near weekly charging requirements, the Kindle Paperwhite follows in its predecessor’s footsteps and gives a battery life of a month or more depending on usage. It’s been about 2 months since I bought my Kindle Paperwhite and have charged it twice thus far while having read over a dozen books.

The on device storage is just 2 GB with 1.25 GB usable for storing books. While that seems paltry by smartphone and tablet standards, e-books are typically text only and require very little storage space and the device should be able to comfortably accommodate hundreds of books, if not over a thousand. The Kindle Paperwhite also comes in 2 variants – Wi-Fi only and 3G, with a 20-30% premium for the latter. The 3G model is useful if you want to get hold of books on the go, but there are limits on the amount of data you can use per month since it comes with the connection built in (effectively Amazon subsidized) and you do not need to put in any SIM to use the network.

Getting content on the device is quite simple – just purchase your books from the Kindle bookstore. You can also side-load your own books into the device by connecting it to your PC, and add online articles and documents through mail.

Software

The Kindle Paperwhite user interface is pretty simple to use and there is a brief walkthrough of the features on your first power up. The home screen can be configured to display the covers of your book library or just a title list. The interaction is mostly gesture based with the screen split into 3 tap zones while reading – the top brings up the menu, the right 2/3 for page turning and left 1/3 for turning back. You can also swipe up-down\left-right to progress through lists. You can also organize your library into collections, which is particularly useful for large libraries. The top menu serves as a navigation system with a home and back button, a button to adjust the backlight, open up the Kindle Store and other menu items including font settings. There is also an experimental browser that you can use for web browsing in a pinch, along with social media integration to share snippets from the content you are reading.

The X-ray feature is also quite useful, particularly when you are reading books that have lots of characters and places. X-ray gives you snippets on the characters as they appear in the book along with visualization of areas where they feature. The second generation Paperwhite also has GoodReads integration for additional information on books, page flip that allows you to literally flip through the book without moving away from the page you are reading. You can also look up definitions of words and phrases in the built in dictionary and refer to Wikipedia as well. The touchscreen is quite handy for this purpose, and can also be used to highlight portions of the text.

The software on the whole is quite non-intrusive and fades into the background once you get reading and turning the pages which is precisely the reason for getting an e-book reader.

Amazon Kindle Store

The Kindle Paperwhite and other Kindle devices are but one side of the Amazon value proposition. The real reason why Amazon is producing the Kindle devices and selling them at a nominal profit is to rope you into their ecosystem which in this case is the Kindle bookstore. In fact, Amazon does not mind you using a different device like your smartphone or tablet as long as you are buying content from their bookstore. This is the reason they have got a Kindle App for every major platform including iOS, Android and Windows Phone. The devices and apps also sync your reading progress through the cloud, so you can continue reading from where you left off as long as you are signed in to your Amazon account.

Amazon has tuned the Kindle Store experience to minimize the amount of time you need to wait to start reading the book of your choice. Not only can you buy books directly from the Kindle Paperwhite when connected to a network, but you can also buy from the Amazon website and have it delivered to the device of your choice. In case you are unsure of the book content, you can also sample the first few pages for free. While this may not be a perfect substitute for flipping through a book in a physical store, the overall experience is a comprehensive improvement. Just the way Amazon revolutionized e-commerce, the Kindle Store lets you sample, buy and then start reading the book of your choice in the matter of a few minutes without stepping outside of what you were doing.

The Kindle US Store has been around for a while, but the Indian version launched only last year with e-books priced very aggressively – well below paperback editions. Many a times you will find bestsellers and popular books including new releases available at a fraction of paperback costs. The range is also extensive, and includes a good variety of Indian authors in addition to the typical international catalogue. There are also a range of photo heavy books available along with comics and graphic novels. These are however consumed best on large colour screen tablets due to their fixed layout. To round off the content availability, you can also subscribe to blogs, newspapers and magazines.

Conclusion

Amazon has completely transformed the way we purchase and read books over the years. It started off as one of the first successful online stores selling books, and then made e-books mainstream through the Kindle e-ink readers and the Kindle Store. Granted that a dedicated e-book reader may not be for everyone, especially when it is priced around Rs 10,000. This is the reason that Amazon also has the regular Kindle priced at a little over half of the Kindle Paperwhite for budget conscious readers. That device sacrifices the touchscreen and backlight along with some software features. In case you are looking for a general purpose device that also serves as a reader, Amazon has got you covered with the Kindle Fire devices that start just above the Kindle Paperwhite’s price.

That said, the Kindle Paperwhite in tandem with the massive collection in form of the Kindle Store makes for a very attractive value proposition. The device has an excellent backlit, sharp, paper-like screen with a multi-week battery life in a compact and lightweight form populated by the best bookstore in the world. If you have the budget, the Kindle Paperwhite is the best reading experience you can buy this year.

Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in On the Rox magazine

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So you got a DSLR

It has been a while since my first 2 posts on this topic, but better late than never. A DSLR is a powerful tool no doubt, but it can seem intimidating at first with its gamut of controls. The OEMs have tried to ease the learning curve for first time DSLR users by providing a bunch of automatic modes just as in Point & Shoot cameras. These modes make for a good starting point for starting your photography journey and get you acclimatized to the controls of your new camera. Today’s DSLRs give pretty good results in typical scenes that you want to shoot. However, there will be situations where the automatic modes will fail to give you the desired results. These are the times for which you need to prepare yourself, and some basic understanding of the way your camera works and photography is going to prove very helpful. To unlock the true potential of your DSLR you will of course have to switch to the semi-automatic and manual modes eventually. The first thing you need to do is master the basics of not just your camera, but also photography in general. There are a wealth of resources online and tons of books on the topic, and I will try to guide you to some of the ones that I found useful.

A couple of key concepts to understand:

  1. The exposure triangle that relates the 3 key parameters – aperture, shutter speed and ISO – is one of the key concepts behind image making. Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Exposure is the best book in this regard and explains the key concepts in a very easy to understand manner with lots of examples.
  2. Metering modes and learning to read your cameras exposure meter (particularly important when using the advanced controls).

Now that you have understood a couple of basic concepts, don’t forget that every camera comes with this wonderful free book that contains a wealth of information about the controls and how to use them. Not many people end up reading it though as it is not presented in the most attractive of formats. Yes, I’m talking about the manual that came with your camera and it can actually answer a lot of questions that you have initially. In most cases, there should also be an electronic version of the manual and you could do worse than to copy it to your smartphone and\or tablet to have a ready reference with you. In case you are looking for a more attractive and easier to read package, there is also a series called From Snapshots to Great Shots for most of the recent models, and you can get hold of the version for your camera. It also goes without saying that practice is the best teacher, and the digital medium lends itself naturally to the trial and error technique of shooting.

This information should help you get started with your shiny new DSLR. Also, keep in mind that just because you are trying to master the basics does not mean that you should not check out the advanced modes and controls. So go ahead and explore your camera, and I will try to whip up a few posts (hopefully quicker than this post) on how to get better results.

Most Reviewed Amazon Book?

I was wondering which was the most reviewed book on Amazon and came across this list on the site (been a while since its been updated though). It seems that the first Harry Potter book is most probably the most reviewed product with over 7000 reviews of which nearly 6000 are 5 stars. Interestingly, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix had more reviews at the time the list was last updated (in 2008).

Wonder whether there are any other books\products with a higher number of reviews…

Amazon.com: Customer Reviews: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Book 1.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians, the tech discontinuity & more

Have you found it odd that the first book (The Lightning Thief) in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series is bereft of cell phone references? I certainly did, and found a likely explanation in the series’ wikipedia page – the book was written in the mid 1990s (Rick Riordan completed the manuscript in 1994), but published only in 2005. Those were the days when cell phones were a lot less commonplace, and kids certainly did not carry them around. In fact, it was probably not that common among adults either. However, the remaining books more than make up for this technology gap (and even offer a post facto explanation for demi-gods not carrying cell phones).

Coming to the series itself, Percy Jackson and the Olympians was one of the first series that I have read from start to end after the Harry Potter series ended. Incidentally, I also happened to buy all of the books from the Kindle Store and read it across 3-4 devices (on my Samsung Galaxy S & iPod Touch using the Kindle Apps, and my laptop using Amazon’s Cloud Reader – the furthest read location sync is really handy). This was one of the rare times that I also happened to watch the movie before reading the book (unlike Harry Potter, LOTR etc.). I did like the movie when I saw it – quite entertaining with a bunch of special effects.

However, after reading the book and the entire series, the differences stand out and makes me wonder if they even intend to make movies from the remaining books. And the differences run far deeper than Percy’s pen-sword being a click type vs. a capped one. They’ll really need to rewrite the entire series if they want to bring out sequels, particularly because the main characters are a lot older (already look to be past their 16th birthdays), there’s no Oracle to give out prophecies and the key antagonist – Kronos – is not featured in any way (the latter two could be retrofitted I suppose). I also wonder how Percy is going to take the dip in River Styx when Charon seems to be ferrying people across thin air. The movie however went all out on the tech front with Percy using an iPod Touch as a mirror to defeat Medusa.

Getting back to the books, there’s another bit that seemed a bit forced and that was the reference to 9/11 and Ground Zero in the later parts (Annabeth’s dream of building a structure on Ground Zero) while it doesn’t come up in the Lightning Thief. This is another piece that gives away the fact that the first part was completed much before the others, and might have even had a reference to the Twin Towers in it which was subsequently edited out.

All said and done, the series did make me interested in Greek mythology and had me return to playing Titan Quest (Steam had a sale which coincided with my book reading, and I got Titan Quest & its expansion for $5) and long for Age of Mythology. Now, if only there were some Percy Jackson mods for these games…

Nooks, books & helpdesks

I was going through Engadget’s review of the nook and it reminded me of a youtube video I had seen a few years back titled “Medieval help desk”. With so many e-book readers on the market today like the Kindle, nook & Sony Reader, we’re definitely seeing a paradigm shift in the way most of us consume books. The whole user experience is transforming, and I’m quite sure that we could easily upgrade this video spoofing the introduction of books to the introduction of e-book readers. No matter what happens, enjoy the video 🙂