Electronic books have been around for ages - I was paying for them back in 1999 and classics have been available electronically for at least 40 years, thanks to Project Gutenberg. But it's only recently that they've become a mass market, and this is largely down to Amazon's Kindle. Oh sure, there are lots of other "e-readers", but the Kindle is the market leader.
The last couple of years have, not coincidentally, seen an explosion of independent authors. Now that you don't need to print books, many authors who don't already have publication contracts are cutting out that particular middleman and self-publishing, using Amazon for distribution.
The Kindle and Amazon ecosystem does, of course, have drawbacks. But by getting e-books out into the mainstream, something that normal people read and not just weird geeks, Amazon have enabled other sources of e-books to exist. Remember how cider used to be marginalised until Magners came along with their bloody awful pap and their enormous advertising budget? They made cider mainstream, and created a market for smaller producers of better-quality products. Amazon's mainstreaming of e-books has enabled sites like Smashwords to also take off. Most indie authors who self-publish on the Kindle also use sites like Smashwords to sell to users of non-Kindle devices.
And now, the Kindle has launched in India. India is, as well as being the world's greatest democracy, the largest English-speaking country. I'm confident that the Kindle in India will precipitate a boom in electronic self-publishing there just as it has in the US and UK. And, of course, they'll want to sell world wide and won't have any idiot publishers to stop them. I'm looking forward to it!
I've had my Kindle for a few months now and, as promised, here's a review.
There are now several models of Kindle available, of which two are available in the UK. Other parts of the world have other models available which may be cheaper but are also infested with adverts and therefore are crap. Of the two now available in the UK, I've only used what they now call the "Kindle Keyboard", so please bear that in mind when reading this. That model is £60 more expensive than the keyboard-less version, but as well as the keyboard it also has a 3G connection so you can download books (and, of course, pay for books) on the move, it has somewhat better battery life (I charge mine overnight once every few weeks - it would be more like once a week if I left the 3G and Wifi connections up all the time), and it has twice as much storage. Of course, for books you don't need much storage. The 2GB in the keyboard-less model is enough for hundreds of books, and the extra storage will only really matter if you use it for audio-books, which are not available on the keyboard-less model.
The Kindle is great and I love it. If you read a lot you'll be familiar with the problem of having to carry several books with you when you go on holiday, or two with you on the journey to work in case you finish one in mid-travel. I now have a dozen or so books loaded on my Kindle, plus a few short stories, some magazines, and essays. Many of them were free - either free from Amazon's website, or from places like Project Gutenberg or Baen Books, or downloaded from other random websites. Having all of Project Gutenberg available on demand in my pocket is awesome.
[added 30 Mar 2012] It is also really good for discovering new authors - both those that are new to me and also those that are new to writing. Amazon does a pretty decent job of recommending things to me based on my purchase history, and once you start reading a fewauthors'blogs you'll soon find a rich seam of references to other authors from people you trust, and links to books posted for free online. And those online books will mostly be in formats that you can easily put on your Kindle.
So why only three stars? There are all kinds of niggling little problems. Some are design flaws in the Kindle hardware, some are software bugs and poor user interface design, and some are inherent limitations in media which have Digital Restrictions Management. Let's look at those in reverse order.
The Kindle can read DRM-free books from third-parties in a number of common formats just fine. However, books bought from Amazon are infected with DRM. While it can be easily stripped out, this really shouldn't be necessary. All DRM schemes are doomed to failure, and yet users who wish to move their books to a better device (and you can bet that someone will come out with something better in the future) have to go through this annoying dance. E-book vendors (well, most of them - Baen are a splendid counter-example) insist that you mustn't lend your books to your friends or sell them second-hand. You can, of course, if you strip out the DRM. Publishers only harm themselves by preventing lending, as this means that I can't so easily introduce someone to a new author. It's less obvious, but killing off the second-hand market will also harm them in the long term. When I was young and didn't have much money, I bought second-hand almost exclusively. Second-hand books got me hooked on reading. These days I buy new almost all the time. I wouldn't read as much now - and hence spend as much money with publishers - if I hadn't got hooked on cheap drugs second-hand books. And even for well-off readers, the second-hand market is a good way for people to find out about authors they hadn't previously read.
DRM is closely related to the problem that some books are only available in some countries. This is because authors sell rights to different publishers in different places. However, surely if this were actually enforceable I wouldn't be able to buy US editions of paper books in the UK, and people in the US wouldn't be able to buy UK editions. And yet that works just fine. There is no reason for these stupid geographical restrictions. This plagued DVD sales early on until region-cracking hardware and software became common-place, but these days there's nothing stopping people from buying "US-only" DVDs in the UK through Amazon's website so their enforceing this for e-books is stupid. They should use their muscle to slap the publishers into line and make them get rid of this idiocy.
On to the software bugs. There is at least one really nasty bug to do with wireless networks which Amazon must know about - it's all over their user support forums - but don't seem to care about fixing, and the user interface seems to be a bit obtuse. You would think that the UI tools for getting books onto the Kindle and for deleting them would be close to each other, but they're not. To get a book onto the Kindle, press the Menu button, then navigate to the Kindle Store. To get a book off the Kindle, you'd think that you want to go into that menu, but no, you have to do a funny dance with the arrow keys on the home screen. There are lots of other little UI niggles too, the worst being the on-screen menus for typing punctuation characters and numbers when annotating a book. The damned thing has a shift key for typing capitals, so why the hell doesn't it have another meta key for typing symbols? This is bad UI design plain and simple, and I dread to think what it's like on the keyboard-less version.
Another serious UI problem is that organising books into "collections" is fiddly, and can only be done via the Kindle's built-in software. It would work much better if you could mount the Kindle as a drive on your computer (you can) and then organise books into folders (you can't). And if you're going to have many hundred books on the device at once, a thousand or more even, like Amazon say you can, being able to organise them easily and effectively is essential. This UI flaw effectively makes it impractical to have more than a few dozen books on the device at once, which also means that having gigabytes of memory is pointless. Half a gig would be fine, and would make it a few quid cheaper.
And finally, the big hardware bug. The e-ink screen is very good indeed. It's clear, high-contrast, and can be read easily under all lighting conditions that you could read a paper book. It is also fragile and unprotected. The fragile pixels of an LCD display are at least protected behind a sheet of glass or plastic, but the e-ink display is right on the surface with only the thinnest covering layer. This makes it very vulnerable to damage. I'm on my second Kindle already, the first breaking after just a couple of months. I have no idea how I managed to break the screen - I didn't bash it hard, or sit on it, I just carried it in my pocket like people do in Amazon's own adverts for the silly thing - but it broke anyway. This would seem to be a very common failure mode, by far the most common amongst Kindle users I've spoken to, and one with which Amazon's customer support staff are very familiar judging by how fast they said they'd send me a replacement. Given that incredibly quick replacement I don't actually fault them for this, I just think it's something you need to be aware of.
Let's compare the models. Starting with the cheap keyboard-less model as a baseline, what extras do you get in the more expensive model? More memory, but that's only useful for audio books, so most people won't use it. A keyboard, which I use for making notes as I'm reading, but which is also nigh-on essential if you want to shop for books on the Kindle itself. 3G, which is useful for when you are away from a proper network. Of course, the lack of 3G on the cheap model means that you're less likely to be able to shop for books on it too - a network connection and a keyboard, in the form of a proper computer, tend to go together!
Do I recommend a Kindle? Yes, with reservations. The fragile screen is a problem, mostly mitigated by excellent customer service, although it might be more serious if you didn't have good access to a postal service such as if you spend lots of time travelling or live somewhere very remote. The software problems can be worked around but they, in conjunction with the fragility, mean that I think of the Kindle as being more of a prototype than a finished, polished product. DRM isn't much of an issue as it is easily worked around. The inability to legally lend a book to a friend or sell your books second-hand is a big drawback, although this affects all of the Kindle's competitors too.
First, the shite ones, that you should under no circumstances buy:
Motorola HT820: I found these just plain uncomfortable, and painful to wear for more than a few minutes.
Cheap crappy no-name junk: designed for midgets, can't be used by normal people because you can't have them on both ears at the same time.
Then on to the adequate pair. The Sony DR BT 21 G costs about £65 new, is pretty comfortable and works well, but they have a quality control problem. The first pair that I bought only worked on one side. Back it went to the vendor. The second just stopped working and wouldn't recharge juuuuust after the guarantee expired. It's possible that I just got unlucky, of course, but I'd be very wary about buying these again, at least not unless I bought them from a very reputable dealer and with a five year guarantee. Another potential issue (which I didn't run into because they broke before then) is that the foam pads appear to be the same as on a similar pair of Sony wired headphones that I have. Those have, over the course of about 5 or 6 years, completely disintegrated. You might want to consider these if the Sennheisers below are out of your price range, but note my warnings about quality.
Finally, the star of the show. The Sennheiser MM 400 is pricey at £160, but (provided they're reliable - I've only had them for a few months so far) worth it. They have an expandable band so will fit anyone; they are very comfortable to wear, even over a hearing aid, demonstrating that they put pressure in just the right places on the more solid parts of the ear and don't try to bend the fleshy parts out of shape; they grip the head well, and are perfectly stable even when worn with the band around the back of the neck, so the whole weight is supported by the earpieces' grip on your ears; they don't leak sound to annoy the person sitting next to you on the bus. They can also be used as a headset for making phone calls, although with no mic boom they don't do a great job of picking up your voice, and I wouldn't recommend buying them as a headset. I do, however, recommend them for use primarily as headphones and occasional phone calls.
Posted at 20:33
by David Cantrell keywords: electronics
I'm going to post a detailed review of the iPad at some point, but for now, here's a review of Terra, a third-party web browser.
Of course, underneath it just uses the same libraries as Safari, and so will render pages in the same way, because Apple, in their wisdom, don't allow third-party renderers. Even so, it's a dramatic improvement over Safari. The Safari page-rendering engine really isn't that bad, Readdle have just wrapped a better user interface around it.
The iPad's built-in browser has two huge flaws: the first is that it doesn't handle multiple pages well, presenting them in much the same way as the iPhone browser does. On the iPhone, which doesn't have room for multiple tabs, that made sense, but on the iPad leaving out tabs is just plain stupid. It's especially stupid when you limit the number of pages that the user can have open at once, although that bug can be fixed if you jailbreak your device. I have jailbroken my phone, but not the iPad, partly because there's less need to, but also because the iPad jailbreaks aren't quite as robust, and the third-party software that you then get to install is also not as robust on the larger device.
The second huge flaw in the iPad's implementation of Safari is uterly inexcusable. It's been a standard feature since the very first days of the World Wide Web, 20 years ago. I refer, of course, to being able to find text in a page. Why Apple didn't bother to implement this is beyond me.
Terra has neither of these stupid flaws, and is therefore infinitely better.
The only problem I've found with Terra is one that is beyond Readdle's control: that you can't make it the system default browser, so that third-party apps will open pages in Terra instead of in Safari. And for this reason alone it doesn't get five stars. It's still, of course, well worth downloading and using, especially considering that it's free.
Readdle are also responsive to users' queries. I've already asked them for a new feature, the ability to somehow save pages and transfer them to other devices. I'm told that they've already added it to their to-do list.
A couple of weeks ago I upgraded my iPhone 3GS from OS 3.something to the shiny new iOS 4. There are two significant changes as far as I'm concerned from the 3.x series, and two minor changes that are worth mentioning, plus a bunch of stupid irrelevant crap like being able to have background images (in fact I think you have to have a background image now). I wouldn't have bothered upgrading, except that an app that I use quite a lot required a newer version of the OS.
First the minor changes. Their mail client can now talk to my mail server without shitting in its pants. It's still a crappy user interface for email though - pretty much unusable IMO, so I don't use it, which is why it's only half a change. But hey, it's an improvement. It's an improvement from "actively hostile malware" to "unusable rubbish". And hidden away in a dark corner is an option to disable screen rotation. I had that already because I'd jailbroken, but it's nice to have it in the core OS instead of having to install yet another third-party hack.
Then we get to two big features which I actually had previously, but only because I'd jailbroken my phone. They're probably the two big ones that people jailbroke for in the past, although as we'll see there are still good reasons for jailbreaking.
On version 3, you pretty much needed to jailbreak and install CategoriesSB (or the free but slower Categories), because otherwise you have no real way of organising your applications - and when you have forty or so apps installed, you really do need some organisation lest you spend all your time hunting back and forth through eleventy million screens of icons. iOS 4 adds folders, which work pretty much identically to CategoriesSB, only they're far easier to manage and set up in the first place.
The other biggy for which tons of people jailbroke the older OS was Backgrounder, which allowed you to put an application into the background. This is very important for things like when you're running an ssh client but need to look something up in another application - maybe using the web browser, or looking up a password in something like Keeper. It's also useful for applications which take a fair amount of time to start up, or which don't maintain their state properly when you exit. Apple didn't implement this, using the excuses that it would eat battery and make your phone run slow. To a certain extent that's true - there were a few times when I had several apps running in the background and my phone ran slowly. Mind you the only way I could really tell it was slow was because all the eye-candy animations got a bit jerky, which doesn't matter. And yes, if I were to background something like the Magnatune app and leave it streaming music over 3G, then it would chew through the battery pretty quickly. But you know what? I chose to do that, knowing what would happen. The benefits outweighed the costs. Apple should have let their users make that choice themselves, maybe warning about the costs when the user turned on that optional feature.
So, now the iPhone has multitasking that is officially blessed by Apple. And unfortunately Apple have not done a very good job of it. Instead of me choosing to background particular applications only when I want to, it seems that just about every application uses this feature, even apps that have no use for it whatsoever. For instance, my address book goes into the background instead of exiting. Video games do too. And boy does this have its effects! Remember that Apple were so concerned about battery life and performance? Well, battery life with iOS 4 is considerably worse than before. It's common now for me to leave home in the morning with a full battery and get home with only 20-something %, where before that was very rare indeed. And with far more apps chuntering away in the background (because they all just do it all the time instead of me choosing to do it with just one or two apps for only a few minutes) there really is a performance hit. Apple fucked this up bigtime, and should have just either bought Backgrounder or cloned it.
So Apple get, out of two available full points and two available half points ... one and a half points.
There are still some important misfeatures and missing features which really should have been fixed way back in version 2, if not earlier.
status bar still doesn't show things like whether you're in silent mode or have any missed calls (for this you need to install Status Notifier Fix after jailbreaking, although it still won't show whether you're in silent mode because Apple broke something between OS 3 and 4);
access to common settings is still too slow and fiddly, made faster by jailbreaking and installing SBSettings. And now that iOS 4's retarded multitasking is such a battery hog, it's even more important to be able to easily turn on and off other battery hogs like Wifi and Bluetooth only when needed;
still no to-do list. WTF? Thankfully, there's Toodledo, but having this built-in is pretty much mandatory for something that's meant to work as a PDA as well as a phone.
Posted at 20:43
by David Cantrell keywords: electronics
In previous installments I have touched briefly on the App Store and on multi-tasking. I shall now criticise in more depth.
In the past, I have criticised attempts to put Linux (for example) on phones, saying that for the sort of limited user interface that is possible on such a small device, a full-blown multi-user OS like Linux is pointless overkill. I now realise that I was - at least a little bit - wrong. While multi-user is indeed pointless, with multi-user comes multi-tasking, which is far from pointless. Yes, a small screen means you can only realistically expect to see one app at a time, but that doesn't mean you don't want to have more than one running at a time. On the iPhone, some of the built-in apps can run in the background, demonstrating that it can indeed multi-task*. And this is useful. I can, for example, start a large web page downloading, then switch to another app for a bit, and then when I later switch back to Safari, the page has loaded. Most apps wouldn't benefit from this. There is, for example, nothing for my to-do list to get on with when I'm not interacting with it. But some apps really would benefit from being able to run in the background. An ssh client, for example, for those times when I want to switch to another app to look up a password.
There is no good reason for Apple to prevent third-party applications from being backgrounded. Oh, people might talk about there being insufficient memory to run lots of applications at once, or how much battery it would suck, but those are bogus arguments. Safari will let you have as many complex web pages open as you like, sucking up all the memory, and you can run the battery-hungry iPod application in the background. And if resource constraints really were a problem, it could always notify the user when he asked his phone to do something it couldn't.
Onto other matters for which there is no good reason for Apple to behave the way it does. The App Store. Unless you jailbreak your phone, the only way to get applications onto it is via Apple's online "App Store". And to get your app onto the App Store, you need to pay Apple an up-front fee, let them vet your application, and - if you charge for the application - pay Apple a percentage. Of these, only the third one is entirely justified.
First of all, the up-front fee: this supposedly acts as a barrier to keep free crap off the phones. But it doesn't. There are lots of crappy applications, both free and payware. And in any case, that's what Apple's application vetting procedures are meant to be all about. All the fee does is prevent people from giving away really good apps. On PalmOS, there were loads of really good free apps, often very specialised. One of my favourites was Tide Tool, which I used to figure out when would be a good time to go to the beach. I know that if I had a similarly cool app that I wanted to give away, I wouldn't pay USD100 for the privelege.
Second, their vetting of applications: this would be a good idea if done right. For example, someone's first application should be vetted rigourously for spyware and bugs, and it's reasonable to expect this to take a certain amount of time - even several weeks. Second and subsequent apps should likewise be vetted for obvious bugs. But Apple also take several weeks to approve of bug fixes. Within the first week of me getting my iPhone, I reported serious bugs in two applications. One crashed and lost data under certain circumstances, the other is a public transport route-planner that contained out-of-date routing data. That was two months ago. Both application authors thanked me for the bug reports. Both apps are still buggy, because the fixed versions are still awaiting Apple's blessing. So because of Apple's disfunctional "quality control" vetting procedure, Apple's users are at danger of losing their data and being sent to the wrong places. They really need to sort that out.
But notwithstanding all those criticisms, there are some very good applications available. I'll list just a few of them that I think you might find useful:
Route planner for London public transport. Not just for buses, although it has special features for them, it also works for tubes and trains, looking at timetables to find the quickest route for your chosen departure/arrival time;
Live scorecards from internationals and English domestic first-class games. I'm really surprised that Cricinfo don't have something like this, but their app is rubbish, only covering internationals;
There are also loads of good games. I found this quite surprising, but the iPhone turns out to be a very good video games platform. This is mostly because it is so resource-constrained - a small screen, limited controls, limited CPU - that game designers are concentrating on game play again, and not just on who can shit out the most pixels per second in yet another tiresome sub-standard overly-complex Doom-clone with eleventy-million controls. I'm particularly fond of Flight Control, Harbor (sic) Master, Geared, Tower Bloxx, and Brick Breaker, all of which are dirt cheap and I encourage you to visit the EVIL BROKEN HATEFUL App Store and check them out.
* if you jailbreak your phone, other apps can be made to do this too
Posted at 14:50
by David Cantrell keywords: electronics
Over all, the user interface is good. It's uncluttered, and navigation is easy, but some features are rather poorly implemented.
Managing settings could be better organised. Apple provide a way for applications to drop their own "preference panes" into the global Settings application. Unfortunately, not all apps actually do this - some have it as a seperate screen inside the app - so unless you remember which app works which way, you have to guess which is which. I can see why Apple let apps stuff their preferences into the Settings app, but if that's what they want developers to do then they should enforce it. That sort of quality control is what their acting as gatekeeper to the App Store should be all about. My own preference, however, would be for apps to not do that. Given that third-party apps can't run in the background, then changing settings inside the app is most sensible, as when you realise you need to change a setting, you wouldn't have to quit the app, go elsewhere to fiddle with it, then start the app again.
Those poorly implemented bits of the user interface are many, and I'll just mention a couple of them. Most of them are simply to do with features being entirely undocumented, with no visual cues that they might exist. For example, if you want to type é, it's easy, you just hold your finger down on e on the on-screen keyboard until a little menu pops up, then slide your finger to the right letter. This is so useful, but I only discovered it by accident.
And then there's the terrible implementation of copy and paste. The much-vaunted cut-n-paste that Apple unaccountably left out of earlier versions but now trumpet as being a reason to buy from them (as if no-one else offered it!) relies on you double-tapping the screen very precisely. Given that you have to use the fleshy part of your fingertip and not a stylus, this is almost impossible, and so it's a lottery whether you get the cut/copy/paste popup, or the select all popup, or whether it selects some random blob of text and gives you the cut/copy/paste popup. Madness. What's wrong with having a drop-down menu at the top of the screen and mandating that applications leave that area alone? That area normally contains a clock, battery level indicator, and signal strength indicator, so that's Useful Information that should be left alone anyway.
Posted at 19:39
by David Cantrell keywords: electronics
PIM stands for Personal Information Management, one of the key features of any smart-phone. I am perhaps rather spoiled by coming from the Palm world, which is generally very highly regarded for the quality of its PIM applications. But even so, the iPhone is supposed to be better than the Palm, and it certainly competes with Palm - even if Palm haven't released a new smart-phone in years - and so I think it's fair to compare the two.
There are three main categories of data that a PIM needs to handle: a diary, a list of contacts, and to-do lists. A modern smart-phone also normally adds email. Of those, to-do lists are completely missing from the iPhone. The list of contacts is done well, and integrates nicely with the phone side of things and with email. The diary is adequate, although with problems, and the email client is just awful.
Thankfully, you can fix one of those problems by downloading one of many third-party to-do list applications from the App Store. I chose Toodle-do, mostly because it's about the cheapest you can find that has the crucial feature of notifying me when one of my tasks is overdue.
The diary works, but has one fairly serious problem compared to the Palm. Namely, it isn't possible to add an alarm to all new events by default - you have to remember to add them by hand; and when you do add an alarm, you are restricted in when you can have them. In the Palm world, you can set an alarm for anything between 1 and 99 minutes, or 1 and 99 hours, or even 1 and 99 days before an event. On the iPhone you are restricted to 5 minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, one or two hours, or one or two days. Ludicrous! It's especially ludicrous when the iPhone does in fact support other alarm times, you just have to set them using iCal on your desktop. How hard could it have been to let the user set them on the phone too?
The email application is just terrible. And it could be fixed so easily. When you configure it to use an IMAP mail server, the first thing it does is scan all the folders it can find, and build up a tree of what's available so that you can then subscribe to those mailboxes you want to have on your phone. Trouble is, if like me you have a lot of mailboxes (and things it thinks are mailboxes but aren't, they're just stored alongside them) it takes a long time to build that tree, and sometimes the app crashes. Worse, if it does successfully build the tree, it then displays it with everything fully expanded. This is obviously unusable when there are several thousand items in the tree it has erroneously built! A simple solution, one used by other clients such as Thunderbird, would be to only scan the level of the tree that is currently selected. This would save memory (which is in short supply on the iPhone) as well as improving the user experience by making it appear faster and be easier to navigate. Thankfully, it can cope with a Gmail account. And while I would never use Gmail to receive mail - what? give a company that might lose interest in the service, in a foreign country which has no effective privacy laws, access to all my personal mail? I think not! - it's usable for sending the occasional message.
Posted at 14:00
by David Cantrell keywords: electronics
Fed up with waiting for Palm to release their shiny new phone which has been promised for ages but doesn't actually exist yet, and being impressed by some of the apps available, I decided to get myself an iPhone 3GS. Over the next few days and weeks I'll post several short reviews of various bits of its functionality.
First up, the "iPod" functionality. Apple claim that the iPhone is also an iPod - "it's a phone, an iPod and an internet device in one". I suppose this is the first and most obvious lie I've found in all their blurb about it. It quite clearly can not be used as an iPod, because it doesn't have the capacity to store all my music (unlike an iPod) and has no "shuffle albums" feature. So I'll need to carry an iPod as well. Not that that's a problem, I knew I'd have to do that because of the very small storage capacity, but having no album shuffle is a serious design flaw. I'm sure that the sort of achingly hip people who work at Apple don't realise this, because they only listen to "hip-hop", and so 99% of their songs sound exactly the same. But it's kinda important for those of us who listen to actual music. It is important to listen to a symphony from start to finish before automatically moving on to the next work.
But good news on the ipod front, having an ipod-like device with a big screen has made me realise what podcasts are all about. My journeys to work for the next few days are going to be enlivened by Mr. Deity.
USB memory sticks are normally touted as being small and convenient, despite not being so at all. Most are quite large. This one, however, is just half the size of an SD card and easily fits in your wallet. And if The Man is breaking down your door, it's small enough to swallow. It's definitely worth paying a bit extra for something this small.
Posted at 22:38
by David Cantrell keywords: electronics