Experiences in using the Kindle

Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 13:52:10

So some initial experiences in working with the Kindle….. I don’t read many novels and, if you borrow heavily from a library, then this isn’t for you. You have to buy books (unless they are free from copyright). But that wasn’t why I bought a Kindle. Rather how good would it be for reading journal articles and marking student essays. The answer is somewhat more mixed and is also heavily linked to file formats. Out-of-the-box there is support for MobiPocket (MOBI,PRC) which Amazon bought back in 2005, their own AZW, Topaz (TPZ) and text files. These donot have the idea of a page per se, so you change font size and spacing and then get the text to reflow. Of course when it comes to reading journal articles and essays they won’t be in these formats (and there certainly isn’t any support for Word documents!). PDFs are by far the most common distribution medium, but these are directly linked to page size; it is a physical description of a single page which means text can’t reflow and therefore text size and spacing can’t be changed. What you see is what you get and because the Kindle screen is sized for a standard novel, anything bigger needs some kind of compromise to maintain the same reading experience (unless you go and buy the Kindle DX!). Of course you could put up with the smaller text. Most journals seem to print at either A4 or something akin to Metric Crown Quarto (not sure exactly what the page size is though). 12-pt type on A4 reproduces reasonably well and is certainly readable. Many journals have switched to newspaper-style columns on A4 and this is certainly too small.

As I suggested in the earlier post, you can simply rotate the screen and this makes A4 pages eminently readable, although again not newspaper columns. Kindles allow you to zoom in and out and then scroll around the screen. Unfortunately they split the screen up in to “regions” and if you column spans a region you will constantly be flipping backwards and forwards to read it. Another option would have been to “remove” the whitespace (or border) around the edge of the page. Many PDFs will come with the default 1” on either side. “Auto-zooming” to remove these would help, but unfortunately PDF support is still in early days (it was introduced November 2009) and won’t do this. Which means that reading newspaper columns is not satisfactory.

What about student essays? Well my students submit PDFs directly to Turn It In which are then made available for download. They are all A4 and usually use the default Microsoft Word formatting: which means 12pt or 11pt Arial type. Certainly no problem reading that in landscape on the kindle. Of course the alternative is to stipulate the use of a template. I put this together principally using these suggestions (for vertical page viewing):

  • 8.5 cm wide x 11.4 cm tall and 0 margin. View as “fit-to-width”.
  • “Fit-to-width” affects font size, but the template seems pretty close to a good reading size. I selected 9pt, with a line spacing using a 1.15 multiplier
  • It was tempting to go for 12pt; this seemed big to me. I was also conscious that students often put figures in and the relative font/page size might limit this. I’ll make this an option to see if students prefer this.

The Kindle also allows you to make notes in the document. This is all very well and good except that you cant feed this back unless the student has a Kindle reader or software (for example Windows or Android). Again, something for future trials.

All of the above is focused upon my use of the Kindle, but there seems to be increasingly traction amongst students. For our distance learning MSc there is potentially the option to make Kindle’s available to students, pre-loaded with introductory materials, modules and text books. Even better, because of the “push” nature of linked email address, new documents can be sent directly to the devices. This really does start to open up all sorts of opportunities.

Main Apps for Android

Monday, January 17, 2011 at 09:12:56

Following on from yesterday’s post, here’s a list of other apps I’ve installed on Android:

Quick Office: free version fine for opening and editing office documents
K9 Mail: open-source email client based upon upon the stock Mail application. Very good for handling large volumes of emails and highly configurable. Comes and goes from MarketPlace so check out its homeapge
Thinking Space: fantastic mind mapping app. Really well designed and delivered and fully compatible with FreeMind files
BBC News (Slackersoft): great for catching up on latest BBC headlines
Google Reader: surprisingly good RSS reader. OK, you need a Google account, but stays fully synced. Just works.
Repligo: I’ve been a long-time Repligo user having installed it on Palm. It is a very efficient PDF reader: if you work with PDFs alot then its worth paying for.
Ted (Text Editor): nice simple text editor that is simple and works well. Used for writing blogs etc.
AndFTP: good FTP client. Fast, simple to use; does the job
MortPlayer: still in beta, but a simple mp3 player. If, like me, you store albums in directories then this works well
Vital Player: media player
BBC Weather: simple weather display
Ghost Commander: emulates Norton’s Commander and amazingly efficient use of screen space. Good for navigating around filesystems, but also supports FTP and SAMBA (with the extra plugin).
Real Calc: scientific calcualtor
TV Guide: get your current channel listings. Lists can be filtered for specific channels, although it would be nice to have default lsits (e.g. Freeview terrestrial)
Tide Prediction: tide tables. Useful if you need them on an occasional basis
Barcode Scanner: scan 1D and 2D (QRCode) barcodes
Beeb Player: play iPlayer content. You’ll need to Google this as only the APK is available

Some other apps I use less regularly:

SuperMySQL: connect and manipulate a MySQL db
WiFiFoFum: wifi scanner
wikidroid: wikipedia client
FixMyStreet: FixMyStreet client allowing you to quickly and easily submit reports to the site
Hi-Q mp3: audio recorder that encodes direct to mp3
Mocha VNC: VNC client

Core Android Apps

Sunday, January 16, 2011 at 21:21:26

Having spent a month using Android 2.1 Eclair in anger and now having flashed the new Froyo 2.2 ROM on to my San Francisco I can safely say that I have a core set of apps that are designed to set the phone up as I want it. These are:

Launcher Pro: the Froyo launcher as it should have been. Configurable and sleek. Nothing flash: it just works
Dialer One: I prefer a T9 dialer and this is as good as the rest
Quick Settings: you can use a widget to get one click access to common settings (wifi, GPS, BT etc), however I find this less cluttered. Hit the button then get a screen with plenty of configurable button
Wifi Widget: wifi access is commonly used and I place the 2x2 widget on my home screen to tell me the MAC address, access speed and IP address. Also gives me one click access to the wifi panel.
Button Savior: worried about your hardware buttons wearing out?? I know the ones on the San Francisco are a bit flimsy so this gives you an alpha layer set of buttons to access “Power”, “Home”, “Back” and “Menu”.
AdFree Android: many of the apps here are free ad-supported versions. Get rid of the ads with this app which updates the hosts file to create blacklist to ad-serving sites.
Advanced Task Killer: want to keep the apps running to a minimum? ATK installs in to the notification bar (swipe down menu) to give quick access to task killing
3G Watchdog: monitor your data usage. Notification bar app
Andclip: get a clipboard tool that gives you access to commonly used copy/paste items
SMS Popup: lots of people rave about Handcent SMS and it is a decent messaging tool, but I like the simplicity of the default messaging app. However the one thing it lacks for me is a popup when a message comes in. This adds that functionality
Spare Parts: access loads of useful system info
Swype: need I say more!!
Android Mate: good replacement for your app listings. Can also install and uninstall apps
Ringo Pro: yes, the only paid-for app. Get this to support custom ringtones for all of your contacts

Core apps in the next post.

Kindling…. e-book readers

Friday, January 14, 2011 at 10:01:32

In addition to the new Droid phone, a Kindle was sat waiting in my stocking at Christmas. I’ve kept half an eye on the ebook reader market since it started up, but not being an avid reader of novels it has interested me less. In particular the relatively high cost, lack of PDF support and lack of colour have been drawbacks. With the 3rd generation Kindle the price (111) is low enough not to feel ripped off!! OK, its still not colour (although there are colour readers available elsewhere) but you cant complain for the money and its not a deal breaker for my uses. There are actually 3 versions of the Kindle available: wifi, wifi/3G and DX. The DX is slightly more unusual in that it is designed for businesses and is able to render an A4/LTR page at 100% resolution. Its only available in the US and $379. So you need a good reason to buy it. The 3G version utilises the Amazon paid-for Whispernet to deliver content on the move. This didn’t worry me at all, and indeed the ability to use 3’s Mifi or the tethering capability built in to Android 2.2 (or through Barnacle wifi tether) means its easier enough to connect. So 111 for the standard version is a bargain.

Out of the box it is surprisingly pleasant to hold and, without hesitation, the screen is superb. The e-ink technology used to display images draws no power once the image is displayed (hence the long battery life) and is very crisp and sharp. As someone used to reading from LCD panels, this was a fantastic change. For that reason alone, it is well worth doing any e-reading on the device. It uses a micro-USB port for connection/charging and comes with a cable as standard. There is no case supplied and given that the screen is the most delicate part it is well worth ordering one at the same time.

Connection to a PC is straightforward and you can just drag-and-drop files on to the Kindle drive, including Kindle files, MOBI, PDF and MP3s. Yes, the Kindle supports playing MP3s, in part because it has a text-to-speech engine for reading text. PDF support I am led believe is not complete but given the wide specification of the format thats not surprising. I’ve thrown a variety of fairly standard documents at it without problem. Reading 12pt in A4 is really pushing it… until you realise you can rotate the page to landscape. Its OK but thats really why the DX came out

The networking capabilities are well handled. Connecting to a hotspot is easy enough and there is a web browser included. Given the limitations of the screen (its not meant for dynamic content) it does a remarkably good job. OK you’re not even going to come close to mimicking the experience on an iPad but given the size, weight and capabilities it is good. And given it has a physical keyboard you can do things like add notes and look up words in the dictionary.

Kindle is more than an ebook reader, but a brand. You can install Kindle reading applications across multiple devices, including Kindles, PCs, Android/Apple phones. And Amazon can synchronise both the content and metadata. That’s to say book notes and position in the book are stored so if you start reading on one device, you can carry on in exactly the same spot on another device. Not sure how useful that is in practice though! Amazon uses wifi/Whispernet to deliver books; Kindle Store integration is excellent and buying books and receiving them easy. If you have a document you want converted all you have to do is email it to your Kindle account and it will be converted and delivered to your device. A useful facility.

Managing collections of files I found less easy. I would like to be able to create directory structure on the Kindle the groups files in to collections. This doesn’t happen and relies upon you tagging files in to collections individually (as far as I can see). Not very practical if you want to put 30 files on to the device. I hope this is one area where they can be a little more proactive.

So that’s it for a short round-up. Excellent device that, by its third generation, is well conceived and rounded. Next post on some further experiences in use.

Froyo on the San Francisco

Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 14:55:28

Following on from my earlier post I finally plumped for installing Android 2.2 Froyo on my San Francisco (I went for FLB-Froyo G2 for ZTE Blade r6). There is a very good listing of ROMs available and whilst 2.2 has been installable for some months now, this has been based upon a 2.1 kernel which has created some problems. With ZTEs continued rollout of the Blade around the world, 2.2 now comes as standard and with that came the release of the source code for the kernel. This has been inserted in to current stable 2.2 ROMs to give a “real” unofficial 2.2 release. Well worth the wait, although if I stumped up the cash and bought a Nexus then Google would do all the hard graft for me!!

A real enthusiast?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011 at 15:37:28

Now if I was a real swype enthusiast I would have written the last blog entry using swype. Of course I didn’t so I thought I’d better take the opportunity to do it this time. Ok its not as fast as typing it using a keyboard but I sure as heck wouldn’t have written this using standard keyboard entry on the phone. It really is thumbs up and will be interesting to see how much it costs when it finally is released into Marketplace.

Start swypeing

Wednesday, January 12, 2011 at 13:40:24

Anyone with a touchscreen smartphone will know the pain of pecking away at the screen trying to written a txt message or email. To be fair, some people seem much quicker at this than others but any method of text entry that speeds things up is to be welcomed. I hate predictive txt… always seems to get it wrong. So what else?? Well Swype have just released a beta trial of their innovative keyboard for Android and it is truly amazing. You swipe your hand over the letters in the word and with some clever (and fast) processing and automatically enters it. And it works remarkably well, is fast and surprisingly accurate. Whilst the temptation might be to slow down and be more accurate, actually it pays to go faster and be less accurate. And it really is much quicker than pecking away at an on-screen keyboard. Well worth a try.

Flashing your Droid ROM

Monday, January 3, 2011 at 09:58:02

I won’t pretend to be an expert on the Android OS, but if you really do know what you are doing then it is relatively easy to entirely change the OS currently running. Why would you want to do that?? Well one obvious scenario is to run the same OS, but with modifications applied to it, such as root access, new standard apps, remove carrier apps. Perhaps the biggest driver is to run a newer version of the OS than is currently available for the handset. This is becoming increasingly common as handset vendors cease to support an OS beyond a set level… take the Galaxy S stuck at Android 2.1. Perhaps this is a good reason to purchase a Nexus…. Google has been using the phone as a reference platform and updates have rapidly been rolled out to the platform. Of course there are plenty of other Android phones out there that haven’t been updated, so what can you do?

Well, replace the OS of course! And Google has been a busy bee this year with the best part of 4 point releases in just over a year. v2.0 didn’t last long before 2.1 came out and this has been a stable and safe-bet for many vendors. v2.2 arrived in the summer and contrary to the point release is a major improvement. 2.3 arrived just before Christmas although this is less substantial. So if your vendor hasn’t updated your phone, there’s a good chance that a custom ROM exists allowing you to upgrade it yourself (with all the obvious caveats about bricking your device).

A good starting point is to find a web forum that supports your phone. For the San Francisco, the Modaco forum does a great job. In particular this thread runs through how to install a ROM from scratch and lists all the main ROMs available for the phone. In particular, note that the original ROMs installed on the two main versions of the phone are available for download. This is important if you want to take it back to its original “factory” state. Obviously you can read the thread, but there are two main steps (once you have USB drivers installled for your phone ):

1. Install clockworkmod: this allows you to access a custom bootmenu that enables the installation of ROMs. For some reason 2.5.13 doesnt work, so the latest 2.5.18 is recommended. Download the IMG file (and fastboot) to a directory. Turn the phone back on with ‘volume up’ held. The device will stay at the ‘green android’ screen. Now connect your SF. Once attached run the following command line to install it:

fastboot-windows flash recovery recovery-clockwork-
fastboot-windows reboot

If all the commands complete in the command window (i.e. you don’t see FAILED or ERROR) then all is good.

2. Install the ROM: copy the ZIP file of the ROM you want on to the SDcard, then uplug the SF from your PC. Now press the ‘volume down’ button when powering on the phone to get to the ClockworkMod menu. Navigate the menu to select “install zip fom sdcard”, then “choose zip from sdcard”. Select the file you want to get it installed. Finally go back to the main menu and reboot the SF.

The nice part about this whole process is that its entirely reversible: you can put your old stock ROM back in place, put the standard bootloader back on and remove root access. This makes it good for selling on your phone or returning it to the carrier.

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