The Kindle for Professional Researchers

Amazon Kindle e-book reader

I have never been a person obsessed with gadgets. I don’t have an iPhone, a TiVo, or a Nintendo Wii. The gleaming windows of Brookstone or the Apple Store—those twin paradises of the techno-enthusiast—tempt me not at all. But as soon as I saw the Kindle, Amazon’s much heralded e-book reader, I began salivating. Here was the answer to all my problems. No more lugging around heavy books on business trips or trying to make space in my one-room studio. Plus, all my friends would be insanely jealous. I had to buy it.

At $399 though, the Kindle was far beyond my meager journalist’s salary. (It’s now a bargain at $359.) What to do? I could buy the Kindle myself and subsist on Ramen noodles for the rest of the year, or I could convince my employer to buy it for me. Past experience (oh, broke college days) suggested I would not last long on an all-noodle diet, so I—humble supplicant—turned to my boss. Amazingly, he agreed—I could call it a “business expense.” Before he had a chance to come to his senses, I logged on to the Amazon and purchased the thing.

The next day my precious, pricey, white techno-bauble arrived. I removed it from its box in a state of delicious anticipation. Would the Kindle live up to all my hopes and dreams? Was it really worth $400 of my employer’s hard-earned cash?

Reader, it was. Here are just a few of the many things I love about the Kindle:

1) Readability: Yes, the Kindle is easy on the eyes. Not everyone loves the grayish background (think Etch-a-Sketch), but I don’t mind it. The screen flashes too when you move from one page to the next—an effect I at first found jarring, but soon didn’t even notice. If the text looks too small or too large, you can easily adjust the font size.

My biggest frustration with the Kindle is that it’s hard to flip through a book. If you want to skip ahead several pages or go back, you have to repeatedly click through numerous pages, waiting as each loads, until you get to the point you want. Using the table of contents helps some, but you’ll still be doing a lot of clicking.

N.B. Don’t throw away your book lights! The Kindle’s screen—much to the surprise of everyone I showed it off too—is not backlit.

2) Free books: Granted, books aren’t much cheaper at the Kindle Store. They generally run around $8 to $10—though if you’re shopping online anyway, you’ll avoid the shipping and handling fees. Plus, you get the books immediately. Once purchased, they take about a minute to download. Shopping at the Kindle Store is almost too easy—you can run up a serious tab in minutes.

Still, if you’re on a budget and you like classics, the world is your oyster with the Kindle. Take your pick: Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, James Joyce, or science fiction from the 1950s. Thousands of books no longer covered by copyright can be downloaded for free in Kindle-ready format. (One popular gateway source, the World E-Book Fair, offers over a million free texts. And there are still more at Feedbooks.) Government reports, technical manuals, and think-tank white papers are also available. (Sadly, PDFs are not supported, but Amazon will convert them for you for just ten cents.)

3) Portability: The Kindle, at a lean ten ounces, is compact and travel-sized. It fits nicely in my (small) purse so I always have something new to read while waiting for the bus or at the airport. Anyone who reads and travels a lot should make haste and buy a Kindle.

World travelers should note that the free wireless doesn’t work outside the U.S. You can still buy books on the road though, by downloading them to your computer and then transferring them via the USB.

4) Clippings and search: For the professional researcher (or journalist), the highlighting, note, and search features are invaluable. I am forever flipping through books trying to find a particular quote or phrase I underlined. Now with the Kindle, I can search my entire library for it in no time. Plus, there’s no need to retype a lengthy passage: highlight the desired text and download it as a text file to your computer via USB.

My main gripe with the clippings feature is that you can only highlight entire lines, not specific words. The annotating feature could also be improved. I’m not the fastest typist, but it takes forever for the words to appear on the screen. The tiny keyboard didn’t bother me as much, but I’m used to the similarly minute Blackberry keyboard.

5) Free wireless: If you look under the “Experimental” menu, you’ll find that the Kindle has a Web browser. Since it’s connected to Sprint’s wireless network, you can use it almost anywhere in the U.S. Yes, you can check your (Web-based) email on the Kindle! But there’s a catch: the free wireless is only available for a limited time, so enjoy it while you can. (Of course, buying books at the Kindle Store will always be free.) In the meantime, get a nifty Kindle start page using your Google Apps here.

6) Free research: Again, this is a limited-time offering, but Kindle owners can use Amazon’s NowNow research service for free. Send a question via email to NowNow, and actual human beings will search the Web to find an answer. I haven’t used this yet, but it seems like a nice perk.

7) Back-up: Should your Kindle ever get lost or broken, never fear—for your books, at least. All your past purchases on Amazon are stored under your account’s “media library.” The Kindle even automatically backs up your notes, bookmarks, and clippings.

You can buy another memory card once the one that comes with your Kindle is filled to capacity. (The Kindle holds 200 titles so it will take you a while.)

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