Sunday, May 4, 2008

Kindle hacks

I’m a week in with the Kindle, and I am thrilled with it so far. It’s a bit pricey – $399 – but Amazon got a lot right with this device. Initial reviews talked about form factor (several techies pronounced it ugly), price and Steve Jobs famously dismissed it pointing out that nobody reads anymore.

As far as form factor, the Kindle comes with a leather cover which makes the Kindle feel very much like a conventional book. It’s not particularly heavy – it feels substantial without weighing as much as a hardback book.

I love that the books I download are fully searchable – I just read Stephen King’s latest (Duma Key), and at a plot development with a particular character, I couldn’t recall a detail about the character. Searched on his name, went back to the page that talked about the character, and then flipped right back to where I’d been. It’s a minor point, but lots of little points add up.

Much has been made of the bundled “WhisperNet” – not wifi, but built-in broadband wireless. Not only can you shop wherever you can get a cellular connection, but any book (currently more than 110,000) can be downloaded to the Kindle in under a minute.

Battery life is great – even with heavy wireless usage (browsing the store, using the built-in browser) you’ll go several days without needing to recharge. Without heavy wireless usage, you can get 5+ days between charges.

Here are some things I didn’t know about the Kindle when I got it, which I’ve found quite useful:

  • Attachment conversion/delivery. Your Kindle not one but two e-mail addresses. The first ( allows you to e-mail files that are converted to the Kindle format and then delivered wirelessly to your device in just a couple minutes. You’ll get charged a dime per conversion/delivery. For e-mail newsletters which publish in PDF (or Word), you could subscribe your Kindle’s e-mail address for delivery direct to your Kindle. Long PDFs, lengthy Word files, etc. – now you can read them easily on your Kindle instead of on your computer screen. (I can’t imagine reading 100+ page files on my PC at one sitting – the Kindle, on the other hand, is no different than reading a paperback book.) The second e-mail address is – instead of converting and delivering the file to your Kindle, it’ll convert it and e-mail it back to you, where you can sync it over the included USB cable. You’ll avoid the $.10 delivery fee, but you need to manually copy the file over. (PDF conversion is claimed to be ‘experimental’ – but several PDFs I’ve e-mailed have worked perfectly.) To prevent spam, you must explicitly whitelist senders so that no unauthorized content is sent to your device.
  • eBook compatibility: If you’ve got sensitive docs and don’t want to e-mail them to Amazon for conversion, you can download Mobipocket’s eBook Creator software for free. It will create a Kindle-compatible file that you can drag to the Kindle over a USB cable. I tested it out with a couple contracts in Word format, and the formatting was perfect.
  • Google Maps. Yeah, I’m a sucker for a simple Google integration… but check this out: while in the Kindle’s (somewhat limited) browser, click Alt+1. That’ll use the built-in broadband model to get your location and plot it on Google Maps. Alt+2 will get you gas stations nearby, and Alt+3 will get you nearby restaurants.
  • When reading, if you’d like to know what time it is, hit Alt+T. In the lower left corner you’ll get the time… and in a quirky twist, you won’t get the numbers. It’ll say something like “Twenty-two till Eleven”.
  • Newspapers and Magazines. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The Atlantic and many others are available. Magazines are in the $1-2/month range, newspapers range from $5-15/month. For newspapers, the Kindle downloads the full contents overnight, so when you’re off to work you have the entire electronic edition of the paper ready to go. (Some papers are more complete than others from what I can tell.)
  • All first chapters are free. Similar to browsing in a bookstore, you can download the first chapter of any book in about 20 seconds. Read the chapter, decide if you like it, and if you do, a purchase is less than a minute interruption before you can go to chapter two. Smart.
And I have a few things for my Kindle wishlist. In no particular order:
  • Better browser. While the browser supports javascript, it doesn’t handle pages with sophisticated layouts. Mobile pages work great, but I really want to see Google Reader in a browsable interface. (The mobile G Reader interface gives me just headlines, and requires multiple clicks to browse multiple stories… I’d prefer an interface closer to the existing G Reader interface.)
  • Better conversion of formatted docs. While text formatting translates pretty nicely, tables, images and heavy layout can get borked when displayed on the narrower and shorter Kindle display. Given that the iPhone has pretty well nailed dynamic resizing of browser pages, I figure this is a doable thing… but I’ll readily confess I’m in way over my head in terms of identifying the work involved. I just know that the end result – better fidelity in the display of the original doc – would be welcome.
  • Blogging My Clippings. I think I’m going to use the highlighting/clipping features of the Kindle. (You can flag passages by highlighting them, or annotate pages by typing in your own comments in the margin.) Brilliantly, Amazon syncs these clippings up to the cloud – Amazon’s servers – making them readily accessible in your account. I’d love to experiment with this feature by posting these clips to a reading blog – what a great way to share your thoughts about a book with a broader audience!
  • Group collaboration. I originally thought about this in the context of work – if co-workers had a Kindle, it’d be great to see their markup of a doc while I looked at it (similar to Word’s native Track Changes feature, for example). But I see equal (actually, possibly greater) value in this for book clubs or classrooms: if you and a small group of others are reading a book together, the Kindle could easily aggregate everyone’s comments and make those part of the text. Given the Kindle’s always-on Internet access, this could sync up throughout the day/week, and give users a great way to share their thoughts while reading, making subsequent discussion more fruitful. (Hell, Amazon could even insert themselves into the middle of this: for a few bucks a month, a virtual book club service that brings together buyers of the same book?)
  • Backlight. This is probably a non-starter given the e-ink display, but a way to read the Kindle in low light (or darkness – think a plane, bedroom, etc.) would be a nice improvement. For the time being, Amazon’s recommending standard book lights… which I may look into if I find I’m reading a bunch at night.
Bottom line, Amazon’s got a winner with the Kindle. The price point is likely confining them to early adopters like me and folks for whom $400 is little more than an indulgence… it seems like they’ll need to find a way to get the price down in the sub $200 range ($149 would be even better) . And the frequently updated content (particularly newspapers) should be cheaper… Amazon might want to underwrite the cost. After all, the more dependent I am on the device as my morning/evening reading device, the more likely they are to get me to make the impulse book purchase.

What are you waiting for? Pick one up, I think you’ll like it. And if you buy from that link, I’ll get a few free books for the Kindle.


Update: Scott Simpson suggests that perhaps the Kindle is just what we’ve been waiting for to make reading uncool again. Noted without comment.


  1. Didnt realize you had a link I could use to buy and it would give you free books :(

  2. Hi, Rick!

    I just got a Kindle last week myself, and I'm also in the puppy love stage. It's been a dream on my commute, and I haven't even delved into all of the device's features yet.

    I look forward to hearing more about your use of the Kindle in the future.

    PS John Bracken told me you had a Kindle, too. :)

  3. Rick,
    Thanks for your excellent review of the Kindle. Mine is in the mail and I can't wait.

    Go Pards!

    Sal Athalye '92

  4. Thanks for the Kindle tips. I find it funny that Steve Jobs dismissed it early on. Personally, I thought the first iPods looked like medical devices!

  5. Thanks for the tip on getting the time. I don't wear a watch and was thinking it would be nice to have a timepiece on the Kindle.