Alex Payne

Writer, backer, erstwhile technologist.

Reading The Web on Kindle 2

When I ordered a Kindle 2 shortly after the device was announced, I promised that I’d review it. Thanks to the book, I haven’t had time for much personal writing, but I’m sneaking this in today between edits.

The Kindle works so well that it’s difficult to review it in any critical sense. It delivers the experience you’d imagine it does: you buy books and periodicals, they show up instantly on the device, you read them. Text looks great, it’s easy to use, and it does indeed have the widely reported effect of making you read more. I had to suffer a couple of lemons before I got one that worked, but Amazon was courteous and quick about replacing them.

Really, the Kindle is a no-brainer purchase. Go buy one; you’ll be happy with it. That is, if you only want to read books and periodicals on it.

Dun-dun-dunnnn.

The Kindle is great for traditional media, but I wanted to see how it fared with hypertext. Shortly after I got my Kindle, I stopped using Google Reader. I dumped my feeds into Kindlefeeder, pruned out the purely visual and aural subscriptions, and set up a delivery schedule such that I had a fresh digest waiting for me when I got home from work. When I found things during the day that I wanted to read in depth, I’d pop them into Instapaper and they too would be batched into a digest and delivered once a day.

For a while, this worked well. I was no longer tempted to check the feeds or read interesting articles during the work day, as I had no convenient way of doing so. I got into a routine of reading my daily Kindlefeeder digest just before bed and going through the Instapaper items on the weekends. Looking at text on the Kindle is such a vastly improved experience over reading on a computer or iPhone that I forgave the occasional formatting or delivery error.

If the hypertext you read doesn’t make use of links, pictures, movies, block quotes, or essentially anything other than paragraphs and markup for emphasis, you’re set. In my experience, though, the Kindle is a pretty lousy platform for reading hypertext. The browser is filed under “Experimental” for a reason: the web looks weird in it, and the browser doesn’t behave quite like the rest of the Kindle. Bouncing between a Kindlefeeder digest and the browser is slow and clumsy. Technical articles I’d saved via Instapaper lost critical formatting and diagrams. Frustrating, all around.

This is nobody’s fault, per se, certainly not Kindlefeeder’s or Instapaper’s. Amazon is pretty clear about what you’re supposed to use the Kindle for, and that’s books and magazines and maybe the very occasional text-only blog. The Kindle is awesome for these things. It’s just not a multimedia device.

“Well hurr”, you say, but I guess I hadn’t realized how many of the feeds I read are composed of a rich mix of text, audio, video, and still images. I’ve been doing the blog thing for long enough that I remember when feeds with images were pretty unorthodox. Tumblelogging has really opened the world of syndicated online publishing up to more than just text. That’s a good thing for the web, but a bad thing for constrained devices like the Kindle.

So, after a couple months of reading web content pretty much exclusively on the Kindle, I’ve ultimately decided to go back to Google Reader and a browser on my laptop. Doing so requires more self control, and text doesn’t look as good, but it opens back up a world of multimedia content that, much to my surprise, I had come to miss.

In a way, I prefer the idea of a barrier between my Kindle and the web. I want my reading time to be about deep engagement with substantive content. Some blogs qualify for that time, but not many. I’d rather flip through my feed reader over my morning cup of coffee and keep the Kindle for novels, The New Yorker, and perhaps an academic article or two.