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kindle for travelers

Kindle

In the five months we have been traveling with the Kindle 2, we rarely go a week without someone asking us what it is, how it works, and whether it is good for travel.  In a word, it is fantastic.  But, we have several major criticisms and, given the recent launch of the iPad, want to weigh the pros and cons of traveling worldwide with a Kindle.

Kindle screenThumbs upPaper-like screen: Thumbs up, mostly

Probably the most impressive Kindle feature, the crisp black and white E-ink screen without backlighting makes the Kindle easy to read even in bright sunlight.  As you can see from the picture on the right, the text on a Kindle looks just like a paperback book.  We take our Kindles to parks, cafes, and even beaches, and never worry about glare or tiring our eyes. 

But, it is a black and white screen.  iPad readers will be able to “flip” through magazine pages, maps, childrens’ books, and color photographs.  The Kindle, on the other hand, is best for reading books and newspaper articles. 

Homer d'ohWhispernet: Thumbs down

The proprietary Whispernet service, based on worldwide AT&T coverage, makes downloading Amazon e-books convenient because it is free and does not require a WiFi Hotspot.  However, while Whispernet works really well in the U.S. and Europe, coverage is spotty elsewhere in the world.  The Kindle can use unsecured WiFi connections but most hostels, hotels, and cafes use secure WiFi connections to prevent freeloaders from accessing their Internet.

WiFi is the universal standard and Amazon messed up big time by not letting their readers use it.  Kindle users should be able to connect to any WiFi network even if it requires a password.  In countries without Whispernet, we end up downloading books onto our laptops and then revert to 1990s technology by transferring the book through a USB connection. 

Whispernet access

Whispernet access (dark purple is 3G access, light purple is Edge access)

Homer happyCarry Your Library in 10.3 Ounces: Gigantic thumbs, toes, all fingers up
When I explained to my mom that the Kindle would let us carry over 200 books while we traveled, my mom said, "That's the perfect gift for you!"  We tend to barrel through books like a teenage girl goes through lip gloss (cherry flavored, if you please) and our bags are usually packed full of novels and electronics and very little in the way of clothing and accessories.  Because of this wonderful wonderful machine, we have read over 100 books in the last five months without worrying about finding English-language bookstores or forcing ourselves to read The Da Vinci Code for the millionth time (it continues to amaze me that nearly every English language bookstore in the world stocks this book).  

BUT, The Lack of Organization: Thumbs down
Unfortunately, the Kindle’s organization structure is poor, to say the least.  It allows you to organize books by title, author, and most recently read books.  We wish we could also organize books into sub-folders so that we could archive books we have already read and by category.  Libraries have been using the Dewey Decimal System for ages; shouldn’t our electronic library have the same organization capability?

Organization on Kindle Table of contents

Homepage showing most recently read books; showing table of contents in Lonely Planet

Long Battery Life:  Big two thumbs up
We spend at least two hours every day reading our Kindles but we only charge our Kindles once every two weeks.  That is just ridiculous.  Long after our laptops and iPhone die on night buses, long-haul flights, and boring ferry rides, our Kindles keep us company.  For this reason alone, I think that the Kindle is a clear winner over the iPad as an e-book reader.

Search results on Kindle

Search results for Chiang Mai restaurant (notice that the relevant results start on page 2)

Search: Thumbs down
Amazon claims that it “makes it easy to search across your library.”  We disagree.  The problem is that the search feature pulls up every instance of the keyword in order of the pages in your book.  So, a search for “Chiang Mai restaurant” pulls up nineteen results, but the first six search results make only a passing reference to Chiang Mai and relevant results are found only on the second page.  If Amazon's search tool utilized a Google-like algorithm or even routed you to an index, the search function would be much more useful.

Bangkok map split into four separate pages on the Kindle

Lonely Planet on the Kindle: Thumbs Down
Lonely Planet recently made many of its guidebooks available on the Kindle.  Don’t waste your money and just buy the guidebooks in paperback to carry with you.  First, maps on the Kindle are useless because they are split into multiple pages and the zoom feature does not work well.  For example, the 27 pages of Bangkok maps in the paper-version of Lonely Planet Thailand turns into 80 pages on the Kindle, making the Kindle maps a disaster of a mess.

Second, we often flip through guidebooks to get information on a town or specific site.  Because the Kindle search feature brings up a lot of irrelevant information, we ended up buying an additional hard copy guidebook to carry around so that we have useful maps and the ability to easily find information.

Kindle with M-Edge jacketKindle with M-Edge jacket and E-Luminator

The Cost: Worth every cent

At $259.00 USD, the Kindle isn’t cheap, but it is worth the ability to read what we want anywhere and the savings in space.  We download older books for free from Manybooks and purchase new books on Amazon.  Even though Lonely Planet is not useful on the Kindle, we get a lot of usage out of our e-book readers; they are essential to help make our journey a pleasant one.

Several travelers have asked us whether the Kindle makes us a target for thieves.  I think our cameras are more likely to attract thieves because the M-Edge jackets look like regular leather-bound journals.  If you buy the M-Edge jacket, we strongly recommend buying the E-Luminator booklight because it fits neatly within the case, lasts for about one month on a single AAA battery, and provides excellent reading light. 

Some nifty features that Amazon doesn’t tell you about:

Dogs on Kindle

Dogs running on my Kindle

To personalize your screensaverThis is our favorite hack because every time we open our Kindle, we see our puppies' grinning faces.  Upgrade to the latest Kindle version and follow the instructions in this excellent Wiki article with step-by-step screenshots on personalizing your screensaver. 

To add picture albums to your Kindle (listed alongside your books): This great article tells you how to create picture albums.  Because the Kindle is in black and white, you might want to convert your pictures to black and white in a photo editor and then crop to 600 by 800 pixels so that the Kindle doesn't make your pictures look wonky.

Play games on the Kindle: Hit Shift + Alt + M to play Minesweeper or Go Moku (which is like Tic-Tac-Toe) to waste away the hours on long bus rides after your iPhone has died

Wondering how we took the screenshots on this post?  Hit Shift + Alt + G and it will save the screenshot in the documents folder in a black and white gif. 

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[Ummm, so, if you click on any of the links above and purchase something from Amazon, we will get a tiny amount of money - like maybe enough to buy a mango shake at the vendor down the street.  I'm just telling you this because the FTC thinks you aren't smart enough to figure this out for yourself.  Everything listed above we reviewed after purchasing it ourselves and we have received no endorsements for any of the above review.]

* Credit for happy Homer image and d'oh Homer image

02/27/2010 13:32
Great product review. An e-reader wasn't a device I had given much consideration to, but your review is persuasive.

Thanks!
02/27/2010 13:58
I'm definitely going to get an e-reader of some kind, but I'm not sure which one. Does the Kindle do that annoying flashy thing when you change from one page to the next? (A friend of mine has a Sony, and that would be my only complaint about it.)
Rachel Cotterill's recent blog post: Sixth Sense? Seventh?
02/27/2010 18:40
Excellent synopsis of your experience. We've been thinking about Kindles for our future trips (and for at home too), but are sorely tempted by the iPads. We'll now be able to compare and contrast them better. Thanks.
02/28/2010 01:53
Great review. Did you say Kindles, plural? I would say the Kindle is so great that the only downside has been having to share the one device between the two of us. Which means we still need to search out paperbacks for the one of us not reading the Kindle at the moment. Sorry about the Lonely Planets. We didn't even bother trying because after reading another book with maps that were horrible, we knew it would be a disappointment. Amazon blew it big time with the graphics on this.
Asa's recent blog post: The Road to Luang Prabang
03/02/2010 06:10
Thanks Keith. If you're a big reader, definitely consider spending the money because we have heard from so many travelers that they end up lugging around a lot of books or have a hard time finding enough books to read.

Rachel, yes, the Kindle does flash from one page to the next. At first, it really annoyed us but now we have gotten used to it.

Thanks Lisa. I'll be interested to hear your opinion of the iPad because we haven't seen one in person yet and are really curious about how it will work out as an ebook reader.

Thanks Asa! Yep, we have two. My mom and dad bought me mine for my birthday and I bought Patrick's for his birthday. It was definitely a splurge but we are so glad we have them with us. Totally agree about the graphics issue and I hope that they have a software upgrade where they resolve those issues.
Akila's recent blog post: gear: amazon kindle for travelers
03/03/2010 00:11
I've actually avoided the Kindle for a while now. From your review, I can see the benefits of having one on the road, though.

Any idea if the Barnes & Noble Nook compares at all to the Kindle?
03/10/2010 08:55
Is it possible that Kindle will do upgrades???. I have one and I would also like to be able to mark a book "read" or put it in a folder to organize books. I was thinking of getting a travel book on Spain since we will be there in September but may just buy the real book and lug around
Rosemaryandthegoat's recent blog post: Cheese Souffle Puffs
03/10/2010 14:20
Adam, I haven't tried out the nook but I know that it uses the same e-Ink technology as the Kindle. I think the one major difference is that the nook has a color touchscreen to help you choose the book you want to read, kind of like the iPhone.

Rosemaryandthegoat, I haven't heard that Kindle is going to upgrade their software which is a real shame because the lack of organization is one of the biggest problems with it. I highly recommend just buying the guidebook in paper form rather than wasting your money on the Kindle version.
Akila's recent blog post: just another city: bangkok
03/14/2010 22:10
Great post! It is also very timely, as we are considering making some of our cultural travel guidebooks available on the kindle and were wondering about people's experiences.
09/10/2010 11:49
I love my Kindle 2 also, but.... two of them have broken on me. And I believe I have been really careful with them. The first one's screen broke down internally, supposedly because I was putting too much pressure on it (yes, I did have the Amazon cover on it, but it still broke). Then, on the day before I took off this time, the button ceased to work anymore, making the thing unusable. I'm trying to get another one via the warranty. Absolutely love the thing, but my experience is that they are pretty fragile. Or I'm just amazingly unlucky.
Michael Hodson's recent blog post: Photo of the Day: Volcan Pacaya
09/12/2010 11:47
Michael, I have also heard about another traveler with a similar issue. Fortunately, we have not had any breakage issue (knock on wood) and have found ours to be pretty sturdy. However, we do carry them in a backpack that is pretty lightly packed, so perhaps that helps.
Patrick's recent blog post: a man's round-the-world packing list
10/02/2010 11:02
I bought one. You're right, you stop noticing the flashing after a while.

Also, I have the next generation - it works on secured wifi and lets you make collections of books. I'm now going to check out whether the screensaver hack still works on the new kind :)
Rachel Cotterill's recent blog post: Utrecht Railway Museum
10/05/2010 02:34
Rachel, let us know whether the screensaver hack works. I iinvestigated it about a month ago, and I don't believe that it will work with the latest firmware.
Patrick's recent blog post: the aliens have landed in shanghai
02/26/2011 04:45
Thanks for the review about Lonely Planet guides. Looks like I'll still have to go and lug that hefty guidebook around with me after all.. dang!
Peter @ GlobeNotes Travel Blogs's recent blog post: Quick Update - Kampala, Uganda - GlobeNotes.com travel blog
02/28/2011 09:48
Peter - At least for the maps, you'll need the guidebooks . . . though you could just rip out the maps from the guidebooks or buy a thin mapbook (which, honestly, might be all you need.)

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