pdf_on_kindleWhen you buy a new gadget, usually you take it for granted that the features on the side of the box are more or less set in stone. If you buy a TV that only does 720p, it’s probably too much to expect for it to suddenly start pumping out quality images at a shiny 1080p, just because you got a new Blu-ray player for Christmas.

Sometimes though, through the magic of the firmware update, device makers ARE actually able to bestow features on we, the lowly consumers. With a quick download and a speedy file transfer, they’re able to make us forget that if these features were so easy to implement on the hardware, they probably could have been there in the first place! And I’m pleased to report that the latest firmware update for the Kindle 2 is such a doozy.

That’s right, with the release of update 2.3, your Kindle 2 can now:

  • Read PDFs in their native state, without having to send them to your Kindle email address for conversion. This was one of those little things that the Nook does right, and I’m delighted to see Amazon is finally catching on. Just drop a PDF file onto your Kindle via USB or by sending it to your @Kindle address and it shows up perfectly; there’s no need for conversion. (Though they do still offer the ability to convert it to Kindle format if you want to be able to adjust text size, though I believe they’ve now dropped the $.10 charge.)
  • Use manual screen rotation. You know how you can turn the Kindle DX so that you can view newspapers in portrait or landscape? Well now your Kindle 2 can do that as well. It’s especially handy when you want to magnify the text on a PDF file or webpage, or, better yet, mess with another Kindle owner by turning the text on a book they’re reading upside down when they’re not looking.
  • Enjoy increased battery life… if you own one of the new Global Wireless versions, at least. They claim this update boosts battery life up to a week without a charge, but I have the U.S. Wireless version, so I can’t verify.

To check if you’ve gotten the update yet, hit Home and look at the Version listed on the bottom of the Settings page. If you have anything other than 2.3, you have not yet received the update. The Kindle was designed to automatically check for updates when you turn them on or off, so don’t worry, it’ll come soon.

BUT, if you’re like me and can’t wait to try out the new features, follow the instructions for manual installation on Amazon.com.

Kindle DX owners should also be happy to know that they’ve got a smattering of updates as well. White margins in PDF files are now automatically removed to better display text and the Kindle DX’s screensaver mode now kicks in at 20 minutes instead of 5, giving you time to really pour over those documents.

Now, if only they could deliver a touchscreen via firmware update…

kindle holiday red bowThis is a big year for e-Readers. The market finally has three mainstream contenders delivering quality products at the same time with enough buzz in the media to have them mentioned in the same breath as the latest iPhone or netbook. Even if the research hadn’t already indicated it months ago, I’d be inclined to believe that this is a product category poised to pop.

And pop it is. Last week, Sony Corp announced that early demand for the Daily Edition, their e-Reader designed principally as a newspaper reader, have far exceeded their expectations. According to a statement made by Kyle Austin, a Sony spokesman, “The number of people that signed up … to be notified of the Daily’s availability exceeded our expectations over the last few months and we expect high demand now that it’s available.

Indeed, when you try and purchase a Daily Edition on sonystyle.com, it lists the earliest available ship day as 12/18/09, with no guarantee that you’ll actually have it in your hands before Christmas.

Barnes & Noble has also reported that the Nook is already out of stock just weeks after hitting the market, and they won’t be fulfilling any new orders until January at the earliest. When you consult BN.com, the earliest expected ship date is January 4th, well out of reach of holiday shoppers.

“Supply is short because the companies rushed the announcement of these two products, and the reality is they’re not ready for holiday primetime,” said Sarah Rotman Epps of Forrester Research, in a story reported by the Financial Times.

Not to step on any particular analyst’s toes, but I’m a little dubious about the notion that two experienced multinational corporations accidentally underestimated their market and built an inadequate supply line. Anybody who has ever seen a Nintendo or Apple product launch in recent years should be well-acquainted with the practice of manufacturing a shortage of a product to build a viral buzz. I think that’s precisely what’s going on here.

Buzz or no buzz, Amazon is definitely in a position to reap the benefits of a holiday season more or less unopposed. The Kindle has already come to be recognized as the principle brand in the e-Reader product category. Combine that name recognition with a robust performance this holiday season, and Amazon should be able to retain their status as the 800-pound gorilla of e-Readers.

GelaSkinOne of the biggest feathers in Amazon’s cap is that their Kindle has succeeded at becoming as much a piece of fashion as a helpful eBook-reading gadget. The Kindle’s svelte exterior has a similar effect to an Apple product, making a very strong statement about one’s literacy and commitment to the written word. While most people would be satisfied with just that, there does exist another outlet for creative expression as it concerns one’s Kindle and the message it sends out to the world, and that outlet is GelaSkins.

You may have already seen their products for any number of other gadgets like iPods and laptops, but the basic premise is that they’re thin vinyl skins that you can place on a device to keep it safe from surface scratches, while at the same time transforming it into a mobile piece of art.

What’s best of all is that you’re not confined to a narrow selection of predetermined prints. You can log on to their website, select the Kindle from their list of devices (Hint: it’s listed under “Other”), upload your own images into their system, and lay them out how you’d like them to appear.

This actually turned out to be a bigger task then I thought, so I decided to come up with some criteria for determining what I needed on a Kindle so that it would represent me. It needs to:

  1. Make some sort of reference, however vague, to one of my favorite works of fiction.
  2. Convey its message with simple, uncluttered graphics, especially in the limited space on the front.
  3. Avoid any pop culture icons from the last decade. (Sorry, Twilight fans!)
  4. Be awesome.

If you have access to photo editing tools like Adobe Photoshop, I recommend trying to put together your look in there instead of their layout tool. Be mindful of the placement of the layout of the front of the Kindle — you can only really add extra elements in the margins surrounding the screen and keyboard, which limits you somewhat.

After running through my creative process and pouring over several mock drafts, I finally came up with the sterling creative genius you see before you. It of course makes reference to the great Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams. The Kindle, with its ability to act as a veritable handheld library, always reminded me in many ways of Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide, which is said to have sported the words “Don’t Panic” in bold, friendly letters. And now my Kindle does as well!

Of course, if you don’t feel up to the task of designing your own GelaSkin, they offer a whole range of professionally designed skins from aspiring artists that look absolutely stunning in person. They have something to suit every kind of Kindle reader out there, with designs that range from a simple textured leaf to full-fledged works of art.

At $19.99, a GelaSkin represents a good lower price point if you’re shopping for a Kindle owner for the holidays. They don’t quite offer the same protective benefits of a full-fledged cover, but it’s definitely an opportunity to show a loved one how much you “get” them with a hand-picked artistic design. They’re not just one-shot use either; the adhesive allows you remove and reapply them to a certain point. I was skeptical at first, but having had a week to show off my now-even-nerdier-looking Kindle 2 around work, I can give them an unabashed thumbs up.

When most people first buy a Kindle, I think the natural inclination is to buy the official Amazon cover. It makes sense. At $30, it’s relatively cheap, it’s simple, it’s durable, and of course features Amazon’s built-in hinge mechanism. With time however, many grow to dislike it. It resembles an address book more than anything, and is really lacking in features and style.

Knowing full well that you and/or the Kindle owner in your life might be facing a similar aesthetic crisis, and will likely soon be looking for Christmas ideas, I’ve run three of M-Edge’s third-party covers through the paces, and here’s what I found:

M-Edge Leisure Kindle JacketM-Edge Leisure
Price: $29.99
Rating:

Pros

  • The perfect weather-proofing option for those who habitually use their Kindle outside or around the pool.
  • The padding does a capable job of keeping the Kindle safe from minor drops and bumps.
  • Surprisingly good access to all the necessary buttons and functions, despite the layer of Lycra in the way.

Cons

  • Nylon material and zipper evokes the imagine of a trapper keeper from days gone by.
  • The transparent vinyl cover is much more reflective than the Kindle’s screen, and can be irksome in the wrong light.

While I was initially a little put off by the look of my expensive Kindle surrounded only by Nylon and clear vinyl, I can definitely see where the Leisure would be handy. Anybody taking their Kindle to kids’ sporting events, the pool, and especially the beach needs to sport one of these bad boys. It’s a case of function over form.

medge_halseaM-Edge Halsea
Price: $59.99
Rating:

Pros

  • Front flap uses a magnetic closure device that is both effective and very elegant.
  • Exterior is made of laminated canvas, which resists rain and random spills much better than leather.
  • Comes in a variety of prints, and sports an aesthetic not unlike a handbag. Great for the ladies!
  • Sports a side pocket and a business card holder.
  • Makes excellent use of M-Edge’s e-Luminator2 book light.

Cons

  • A little clumsy when you try and fold the front flap back to read
  • Holds the Kindle by corner straps instead of the the hinge mechanism.
  • At $59.99, it’s on the expensive side.

For the fashion-conscious Kindle owner in your life, it really doesn’t get any better than the Halsea. It does a great job of protecting the Kindle with its thick material and laminated canvas, while also looking extremely attractive when you carry it around. I wish more covers used its magnetic closure.

medge_platformM-Edge Platform
Price: $29.99-$44.99
Rating:

Pros

  • Sports a thicker leather than the Amazon cover, giving added protection and a very satisfying heft to it.
  • Uses a “closure tab” to secure the cover shut, with the bonus that it makes it resemble a journal or notebook instead of a plain old address book.
  • The front cover can be flipped back and used as a makeshift book stand, allowing you to read hands-free.
  • Has pockets for business cards and a notebook pad, and works with M-Edge’s e-Luminator2 booklight.
  • Comes in a variety of fashionable colors.

Cons

  • At $45, it’s more expensive than the Amazon cover.
  • Not as easy to hold in one’s hand when you flip the front part back.
  • Holds the Kindle by corner straps instead of the the hinge mechanism.

This is the definitive Kindle cover, in my opinion. Everything from the clasp, the aesthetic, to the ability to use it as a book stand is a vast improvement over the vanilla Amazon cover. I honestly can’t imagine going back. Combine the Platform with the e-Luminator2 booklight, and you’ve got yourself the perfect gift for a Kindle-owner this Christmas. You can hold me to that.

kindle_for_pcFinally, the Kindle development you’ve been waiting for is here at long last. Color e-ink? No, better. Quicker navigation? What? Who needs that? Native PDF support? Get off my lawn!

No, Tuesday saw the debut of the highly anticipated Kindle for PC beta!

[*crickets*]

I know, I don’t get it either. You can check it out for free by heading on over to the Kindle for PC page and downloading the application.

“Kindle for PC is the perfect companion application for customers who own a Kindle or Kindle DX,” said Ian Freed, VP for the Kindle unit of Amazon, in a statement. “Kindle for PC is also a great way for people around the world to access a huge selection from the Kindle Store and read the most popular books of today even if they don’t yet have a Kindle.”

Since it’s still in beta, the features are understandably limited, but functional. You can change text size, change pages, change page size, access the table of contents, and browse from your list of titles. Curiously missing from this release is the ability to create notes (though you can access notes made from your Kindle), access the dictionary, and search the text, though those are features they’ve discussed adding in the future.

I was also a little miffed that they left out the ability to use your non-Kindle files in the application. As we’ve shown you before, getting public domain titles for your Kindle is a snap. (I’m reading the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes myself, it’s quite good!) And while there are no shortage of applications out there that will let you read plain text or .mobi files, it doesn’t make sense that they should have to remain separate from their Amazon-bought brethren.

One of the features they were boasting of was the whispersync technology, which is supposed to save your bookmarks across devices. I was disappointed to find that at least two of my titles were bookmarked in completely difference spots than on my Kindle. I had to manually go in and sync my Kindle to get the latest bookmarks and notes on my PC.

Features and technology aside, I still think the unanswered question is: who really wanted this? The whole point of a Kindle, as I understood it, was that it was a dedicated device that was portable like a book and read like a book. Reading a file on a computer screen doesn’t really have the same effect as e-ink, and unless you’re rocking a netbook, there’s no portability involved. I’ll confess that the prospect of covertly sneaking in reading while at work has crossed my mind, and having the ability to access your notes could be extremely handy for students, but overall it’s just not something I think people needed.

The saving grace, I suppose, is that they’re still calling it a beta. The unwritten rule of software is that you’re allowed to suck, as long as you’re in beta. Amazon still has time to iron out the kinks, and I trust that they will.

Kindle for the PC is compatible with Windows 7, Vista, and XP. Amazon promises a Mac version soon.

rss_on_kindle

Setting aside newspaper companies’ seemingly hostile attitude towards the Kindle for a moment, doesn’t it sometimes seem counterintuitive that you should have to pay for news on a device with easy access to the internet? After all, most of us can find all the news we need with a quick Google search, so why put down the cash?

For most, I suspect, it’s simply a matter of ease. Subscribing to the Washington Post or to the tech blog Gizmodo on your Kindle gives you seamless, wireless delivery of the news straight to your hands, no muss, no fuss. And you know what? It works amazingly well. With just a little setup work however, you can automatically get the news free of charge via RSS feed, thanks to the handy tools offered at Feedbooks.com.

RSS (or Really Simple Syndication) is a web feed format used by websites to publish frequently updated works. By subscribing to an RSS feed, you’ll get new content broadcast to your RSS reader any time a given site makes an update. (It should be noted that different sites broadcast different amounts of information on their RSS feeds. Many keep their RSS blasts short to entice you to actually go to their website.)

With Feedbooks, who you might remember is also a fine purveyor of free eBooks, you can either subscribe to a specific site’s RSS feed, create a “newspaper” composed of several different RSS feeds, or you can subscribe to one of their pre-made newspapers. Let’s say for the sake of argument that you want to subscribe to the eminently useful ‘BBC Full Content’ newspaper.

  1. First go to the web browser on your Kindle. It’s under Menu > Experimental > Basic Web
  2. Now enter the URL of the “Mobipocket/Kindle” file for BBC Full Content listed on Feedbook’s page. In this case it’s www.feedbooks.com/newspaper/114.mobi
  3. You’ll be prompted to download a file. Hit OK, and return to Home when it’s finished.
  4. “BBC Full Content” will appear on your Home screen, ready for your perusal. The BBC feed is one of the rare feeds that offers full content over RSS – so reading it is more or less like reading a newspaper. To see all the headlines in one list, simply navigate to the Table of Contents.
  5. You can refresh the RSS feed to get latest up-to-date content by navigating to the Cover page and hitting the “Update this Newspaper” link. It will download a new file every time you update the feed, so it’s probably best to keep the refreshes to a minimum.

And Rupert Murdoch wants to charge $14.99 a month!

The ability to create your own “newspaper” filled with the RSS content of all your favorite sites and blogs is a really neat feature and one you should definitely play with. Like I said, it’s a less elegant solution than simply subscribing to a newspaper or blog, since those offer a more complete experience with the complete text and pictures. Feedbooks is still definitely a viable alternative for the thrifty and technologically adventurous among us.

Just for reference, KindleChat has an RSS feed too!

rupert-murdoch-570For as much as most people who handle the Kindle immediately understand its virtues, there remains a strong contingent of naysayers who find problems with the device for one reason or another. One of the most ardent critics of late has been Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who had some strong words about the Kindle on Wednesday.

Speaking to shareholders on a News Corp earnings call, Murdoch was quoted as saying, “The Kindle is a fantastic invention for books, but it’s not much of an experience for newspapers.” He went on to explain how News Corp had to negotiate to get Amazon to lift the price of the Kindle version of the Wall Street Journal to $15, with his company’s take a paltry $6.50 — clearly not enough for the billionaire.

He expressed optimism about the expansion of the e-Reader market to as many as a half-dozen entrants, as he seems to think that the increased competition will be good for a newspaper like the WSJ, since they’ll be able to negotiate better rates. Says ol’ Murdoch, “We want to get our fair share of revenue.”

And yet, in the very same conference call where he bitterly railed against Amazon for, in effect, stealing his company’s lunch money, News Corp’s newspaper arm reported a decrease in operating income to the tune of $109 million over the last year. The newspaper business as it was once known is clearly failing. Like the music business before them, they’re either going to have to learn to adapt, or die off.

Rupert Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch

When the one promising development you can report in the e-Reader sphere is that you managed to force through a price increase, you know you’re a little out of touch with your readers. Don’t believe me? Look at the reviews on Amazon. The Wall Street Journal’s average customer review is sitting at a leaden 2/5 stars, and rightly so. When the print version of the newspaper, which includes access to WSJ.com, sells for $120/year, trying to get people to pay $180/year for the same newspaper on their Kindles with less features and no pictures is something of a tough sell.

Don’t get me wrong though, I think newspapers are probably one of the strongest proofs of concept for the Kindle. Anybody who has ever tried to read a newspaper on a crowded commuter train can attest to the relative comfort of getting one’s news on the eminently compact Kindle. And while reading the news on a laptop is functional enough, it pales in comparison to the portability and readability of a dedicated e-Reader.

So whoever is at fault for overpriced newspaper subscriptions, it needs to stop. I can’t claim to have all the answers, but as a consumer of digital content myself, I can say with some confidence that raising prices and publicly blowing off whole platforms is not it.

There is little question that, from a design standpoint alone, Barnes & Noble’s Nook is the most innovative, feature-laden eBook reader in its class. According to Spring Design, a fellow gadget-based company out of California, that’s no coincidence. They’re alleging that B&N’s new Kindle-killer is based on ideas and designs pulled straight from their own dual-screen Android-based e-reader, the Alex.

It would seem the two companies have been collaborating since earlier this year, under an agreement that Spring Design hoped would lead to a full-fledged partnership. Instead, they’re now accusing Barnes and Noble of violating their non-disclosure agreements and “misappropriating trade secrets.”

bn-nook“We showed the Alex e-book design to Barnes & Noble in good faith with the intention of working together to provide a superior dual screen e-book to the market,” said Eric Kmiec, Spring Design’s VP of sales and marketing, in a statement. According to documents they filed in court, a B&N executive even went as far as warning Spring Design not to consider Amazon as a partner, because their competitor would just “steal Spring’s unique idea without ever buying anything from Spring.” Yikes.

Now instead of a partnership between the two companies, Spring Design filed a lawsuit on Monday and further announced their intention to launch their Alex e-Reader in January in direct competition with Barnes & Noble. The book-seller does not appear to be commenting on the substance of the lawsuit at this time.

The biggest consequence of this new development is not, as it would seem at first, the presence of another competitor on the marketplace. It’s true that both the Alex and the Nook feature color touchscreen navigation and utilize Google’s Android operating system, but the Alex is, as far as we can tell, merely a standalone device. The Nook’s greatest strengths are still the ability to lend books to friends as well as the device’s inevitable ubiquity in the nation’s largest book retailer, something Spring Design can hardly replicate on their own.

No, the most interesting part of this lawsuit is the potential injunction that a judge could put on Barnes & Noble, preventing them from releasing the Nook until the situation is resolved in court. It already seemed far too late in the year for them to release it for this holiday season, but this pending litigation makes that a virtual impossibility. And while I highly doubt that a big corporation like B&N can be gummed up in court for too long, it certainly gives Spring Design the opportunity to get their e-Reader out there first to make the Nook look the copy-cat.

I guess it just goes to show that whenever you spot innovation anywhere in the business world, it’s probably only coming about second-hand. And so much for that.

We’ll be keeping tabs on how this affects the release of the Nook, once B&N sees fit to comment.

Amazon makes it so easy to find the books you’re looking for in the Kindle Store that I think a lot of people simply fail to realize that there is a wealth of free reading material at their finger tips, provided they just know where to look.

In truth, there are literally hundreds of ways to get free eBooks, both legal and otherwise. I’m assuming you’re like I am though, and prefer the simplest and quickest methods so you can get back to your reading as fast as possible. So here are my top 3 free eBook destinations:

Feedbooks
Feedbooks is my favorite option because not only do they have thousands of free and public domain titles ready for your perusal, but they also offer a seamless method for downloading titles to your Kindle without ever touching the computer.

  1. Navigate to the web browser on your Kindle. On the home screen, go to Menu > Experimental > Basic Web.
  2. Once in the browser, hit Menu > Enter URL and type in feedbooks.com/kindleguide
  3. When prompted, simply hit the OK button and it will download a file. This file will appear in your list of books as “Kindle Download Guide.”
  4. Open the Kindle Download Guide, go to the Table of Contents, and find your book by first letter. (Note: There are tons of titles on Feedbooks, so I find switching the font to the smallest available allows you to scan pages much more quickly.)
  5. Simply hit the Download link, hit OK at the prompt, and you’ll have a brand new title waiting on your home page.

Project Gutenberg
When people think “free eBooks,” generally they think Project Gutenberg. Having been around for years and with over 30,000 titles in their library, it’s not hard to see why. Finding books on Project Gutenberg is fairly straightforward, but there are some extra steps.

  1. Find your title by searching for it on your computer at Gutenberg.org
  2. At the bottom of the screen on a book’s page, you’ll note several file types. Download the plain text file version with no compression, if it’s offered. Plain text is always your preferred file type, but the Kindle CAN also read most kind of .mobi files as well.
  3. Once you’ve saved the title to your PC, connect your Kindle to the computer via the USB cable.
  4. Simply drag the new file you’ve downloaded into the documents folder on your Kindle, and you’ve done it. (Note: Make sure to change the file name so the title is first, because once it shows up on your Kindle home screen, the file name will be displayed as the title.)

Amazon
Yes, believe it or not, Amazon actually does feature a number of free Kindle books for you to gorge on. These are particularly handy when your checking account is still smarting from making that initial $259 investment.

Simply go to the Kindle Store, pick a genre, and once it gives you a list of results, change the “Sort by” box to “Price: Low to High.” All your free titles will float to the top. I can’t speak to the quality of the selection on there, but there always appear to be at least 1 or 2 quasi-new free titles in the list of Kindle bestsellers. It’s worth keeping an eye on.

You can also accomplish this by going to the Kindle Store through your Kindle itself, but I’ve always found that method more cumbersome when you had the choice.

So there you have it! Three very easy, very quick ways to make sure your Kindle is always stuffed with quality reading material.

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