As detailed in another post, I had decided to try to achieve desktop functionality while camping in a remote location. This post focuses on portable document-viewing capabilities. I took these notes on the fly, as I was going through my investigation. As such, they are only semi-organized, but may address thought processes that will interest some readers.
Choosing the Paperwhite
My inquiry began with the realization that an eBook reader (a/k/a eReader) might be able to play the desired role, providing some desktop functionality in wilderness places. A laptop would certainly have been much more capable than an eReader. But as discussed in another post, it was not going to be easy to keep my laptop recharged. I could recharge it when I went to town, while connecting with the outside world at a public library, restaurant, or other location with free wifi. I could use it out in the field, with an optional external USB drive, as a sort of file server and organizer for the eReader. But it seemed I could not keep the laptop constantly up and running, out there, not without spending a chunk of money on batteries and/or other hardware.
To assist in my planning, TopTenReviews offered an eBook Reader Configurator that took me through numerous questions about my needs and, in the process, oriented me to key differences among various models of eReaders and tablet computers. Those questions and the outcomes (and a good Ars Technica review) notified me that, if I was willing to dispense with the color screen, powerful processor, and other amenities, I might be able to do what I needed to do with a humble eReader like the Amazon Kindle. Reports that it could operate for a month without recharging, at a half-hour a day, seemed to imply that it might run for as long as 15 hours.
It looked like the model for me was the Kindle Paperwhite, so named because it had a lit screen that would enable me to read in the dark without a separate light. I could have bought the plain Kindle instead, but a clip-on LED light would cost $20; alternately, I could wear a headlamp, though that might grow tiresome and, in warm unscreened conditions, would attract bugs to my forehead. I also didn’t necessarily want to light up the whole neighborhood, or alert every wacko in the wilderness, just to read my book.
Amazon said the battery would have long life even with the light turned on. In the tent and perhaps elsewhere, a Paperwhite would offer me a form of nighttime entertainment: I could read books and maybe some magazine or newspaper articles downloaded from Amazon. It also seemed possible to convert non-Amazon eBooks, not available or more expensive at Amazon, to Amazon’s MOBI format. This entertainment might or might not be more engaging or productive than the distractions available at a desktop computer (e.g., emails, news articles, videos).
The Paperwhite was going to be decidedly deficient in one aspect of digital entertainment: unlike some of its competitors, it had no audio capability. This seemed like a silly thing to have left out. It meant that the Kindle could not be used for playing audio or even for text-to-speech playback of printed text. I thought this might not be a big deal for me personally, as I did not normally enjoy sitting around and listening to a machine read a book to me. Then again, I had not actually tried it, except for one or two brief experiments with related software, and now I was going to be out there, perhaps with time to kick back and enjoy it. And there were tasks (e.g., preparing meals) that might benefit from music or the spoken or musical word.
Another deficiency: the Paperwhite would not allow me to insert a memory card, so as to improve what would evidently be about 1GB of available RAM. That would be a lot of memory, if I were seeking only to read text files in MOBI format. Amazon said somewhere that the Kindle’s available RAM would hold 1,100 books. The problem was that I would want the Kindle to do more than display books. I had a ton of materials in PDF format, and the Kindle was able to display PDFs (as well as TXT, HTML, DOC, DOCX, JPG, PNG, and other formats).
Preliminary inquiries suggested that it would also be possible to convert or tweak PDFs to make them more Kindle-compatible. But what would happen with PDFs that I had produced by scanning documents? The resulting PDF image files could be pretty big. I had much more than 1GB worth of PDFs.
One solution, suggested by the Kindle Paperwhite Users Guide (p. 13) and by a Kindle for Dummies webpage, was to buy the 3G version of the Paperwhite, and use its free cellular network (with broad but not entirely nationwide geographical coverage) to dial into cloud storage. (I could just use the WiFi option available on the non-3G Paperwhite, but of course that would work only when I was in town, at a place with a WiFi connection.) Uploading and downloading large amounts of material could take a long time and impose a burden on a WiFi link (at e.g., a public library). One user reported that attempts to download large files at a McDonald’s failed — that evidently McDonald’s system blocked large downloads.
I was not sure whether use of Amazon’s 3G network would resolve such concerns, though surely it would be far slower than viewing such materials on a local drive. There might also be capacity concerns in the cloud: an Amazon webpage said, “We may limit the number of personal documents you may send, download, or store.” Use of cloud storage (by either 3G or WiFi) evidently required a personal Kindle account on Amazon.com. It seemed I already had such an account. I didn’t know when I got that. Maybe everybody who had ever purchased anything on Amazon.com got one automatically, or maybe mine was created when I downloaded a couple of books and viewed them using Kindle eReader desktop software. If it was the latter, then I guess I could have set it up by downloading one of Amazon’s many free eBooks.
Wrestling with Amazon’s Webpages
The place at Amazon where they would store my uploaded files was called the Kindle Personal Documents Service. As the following paragraphs indicate, my interactions with that service were very confusing. Things did not seem to be functioning as they were supposed to.
A webpage describing the Personal Documents Service indicated (in conjunction with the User’s Guide and the Dummies webpage, above) that I would get my PDFs and other documents into that Service by sending them as attachments to an email message directed to my Send-to-Kindle email address. That address was supposed to be assigned when I registered my Kindle or my Kindle reading application.
I hadn’t yet purchased a Kindle, and for some reason I couldn’t get the Amazon Kindle for PC v. 1.1 software to run on my PC at that moment. I ran the uninstaller that had been added to my system when I installed Kindle. Then I reinstalled it. I did have an entry showing the Amazon Kindle for PC v1.1 software in Control Panel > Programs and Features, but it still would not run. Starting at Amazon’s Free Kindle Reading Apps webpage, I set up their cloud reader in Firefox and also in Google Chrome. I also downloaded another copy of their standalone Kindle for PC app and tried installing that. It was a newer version (1.10.6), and it worked.
Now I was looking at what appeared to be my Kindle account in two separate places — in the Firefox add-on, and in the Kindle for PC program — and they were showing two different lists of books. I didn’t know why that would be, but then I found that I was not yet logged into Amazon through Kindle for PC. (There didn’t seem to be any relevant options in the Firefox cloud app.) In Kindle for PC, I went into Tools > Sync and Check for New Items. It said, “Register now to get started.” I entered my email and my Amazon password. Now Kindle for PC showed both sets of books, for a total of five. The Firefox cloud app still showed just two.
In Kindle for PC, I went into Tools > Options > Registration. It showed me as a registered user. So where was my Send-to-Kindle email address? In that app, I went to Tools > Manage Your Kindle. That opened up an Amazon Manage Your Kindle tab in Firefox, my default browser. In that tab, I clicked on the Your Apps link. It said, “No Your Apps Found” [sic].
Next, in that Firefox tab, I clicked on Personal Document Settings. This appeared to indicate that I needed to use something called Send to Kindle. Among other things, I could use Send to Kindle from Chrome, from Firefox, from a standalone app called Send to Kindle for PC, or from email. It seemed that Amazon should have included the Send to Kindle app in the Kindle for PC app, rather than require two separate downloads and installations.
At about this point, on that Personal Documents Service page, I noticed a link to Kindle Personal Documents Service Fees. That link was nonworking, but it cued me in to the possibility that what I had seen described as Free 3G might be free only in the sense that there were no connection charges. A separate search led to a document indicating that in fact there were fees for using Whispernet. There seemed to be a lot of confusion about what Whispernet was, so I wasn’t sure what fees there might be for using the 3G option.
Anyway, by this point in my browsing, I had seen remarks from several people indicating that it would probably not be feasible to download something the size of a video file (1GB+) via 3G. I concluded that, with or without fees, it probably would not work to use 3G and the cloud as a storage option for large quantities of material that I might want to swap into and out of the Kindle’s little 1GB of free RAM. So I was back to the plan of getting the regular (not the 3G) Paperwhite, and loading files into it via USB cable from my laptop.
I took a break for several hours. This evidently allowed time for things to become updated on Amazon’s end. Now my Manage Your Kindle webpage (inside my Amazon account) listed my Kindle Cloud Reader and five copies of Ray’s Kindle for PC. I deregistered each of those. Apparently this was what I had been achieving, when I had been repeatedly trying to register the software and had seen no dialog or other indication that the registration was successful. It took multiple tries to deregister some of them, and the last one never did disappear from the Registered Kindle Reading Apps list.
When I deregistered that last copy, the Kindle for PC software, which was still running on my machine (and which, I now noticed, was labeled Ray’s Kindle for PC 5 in its title bar — a name matching the last of the five items I had just deregistered), gave me a dialog that said, “Kindle has been deregistered from the Manage Your Kindle page on Amazon.com.” It gave me an option to register. I did that.
There didn’t seem to be any email addresses connected with any of my Kindle apps. On the Manage Your Kindle webpage, I went into the Personal Document Settings link under Your Kindle Account and added my current email address as an approved email address. This meant that I was a permitted sender; I knew I would not be spamming my own Kindle. But I was still not finding the email addresses for the Kindle for PC software or cloud reader, so I still did not know where to email the documents that I would be wanting to import into the Kindle.
Getting Content into My Kindle Reading Applications
The Send to Kindle for PC application that I had installed had given me a box that said “Installation Complete.” That box said that I could send docs to Kindle in several different ways: as a right-click option from Windows Explorer, using the Send to Kindle option under any application’s Print menu, or by just dragging and dropping onto the Send to Kindle app.
The Getting Started Guide link in that box opened up a Send to Kindle for PC webpage. The first option on that page was Send to Kindle for PC. I had already been here and had registered my copy of Send to Kindle for PC. These other options seemed better than the email option, so I stopped worrying about the email address I was supposed to use to email documents to my Kindle apps.
The Amazon page called titled Use Send to Kindle for PC listed the document types I could send. As noted above, PDF was one of those types. In Windows Explorer, I right-clicked on a PDF and chose the new Send to Kindle context menu option. This opened a Send to Kindle dialog. (I got the same Send to Kindle dialog when I tried printing a PDF instead of using the right-click option in Windows Explorer.) The dialog listed the title and author of the document. Under “Delivery Options,” it said, “Deliver to:” and then said “To Send to Kindle: Register a Kindle.” Clicking on that opened the Manage Your Kindle webpage. So now I gathered that I would actually not have an email account for any Kindle apps; I would just have an account for a Kindle, once I bought one. That wasn’t how it was supposed to be: the “Use Send to Kindle for PC” webpage said that my reading app should have appeared in the dialog. It was registered, but it wasn’t there. The “Your Apps” option in the “Manage Your Kindle” webpage still said, “No Your Apps Found.” In that same Send to Kindle dialog, I had an option to “Archive document in your Kindle Library.” I went with that. I clicked Send. I got an error: “Please choose Kindle to which you want to send your document(s).” So I couldn’t load items into my Kindle Library, including its Archive, until I registered an actual Kindle.
A test indicated that the right-click option was willing to let me select and upload several documents at once. There did not seem to be a way to upload an entire folder, however, and that was not ideal: apparently I would just have a big pile of unsorted documents in my Kindle library. The User’s Guide did say that I could create “collections” (p. 14), but apparently these would have to be manual re-creations of the order in which I had arranged my PDFs on the laptop.
The Chrome and Firefox “Send to Kindle” add-ins (above) both told me to begin by selecting the Kindle where I wanted to read my content. But that led to a webpage telling me, “You don’t have a supported Kindle device or reading app.” There was an option, “For a list of supported devices, click here.” I did that. It took me back to the Kindle Personal Documents Service webpage. So that was pretty confusing. Both of those installations gave me a command bar icon for Send to Kindle; but when I tried to use it, they crapped out, once again, upon the realization that I didn’t have a Kindle yet.
Another webpage confirmed that I would pay up to $2.50 per document via 3G (which I had decided against, above), and also said that there was a size limit of 50MB per document via WiFi — assuming I could find a WiFi location that would handle such a large document. The webpage also confirmed, “You cannot use Send to Kindle to send content to your Kindle app on your PC or Mac.” So I would not have an option of using Amazon software, on the laptop, to view and perhaps manipulate the material that I wanted to view on the Kindle. There was also a limit of 25 attachments per email; perhaps that was also the limit when using Send to Kindle.
So was I going to have an option of using some piece of software to copy documents directly from my laptop to a Kindle, or would it have to go via WiFi? Someone said that, when I connected the Kindle via USB cable, the computer would see it as a mass storage device with three folders: Documents, Audio, and Music. This did not seem right; why would there be an audio or music folder? That source also said, as I had seen elsewhere, that the Kindle would check to insure that the documents in question were free under Digital Rights Management (DRM). Many of my PDFs were academic journal articles downloaded through the university library. Were they going to be DRM-free, or was the Kindle going to tell me, at the last minute, that it was sorry but it could not accept some of those docs?
Amazon’s Kindle Personal Documents Service webpage did not clarify the situation. At one point, it seemed to say that I would have to use email to transfer documents via USB — apparently uploading the documents from the laptop, getting them converted to Kindle’s version of PDF, and then downloading the converted documents back to the laptop and then over to the Kindle via USB. At another point, it referred to “WiFi or USB” as different options.
Recap of Concerns
There were some unknowns here. It seemed I would not have clarity on the use of a Kindle to read PDFs until I actually bought a Kindle and played with it. I considered buying an older Kindle on eBay to experiment, but decided against it on grounds that it might be more hassle than it was worth — no longer supported, offering inferior hardware and software, and otherwise providing an inaccurate perception of where Kindle technology stood today.
But along with the unknowns, there were some emerging impressions. For one thing, the Kindle, with its puny processor and small RAM, was not going to turn pages quickly or otherwise work efficiently with large PDFs, like those that might emerge from a scanner. There would be slowness in use, and apparently there would also be slowness in the whole uploading and downloading process. For improved handling, it occurred to me, I might use Acrobat to break PDFs up into one-page files, using the option (in Acrobat 9) at Document > Extract Pages > Extract Pages as Separate Files. Even better, if the Kindle were a PC, I could run Acrobat Reader, magnify the view, and go directly to pre-assigned bookmarks, so as to find key text without a lot of groping around on that tiny screen. These thoughts suggested that I might actually be looking for a tablet or laptop PC that could operate in ultra-battery-saving mode like an eReader. As it was — contemplating the true nightmare scenario — I might actually have to print the PDF onto hard copy and carry it around with me.
There was also the drawback of not being able to function like a PC in the sense of preserving file and folder organization. What I needed, via that USB cable, was a way to move files between the Kindle and a laptop and/or an external USB drive, and to manage the organization of files and folders on both the Kindle and an external drive via something like Windows Explorer.
In addition, the various malfunctions and inconsistencies I was encountering in Amazon’s software and webpages suggested that I might have to brace myself for the kinds of frustrations that you get when you’re learning a new operating system. I really did not care to hold Amazon’s hand while it reinvented the wheel. For instance, I noticed that a lot of users seemed to prefer the physical button for page-turning, found on the previous Kindle, over the touchscreen option that required two-handed reading as well as frequent screen-cleaning and/or use of a stylus.
It seemed, at this point, that the best alternatives were either to wait another year or two for improved eReader technology or go with a laptop or tablet — and a really long extension cord. Since neither of those options responded to my current situation, it was a question of whether I could change my work style and needs enough to be content with the Kindle.
In my present impression, unfortunately, I would pretty much have to treat the Kindle like a toy, for purposes of viewing PDFs. It could do it, sometimes, to some extent. The working plan, if I got a Kindle, would apparently be to stay in town, with access to printers and WiFi connections, until I had worked through the set of PDFs that I would want to take into the field. I would have to make sure that the Kindle had swallowed each of those PDFs, and that it could display them. Out in the field, I would work with those PDFs, and might occasionally fire up the laptop to see what other PDFs I would need to put onto the Kindle or print out, the next time I was in town.
Considering Some Alternatives
I had the option of forgetting about the Kindle and going back to an earlier post‘s concept: rig up the car with an extra battery and use it as a recharging station for the laptop, sufficient to support at least a few days of remote computing. My Kindle-related browsing raised another possibility: buy a Kindle Fire HD. Like the Paperwhite, the Fire HD 8.9″ seemed to be getting good reviews, but at a more powerful level of computing. For $314, I could get it with 32GB of RAM and no ads (which reviewers disliked to varying degrees, but which I was sure I would not appreciate). It would offer the hardware I wanted on the Paperwhite, including the beefed-up RAM, a faster processor, a larger viewing screen to reduce the amount of groping around in PDFs — and also speakers, a microphone, a headphone jack, a camera, Bluetooth, and volume buttons. It would also handle more file formats (including audio). At a maximum of about 10 hours, its battery life would not compete with the Paperwhite, but it would be twice that of the laptop.
On the software side, there was apparently a way to replace the Fire’s operating system with a full-fledged Google Android installation for $20; and if that fell apart, the people at N2A provided a free tool that, they said, would restore the original stock Amazon installation. Reflecting the change from dedicated reading (i.e., Paperwhite) to computing (i.e., Fire), there were already a number of useful Kindle Fire apps, but the Android option would open up many more.
I had some reservations about the upgrade to the Fire 8.9. One was its weight. I know, I wanted to have it both ways: a larger viewing screen without a device that would weigh almost as much as a largish can of diced tomatoes. I didn’t see myself holding either the Fire or the Paperwhite out at arm’s length for long; but then, which would I be more able to hold up while reading in bed? I wasn’t crazy about spending twice as much money to get the thing, or the hours that it would take to learn how a new (Android-based) operating system would (and would not) function. The Fire was not going to replace my laptop — it wouldn’t be much use for extended word processing or spreadsheeting — and yet it seemed too big and expensive to treat as a glorified pocket calculator type of device, which was how I had originally viewed the Kindle.
Another option: the Fire HD 7, for $100 less than the HD 8.9. Its hardware would still include a choice of 16GB or 32GB, and the other items listed above (e.g., speakers) — but would offer an estimated 11 hours of battery life, lighter weight and smaller size. One reviewer said the differences came down to price, screen size, and weight. Evidently I would use landscape mode only for PDFs, not for book text (and also, apparently, not for the text of PDFs that are saved as readable text). I wasn’t sure whether the N2A operating system replacement option (above) would work on the HD 7.
But if I was going to consider a 7-inch tablet, why not look at Google’s Nexus 7? Using a Nexus 7, I would apparently have to convert Kindle books to ePub format (above), if Amazon offered the best or cheapest or only electronic version of a book; but on the other hand I would have access to various Google apps, potentially including some that would facilitate PDF reading and bookmarking. One reviewer said the Nexus 7 “runs circles around the Kindle Fire,” at a comparable price, though there was also the admission that, while the Nexus 7 was “decent as an ebook reader” one might also be “not sure it’s really got enough to sway people from a dedicated Kindle.” Another reviewer likewise rated the Nexus 7 far above the Fire 7, though without specific attention to eReader capabilities. There were reports that cheap hardware in the Nexus 7 might have begun to wear out a year after purchase. It seemed these concerns might be addressed in the upcoming release of Nexus 7 version 2, scheduled for early August 2013.
Though I did not investigate the question at this point, it seemed that, with a Nexus, I would probably not run into the barriers I had encountered when trying to figure out how to get my own PDF documents onto a Kindle Paperwhite (above). Would the Kindle Fire also give me problems in that regard? Amazon offered separate sets of help webpages for USB transfers on the Fire HD 7 and the Fire HD 8.9. A page for the latter seemed to confirm that, as with the Paperwhite, the USB transfer process would be a matter of synchronizing the Fire HD 8.9 “to receive content delivered through Manage Your Kindle.” Another page conveyed a similar message. So, yes, it did seem to be a two-step upload-cable process.
Enter the NOOK
At this point, my thoughts took an unexpected turn. I had seen a number of good reviews of the Barnes & Noble NOOK eReaders. Some reviewers considered them better than the Kindles.
The problem was that Barnes & Noble was experiencing hard times. People were warning that an investment in a NOOK might soon go unsupported (in terms of warranty, tech support, and software updates), if B & N hit the skids. But I was curious. It seemed that the NOOK was able to use the same Google apps that the Nexus would use, while providing the superior eInk type of display found in the Kindle, and at Kindle prices. If I could get documents into a NOOK without the barriers that I would encounter with the Kindle (above), would it matter what happened to B & N? Just download and, if necessary, convert the eBook from wherever, and import it into the NOOK.
An FAQs page at Barnes & Noble clarified that the NOOK could not connect to any network by cable: it could only connect to a network via WiFi, and then only to the NOOK bookstore. But that same page also said this:
You can connect your NOOK Simple Touch to a computer (using the NOOK Simple Touch microUSB cable) to transfer personal files. Your NOOK Simple Touch will appear on your computer as a removable drive. Just click on the file on your computer, and copy it (drag-and-drop) to the appropriate NOOK Simple Touch folder. Need additional space for personal files? You may save your files to a microSD memory card.
None of that unnecessary Amazon-style uploading and downloading. In addition, the laptop had a memory card reader, so the microSD memory card capability would let me swap out the NOOK’s contents easily. The other interesting thing was that the NOOK Simple Touch was available at Walmart, and at Walmart it was easy to return things that didn’t work as expected.
It seemed that I had an opportunity to get a NOOK Simple Touch with GlowLight that, to some, might actually be superior to the Kindle Paperwhite, and to use it in ways that the Paperwhite would not accommodate. I could return it if it didn’t work out, or if I decided I really did need a more powerful tablet. So I bought a NOOK and played with it, as detailed in a separate post.