Welcome to another Textbook Guru eBook review. We’ve already taken a look at a few other platforms (Chegg, Kno, Inkling, CourseSmart and iBooks) but today we are looking at eTextbooks on the Kindle, from Amazon. Many people think of the Kindle as strictly for fiction books, which has been Amazon’s marketing angle for years. However, the Amazon library boasts an ever increasing collection of eTextbooks ranging from K-12 Chemistry books (like the one I’ve selected) all the way to college level texts.
For this review I’m using a Kindle touch 3G w/special offers which has a 6″ screen and multi-touch interface. The features vary from Kindle to Kindle, most dramatically when you jump to the Kindle Fire which has a full color display but some older models use some sort of physical keyboard for navigation rather than touch screen. The ‘special offers’ model saves you $40 off the purchase price but ‘special offers & sponsored screensavers display on Kindle Touch when you’re not reading.’ Basically you save a bit of money by agreeing to let Amazon sell your screensaver as ad space when you’re not reading.
The Kindle has made it’s claim to fame on two main features, any time 3G access to the Amazon library of eBooks and it’s revolutionary eInk/ePaper display. While you can’t use your Kindle’s 3G to surf the web, you can use it to download eBooks from the Amazon library from anywhere with cell reception. This feature is included in all Kindles and does not have an extra fee.
The technology behind the Kindle’s display is truly impressive. The surface of the screen itself actually looks like paper and has no glare or backlight to strain your eyes. The ePaper is backed by a layer of eInk capsules which are black and will either rise up to the ePaper to display black or fall back to display white depending on the electrical charge applied to them. Essentially the display can negatively or positively charge each point on the display to make it show black or grey.
Whether you’re browsing textbooks or the latest from Oprah’s book club, the Amazon Kindle library boasts over 1 million titles. You have the option to buy or rent your textbooks as long as the rental period is at least 30 days. One thing I like about rentals on the Kindle is that when your rental period is winding down, you’ll get a notification and have the option to do nothing and the book will become unavailable, extend your rental period or you can purchase the book, applying the already charged rental fee towards the total price of the book.
This method of renting seems the most convenient of the platforms I’ve reviewed so far because it is so adaptive to the way students work. For example, it’s hard to say at the start of a term how useful the required book will be or how much the professor will use it. With this method you could start with the 30 day rental and only extend it if you find you are actually using the book enough to justify it. Also, if you get into the class and realize the book isn’t useful, or you drop a class, you have 7 days to return the rental for a full refund.
My favorite feature, X-Ray, was invented by Amazon for the Kindle and is not available in any other eReader. X-Ray is a feature that “Lets customers explore the ‘bones of the book.'” With Xray you can see the definitions of important words, phrases or names and see a visual diagram of every passage that pertains to that word. In textbook this is particularly helpful for understanding core concepts, vocabulary and remembering important people and events. It is also very useful in fiction books, especially those like Game of Thrones or other fantasy novels with hundreds of characters over thousands of pages.
It also works as a sort of heat map for which topics in your book are most important to pay attention to. Like cliff notes of cliff notes, the X-Ray feature lets you see a top level view of what is important in a chapter or section and easily reference all those key vocabulary words you forgot.
Being one of the first large market eReaders, the Kindle packs all of the features we assume to be standard across all readers today. Search functionality lets you search the book for terms, search the Kindle Store for related books or search Wikipedia or the Dictionary for definitions.
You also have the ability to highlight words or passages which can be referenced later. Anchoring a note to a selected word or passage is easy, although I found typing on the Kindle to be rather difficult and slow with the ePapers slow refresh rate.
An interesting feature I haven’t seen is the ‘Share’ option which allows you to publish a selected bit of text to your connected social media accounts. This feature is probably not a big hit in textbooks, but I can see how it could be fun to share an interesting passage from a novel you’ve been reading or to brag that you were the first in your book club to finish the book of the month.
One of the hallmarks of the Kindle is how easy it is to read the ePaper display, but it can get even easier (or at least more custom) by adjusting the font settings. The Kindle offers 8 font sizes with #3 being the standard and fitting 100% of the intended words for the page.
Font size #1 fits 160% of the words while font size #8 is so large it will only fit 8% of the words, usually about half a sentence. You can also choose between three type faces, regular, condensed and sans serif depending on your preference. Adjusting spacing is also an option allowing you to choose small/medium/large spacing between lines and between words on each line.
The Kindle has a lot of great things going for it. It has an ePaper display which really does feel like you’re reading paper. It has all the standard functionality you’d expect an eReader to have, allowing you to search, change the text dynamically to your liking and highlighting and note functions for studying. Possibly most important, it has a totally free, always on 3G connection to the vast Amazon eBook library.
However, there are a few ways in which it is lacking. While the ePaper display is easy on the eyes and surprisingly can do great grey-scale images, it is not capable of some of the advanced, interactive features many eTextbooks come with today such as 3D modeling, embedded video, interactive diagrams and so on. It is a hybrid with its two feet firmly planted in the digital and print worlds.
That said, whether or not it will be useful for you boils down to personal preference. If you really love the look and feel of printed books and are skeptical about reading on an iPad for example, the Kindle is a great step in the digital direction. Not to mention your chiropractor will thank you later for not carrying around so many textbooks. On the other hand, if you’re looking for an interactive, digitally connected experience to make your boring paper textbook more interesting, there are other platforms that will serve you better.