iKindle

So, I’ve recently been toying with the idea of getting a smartphone. The iPhone had been looking good to me for a while, and especially the 3gs, but then I hadn’t been looking much at what else is out there.

Looking at the iPhone, it’s probably one of the most fluid and natural devices from a user-interface perspective, and especially as an MP3 player compared to other MP3 players (besides, of course, the iPod Touch, which is just an iPhone without the phone). Targeted apps for Facebook, WordPress, Amazon, Pandora? Love it! Best of all, I qualify for an upgrade to the 3g for $50 if I renew my contract for two years.

And then the 3gs with its better performance, video capabilities, and a camera with a tap-to-focus feature! And, yeah, the compass and voice-activation features, but I’m not nearly so interested in those. That being the case, the fact that it’ll cost me $150 more to upgrade put it just out of my consideration. Even if it plays Katamari Damacy (I’m told it’s not worth trying on the 3g).

But then, I’m not jazzed that I’d have to use iTunes whenever I wanted to interface it with my computer. I don’t have a Mac, and I don’t enjoy using Windows. All my MP3s are on my Ubuntu disk, and so I’d have to transfer them all to a FAT32 disk and use that as my main base of MP3-playing operations. And either boot into Windows or fire up a larger-than-I’d-like Windows VM just to talk to the iPhone. Not cool.

And, of course, not having a Mac means I can’t write software for it, but have to make do with rigging up a website (and hoping I’ve got connectivity) to add customization to the thing. And I can’t even easily load it up with PDFs or offline-stored web content or what have you.

But of course, all third party apps these days will have an iPhone version, and that’s support I can rely on (until my version of iPhone becomes too obsolete, anyway).

So I looked at some alternatives: Google Android-based phones. The great thing about these is they have many, if not all, of the apps I really care about. Obviously all the Google-related ones, a web browser, GMail, Google Maps; and also at least Facebook and Pandora. And the best part is, it’s emminently hackable. I can access it like a hard drive, and load whatever software I want—which I can write in Java on my Ubuntu laptop, and test in their Java-based Android emulator.

The problem with these phones, though, is that the only Android-based phones currently available don’t work with AT&T (and by “work”, I of course mean that they can use AT&T’s 3g network, and not just the standard cell data service). It’s expensive to switch, and on top of that the phones themselves are more expensive, even with the contract.

A coworker pointed out the new, Linux-and-Gnome-based Maemo OS, which is the sexiest “mobile computing” OS I’ve ever seen. And the Nokia N900, which is apparently releasing next month, is the most powerful smartphone/mobile computer I’ve seen yet; and of course, it’s also
completely hackable.

However, the price tag is steep. $800 for a phone, when my laptop (with which I’m perfectly pleased) cost me $350 new (yes, I’m cheap, but my needs are low), is… well, it’s a lot.

And, too, while I’m at work all day, I have a wifi connection, and my laptop. When I’m home, which is the vast majority of the rest of the time, I have a wifi connection, and my laptop. The idea of getting a smartphone would be to cover the other, what, one or two percent of my time when I’m not near wifi. To cover me when I’m on the train to work, or in the waiting room. Given that I pay close to $30 a month for my connection at home, paying an additional $30 a month to cover the gaps just feels wrong, if I can avoid it.

Anyway, during all this, I’d also been eyeing Amazon’s 2nd-generation Kindle e-book reading device. It’s not a smartphone, obviously, or any kind of phone, and while it does boast internet connectivity, it’s not a “mobile computer” by any stretch of the imagination, and my interest in it had been in its excellent display, and of course its usefulness in consolidating my library of books-to-read in one, very small, very slim, very readable device.

I do a lot of reading, and I typically buy several books on Amazon every month. I got to check out a friend’s Kindle 2, and was amazed at how close it was to reading off a piece of paper. The resolution, combined with the set of grays available, is good enough that you don’t see the pixels; it looks like printed words. It’s “e-Ink”, not LCD, and it looks terrific even when you’re reading in direct, bright sunlight. And it’s tied directly via free wireless network to Amazon, which is the store I’m familiar with and use for most of my non-book purchases as well. After seeing it live, and knowing the price had dropped into the ballpark of “reasonable”, at $260, I was having a hard time convincing myself I didn’t absolutely need one.

But here’s the thing. As I said, the Kindle is connected to a free wireless network; in fact, it uses Sprint’s 3g network. But it’s not just usable for getting to Amazon’s Kindle store: the Kindle 2 includes a web browser, too! It’s not much of a web browser, to be sure: it’s roughly as powerful as the text-based, built-in browsers for non-smartphones like my Motorola RAZR. But it can handle JavaScript (once you enable it), and… it’s free. Free Internet access. My phone might have almost as good a browser, but without a data plan I have to pay a buck to download 100k of data, and an unlimited plan costs (as I said) around $30, which is a major reason why I don’t use that to cover my “one percent” time. Plus, my cell phone doesn’t do 3g, either.

But, with Kindle’s browser, I’ll be able to see Facebook updates (and write my own), manage my Netflix account, read blogs (it’s especially good for that task), and read WikiPedia (Kindle has direct integration for searching WikiPedia quickly, without having to first open up the browser first). Apparently people can even get their GMail on.

So why get a smartphone? My Kindle’s on its way now! :)

The only thing that I really dislike about the Kindle, is its lack of native PDF support. You can have PDF files converted to a format that Kindle can use, but it’s pretty much just the text; it won’t keep the fonts and layout, and may not keep all the images. There are techniques to get around that—such as converting the PDF to a series of image files, and then sending that to be converted to Kindle format—but of course such tricks have definite shortcomings. The larger, more expensive Kindle DX—which has a page-sized view, and so is better suited to viewing the PDFs anyway—has native PDF support, but it’s too bulky to be practical for my needs, and too expensive ($500). Sony’s e-book devices have native PDF support; but in other ways they don’t hold up quite so well to the Kindle; for me, at least. Their devices are very similar to Amazon’s, but they are (at this moment) more expensive, and lack the internet access that makes the Kindle so attractive. In fact, in the currently available models (a new one will be remedying this shortly), you can’t even access their store using the device; you have to download it to your computer first, and then transfer—and several reviews I’ve read complain about serious quality issues in the desktop software. Upon finishing the first book in a new series, it will be very convenient to be able to immediately just start reading the second, without even having to wait for it to ship (or wait until I get home to my desktop to purchase it).

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