Can You Read Anything with the Kindle? Almost . . . with Google Reader

A year ago I wrote about how difficult it is to read text-heavy content on a computer, here. Though I recognized the virtues of E-ink, I was not enthusiastic about the Amazon Kindle as a device for reading lengthy online text due to its high expense, slow browser, and the difficulty of getting online content onto the device.

Can you read anything on a Kindle?

Now the price is lower, the browser is faster, and getting many forms of content onto the Kindle is easier, especially if used in conjunction with Google Reader.

UPDATE 11/3/11: Google recently removed many features from Google Reader, making it useless as a platform for sharing arbitrary content with any device. At the same time, Amazon recently added a personal document service, allowing you to use Kindle’s Whispersync platform to sync your content to your Kindle(s) and all of your devices that have a Kindle app installed. The sections towards the end of this post related to using Google Reader to read anything on a Kindle are therefore no longer useful.

There are two reasons I bought a Kindle 2 and the larger Kindle DX with their eye-friendly screens:

  • to read books and short stories (what the Kindle was built for)
  • to see if I could read anything (what I really want)

Below I describe the experience of reading a variety of different types of material – novels, collections of short stories, mixed text/graphics, PDFs, web content, and using Google Reader to read RSS or arbitrary web text. While the only truly original part of this post is how to get any web content onto a Kindle (in the Google Reader section), this post may also be of use for laying out in one place what it is like to use a Kindle for a wide variety of reading materials.

FilterJoe readers know that I have an obsession with wanting to read and get work done without distraction. If I completely forget I’m using a Kindle to read, then it’s working. The more I have to think about the Kindle while trying to read, then the less enthusiastic I am.

The Kindles

I bought from Amazon a refurbished Kindle 2 for $140 (occasionally spotted for $110 in July 2010) and a refurbished Kindle DX for $249. The Kindle 2 has a 6” screen, while the DX has a 9.7” screen.

A newer version of the Kindle DX just became available for $379 which has a higher contrast display and a dark frame. There are rumors that the Kindle 2 will soon be replaced by a higher contrast Kindle 3, with possibly other new features.

Using a Kindle for Reading Novels

Reading text-only novels is where the Kindle shines. It is very easy to use the 5 way controller to navigate to the Amazon store and purchase a book. Many public domain books cost little or nothing, while modern titles typically cost $9.99. Purchased books show up on the Kindle home screen. You click on a book to open it.

Text is chunked by page, and the size of the page will vary depending on font size. Clicking the “next” button takes you to the next page. For reading a novel, the navigational controls work well.

With excellent font and typography, I found the screen as easy to read as a newspaper when outdoors, but more difficult indoors, where some form of lighting may be needed unless natural light is plentiful. At night you’ll need either a bright night lamp or clip-on light.

There is a key devoted to bringing up a menu to change font size if you want something bigger or smaller than the default (though I found the default size reasonable). This same menu includes other appearance options, such as “words per line” which I set to “fewest” when reading novels on the Kindle DX.

For books purchased through the Kindle Store, a key advantage over regular books is that you can read them on whatever device you have in your possession, whether it’s a Kindle, an iPad, an iPhone, a Blackberry, or an Android-based device. Bookmarks, annotations, and last reading place are seamlessly synced among devices if you leave your wireless 3G connection on. So, you can be reading the first three chapters of a book on your Kindle, then continue reading right where you left on your smart phone while you’re on the go.

The Kindle does get in my way a little with page turns. With each page turn, there is a brief delay, a distracting flash, and the possibility that I’ll hit the next button too early by accident. I hit the next key accidentally many times at first, but now make this mistake rarely. I make far fewer accidental page turns when using software such as Stanza on touch screen devices.

Though both Kindles work fine for reading a text-based novel, I prefer the Kindle DX because there are fewer page turns. The downside of a Kindle DX is that it’s too heavy to hold in one hand, which is why many people prefer the Kindle 2 over the DX for reading novels. The difference in feel between the two devices is similar to the difference between a hardback and a paperback.

Using a Kindle to Read Chapter Books or Short Story Collections

Some people read chapter books or short story collections straight through without ever looking at the table of contents or flipping around in a different order. For such people, the experience will be the same as reading a novel.

Personally, I want to be able to look at a table of contents and choose where I want to start reading. I would also like to be able to flip through the book, preferably section by section. And I would much prefer to see stories and/or chapters start at the top of a page.

The good news for Kindle owners is that this works pretty well for books which are formatted to take full advantage of the Kindle. Such books will have a table of contents, chapters which start at the top of the page, and waypoints. Waypoints are little dots that appear on a bar at the bottom of the page, and they typically represent the beginning of a chapter or the beginning of a story. They give you a visual representation of how long each chapter is and how far you are in the current chapter. They also give you the ability to flip through the waypoints one by one, forwards or backward, using the 5 way controller.

I like this system, though I would prefer to be able to access the table of contents in one step rather than having to hit the menu key, click on “Go To,” reposition the cursor to “table of contents,” then click on it. Amazon – if you’re reading this – can you please include an Alt-T shortcut in the next Kindle software update?

The bad news for Kindle owners is that most of the free and low cost books on the Amazon store do not include an active table of contents. So far as I have been able to gather, there is no simple way to shop the Amazon store in a way that only displays books with an active table of contents. You might be able to find out if a book is properly formatted by reading the description or reviews. But only by downloading a sample or buying the book will you know for sure if a table of contents is present. For some public domain books there are over a dozen different versions, most or all of which have no table of contents, so it can be somewhat time consuming to download, examine, and delete numerous samples to examine formatting.

I wish that Amazon had a set of rigid formatting guidelines in place that insured only books formatted to take full advantage of the Kindle could make it to the Amazon Store. Amazon has begun to weed out some of the lowest quality books from the store over the past year but they are not weeding out books without table of contents or waypoints.

Thankfully, there is a better way to get well formatted books for the Kindle. Don’t use the Kindle Store.

By far the easiest experience I’ve had is to download Feedbook’s “Kindle Download Guide” (here) and use it as the primary method for obtaining public domain books. It’s a simple matter to search your Kindle from the home screen for your favorite book or author, click to the book, and then click to download it. These books are all properly formatted with waypoints and tables of contents.

The Mobipocket Guide available here is also pretty good but the few books I’ve downloaded did not include waypoints. It is also possible to use the Kindle browser to download books from a number of different sites. Andrys Basten has a complete guide to free or low cost downloads here, but quality varies.

The downside to skipping the Amazon store is that you no longer have the benefit of Whispersync, Amazon’s system for keeping books in sync among multiple devices. If you read all your books on a single Kindle, then you won’t miss this feature.

Lack of table of contents and waypoints in some books were distractions. But setting these issues aside, chapter or story books which are formatted to take full advantage of the Kindle are easy to read and to navigate. If all Kindle books were formatted as well as Feedbook content, I would actually prefer reading chapter books on the Kindle over paper.

Using a Kindle for Mixed Text and Graphics

I downloaded a few samples of books with a mixture of text and graphics and was very disappointed. The graphics quality was mediocre and text that should have been on the same page as a graphic was often not. Changing font size can improve the experience on the Kindle DX, but the Kindle 2 is generally too small for a reasonable reading experience.

Picture books typically assume that the reader is looking at two pages at a time. I tried out two different samples of Curious George books to see if they would even come close to the experience of the paper version. They didn’t. For now, I’ll continue reading traditional Picture books to my son.

My experience with Kindle Store’s mixed text/graphics content was so poor that I eventually gave up after some fruitless tinkering. I hesitate to buy anything from the Kindle store that contains even a small number of graphics and will not do so unless I can see a sample from the book that includes one of the pages with a graphic (Nook owners have an advantage here as they can browse any part of an E-book at a Barnes and Noble store). There may be some good books with pictures or graphics in the Kindle Store but I have yet to see one.

Using a Kindle for Reading a PDF

Both Kindles include a basic PDF reader. My attempts to read PDFs on the Kindle 2 proved futile, as the screen is too small. Text does not reflow to fit the screen, so the only way to read a typical PDF text document is to zoom in. While zooming allows you to read individual words, it is impractical to read a single column 8.5 x 11 page which is divided into 4 or more rectangles, as you have to flip back and forth for each line of text.

The 9.7” screen of the Kindle DX is barely large enough to read a full PDF page. My experience after reading several PDFs is that documents with large font sizes can be read “as is.” However, most of the documents I read use 10 point or smaller fonts. For these, I had several choices:

  • Zoom—not a good option, as described above
  • Rotate the screen—practical for many documents, though charts and graphs often get chopped in half
  • Reading glasses—the best solution in most cases

There are a number of features I hope Amazon adds to future versions of the PDF reader. First and foremost would be a text reflow option. If this is not possible, I’d like to see more flexible zooming that allows me to center in on a particular chart or graph, perhaps by allowing scrolling. Margin cropping would be another useful option.

Overall, reading a PDF on the Kindle DX is worse than reading PDF on a computer and much worse than paper, when the font sizes are small. For documents that use a large font size (12-14pt depending on the font), it works reasonably well, but still not nearly as well as paper. Amazon continues to add PDF capabilities so this may improve over time.

Using a Kindle for Reading a Long Article on the Web

The Kindle browser is faster than it used to be but still slow. So you’re unlikely to use it for general browsing or to read a number of short articles. But it is surprisingly useful for reading long articles on very simple web sites, such as FilterJoe. First turn off JavaScript and Images to make the browser faster. Then navigate to where you want to read a web page that has lengthy text. The Kindle may take many seconds to load the page. But once loaded, the entire text is loaded in memory. This means you can read the entire text of the page like a short story, even if you turn off wireless access.

I find myself not using the Kindle this way. It takes too much time to browse and load pages. Many web pages are too complex to be navigated easily (or in some cases, at all) by the Kindle browser. But the main reason I don’t use the browser is because there are easier ways to get chunks of lengthy text onto the Kindle.

Instapaper,  Calibre, and KindleFeeder are three common ways to get content onto the Kindle (which you can read about here, here, and here). (update: KindleFeeder no longer exists). All three of these methods require a USB connection or paying Amazon .15 per MB for wireless delivery.

UPDATE: It is possible to configure Kindles with WiFi (3rd generation and higher) to receive free wireless delivery of content using services such as Instapaper. Instructions here.

I’ve discovered another way that uses a little known feature of Google Reader, which I describe below. Google Reader can be used as a flexible, free and wireless conduit for getting information from computers onto my Kindle.  I find it so useful that 90% of my Kindle Browser use is Google Reader. Below I explain why and how.

The Basics of RSS

As described in Wikipedia here, Really Simple Syndication (RSS) is a family of web feed formats used to publish frequently updated works, such as blog entries and news headlines. Consider: Would you rather pick up your Pizza or have it delivered? Similarly, would you rather have to spend your time fetching content from your favorite sites, or have it delivered to you automatically? A feed reader can deliver you content like a pizza delivery man delivers pizza, though with far more flexibility.

One of the most popular feed readers is cloud-based Google Reader which can be used on virtually any device, including the Amazon Kindle. The Kindle does support a proprietary system for reading RSS but it is expensive, inflexible, and offers few feeds, so I have not even tried it.

I use Google Reader to track over 100 feeds. While this sounds like a lot, most of my feeds publish less than 1 post per week, and only one more than 3 times per day. Google Reader provides tools for organizing, pruning, and rapidly reading or skipping content. The main downside of using Google Reader is the potential for self-induced information overload (subscribe to many high volume feeds and you’ll see what I mean). Some of the main benefits include a nice reading format, consolidating your news and blog feeds into one place, discussion tracking, search, archiving, and mobile access.

Using a Kindle for Reading RSS with Google Reader

The mobile version of Google Reader is reasonably fast on the Kindle, especially with the Kindle browser in “basic mode” and images disabled. Before you can use it, you’ll need to set up Google Reader on your computer, and add a few of your favorite feeds. Here is an article that can help get you started:

Google Reader Guide

Then you can access the mobile version of the Google Reader from the Kindle, by typing in this URL:

Enter your user name and password. Bookmark the home screen, as well as the screen yet get when you click on “tags.” The Tags screen shows you the tags “starred” and “shared” as well as any tags you have assigned to your feeds. Tags work like folders for the purposes of this discussion.

Once logged in, you can see a list of all unread items on Google Reader Mobile’s home screen. You can also see lists of unread items by a specific tag or specific subscription. A drawback of the mobile version of Google Reader is that you can’t view items you’ve already read unless they are “starred” or “shared.” However, using the “starred” and “shared” tags, you can view almost any web text on your Kindle.

The “starred” tag simply displays any Google Reader items for which you assigned a star, something you can do on every version of Google Reader. I tend to star interesting items either to archive them or because I want to read them later. So I may rapidly go through my list of items on a computer, reading shorter items, skimming some long items, and “mark all as read” the rest. But I “star” long, interesting items for reading at another time. Later, I can easily read them on my computer, my phone, or my Kindle. I prefer to read items with more than a thousand or so words on my Kindle DX.

The “shared” tag displays items that you have decided to share with the world in your own public feed. The intended purpose is to share items with people you think will find the items you select interesting, and you can include a note if you want to comment about the content or explain why you think it is interesting. I have actually never used “share” for this purpose. I use it to read arbitrary web content, as follows:

Google has provided a bookmarklet which allows you to share any piece of content from the web. Follow Google’s instructions to set up the bookmarklet on your computer browser. (UPDATE: I removed this link in November, 2011 because Google no longer supports this bookmarklet or any other method for sharing content with Google Reader). Now, any time you find something on the web that you would rather read on your Kindle, just select the text and click on the bookmarklet “Note in Reader.” You can now read it on your Kindle.

If you simply leave your Kindle’s browser loaded with Google Reader’s Tags you essentially have a way to print to the Kindle. Just select text from a browser, click “Note in Reader,” and the item becomes available on the Kindle. In the Kindle, you need to click on “Shared” then click on the item to open and read it.

So how does all this work in practice? It is more cumbersome than printing to a piece of paper as there are twice as many steps, and the browser is slow. You’ll need to keep battery-draining wireless 3G turned on when navigating Google Reader. And there are some glitches. “Note in Reader” bookmarklet sometimes cuts off text after certain HTML characters, which happened when I clipped a Google 10-K financial document. It is also possible to overload the Kindle browser with a very long item in Google Reader that contains many graphs and charts, which requires a reboot.

However, for text-only documents with basic formatting it works well. It works especially well to accumulate articles and then read a batch of them on the Kindle.

Overall, I find the benefit of reading long posts on a hand held E-ink device outweighs the hassles I just described, but I’m wishing for more. What I really want is to be able to select “print to E-ink” on my computer and it just shows up on my Kindle, as if I had just clicked on it. No limits. No hassles. No Hacks. No complicated setup. Whoever can do this one simple thing well will sell a lot of E-ink devices. Amazon, are you listening?

Conclusion – Can You Read Anything with the Kindle?

The answer is no, the Kindle does not quite work as a device to read anything. Both sizes of Kindle work well for pure text novels and properly formatted chapter books. Both work poorly for picture books or anything image intensive. PDFs are barely acceptable on a Kindle DX, and not acceptable on the smaller Kindle 2. But with a bit of effort, both sizes of Kindle can almost read any web text using several possible methods, the most flexible of which I believe to be Google Reader. Overall, the Kindle DX can be used on a wider range of material than the Kindle 2 due to screen size. But “reading anything” is by no means a seamless experience.

To be fair, “reading anything” is not the intended function of a Kindle. Amazon’s intention is for the Kindle to be a device that makes it easy for people to read books, collections of short stories, and periodicals available on the Kindle Store. This makes sense for Amazon as a business model, as the Kindle store is the primary means by which Amazon makes money off the Kindle platform. Amazon mostly succeeds at this, though there is room for further improvements to the user experience with tables of contents and the average quality level of Kindle store content.

However, I want to be able to read anything on an E-ink screen. For content other than text-only books this is currently cumbersome on a Kindle, and in some cases not workable.

UPDATE: I’ve used an iPod touch for several months, since writing this post. I’ve found that it’s a better general purpose reading device than the Kindle. For my detailed comparison, read iPod touch vs. Kindle: Which is Best for Reading?.

The Future

E-ink devices powered by Android will become widely available in 2011. Some of these devices may make full use of Android’s reading capabilities, including a good mobile browser that can access an Android-optimized version of Google Reader. Third party Android apps such as Evernote, Dropbox, Kindle for Android, and Nook for Android will make it far easier to effortlessly “read anything” on an E-ink screen. The Nook is already based on a restricted version of Android, so Barnes and Noble may choose to take greater advantage of Android’s reader friendly features.

For a very long time I’ve been looking forward to the day when reading anything electronic is comparable in quality and effort to reading traditional books and newspapers. That day is almost here. But not quite.

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

6 thoughts on “Can You Read Anything with the Kindle? Almost . . . with Google Reader”

  1. There’s a big difference when it comes to libraries. Most online libraries will only lend with in the ePub format which the Nook supports but the Kindle doesn’t.

  2. There are plenty of sites that can help you delivering RSS to your Kindle – more or less free – e.g. kindlefeeder, tomykindle (that one even lets you send pictures and plain text) etc. Basically you really CAN read anything on Kindle 🙂

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