Are eBook readers (like Kindle) suitable for scientists or researchers?

My job as a lecturer as well as a scientist entails me to read a lot. Fortunately, I love books, reading as many as two books (mainly non-fiction and popular science books) a month for leisure.

Amazon Kindle DX (www.techshout.com)

Consequently, I was thinking of getting some eBook reading device that would enable me to electronically store and read my journals, documents, and technical and non-technical books. Unlike most techie people, I have no interest in Apple’s iPad though it supports eBook reading.

iPad supports more varied functions (such as internet browsing and multimedia) than the well-known Amazon Kindle. However, iPad’s greater versatility does not automatically mean iPad is a better eBook reader than Kindle. A dedicated eBook device, such as Kindle, may instead perform its sole function as an eBook reader extremely well.

The major drawback of iPad is its backlit screen, which makes it hard to read text for long. This is also a major reason why computer screens make a poor platform to read large amounts of text for long. Staring at the screen’s brightness strains and hurts the eyes. iPad cannot also be used under direct sunlight due to the glare from the screen. Moreover, iPad’s battery life cannot match that of eBook readers. Kindle’s battery life, for example, can last for a month without recharging.

Smart ad by Amazon. Kindle, not iPad, can be used under a strong sunlight.

In Malaysia, MPH bookstore appears to be the sole agent selling eBook readers. They currently sell four brands: iRiver, Hanlin, BenQ, and Oaxis (unfortunately, no Kindle). A few months ago, I went to the MPH bookstore branch at Midvalley to test these devices. I went away very disappointed.

These eBook readers had one or two major faults. iRiver Cover Story and BenQ had a touch screen feature, meaning that we could touch the screen to navigate the device, akin to iPhone’s or iPad’s touchscreen feature. However, touchscreen feature comes with a heavy price: screen glare. In addition, the BenQ reader menu navigation was quite unresponsive. I had to tap BenQ’s screen or click the buttons several times (often quite hard) to navigate the menu options. Other eBook readers have other serious problems. The most serious problem was that all of these eBook reader rendered PDF documents badly. The text in a PDF document, for example, appeared with blurry or jaggy edges. Searching text in a PDF document was strangely a hit-and-miss affair. It could find some words but fail to find others (even if the word I tried to search was displayed right in front of me).

This was why I finally chose to buy the Amazon Kindle. Even though I could not physically test one (no Kindles in Malaysia), I have read good enough reviews about it from the net. I purchased, via online, the best Amazon Kindle device: Amazon Kindle DX. I chose it because it has the largest screen size (9.7”) and screen resolution (1200×824 pixels) than all other eBook readers. Well, if you are going to get a device to read eBooks, get one with a big screen, right? Why torture your eyes on a small screen?

Moreover, the Amazon Kindle DX I bought has been improved to have a better screen contrast by 50%, so that text and images now appear sharper.

After waiting for about two months, my Kindle DX finally arrived. I unpacked it and noticed that Amazon had stuck a piece of paper on the Kindle’s screen to remind me to charge my Kindle prior to first use. I tried to remove this paper but could not. I grumbled on why Amazon had used such a strong glue to stick the paper on the Kindle’s screen (of all places).

It was only later that I realized, much to my embarrassment, that the paper I thought I was seeing was actually the Kindle’s screen! Duh… It is no exaggeration then Kindle’s screen display is often said to look like text and images printed on paper.

I carry my Kindle DX for about three months now, so is Kindle DX suitable as a tool for scientists or researchers? To me, any eBook reader must comply with the following criteria before it can become a suitable tool for scientists:

  • Support for PDF file format. Most journal articles and technical books are in PDF file format, and the eBook reader must render PDF documents accurately.
  • Rendered PDF documents that are easy to read and to navigate. A PDF document may be rendered accurately, but if the text or images are displayed too small, this makes the document difficult to read. Although most eBook readers can magnify (zoom) the text or images, such magnification or zooming capability makes navigating the document more difficult because it involves cumbersome scrolling either horizontally or vertically to read or view the entire sentence or image.
  • Large storage capacity. Files stored in PDF file format are much larger than the EPUB, PRC, MOBI, or AZW file formats typically reserved for eBooks. Therefore, the eBook reader must support expandable or external storage.
  • Text search within file and in several files. The eBook reader must support fast text search in the currently opened PDF file as well search for text in several PDF files. This text search capability is crucial to find articles or books that match our current research work. For example, we may want to locate the journal articles that contain the word “leaf stomata conductance”.
  • Capability to organize documents. Storing many documents means file organization is crucial because it would help us to more easily locate documents.
  • Highlighting text and adding notes to PDF documents. Reading technical documents often means we would highlight one or more key sentences and make notes by the side. Capability to add notes means an eBook reader must have either a physical or virtual (screen) keypad.
  • Bookmarks. Bookmarking PDF pages is crucial to remember the last page read or pages that contain information that we wish to return to read or refer to later.
  • Transfer of files from computer to eBook reader. We must be able to easily transfer documents from our desktop computers or notebooks to our eBook readers.

The above criteria are heavily based to support the PDF file format because, as mentioned earlier, most scientific articles and technical books are saved in the PDF format. Other common file formats used in scientific documents, but to a much lesser degree, are pure text (TXT), Word (DOC), or PowerPoint (PPT) file formats.

Kindle DX renders PDF documents very well (buykindlereader.org)

Okay, is Kindle DX suitable in my work as a lecturer and scientist? The good points of Kindle DX are as follows:

  • Due to Kindle DX’s large screen, it is often able to display PDF documents with very clear and legible text and images. In fact, Kindle’s rendition of PDF documents is, by far, the best I have seen compared to those eBook devices sold by MPH. Some PDF documents with small fonts will appear small on Kindle, but rotating the Kindle to landscape mode rotates the PDF document to landscape mode as well. This makes the images and text appear larger, and often legible enough to read.
  • Kindle DX supports bookmarking for PDF files.
  • Kindle DX supports text search for the currently opened file or for all files.
  • Kindle DX supports “collections” (or folders) which allows us to organize or group related files together.
  • Very easy to transfer files from my computer into Kindle DX (or vice versa). A simple USB cable is all that is needed to connect the two devices. The usual copy-and-paste command is then used to transfer files between the computer and Kindle.
  • Long battery life, especially with the Wireless feature turned off.

Now, the bad (but significant) shortcomings of Kindle DX are as follows:

  • My major gripe is Kindle DX has a very limited internal storage (about 3.3 GB usable storage) and no support for external storage. Because most journal articles and technical eBooks are in PDF format that occupy a much larger storage than the usual eBook file formats, Kindle DX can store only a limited number of PDF documents. As I mentioned earlier, I have a total of 15 GB of eBooks, so I cannot store all of them (or even those I refer often) in my Kindle.
  • Kindle DX does not support text highlighting or adding notes for PDF documents. If you are scribbler like me, this can be infuriating as I am not able to jot down notes or my thoughts.
  • Kindle has a much slower navigation for large PDF files than the computer. This means it is slower to jump quickly from one page to another on the Kindle. Text searching is also slow especially for large PDF documents. This is more of a problem for navigating inside technical books (with hundreds of pages) which would have a large file size as well.

Kindle DX has many good points. It is easy to use, feels solid, and renders documents, especially PDF files, very well. I believe Kindle DX is the best eBook reader out there, far better than other brands. The problem is not so much about Kindle DX but on the current eBook reader technology that makes Kindle DX or any other eBook readers out there unsuited yet for serious scientific readings.

Notebook: Remains a scientist’s essential tool

For scientists, the notebook (not iPad) is still the best device to store, read, skim, and search through tons of documents. Scientists and notebooks are rarely apart. Scientists rarely just use the notebook to read articles. The notebook is also often used for serious work such as to analyze and interpret data, write reports, internet browsing for information or for scientific articles, and emailing. Consequently, it is hard for scientists to justify carrying an eBook reader (just to store eBooks) and a notebook (for doing the other science work) – might as well carry just the notebook.

eBook readers (including iPad) are most suited for leisure reading, and Kindle DX is undoubtedly, by far, the best one out there.

P.S.
If you are like me who have an US address and a usable credit card in the US, you would be able to shop at the Kindle store which has far more eBooks than other stores offered by other eBook reader companies. You would also be able to do light internet browsing (for free) using the Kindle.

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Comments

  1. Thank you very much for a very good review with clear pros and cons.
    I’m also considering about getting a Kindle for my academic readings or not.
    Your post has been by far the best source I’ve read so far.

    I have just one question though.
    What would you say about reading the paper back books compare to the reading with Kindle? Do you find it as easy and comfortable to read with the Kindle compare to printed books?

    Best regards,
    Ryuei

    • Kindle is best used for books where you read in a linear fashion: moving successively forward, such as from page 1, to page 2, then to page 3 and page 4, and so on until you reached the last page of the book. Books where we read in such a manner are novels or popular science books — books for more entertainment than academic study or reference.

      Kindle isn’t suitable for textbooks, reference books, or journals where you might flip the pages in a non-linear manner. When we read academic books, we often flip the pages back and forth. For example, we might jump back a few pages to refer to a table or figure, then flip forward to resume our reading. We also often read the book non-sequentially: we might read chapter 4 first, then flip back to chapter 2, then forward to chapter 8.

      Flipping pages like that in Kindle is too slow and text search in Kindle is also slow — much slower than in a notebook. Reading magazines is also unsuitable in Kindle unless we tend to read a magazine linearly.

      I am not sure about Kindle Fire on whether these weaknesses have been improved, but reading the reviews made no mention on whether these weaknesses have been rectified.

      Other than that, the PDF display in Kindle is very good: clear and crisp.

  2. Thank you for this interesting post!

    I already read some articles about this topic, but all came to the conclusion that the Kindle is well suited for scientific reading. The shortcomings you mentioned were not considered as so bad. (https://bukvova.wordpress.com/2010/09/13/kindle-3-and-academic-reading/, http://www.reportergene.com/2011/02/kindle-4-academic-reading.html).

    Good to know that other scientists don’t agree with this. So I will read further articles to be sure a Kindle is suited for my scientific reading!

    Best regards!

    • Thank you for the links. I am sure people who are considering to get a Kindle would appreciate the reviews from fellow scientists. In my short review, I had no problems with the PDF display. I even wrote that Kindle displays PDF documents the best compared to other eBook readers. My two major complains, which the two reviews you shared did not mention, were: 1) limited disk space, and 2) slow navigation.

      The limited (and non-expandable) disk space means I cannot keep all my journal articles in my Kindle. And this is just my journal articles. I have several gigs of textbooks rendered in PDF that I cannot possibly fit in my Kindle.

      The second major limitation is Kindle is suitable for linear reading, meaning reading sequentially from page 1 to page 2 to page 3 and so on. But if I want to flick through the pages (in a non-linear fashion), Kindle makes it difficult to achieve this because it is slow. The larger the PDF file, the slower the page navigation becomes. It can be frustratingly slow, much slower than that in a notebook.

      Actually, I do have a third major complain: Kindle makes file organization and navigation difficult. It can be slow to find a journal article stored somewhere in our Kindle. For example, I may have remembered reading an article something about a topic (or keyword). I want to look for that article. Doing this on a notebook is easier because the text search across PDF files is much faster. Scrolling through the list of PDF files across several folders is also easier. But try doing this on the Kindle! It can be frustratingly slow.

      I am still actively using my Kindle, but I use it for novels and my popular science books where one reads in a linear fashion (rather flicking through a textbook or article searching for information or when we go back-and-forth between charts or tables and the main text in the article). I still find Kindle the best eBook reader for leisure reading, but not so suitable for the more aggressive nature of scientific reading and navigation of books/articles. The Kindle store also makes it so easy to obtain books fast.

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