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I consider an e-reader a software development tool and would like to hear some opinions on reading technical e-books. Questions that I have are things like:

  • What are the usability issues you have experienced with e-books as opposed to physical books, what are the advantages/disadvantages of both?

  • What experiences have people had with eye-strain on tablets/PC as compared to an e-ink based reader?

  • What are people's specific experiences with the Kindle as a technical e-book reader? Does the screen size impact readability? Have you had any other concerns/issues?

  • Any other experiences/issues with reading technical e-books...resolution of text/diagrams; ability to keep a page open while referencing another, etc...?

  • Any suggestions as to solutions for any of the issues encountered with reading e-books on the device with the issue?

P.S. I would like to hear people's actual experiences, and why/how they believe whatever device is currently a superior tool for reading e-books.

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6 Answers

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I've been a heavy O'Reilly Safari user for a few years now, so I had already made the transition to digital versions of technical books. I also never made notes inside my books (I keep notes in separate files), so I didn't miss this ability when I transitioned.

I have a kindle 3 for reading e-books. Before that, I had a Cybook Opus. Both of these devices are not suitable for reading pdf's. While they can technically render them, the screen is too small to display content formatted for full page widths, and there is nothing out there that can reformat pdf's with acceptable quality. If your goal is to read pdf's, only large-size screens like the kindle dx or ipad will be suitable.

When reading books formatted specifically for the kindle, I find that the reading experience is pleasant enough that I forget it is not paper. The kindle 3 is the first e-reader I've seen where the e-ink screen is on the level of quality of a printed book. I have the leather cover, which folds open like a hardcover book, and the combination is very pleasant to hold (very book-like feeling). The device is light enough and thin enough to not have the clumsiness that some books can have. I also love the fact that it always remembers the page you were on. Paper books can be really annoying that way.

For technical books, I exclusively use safari, so I was very pleased when they launched a kindle 3-compatible version of their mobile site.

Good points about mobile safari books:

  • Pages load fast and are pleasant to read.
  • Content is reformatted for the screen.
  • The page turn keys make it convenient to scroll down the page.
  • Making bookmarks inside of safari is straightforward, and bookmarks are shared with the regular web version (you can also make notes, but I never do).

Downsides:

  • Awkward navigation between book sections (have to pick out a small link with the D-button)
  • Awkward navigation in general (when you're navigating around the web site, you really notice the lack of a touch screen)
  • Sometimes wifi connectivity is lost for a minute or two, where other devices remain connected. I got the wifi-only version. This is probably one of these "it's just you" problems.
  • Scrolling down the page can leave a little ghosting (due to how the e-ink screen works). I'm not really bothered by this as it is very subtle, but that may not apply to everyone.

Bottom-line for the kindle I can say that it's a very good book reader, even for technical books, but only if the books are formatted specifically for the device, and only as a passive experience. As an interactive device (beyond page flips), it's weak, mostly due to the lack of a touch screen. Whether you like it or not heavily depends on the source of your books, and of the level of interactivity expected.

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like yourself I have also been a heavy O'Reilly Safari subscriber for several years. I also have one of the original Kindles. I love it for reading fiction, but it is too small for technical stuff -- the figures are just too hard to see, if when zoomed. I am hoping to get one of the latest Kindle DX's soon. –  tcrosley Oct 18 '10 at 5:01
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You might find this slashdot article interesting, as it describes why the Kindle is not as good as a physical book:

http://mobile.slashdot.org/story/10/05/25/1713242/Amazon-Kindle-Fails-First-College-Test?from=rss

At Princeton University and Portland-based Reed College, a small liberal-arts institution, students praised the Kindle for its long battery life, paper savings and portability. They then complained they couldn't scribble notes in the margins, easily highlight passages or fully appreciate color charts and graphics.

"You don't read textbooks in the same linear way as a novel," said Roesner, 23, a graduate student in computer science and engineering. "You have to flip back and forth between pages, and the Kindle is too slow for that. Also, the bookmarking function is buggy."

The O'Reilly Safari online reading facility is not bad, but still a lot less interesting than a real book. Its primary advantage is that I can subscribe to books instead of having to get permission to order them.

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Well, since most of the time I spend in front of my laptop, that naturally defaults to its screen for reading. I never had any problems with eye strain, nor vision, but that may not work for everyone.

Apart from that, if it is something I know I'm going to be reading for a longer period of time, I usually just print the thing out (and bind it properly, not those spiral bindings, but a real hardcover one <-- notice; this only goes for books I know I'm gonna be keeping for a longer time on the slelf).

Apart from that, I tried Kindle as a reader, and was more than satisfied with it - no problems whatsover, and the screen is really nice to look at. But it just didn't stick with me ... out of habit, maybe, I don't know ... that is not saying it isn't a nice reader. It's great actually. I just don't spend that much time away from my machine for it to be useful. It also lacks the feature that I have with real books - notes in the margins (oh, man - you should see some of the older ones. Uhmm, well, maybe you shouldn't.). Also, page turning speed can be a bit bothersome sometimes.

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I use my netbook (I currently carry an OCZ Neutrino which I tricked out so that it rivals most laptops in terms of performance).

  • It has a matte screen, so I can read easily in a variety of lighting conditions,
  • it's small enough to carry around,
  • and it has an almost full-sized keyboard (so that if I really wanted to, I could make little notes about the book I'm reading)

If I know I'm gonna be keeping a given book around, I usually go out and buy the print edition, or get it printed/bound at staples (they do hardcover binding).

Haven't actually tried an e-reader, mainly because all the ones that seem to support PDF reading turn out to suck in various other ways. I considered an iPad, but at $600, that actually costs more than my tricked out netbook for about 1/3 the specs and I really can't justify $600 just for an e-reader.

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I have a sony reader with a couple of technical e-books and here's my experience. I find the size is an issue with technical books more than novels.

  • The font is small, and hard to read so you almost always have to zoom.
  • When zoomed, pagination is buggered (you'll get the last 2 lines of a page as a 'page' in your reader)
  • Tech books have lots of sidebars and diagrams. These get pushed to other pages and in some cases they don't get rendered at all.
  • Line carriages get buggered in zoom modes sometimes.
  • When zoomed, the page count is often off. Not a big deal, but it's annoying if you're trying to referr back to something (in my case, I have the print copies of the books as well so referring between them can be annoying)

Additionally, finding technical e-books (.pdf) is not as easy as I figured it would be. This might be something that the Kindle has over the other readers.

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What version of the Sony Reader do you have? –  Laz Oct 17 '10 at 20:36
    
@Laz: PRS-505 I think (It'sat home right now). –  Steve Evers Oct 18 '10 at 17:23
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My Kindle is well-suited for reading novels, since those are read in a linear fashion. But since page turning is slow, I find it horrible for technical reference. Most of my technical books are physical copies along with ebook versions. If its a new technology (and doesn't have long code examples), I can deal with reading it "cover-to-cover" on the Kindle. But when I need to reference it later, I usually go with Acrobat Reader or the physical copy.

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