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(I'll get my justification for why this is on topic in early: programming books tend to have fairly specific formatting needs - code samples, tables, images and graphs - which are not common to all book types and are not necessarily well handled by eBook readers. Similarly they're used in different ways - you often dip in and out rather than read cover to cover.)

I've just noticed that Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug is available as an eBook edition for the Kindle (and presumably also for other readers) which set me thinking.

There are certain advantages to eBook readers for tech books - primarily that you can carry a massive library of what would be heavy physical books around very easily. The downside is that certain eBook readers allegedly aren't particularly well equipped to cope with tables, code samples and so on and a book like Don't Make Me Think presumably makes extensive use of these sorts of things.

So, the question, what are your experiences of reading and using programming books on an eBook reader and would you recommend it? I'm specifically interested in the latest generation Kindle but happy to hear about all devices - might be useful to state which one you use in the answer.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by MichaelT, Kilian Foth, gnat, Bart van Ingen Schenau, GlenH7 Feb 13 at 14:47

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

    
Would my iPod count? Some technical papers I read aren't in a text format and my iPod Touch takes forever to render the page, and by the time it has, it runs out of memory and crashes. –  vedosity Dec 18 '10 at 0:49
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So "Don't Make Me Think" made you think? Is that success or failure, then? –  user1249 Dec 18 '10 at 10:48
    
The TL;DR version for people: eBooks work better alongside physical books rather than as a replacement for them and eBook readers work better on a device with a bigger screen (Kindle DX / iPad) than one with a smaller screen (Kindle 2 or 3 or the Sony PS505). Generally good for search, bad for flipping, overall mixed, don't abandon the paper library yet. –  Jon Hopkins Dec 21 '10 at 14:46

13 Answers 13

up vote 9 down vote accepted

I actually have Don't Make Me Think for Kindle after finding it was significantly cheaper than the print version of the book. It's a pretty faithful rendering of the book, but with the default format settings, some pages break in the wrong places: Krug will be talking about a figure on one page but the figure itself will be 3 or 4 pages back. I still find it perfectly readable if you were reading it cover-to-cover.

Which leads to my main issue with books like that in ebook format: I have a few other books in PDF, ePub, and Kindle format, and what I've found is that they stop being references and are really only useful for reading once.

The problem is that it's very hard to "flip" through an ebook: I'm used to being able to keep my finger on one page while I quickly skim a different part of the book. With ebooks, you only get to see one page (maybe two) at a time. So it very much becomes a sequential experience: read page 1 first, then page 2, etc.

So I still prefer physical books for things I know I'm going to need to reference constantly. I really wouldn't recommend it until they figure out better ways to "flip" through a book: text-based search, which is the current workaround, isn't a good substitute.

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GoodReader on the iPad has a bar along the left-hand side that allows you to flip to a specific page quickly. –  Robert Harvey Dec 18 '10 at 4:37

I don't have any experience with the Kindle, but I have read tech books on a Sony PRS-505. It has been a mixed experience.

The principal issue was that most programming books release a PDF and call that an eBook. Those that come in an eBook-friendly format (such as ePub) are more reader-friendly. PDFs are a bit of a pain because your options are to either live with the tiny font and strain your eyes, or increase the font, but absolutely destroy code samples.

I've tried various converters from PDF to ePub, but they didn't work very well.

I eventually settled on flipping the reader to landscape mode to squeeze some more size out of the default font settings. Biggest lesson learned: if you want to read programming books in PDF on an eReader make sure its screen has roughly the same dimensions as a PDF page.

In the end I gave up on it, unless it's a free eBook. It's just not worth paying for a PDF that I won't be able to comfortably read when I could just buy a printed version of the book.

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Many book publishers now have ePub books (O'Reilly, Pragmatic, and some Pearson titles)---they're well worth getting. –  Chris Jester-Young Dec 17 '10 at 17:11
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I checked out all of the ebook reader devices. The only one I found satisfactory was the iPad. –  Robert Harvey Dec 18 '10 at 4:36
    
I have the PRS-505 as well, and this is the exact same gripe I have with it. Straight-text books are fine, but any technical book with diagrams or code samples is a waste of time. I didn't know that ePub was better though. I'll have to look into that. +1. Thanks Anna –  Steve Evers Dec 18 '10 at 10:59
    
@SnOrfus: It wasn't hugely better, if I recall, but better than PDF. –  Anna Lear Dec 18 '10 at 15:17

For your Kindle, you should find a publisher who publishes in Mobi format. See the bottom of my post for some recommendations. I have a Kindle too, and the Mobi-format ebooks work really well on it.


I use Ibis Reader as my main ebook reader. It's a web-based reader, which means you can use it on your computer, mobile devices, etc. (I haven't yet tried it on my Kindle, but I mean to....)

I like three things in particular: navigation is easy (use left/right arrow keys, or tap the left/right margins), it has a "No Distractions" mode (no on-screen nav, just text), and you can bookmark pages to get back to (re Mark Trapp's answer). (You can always return to the nav if you want to jump to a specific section that you haven't got bookmarked, of course.)

It will also remember your last-read place, so that when you come back to the site, you will pick up where you left off, even if you're connecting from a different device.

Ibis Reader supports ePub books only, and does not support Mobi, PDF, etc. However, many tech ebook publishers, especially O'Reilly and Pragmatic (and an increasing number of Pearson titles, and soon Manning too), sell most (all?) of their catalogue in all three formats, so you're all set.

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I read a lot, and since I got my iPad, I started to use Kindle. I bought a dozen of books. I also purchased +- 5 eBook instead of the paper version before I got the iPad.

After few months of intensive tests, I decided that I will stop buying electronic version in the future.

  • I can't give or lend them to others. I know it's also prohibited explicitly by the license. They have your name watermarked in the binary.
  • I can't read them in my bath!
  • It's not even practical on my desk.
  • When I have my iPad with me, I always need to watch it in case someone try to steal it. No problem with a paper book, you can leave it on the table while you go to the restrooms.
  • I don't know what will happens if my iPad crash. I used to buy lot of music at MSN Music (OD2 Nokia) and when they decided to shutdown, I lost all my library, and today I have no way to even know what I've purchased (site out)
  • The +- 5 PDF ebooks I mention earlier, I lost them somewhere on a DVD or an harddrive and can't found them anymore... I can't even remember what I purchased
  • I forget I purchased books. Since I don't see them unless I open Kindle. And when I open Kindle, I have to scroll down to see them all.
  • And more importantly... the electronic version is sometimes more expensive than the paper version! And when it's not more expensive it's not as cheap as it should be.

And probably the more important reason I will stop buy electronic books and purchase the paper version instead is:

I really need to touch them! I like their smell. The noise it makes when you fold the pages.

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I read my Kindle in the bath... go on, live a little. –  Jon Hopkins Dec 17 '10 at 21:48
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@Jon: Thanks for the advice, I'll take your Kindle and read in the bath. –  user2567 Dec 17 '10 at 22:59
    
in 10 years nobody will steal your iPad anymore... –  user1249 Dec 18 '10 at 5:16
    
@Thorbjørn: I know, but I now have a deal with Jon, so I'm safe. –  user2567 Dec 18 '10 at 10:38

I get the books readers on my PC. Some have had issues with formating, but I found Amazon will give you a prompt refund if this is the case. I've used Microsoft eReader and Adobe's reader. I thought Kindle was lacking in some technical book choices. I carry a laptop anyway on the commute so I don't need an extra device. Can get the same books on my work computer if needed.

What I really hate is their inability to let you copy and paste. I was taking notes into Evernote and found this to be a pain.

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You haven't lived until you've read a full-screen PDF on an iPad. –  Robert Harvey Dec 18 '10 at 4:35

I have the Nook Color and unfortunately it doesn't render source code very well when the books are in actual ebook formats. But if they are in PDF format, then it is ok in landscape mode at the right zoom level.

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Looking at the other answers, I see a lot of issues I've never come across when reading ebooks. I don't know if it's the ebooks I get, the readers I use, or the platforms I use, but I know I get much better results.

[Aside: I have the Kindle, iBooks, and Google Books apps on both my iPhone and iPad. Given a choice, though, I use the freeware app Stanza, which is simply amazing.]

Why I think tech ebooks are going to be around for the long haul:

  • I'm expecting that, in the not-too-distant future, some colleges and universities will require their students to have iPads (or a similar devices). I think that higher-ed will have required texts available as ebooks both for purchase and as one-term rentals (most-likely scenario: rental with an option to buy at the end of the term).

    I remember how, as a student, I had to buy and cart around a massive pile of books every quarter—and then try to re-sell them afterwards. I would have loved to have been able to have one slim device to carry around with me instead of all those bricks. And that's not even mentioning the standing in lines at the student bookstore, swearing when the book I had to have was already sold out, or dealing with plummeting resale values—all of which will then be history.

    You can't over-estimate the percentage of tech books that get sold into the education market.

  • Being able to annotate ebooks is great. Yes, I know I can do this on paper, but I never seem to have a pen/pencil around when I want one. And now I don't run out of room in the margins!

  • With the Kindle app, I can be reading an ebook on my iPhone, and then come back home to my iPad and start reading right where I left off. The annotations go with me as well. I also like the "popular highlights," which are annotations shared (anonymously) with others reading the same ebook. This is a very useful feature for tech books—if you're having trouble with an author's explanation of a topic, someone else may have annotated it for themselves with a clarification.

  • While there are some poorly-formatted ebooks (tech and otherwise) out there, as time goes on, formatting is only going to get better and better. Part of the reason for the poor formatting is that publishers don't yet have a lot of ebook experience; over time, they'll either learn or get out of the business.

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I agree with all of your points, but schools will be the last to go electronic, because the publishers and authors are mortally terrified of losing their stranglehold on the textbook market. Unless, of course, they apply some really obnoxious DRM, which is what my school did. –  Robert Harvey Dec 18 '10 at 4:34
    
@Robert - my money's on the "obnoxious DRM." I think that ① schools will want it because they'll save huge amounts of money in staff and shipping, ② teachers will want it so they can wait until the last minute to choose required books, and ③ students will want it so they don't have the hassles I covered in the answer. Publishers will get with the program simply because they'll lose the sale otherwise (and they'll like being able to skip the costs of printing, warehousing, and returns). Sadly, nobody asks the authors what they think… But yeah, expect draconian DRM. –  Dori Dec 18 '10 at 4:46
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+1 for the Stanza link, just installed it on my iPhone –  tcrosley Dec 18 '10 at 17:09
    
Yeah, I'm definitely expecting draconian DRM: especially since publishers will be able to then cut the legs out of the second-hand market (such as it is, and what there is of it) –  John Christensen Dec 18 '10 at 21:36

I've had a Kindle for a couple of years now (I got one just after they first came out). I love it for reading fiction and mainstream non-fiction, but it doesn't handle technical material (figures, tables, program listings, etc.) very well.

So for this Christmas I've asked for a Kindle DX, which has a much larger screen with 50% better contrast compared to my first generation device. If I get it, I still plan to use the smaller one for fiction and other light reading.

A number of technical books have been optimized for the DX. O'Reilly now has nearly 1000 books available for the Kindle.

Update: I've now had my new Kindle DX for a couple of months and love it. The large screen makes all the difference when it comes to reading technical books. PDF's display especially well -- I have been emailing all my PDF documents to my Kindle and read them there instead of on the PC.

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O'Reilly have all their books in an easy to convert source format (DocBook I believe), so it is not hard for them to introduce new presentation formats. –  user1249 Dec 18 '10 at 5:17
    
I have a latest gen Kindle (smaller version of the DX) and find technical books 'optimised' for the Kindle are great for the text but poor for the diagrams as they're often low resolution JPEGS(?) so you can't read the detail even when fully zoomed in. DX would eliminate the scrolling issue that I have with technical books on the Kindle but the diagrams will stay bad until publishers up the quality of their translations. –  FinnNk Dec 19 '10 at 0:04

I use the Kindle app on an iPad pretty religiously. I have the Krug book that you'd mentioned (2nd ed.) and although I've yet to complete it, I've had no problems with images or graphics so far. I also use iBooks quite a bit and have effectively rebuilt my O'Reilly library (not to shill, but they come out with some pretty good deals - and if you already own a dead-tree edition then the ebook only costs around $5).

There's nothing quite like having an entire library of programming and reference materials at your fingertips. Occasionally you'll encounter a ebook that looks like it's been through the wringer. It's not too common but it happens. More recently it seems like I've noticed this less and less. I suppose that as the formats become a bit more standard and ubiquitous, and as the medium takes off, people seem to be putting more effort into generating better ebooks.

I'm convinced that these little devices (Kindle, iPad, etc) are built for programming books.

Note: PDFs are generally a crapshoot in my experience. I have quite a collection on my device. Some a are good, most are adequate. Given a choice between a PDF and an ebook format I'd go with the ebook every time.

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I can do with Ebooks even in PDF as long as I have a big screen - and my workstation is just fine for that.

It's much easier to search, jump to different sections and basically navigate the entire ebook compared to the physical counterpart. It also somehow feels less laborious than actually reading a fat physical book (at least to me!).

The only downside, is that I don't have a bookshelf to show off for the money that I have spent on them.

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The next time you have to move, you'll be glad you don't have the bookshelf. –  Robert Harvey Dec 18 '10 at 4:38

I've found online reading to be quite useful for reading things sequentially. You can get the book you need NOW, and you can search in it.

For references, I need a paper copy in my bookshelf, but I only need it for a fraction of the books I've read online.

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@Robert, wasn't that what I wrote? –  user1249 Dec 19 '10 at 0:15

My experience with Adobe Reader and Nook for PC is that they are essential for travel and for going back and forth to work or class, but eReaders are not a panacea. You'll still need the hard cover as well, depending on the particular book. As you've noted, each format has its strengths and weaknesses, and using one does not preclude the other.

Nook for PC does a terrible job of presenting screen captures (for example the screencaps in the Nook version of Morville & Rosenfeld's "Information Architecture for the World Wide Web" are awful compared to the hard copy).

It's realistic to assume that many people will want both an electronic and hard copy for different situations, which is probably why some sellers now offer both as a package deal (for example, I got Luke Wroblewski's "Web Form Design" PDF for free when I bought the paperback).

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I have a lot of programming books in both physical and electronic formats and I also have a Kindle (the latest 'small' version). Oh and I have a Safari subscription as well...

Overall I much prefer a physical book to reading on the computer screen as you have more freedom in where you can read it and also you can browse and flick through to random sections in a way you can't really with an electronic version. Of course this is all assuming you're where the book is.

For electronic books you can basically divide the formats into ones that preserve page layout (e.g. PDFs) and the ones that support free reflowing (e.g. mobi). The formats that preserve page layout generally are better for books where layout is critical or where there are a lot of diagrams - programming books come in this category.

I'm afraid the smaller Kindle is very poor for reading technical/programming books unless they're predominantly text. PDFs on the Kindle are difficult to navigate and zooming is very clunky. There are converters to the native format but I find these generally lose most of the formatting. I suspect a good OCR program that supports PDFs as input such as ABBYY Finereader would do a better job but I've not tried it. Technical books published in mobi format are fine unless they have diagrams - often these are just as hard to zoom in on as PDFs and worse can be very low resolution bitmap versions and hence unreadable. On the other hand the Kindle is extremely good when it comes to reading books that are mostly text (such as a typical novel or something like Mythical Man Month or whatever). An added bonus is that you can read it in daylight.

I don't personally have an iPad but these seem to be very good for reading PDFs (Safari also has an iPad app which lets you read their books provided you have an active internet connection). On the other hand you can't really use it outdoors and I don't think the screen is as clear as the Kindle's for reading a lot of text - and so I don't see much benefit over using my laptop (I have a Vaio Z so the screen is high quality and the laptop is extremely portable).

It's only a matter of time before an A4 colour eBook reader comes out with electronic ink (the type of screen that the Kindle and most other eBook readers have), until then you'll need to decide where you want to compromise if you want to read ebooks away from your computer/laptop.

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