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Kindle 2: Product Review

Posted on : 18-06-2009 | By : Dean | In : Gadgets, Tech and Teaching, Tech Reviews

Tags: ,

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I own both the Kindle 1 and now the Kindle 2, and I was impressed with both from the moment that I purchased them. The convenience of having an entire library of books in a device that weighs less than a pound was fantastic for both my job as a teacher (less lugging around a bag full of books) and my appetite for books as a pleasure reader (the ease with which I can switch between three or four books on the fly is nice!). And each of the devices delivered what they advertised. However, I find myself torn between the early features of the device that I find fantastic, personally and sub-par professionally. As such, I find myself reviewing the device from two very different perspectives. And while I have to grant that neither the Kindle 1 or 2 were marketed as educators’ tools, discussing what would make them so is constructive in light of the announcement of the Kindle DX, which is more like a larger clone of the first two devices (with a few software differences) than a real breakthrough in the e-reader’s functionality in the classroom.

Kindle and Books

When you purchase a Kindle 2, you get exactly what you pay for, and you pay quite a bit ($349.00). However, that price includes the “whispernet” 3G wireless delivery system and limited internet access to pages like wikipedia. It also allows for free delivery of major newspapers, journals and even blogs. The publications themselves come at a cost (even blogs, which doesn’t make much sense since they are free on any computer), but the delivery system comes without a charge. this might seem like a small thing, but in fact, in an age where the model is to make the hardware cheap and lock users into long-term subscriptions (think cell phones and net books) the flat price is somewhat offset by what could be far more expensive under a subscription model.

Some of the features are simply great for the every day reader, but each of them need improvements to be viable and I would argue potentially essential classroom tools.

The Kindle Dictionary

Kindle Dictionary

What’s Lit: The built in dictionary is a wonderful tool, and it’s an upgrade from the Kindle 1, where the reader was forced to highlight and entire line and then scroll through the available words in that line to find the one he or she wanted defined before clicking through to the “full definition” page. The Kindle 2 improved this feature with a movable cursor that can be positioned in front of any word that the reader wants defined.

What’s Spotty: The cursor is a bit slow. It doesn’t respond well to the controller, especially in getting it to appear on the page initially.

Homework for the Classroom: Pronunciation would be a great add to the dictionary feature. TheFreeDictionary.com does a great job with pronunciation audibly, and with the success of text-to-speech on the Kindle, it seems like a no-brainer. Adding names would be a big plus. Then even freshman would be able to properly pronounce “Michel Foucault.” A thesaurus should also be added, since the potential for e-readers should stretch beyond mere reading in the classroom, to editing, note taking, and collaborating on documents.

Annotation

Kindle Annotations

What’s Lit: It’s nice to be able to add a short note to a highlighted passage, and the ability to call it up instantly from a list of annotations is a nice touch, too. The full keyboard is very nice, and the fact that it is button driven, rather than touch screen, is practical. It’s a nice little feature for the average reader or someone who participates in book clubs.

What’s Spotty: Even though the buttons are more practical than touch screen, they are a little stiff, making it difficult to type. But without a doubt this feature poses some very practical problems for anyone who wants to actually discuss a book with a non-kindle reader. The lack of page numbers or some feature by which the Kindle user can guide the non-kindle reader to a passage is a serious problem. In fact, this problem renders most of the functionality useless, unless a Kindle owner who wants to find the print page numbers by purchasing a print edition (which beg the question, why get a Kindle, then?) or convince others to drop the $349 on their own Kindle (not very reasonable).

Homework for the Classroom: The annotation feature needs some kind of cross-reference to print edition page numbers in order for it to have any effective value in the classroom. Not all students will have Kindles (nor will all teachers, many of whom are more resistant to change than students), and no university will enact policies that implicitly exclude students. Some might argue that textbooks are a cost and the cheaper price of e-books will pay for the Kindle by the end of the student’s college career, but that argument assumes entire universities will require devices for all students. As member of several committees myself, I know just how impossible it would be to pass such a policy. I posted this concern on the amazon forums and was told by another Kindle owner (obviously not a teacher who has to deal with actual class time) that a teacher could get a student “close enough” to a desired passage. It’s hard enough to get 40 students on the same line when they have the page, let alone telling them to look “around chapter 7.” And I also sent an email regarding this feature to amazon support. My reply was a form letter with changes that included misspellings and grammar issues.

And it’s not only the pagination issue that will make or break this feature in the classroom. It’s going to be about the software, web access, and applications. One of the main concerns from students trying an e-reader (Sony’s equivalent) in a recent study at Northwest Missouri State University was the trouble students encountered with note taking. That’s because there are no real applications that are centered on the college student who is required to quickly and effectively tag, clip, annotate and cross reference material that is being discussed on in real time with the text itself. Some of the clipping, bulleting, numbering, and tagging features offered in Microsoft One Note would be very nice additions to the Kindle interface and students who are required to collaborate would benefit from some of the features that Google is promising with wave. In addition texting and other communications features would help in collaborative work between teachers lecturing and their attending students. And embedding things into texts would be great. Yes, it sounds a lot like a blog or any number of the other current web interfaces, but these things are what students know already. Finally, opening the Kindle or any e-reader to user application development is going to be crucial to capture market share. Put simply, different disciplines within the university have different needs when it comes to the applications that are used. Chemistry students need access to formulas, atomic weights and other such information that the English student doesn’t require. Applications and plugins will be required to address these needs.

Text-to-speech

Kindle Font Size and Text to Speech

What’s Lit: This is one of the features that has the Kindle in front of the competition. Like most potential buyers, I was wary of the mechanical voice and whether I would be able to stand it for more than a minute or two. But it’s really not bad. And not a single person that I have let listen to it has been put off by it.

What’s Spotty: It’s a bit buggy. It mispronounces when the context is unclear (it reads the word wind in “the wind blew” and “I had to wind the old clock” the same way), and it sometimes reads the source code or the css formatting before a paragraph. But these are minor annoyances. The real troubling news is that amazon has started to disable text-to-speech on many of it’s books remotely because of publisher complaints. A good article on the potential loss of text-to-speech on the Kindle can be found at Boing Boing.

Homework for the Classroom: This feature needs to remain a part of the Kindle, and it should be a feature on all readers, not only because there is nothing illegal about text-to-speech, but because it is built-in feature that has the potential to help students with visual impairments in addition to those who want to study during their commute.

In Sum

There’s little doubt that e-readers will be used in the classroom, and amazon has a large market share already with the Kindle. However, they shouldn’t assume that because they are the first to arrive they will hold that market share. I’ll be testing the Kindle during the Fall 2009 semester, but I anticipate many problems with it, even though I think the device is great for my own day-to-day use and show it off whenever I can. And amazon has not been very receptive to the feedback from educators and those with legitimate questions about their device. The author of the article in The Chronicle linked above wrote that the choice their school made with regard to the Sony brand had less to do with the features of the device than the fact that amazon wasn’t very receptive to their queries about using the Kindle.

Google Wave: Why We’ll All Have Google Accounts.

Posted on : 30-05-2009 | By : Dean | In : Tech Reviews

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You know you’re something of a cultural phenomenon when the name of your company is not only bandied about the net as a verb, but added to the standard dictionary as such. And Google, the search engine giant that earned 21 billion last year, refused to disappear when the dot com bubble burst. In fact, their method of silent advertising has become a model for companies.

Google didn’t stop there, though. They announced the lofty goal of digitizing all knowledge, building an impressive library, while wrestling with copyright issues on the texts that they digitized and published.

You would think that would be ambition enough, but with the acquisition of YouTube, Google bought into the Web 2.0 concept in a way that made them a mothership, of sorts.

Enter Google Wave.

It’s being described as what email would have been if it were invented today, and surprisingly, after watching the hour and twenty minute long demo, I would say that description is accurate.

What does Google Wave offer?

  • It offers threading within messaging similar to forum features, so no more copying and pasting email sections you want to respond to.
  • It offers real-time chat, integrated into the messaging system. Gone are the days when you will need an email account and one of the many instant messengers out there.
  • It offers real-time blog posting, integration with twitter, and all your favorite social networking site addictions.
  • It offers real time language translation (yes, it translates as you type).
  • It offers a spell checker that matches the context of the word against the web, finally solving the problem of words spelled correctly but used incorrectly contextually. The days of confusing “to” and “too” will be a thing of the past. Well, they will seem to be, since we’ll continue to mess them up, but Google will fix them.
  • It offers automatic link detection and embedding (type in google.com and it searches the web for the link and embeds it).

But where it really shines is as a tool for collaboration.

  • The level of real-time collaboration it will offer (I watched 4 users edit the same document at the same time) will render Microsoft’s One Note obsolete at launch.
  • The “playback” feature allows any member of the team to roll back the changes made to a document, see individual contributions, and create a pristine document anywhere along the development stage.

Check it out.

The video is a typical business launch presentation, complete with bad humor and headset microphones. Skip to the parts where you can see the Google interface for the good stuff.

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