Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Kindle eReader: tool or toy?

Curiosity finally got the better of me, and I am now the owner of an Amazon Kindle eReader - the version with a keyboard, Wi-fi and 3G Internet access.

First impressions

I don't want to go through all the features - there are plenty of technical websites that do that (including Amazon's own website). I will focus on two aspects. Firstly, what have I noticed about its usability in practice over the first few days? And secondly, how useful will it be for me as a translator?

Let's start with a couple of negative points. Although the text is crisply defined and can quickly be adjusted to different sizes, the background is rather grey. I knew in advance that the Kindle screen is not "backlit", so it needs daylight or artificial light to read. But comparisons with the legibility of text on paper are only partly true, because the background is darker than paper. Reading it in a dimly lit room is rather difficult, so you need a reading light or a clip-on battery light. With the right lighting, however, it is easy and pleasant to read.

Turning the pages of a book is easy and quick, especially compared with printed books. In other respects, however, navigation is slightly clunky and takes some getting used to. There is no mouse or touchpad, and this Kindle doesn't have a touchscreen. To move around on the page, there are 4 tiny little arrow keys, and to move to a word in the middle of the page you have to press the down and left/right keys several times. I suppose I am spoiled by my other equipment: desktop PC with a mouse, laptop/netbook with a trackpad or mouse, smartphone with a touchscreen. So my first impression of the Kindle keyboard is rather like time travel - as if I were moving back to a slightly older technology.

Some of the ebooks that I have downloaded are even more difficult to navigate. One of the things I want to do with the Kindle is to read the Bible. I have checked a number of Bibles in both English and German, and incredibly I find that many of them have no table of contents at all. The Bible is not the sort of book that you read sequentially from front to back, so a table of contents is essential. I have found one or two that I can use, but the selection of properly indexed Bibles is very small indeed.

One feature of this Kindle is the free Internet access over the 3G network in all of the countries that I am likely to travel to. This feature is mainly designed to let me access the Amazon store when I am on the road, but the Kindle also has a rudimentary browser (which Amazon calls "experimental"). I have tried it, and I am really able to access my own e-mail account with this browser. But operating a browser with only arrow keys and no mouse feels rather clumsy. It is easier, faster and more pleasant to check e-mails and the Internet with my smartphone, in spite of the smaller screen. So I will hardly use the "experimental" browser in Germany, where I have an Internet flatrate on the smartphone. But it will be useful, for example, when I visit the UK and am not within reach of a Wi-fi access point.

Kindle for translators?

On my Kindle I have three free monolingual dictionaries (Oxford Dictionary of English, New Oxford American Dictionary and Duden Universalwörterbuch). Here, the indexing is excellent. I can choose one of them as my default dictionary, and when I am reading on the Kindle I can look words up directly from the text. Or I can open one of them from the menu and search in the dictionary, and even turn the pages to check out entries before and after the keyword I have entered. A couple of times during the last few days I have used these dictionaries to check terms in both German and English in the course of my work. I will probably also download a thesaurus for English, and one for German, too.

Amazon's Kindle shop offers various bilingual dictionaries, although most of them seem to be targeted at general users rather than professional translators. There may be some specialist dictionaries worth buying - for example I am currently checking the free sample of an illustrated bilingual engineering dictionary. The Kindle Shop could also be a useful source of monolingual specialist literature. There are dictionaries in either language for subjects such as law, property/construction and many others. It also offers the text of German laws for a very moderate price.

Another feature of the Kindle is that I can send my own documents to it in various file formats. This could be useful for anything I need to refer to during my work (source documents, abbreviation lists, background texts etc.). To test this function, I sent the DVX2 manual to my Kindle. It is a PDF file which is over 600 pages long, and the table of contents is not indexed for the Kindle, so navigation is limited. But I entered the search term "DeepMiner", and it jumped through the manual from one instance to another until it found the section that actually explains how this function works. I was then able to rotate the screen to wide format and adjust the size so that I could read it reasonably well. The display is not in colour, and navigation is more clumsy than on a desktop or laptop computer, but for some purposes this function could be useful.

The classic use for the Kindle, of course, is to read books from start to finish. This works well, and it is convenient to have a selection of books in just one relatively lightweight device which claims to be able to store 3,000 books or more (especially when travelling). Only time will tell whether I use my Kindle mainly for leisure reading purposes, or whether it really becomes a regular part of my workflow.


  1. Thank you for this review; I've sold eBook readers for a while when I still worked for my former employer, and it is very interesting to compare what you write about the Kindle with what I remember from the device we were selling.

  2. @Librarian: Interesting. What eBook readers did you sell, and how long ago was it?

  3. As you probably know, Victor, I've also recently acquired this device (sounds like the same model) and am exploring its uses. I think there are touchscreen models available in the latest series, but in Germany that feature did not seem to be available for the better models.
    I have in fact been reading more novels and newspapers, though with the novels I am disturbed at the bad formatting in many cases. I haven't used the dictionaries so far except by accident. My greatest interest for "professional" use would be to read background material for my translations while I travel and to use it as a text source for dictation. Experiments in that regard are still in progress.

  4. Kevin, I forgot about your article at and the interesting comments. Thanks for chipping in.

  5. I think the touch model would be much better as a tool in translation work. I did some experiments using the Kindle Keyboard for proofing work, but it was not ideal, even though the change to the reflective screen has some real advantages. With the touch model, highlighting and annotation will probably be easier.
    I think the same would be true for non-linear reference works like Dictionaries or your use with the Bible. And as you say, design of the e-book really plays an important part in reference works, much more so than books you will read straight through.
    The good thing here is thinking outside of the box for the device.

  6. Hi Charles, I don't really think of the Kindle as a proofing or text entry tool - the keyboard is too clumsy and I'm not keen on touch keyboards. I suppose it's possible for short annotations and notes in the same way as I can enter text on the hardware keyboard on my smartphone. But for any serious text entry, my minimum hardware would be a netbook.
    Is text navigation in non-linear reference books really better on the Kindle Touch? I can appreciate that navigation on the page is probably easier, but finding chapter and verse in a book with 66 sub-books (i.e. the Bible) depends on the indexing system, and until I see it demonstrated, I am not convinced that touch control instead of arrow keys makes a fundamental difference here. The dictionaries on my Kindle are indexed much better anyway, so the Kindle Keyboard can certainly be used to read reference material, and the word search function will take me most places I want to go even if the indexing does not cover everything.
    It's encouraging to realise that a good number of other translators use Kindle for reference material in their work and are happy with the device.

  7. Dear Mr. Dewsbery!
    I ask your kind permission to translate your article to post it on our webzine – Target audience is translators.
    Of course there will be a link and a reference to your article.

    Best regards,
    Bella Gromakovskaya
    Editor of
    Skype: abadoshka

  8. Dear Ms. Gromakovskaya,
    Sure, and thanks for your interest in my blog. Thanks, too, for publishing a link and reference in your webzine.

    1. Thanks! I'll show you the resalt.

    2. As I promised -
      Link to your blog is in the end of the article. Thanks for interesting material!

    3. Thanks Bella. Looks good (although I can´t read a word of the Kyrillic script!). It was in fact a different article (your request is in the comments for my Kindle article, but the translation is the DVX2 databases article). But that's fine - that is what networking is about. I notice that over the last week my blog had far more hits from Russia than from my native UK and my adopted Germany combined. So thanks for publishing and linking my article.

    4. Sorry, I have confused the articles in the first comment :) I hope for the further cooperation! If you want you can add me to friends on facebook

  9. Update after three and a half years (as I still get a good handful of page views per month on this article):
    I still have the Kindle 3G/WiFi version with the keyboard, I have not purchased any more recent version. I still sometimes read books in Kindle, although I usually use other devices to read them (7" Android tablet, sometimes a 10" Windows tablet).
    I rarely do anything using the Kindle keyboard (too clumsy) and I rarely select and download books on the Kindle device. When I do, usually it is because I am in another country and have no other simple way to access the Internet.
    I can't comment on the more recent Kindle devices or the Fire tablets because I don't have any of them.