I’ve recently had occasion to revisit using my good old-fashioned E Ink Kindles. While it’s still early days yet, I’ve made a few interesting discoveries, and I thought it might be interesting to write a post here talking about them.

You may have noticed I haven’t had a lot to say here lately. In no small part, that’s because my time has been taken up by my new full-time job: working as a Utilization Management (Precertification/Predetermination) representative for a major health insurance company.

After a somewhat shaky training period during which I wasn’t sure if I would ever get what they were trying to train me on, I’ve ended up taking to it like a duck to water and not doing badly at all. It’s not a hard job for me, once I got to know it. My practiced skill at talking to people on the phone has come to the fore, and my skill at picking up unfamiliar computer software has stood me in good stead as well. While I’m only earning about half of what I did during my time as a technical writer, it’s a good steady income, and well over minimum wage.

Sadly, I haven’t been able to use the work computer for reading ebooks as I did when I was previously working as a customer service temp worker for the same company. The UM division is a lot stricter about that sort of thing. However, given that I work the 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. shift, I tend to have a lot of spare time to read books during the last two or three hours, after the doctor’s offices in the eastern and central time zones have closed for the day.

For my first few weeks, I brought in some print books I had on hand—because not only was reading on the computer not an option, reading on smartphones (which could, after all, be used to snap photos of confidential information from the computer screen) wasn’t either. I was able to work my way through To Kill a Mockingbird, which I’d never read before, as well as some ARCs I picked up at BookExpo America last year but never got around to reading (and I may have a thing or two to say about one of them in time). But then it occurred to me: E Ink Kindles don’t have cameras on them either, and can hold a lot more books. And a quick check with my managers to make sure they were okay confirmed it was all right.

So, in the last couple of days, I’ve taken my E Ink Kindles (an old Kindle Touch and my 2-or-3-generations-old Paperwhite) in to work and read on them when I could, between calls. I worked my way through The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. We’ve mentioned the book a number of times since it was published in the mid 2000s, but I’d never actually gotten around to working my way through it. I found it to be an interesting book, and it had a lot of interesting things to say. It managed to predict, among other things, the self-publishing phenomenon and Netflix’s (and Hulu’s and Amazon’s, etc.) video-on-demand service, even though neither of them had peeped over the horizon when it was originally published.

I’m currently reading Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, a sort of prequel to his debut novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which I can already tell has some interesting ideas and I’m barely a third of the way through it yet. (I do find it more than a little ironic that Doctorow, who used to make such a big thing out of giving the ebooks of his books away for free in the interest of promoting the paper book sales, is now content to let his publisher sell Walkaway at its $12.99 price point instead of giving it away—though earlier novels such as Down and Out are still available for free download. Not that this is exactly surprising; Baen doesn’t give that many books away for free anymore either now that people want ebooks in their own right. But at least they’re published through Tor, which no longer puts DRM on its sold ebooks.) But in the process of reading these books, I’ve run across a couple of interesting observations.

First of all, the unlit Kindle Touch still isn’t that bad to read from if the light is good. When I took both my Kindles in to work the first day, I hadn’t loaded many titles onto the Paperwhite, so I read over half of The Long Tail from the Touch. And it really wasn’t bad. My cubicle desk at work has a fluorescent light fixture mounted under one of the cabinets, and it provided ample illumination. And the room was brightly lit enough even without it that I didn’t have any eyestrain problems.

Another nice thing: I didn’t have to open the book and flip open to a bookmark to continue from where I’d left off: just pick the reader up, and possibly press a button and swipe if it had been too long. Even if I’d let the Kindle turn itself off, that was still less time and effort to get back to where I was than opening the book to the proper page. Which is a nice thing, I suppose, though probably not a major selling point.

This was also the first chance I had to do any extensive reading from my Paperwhite since the firmware update that added the new Page Flip feature to it. And one thing I noticed is that, with this new feature, one of the old features I didn’t know I liked has disappeared: the way it used to be a lot easier to see exactly where you were in the book. On the Paperwhite of old, and on my Kindle Touch still, there was a percentage indicator along the bottom of the screen, and tapping the top part of the screen brought up a display that gave you your page position out of how many total pages. It was a reasonable substitute for being able to tell how far along you were in a paper book by how thick the left and right sides were. I didn’t know how much I missed that until it was gone.

Now, tapping brings up a pair of icons at the bottom of the screen that lets you choose between a single-page view with position information, or the page flip grid (for native Kindle books; converted ePubs don’t support it). Even if the new version shows you a bar with a slider that gives you a better graphical representation of how much of the book’s “thickness” you’ve read through, it still takes twice as many taps to get there, and it’s not visible right there on the screen without tapping. Also gone is the way it used to estimate how many minutes I had left in the chapter (though my not-as-updated Kindle Touch still does that, too).

Another annoying thing I found is that an eight-hour day of backlight reading (comprising probably about three hours total reading, between calls) was sufficient to use up about 3/4 of the battery time on the Paperwhite. I suppose that shouldn’t be too surprising; backlights do require constant energy expenditure, while native E Ink itself only uses energy when it changes what’s on the screen. I could probably dial the backlight down for longer longevity, especially as well-lit as my cubicle at work is.

But one nice thing is how easily the Kindle fits into my pants pocket—even my front pants pocket, so I’m not in any danger of sitting on it. It really isn’t that much bigger than my 6″ Nexus 6 phone, and a lot slimmer. So I don’t have to worry about carrying it in a separate bag or backpack which could get lost. I could even pocket both Kindles at once, even with the silicone rubber case I have on the Touch.

Look, Mom, I’m leet!

In any event, one thing I’m not going to have to worry about is running out of reading material as long as I have the Kindle with me. I swear I wasn’t paying attention to how many books I copied over to it, but when I checked the listing after I did I found a most auspicious number, with considerable geeky significance. Where I had to be sure I had at least one paper book ready to be started, and was limited by how many paper books I could carry along on my bike, this Kindle can hold hundreds of them—many of which I’d never gotten around to reading before. So I’m sure that I will be in for many hours of diverting reading between calls for quite some time to come. (As long as I remember to keep the thing charged, at any rate.)

This also suggests another potential niche use for e-readers well after smartphones and tablets have dominated most ebook reading: reading ebooks in environments where you’re not trusted with something that has a camera and easy Internet access to let you leak confidential information out. Though I may well be making too much out of that idea.

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