ezyang’s blog

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Kindle is not good for textbooks

Having attempted to read a few textbooks on my Kindle, I have solemnly concluded that the Kindle is in fact a terrible device for reading textbooks. The fundamental problem is that, due to technological limitations, the Kindle is optimized for sequential reading. This can be seen in many aspects:

  • Flipping a page in the Kindle is not instantaneous (I don't have a good setup to time how long the screen refresh takes, but there is definitely a perceptible lag before when you swipe, and when the Kindle successfully redraws the screen—and it’s even worse if you try to flip backwards).
  • Rapidly flipping through pages in order to scan for a visual feature compounds the delay problem.
  • There is no way to take the “finger” approach to random access (i.e. wedge your finger between two pages to rapidly switch between them); jumping between bookmarks requires four presses with the current Kindle interface!
  • The screen size of the Kindle is dramatically smaller than that of an average textbook, which reduces the amount of information content that can be placed on one screen and further exacerbates slow page turns.

A textbook cannot be read as a light novel. So, while the Kindle offers the tantalizing possibility of carrying a stack of textbooks with you everywhere, in fact, you’re better off getting the actual dead tree version if you’re planning on doing some serious studying from it. That is not to say textbook ebooks are not useful; in fact, having a searchable textbook on your laptop is seriously awesome—but this is when you’re using the textbook as a reference material, and not when you’re trying to actually learn the material.

25 Responses to “Kindle is not good for textbooks”

  1. Anonymous says:

    This is the same conclusion I reached. I use and love my Kindle, but it’s simply not for textbooks (or technical documents, typically PDFs). Since I generally have my laptop with me anyway, however, I’ve found a happy setup using the Kindle for novels and a convertible notebook in tablet mode for documents that don’t fit the e-reader form factor.

  2. Nathan says:

    I have a kindledx which has a bigger screen. Reading pdf with it is fine, but the other problems you mention remain.

  3. Danno says:

    I haven’t tried reading too many non-programming textbooks on it, but I find the iPad to be a pretty good device in terms of responsiveness. I’d like to find an app that does a better job at making it quick and easy to flip between bookmarks though.

  4. Danno: I bet a full size iPad would not be bad; esp since it might be big enough so that you don’t have to zoom. I have a mini-tablet, which is not big enough to show an entire page either. Responsiveness is definitely better though!

  5. Kim-Ee Yeoh says:

    “If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed ….”

    There are actually studies on how tablet media changes the way we read compared to traditional books. Only a matter of time before more /effective/ textbooks get written.

  6. Shae Erisson says:

    Any suggestions for a really good reader for pdf textbooks?

  7. Tom Moertel says:

    The large-format Kindle DX used to be my reader of choice for papers and texts, but suffered for all of the responsiveness problems mentioned. Still, it was nice to be able to carry my technical library in one hand. Since getting my Nexus 10, however, the Kindle DX has gone unused. The retina-rez display and instant response of the Nexus 10 make for a pretty good reading experience. I still use textbooks for hardcore reading sessions, but the Nexus 10 now handles almost all of my day-to-day technical-reading needs.

  8. Dan Piponi says:

    I was going to rant about how the software developers for ebooks aren’t making any effort but I see you have exactly the same points that I would make. Ebook software seems about as sophisticated as you’d expect from someone who had just had the idea of making ebooks and implemented the most obvious things on the list of most obvious features you’d expect. It’s weird how there are now millions of users but it’s not really driving ebook software. When Amazon developers spend a lazy afternoon implementing an estimate of the time to finish the chapter it’s something they think worthy as touting as a new feature.

    I have an idea for how to implement sticking your finger into a book. Put a finger or thumb on the bottom left (swap for lefties) corner and hold it down. Now use your right hand to do whatever navigation you want. When you take your finger off the corner the reader state pops back to where you were before you put your thumb down. (Even better, it swaps the two states and you have a mechanism to switch between them.)

  9. Josh says:

    Two finger swipe = 10 pages
    Three finger sipe = 100 pages
    Preload four pages at all times (current plus 1, plus 10, plus 100, minus 1, minus 10, minus 100.

  10. Josh says:

    Sorry, meant 4 “more” pages. I assume next and previous are already preloaded on all devices.

  11. You’d be surprised. I’m pretty sure my Kindle doesn’t prefetch the previous page, because it takes noticeably longer to page back than page forward.

  12. Giselle Burreta says:

    The kindle is absolutely working fine for me. I have a kindle and I use it daily although it does lag a bit.

  13. Eden Walker says:

    ♥ My fav, I love ma kindle.

  14. Paolo G. Giarrusso says:

    Since you compare a Kindle vs dead trees, I’ll use this to declare that Skim (on OS X) is *better* than dead trees. You can click on figures to open them in separate windows, so that you can have your PDF open at many pages. (Now, detecting the boundaries of a figure doesn’t work extremely well, and resizing it takes a couple of seconds, but if I’m actually reading a paper that’s all negligible; the bigger drawback is that without a big second screen it’s hard to place all those extra windows).

    (I also often read papers on my Nexus 7 with EBookDroid — automatic cropping, and zooming on one column for two-column papers, make it rather nice).

  15. Yeah, I think I agree. This is one of the really annoying things about evince on Linux, which is that it doesn’t support multiple views on the same PDF.

  16. Paolo G. Giarrusso says:

    Graham says (http://www.paulgraham.com/startupideas.html):

    > Live in the future, then build what’s missing.

    This is his way to get startup ideas. Is this an instance? Not that you should build this missing piece, but maybe the right guy is in indeed in graduate school.

  17. Jason says:

    Thank you for your post! I received a kindle as a gift recently. The thought is very much appreciated, but I will ask the person who gave it to me to return it, and just keep the money. It would be wonderful to use for school (graduate studies), but like you said, quick reference to a graphic many pages from your point of reading is very easily done with the “finger” approach.

  18. Jason: Well, to be clear, the Kindle is great for fiction and fun reading, so if you do any of that, you may still find it useful!

  19. Bob says:

    Paolo, I’d rather use dead trees than technology that’s unhealthy for human beings. This is a world for human beings, and only through the human perspective can it be observed. Dumb animals can’t differentiate good from bad.

  20. Anonymous says:

    While I agree that textbooks on kindle have a long way to go. The slight inconvenience of reading is well worth not carrying literally 20 lbs worth of textbooks with me everywhere I go.

  21. anonymous says:

    I bought a Kindle Paper weight before the semester thinking that I was being good. I wanted to save money so I bought all my books as e books. When I got my paper weight, I found out that kindle does not support my e book on it. I bought the e book from the kindle store but it wouldn’t work with the brand new kindle. I returned it and got my money back but now I have to read my e books from my Samsung phone which is to small to try and read a text book.

  22. Anonymous says:

    You people have no work to do

  23. John says:

    I love my Kindle and find I read much faster on it; however, I ran into a big problem. The first few MBA classes I took the books read just fine, but my most recent courses have books that are not compatible with the traditional Kindle and require a Fire or the Amazon Reader on a PC (which I am using). Has anyone else encountered this issue, is it caused by the graphics capability on the Kindle?

  24. Type setting for e-ink is quite a bit of work, and so for diagram/picture heavy textbooks it’s a lot easier for publishers to use a format that is effectively reflowable PDF. It is a bit of a terrible situation but there is only so good a textbook can be (I personally prefer getting my textbooks as PDFs because it’s a more universal format…)

  25. Bryan says:

    Hi Yang, would you like to give some screenshots/photos what the Kindle screen looks like when you read textbook?

    Is it still readable if there are some equations/graphics on it? Thanks.

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