In March of this year, sixteen outdoor lovers spent thirty days rafting and kayaking down the Grand Canyon, where the rush of rapids, steep canyon walls, cool night air, moonlight hikes, and stargazing replace the drudgery of being chained to an inbox. Four of us were Digital Wanderers who brought our respective eReaders in place of books.

You may ask, what is a Digital Wanderer? Vesselhead has coined the term ‘Digital Wanderer’ as a user profile of those that live in the digital mobile ecosphere and are bound to mobile computing devices and experiences.

The Digital Wanderer profiles observed on this trip:
·   Dr. Jim Parker, 67 year old Family Practitioner, the oldest and unquestionably the wisest of our group brought his beloved first generation Apple iPad.
·   Dr. Ray Jenkins, 60 year old Orthopedic Surgeon, brought his Sony eReader PRS 900 Daily Edition.
·   Mary Brown, 27 year old Recreation Specialist, and I, 38, both brought an Amazon Kindle 3G 6″ display.

The observance of Mary’s behavior was short lived. Sadly, her Kindle was destroyed before putting on the river. She had it in her dry bag during the car ride to the put-in and when we arrived the screen was broken from too much pressure being placed on it. This highlighted the need for an industrial case that none of the eReaders came with. The three of us who had not yet managed to break our delicate instruments had a throw down – Who had the best eReader on the Canyon?


 

The Reading Experience

The pure eReaders—Sony and Kindle—that Ray and I had could be used during the bright light of the day and were as easy on our eyes as a regular book. Ray was jealous of the quality of my Kindle screen, but he seemed to believe that someday Sony would catch up in the quality of their eInk. Not sure why he cared about Sony catching up in in the Hardware domain because it meant he had to buy another one to get the feature. Jim, with his iPad, complained when he couldn’t find the right spot to hide from the sun. At night, Ray and I felt slightly less cool reading by headlamp. Jim might not have had to sport headgear, but the iPad came with its side effects. One could argue the backlight contributed to Jim’s insomnia while Ray and I drifted off into sleep reading eInk, which feels more like reading a traditional book.

Ray’s eReader interface is far more intuitive and modern with its touchscreen capabilities; However, Sony’s screen is simply not as sexy as the Kindle. The Kindle’s user interface is pathetic in comparison. There is constant confusion with the Kindle when you need to push the arrow over key, the paging key, or the menu key to navigate around the device. The reality is that you spend the majority of the time paging, so the navigation annoyances fade when you are immersed in reading. I can’t tell you how many times I had to reprimand people. They wouldn’t just look at the Kindle eInk in awe, they would immediately try to touch the screen.  Everyone, including me, expected the Kindle to have a touch interface. Oh how quickly we become accustomed to innovated design.  Another thing that upset me was not knowing my accomplishment in my reading progress. I wanted to know how many pages I had read when torturing myself through Anna Karenina.

Book AvailabilityI like the open format of EPUB with support for library books, Google books and multiple sources to buy books. It allows more freedom than the proprietary Kindle, unless you know a hacker :) ,” Ray wrote me about his Sony. The hacker reference was targeted at me. I was given the Kindle as a gift and soon realized I couldn’t borrow books from electronic libraries. I used my engineering background to setup a hack. While the process works, it is arduous and annoying. Amazon recently announced it would support the Overdrive architecture in the future. What I don’t know is if my Kindle will be updated to support this new functionality or if I will be required to purchase a new version. Meanwhile, the iPad has the benefit of supporting any eReader App. One can choose between Google Reader, Kindle, and other Apps to read just about any electronic book. However, Apple has decided to gouge distributors of content to the iPad regardless of the delivery mechanism. This could result in end-users picking up the tab.While Ray didn’t generally see the value in his G3 support due to limited cell coverage where he lives, I found mine to be very useful on the Kindle. I bought books during our drive to the put-in based on recommendations from folks in the car. It gave me an opportunity to connect in another way with the community we were building. eReader Highlights and LowlightsI feel that I am too easily distracted by easy access to information in my daily life. When I am on my laptop I have ten applications running and I have about 30 browser windows open. The Kindle reduces the noise factor; it is a ‘pure’ device. When I am reading, I am reading, and that’s it. I don’t switch to other apps. I don’t need to be disciplined to keep myself focused. Its one objective is to provide users with the ability to read books without eyestrain.  It is top of its class in this department because of its screen quality.

Ray was excited about the prospect of using his Sony to play music and keep a journal, but he didn’t use it for either on the trip. Journaling with the stylus should have been easy, but was impeded by the sub-par handwriting recognition feature. On the flip side, I was annoyed that I could not journal on my Kindle at all. There is note-taking capability, but it is limited to inline notes within books. I was irritated when I realized I couldn’t fix my guitar tabs because the kindle can’t even edit simple text files. I lamented not bringing my guitar book and was annoyed I had to carry a journal in addition to the Kindle. Ideally, I would have liked to have written this blog entry while I was on the Canyon so that I could post it the day I returned.The ability to journal on the Canyon is crucial. The primordial and extreme nature of the experience brings you to the brink of emotions, and forces you to reflect on yourself and life. Jim’s iPad became a part of his emotional experience, “I used the iPad for my journal, putting the day in perspective with my fears, my new friends, and dreams, while organizing my life in a big picture way that was long overdue. I wrote philosophical essays in response to questions I brought into the canyon.”Jim tried to woo me with his music collection, but he complained the whole time that he was too deaf to actually hear the speakers. I toyed with the experimental features on the Kindle: its support for music, and the web browser. I am not sure why they even bothered to release these features. The interface to play MP3s is so limited I can’t imagine using it while reading and it would be a terrible way to keep a bookmark in an audio book. Likewise its browser functionality makes you feel like you are on IBM’s original portable PC trying to navigate the web through an orange-colored screen on a dialup connection through Prodigy.

While it isn’t pure to the eReader concept, the iPad star gazing app was a great addition to the Canyon experience. You haven’t seen the stars until you have camped at Ledges, a campsite in the inner canyon on layers of Tapeats sandstone, when the moon is down. His application made the star gazing experience come to life. Along with playing Angry Birds, it’s also likely the reason his battery died so quickly. But as Jim said, “it was a great conversation starter with bright folks who thought it was a bit weird to be going back in time with an up-to-date technological icon.”

Of the three of us, Jim was the most avid reader. Perhaps this says something about his overall intelligence and ability to choose the right device. However, he admitted to growing anxiety as his battery waned. He realized just how OCD he was when it came to having ample reading material by his side even while on the groover.

Durability

Ray was brave and exposed his device to the whims of the desert sand, while I kept my Kindle tightly sealed away at all times. Sony is smart and provides a strong protective case from Case Logic that survived being crammed into Ray’s dry bag daily while I had to put my Kindle in an Ammo can to make sure it did not share the same fate as Mary’s. Neither the iPad nor the Kindle came with an industrial case, which seems silly considering how delicate they are. I invested in a cheapo water- and sand-proof sleeve from REI while Jim invested one from NRS. His fell apart and mine slowly degraded over time, providing the challenge of reading through the scratched plastic cover. The right cover included with these devices could be a strong selling point.


Portability

Ironically, while all of us brought our eReaders to save space and weight during this long trip, we all had to bring some accessories to keep them going, which added bulk to our packs. Jim’s iPad holds only 12 hours of battery life, so he brought an extra 55 hours in a backup battery pack. Jim’s battery pack ran out on him by day twenty, and he was crying in his soup. Sadly, the iPad rejected my Goalio solar panel and he didn’t think to bring the cord for his battery pack. Ironically I could charge my iPhone and my iPod but not his iPad with the solar charger directly. Ray’s eReader allows you to lug around additional batteries and each battery supposedly lasts for 21 days. We’ll never know since Ray was the least into reading of the three of us and he didn’t really put his battery life to the test.  My portability was superior overall. It only took 1/2 hour with the solar panel to recharge my Kindle and while I used the Kindle extensively every day, I only needed to recharge charged it once. Also, my solar panel was far more useful than Ray’s extra battery and Jim’s battery pack. I used the solar panel for my camera, the satellite phone, my iPod, and everyone else’s electronics when they came to me with their puppy-dog faces.

If Jim hadn’t had the iPad to satiate his reading needs, he would have had to carry all of the following books, plus a journal:
·   The biography of the one armed Wesley Powell, The 100th Meridian
·    A legal novel
·    The Race, by Richard North Patterson
   ·   War and Peace, by Tolstoy (even though he only got through 1/3 of it)
   ·   Thinking about Leadership, by Nannerl Keohane
   ·   A Conflict of Visions, by Thomas Sowell
·   A primer on the use of the iPad—though I suppose that wouldn’t have been necessary

Have eReaders replaced books?

Overall, the three of us agreed that we still like the feel of real books. Perhaps it is our age and those Pavlovian habits as discussed in the latest Vesselhead whitepaper. But it is more than just nostalgia, like the quality of art on an album cover. The Canyon is about community and sharing. And with proprietary devices and book formats, nothing was shared. I was eager to share things I had finished, but that would have meant giving away my eReader. We didn’t have Internet access so I couldn’t loan any books to Jim, even though he could run a Kindle App. None of the devices had short-range support through Bluetooth to easily bump a book from one device to the other. Everyone else was borrowing from each other. Cadillac Desert was passed through a few hands, as were numerous books on tales of the Grand Canyon that were not available electronically. As a result, we were isolated from the community with our inability to share our books.

What would we change about our eReader experiences?

Ray complains that the software for the reader does not work well on his Mac and runs better on a PC. Luckily as a doctor he has the funds to have multiple computers in the house.

Jim has found love with his all-in-one device and wishes that Apple would add a telephone to the iPad. He wants to be able to read in the sunlight and thinks it should have solar built into the edges and the cover. And if you are going to bother putting speakers in it, at least make them clean and loud enough for those of us who are partially deaf.

I believe that the eReader should replace paper, not just books. That means it should also have eWriting capabilities, specifically, journaling and note taking. I would also love to work with the Kindle Interface design. Also, while the v3.1 update purportedly adds page numbers, I haven’t seen them working. But most importantly I want the ability to use the library and lend books, not the severely limited support Kindle has today i.e. you can only loan a book if the publisher allows it and if they allow it you can only loan it once for 14 days.

Would you recommend it? Would you buy it again?

Like Mary, Ray’s first device was ruined when the screen had too much pressure applied to it. Still, he couldn’t say enough about his brand loyalty to Sony for their customer service, “Sony is a great company, they replaced my first one for shipping costs when they could have easily said that the damage was my fault. Also, I originally ordered it before they began shipping. It was in December 2009 and they said that they would try for a Christmas but January was more likely. It came special delivery 12/24/2009 at 7:30 PM. If I were buying a new one I would stick with a cheaper Sony with out the G3.” Mary also reported that after returning home, Amazon replaced her Kindle no questions asked.

Ray would highly recommend the Sony eReader and even consider a Nook over the Kindle due to its open format. He also owns an iPad but he doesn’t feel it replaces an eReader because the eInk has more of a book feel. He thinks of the iPad as a substitute for his laptop.

Jim said he would recommend the iPad to anybody over 3 years old not just for eReading but for overall creativity, education and occupational uses. “It’s game changing!”

As for me, while the Sony interface is superior and the platform is more open as of today, I love my Kindle for the quality of the eInk and would buy a Kindle over a Sony eReader. I think the Kindle needs to drop in price because it is a single function device. If I were a new consumer to the marketplace, I would buy the iPad over the Kindle to obtain the rich environment. Ideally, I’d like to have both, but I’d recommend waiting on the Kindle until Amazon fixes its inability to support the Overdrive world and the electronic Library borrowing systems. And even though I am one for modern technology, I’ll take the Kindle’s archaic interface and lack of touchscreen support for its screen quality. It is simply amazing.

Jim laments his obsession with reading while on the trip and felt if he had his iPad taken away from him he may have had a real transformation, loosening up and participating in more community interaction. Jim’s only real complaint is that the iPad hasn’t yet landed him a date with a woman far younger than him. So, the iPad makes him an anti-social nerd, so what? I suppose his real relationship is with the tool that elates him. Who wouldn’t want to carry “the knowledge of the planets in this thin, light, sleek object that connects to overhead flying bodies,” as Jim puts it. Having said all that, Jim just purchased three second-generation iPads for his medical office to bring them into the 21st century of EMS (electronic medical records).  “I love my tool! It will be with me forever. If I bought it again, I would have purchased one with higher memory capacity as my 2550 songs are maxing out my capacity.”
eReader Throw Down Summarized: